Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Exploring Silence: Practice and History

Today begins a series of posts that are taken from the first part of a very long paper I have had to cut in half. The content, updated, will be appearing in my next book, Silence: A User's Guide. Because the passages are taken out of context the flow of the text will of necessity be somewhat fragmented, but perhaps the content will be useful.

This paper makes an historical case for the work of silence and its decline, and lays out a somewhat brutal account in secular terms of what the spiritual life is and how it works. Plaited into the contemporary language are strands from ancient and medieval authors who observed their own minds and wrote about what they found. Their findings form a consistent account of the work of silence through the ages. [1] A common model appears to underlay them, which is paralleled by recent insights from neuro-biology. Together they highlight characteristics in texts that signal when this model might be usefully applied for interpretative purposes.

There was a fundamental shift in psychology in the life of institutional Christianity in the West, that took place from the tenth century onwards, from putting on the mind of Christ, that is, self-emptying and self-forgetfulness; to imitation, which is inescapably reflexive. This shift is provoked in part by an increasing formalism, which becomes consolidated by the middle of the fifteenth century. It is accompanied by changes in emphasis from faith to belief/magic; from interior practice to external observance; from apophatic opening to controlled imagery and emotions; from a spirituality that is interiorly motivated to one that is externally driven, from using the entire mind, most of which is directly inaccessible, to confining spiritual activity to the conceptual mind and its construct of identity.

It entails a gradual move from one epistemology to another through the exchange of content for method. In the process, a foundational empirical dynamic and understanding [2] is eliminated from the institutional repertoire in both theology and praxis, that is to say, the understanding of the work of silence that had previously led monastic life and theology to be called 'philosophy' until it was eclipsed by the spreading influence of Aristotle in the second half of the twelfth century. [3] Failure by interpreters to acknowledge this shift has led, among other problems, to indiscriminate and inappropriate use of the word 'experience', which has altered meanings—in some cases, rendered opposite meanings—when these texts are translated.

This shift in emphasis progressively reduces institutional life, whether Catholic or, eventually, Protestant, to a subjectivity controlled by officially sanctioned images, formulas and stereotypes. It is in part as protest against these trends, and the need for a corrective, that writers whose subject is contemplation take the risk of setting down their varied accounts of the work of silence. As it becomes increasingly apparent that they are fighting a losing battle, some of their metaphors become correspondingly extreme—the use of annihilation language, for example, or the Cloud-author's 'destroy' (e.g., ch. 8).

[1] ' . . . the monastic Middle Ages received form the patristic era a terminology and themes and a whole vocabulary whose meaning cannot be grasped if their [patristic] source is not recognized.' The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean LeClercq, Fordham Univeristy Press, 1982, p. 99. LeClercq is discussing problems parallel to those discussed in this paper, but with different emphases.

[2] 'This formative period for mystical theology was, of course, the formative period for dogmatic theology, and that the same period was determinative for both mystical and dogmatic theology is no accident since these two aspects of theology are fundamentally bound up with one another. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, OUP, 2007, p. x.

[3] LeClercq, p. 101.


Anonymous Dawna Wall said...

Finding your work on silence has helped me breathe more deeply! I am beginning work on a D MIN thesis on the importance of the church being sanctuary and offering silence regularly. When I found your blog, I felt I was finally in conversation with someone who understood. Would it be possible to get your whole article on silence? Thanks for speaking so clearly, passionately and intelligently about so many things - it is a blessing and an encouragement on the journey.

12:51 pm, July 29, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Hi Dawna,

Thanks for writing and for your kind remarks.

If you will send me your email address in a post marked at the top DO NOT PUBLISH, I will send the article. As I moderate all comments, your email address will not be published!


1:11 pm, July 29, 2011  

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