Friday, July 08, 2011

Problematic Words in Medieval Scholarship

For the paper I'm giving next weekend, which will be published in the next volume of the Medieval Mystical Tradition in England series [Exeter Symposium], I've compiled a list of problematic words. In recent years, people seem to have become extremely sloppy about the words they use when writing about medieval religious texts—or any religious texts. Here's the first half of the list. I'll get back to the paper on silence in the next-but-one post.

achieve is not proper to contemplation or the higher reaches of the spiritual life, which are gratuitous (paradox of intention)

affective refers to the notion of the primacy of the heart (intention) over the linear intellect in matters of contemplation. It does not mean devotional kitsch. The extravagant expressions of love in Bernard, for example, are paradoxical because they are trying to communicate a love so deep as to be detached from its own desire.

contemplation/contemplative refers to a specific practice of contemplation,—attentive receptivity—which excludes interpretation. The term 'contemplative text' is nonsensical. Visionary texts do not describe contemplation unless, like Julian's text, they move the reader from image to contemplative event-horizon and engagement with the deep mind. Didactic texts do not teach contemplation unless, like the Cloud of Unknowing, they intend to lead the reader to the contemplative event-horizon and engagement with the deep mind. Devotional texts are not directly conducive to contemplation; nor are trance-inducing texts (Rolle; trance is liminal but self-consciousness is in control. See the works of Milton Erickson on auto-hypnosis). Abstraction (à Kempis) is not contemplation; it belongs to the realm of self-consciousness, not deep mind. This model suggests that Julian's Long Text and the Cloud are the only two texts that are properly associated with contemplation among the English texts with which they are usually grouped. To these might be added one contemplative interlocutor: Will, of Piers Plowman. See also habitual and mystical below.

experience in the medieval sense means an experimental, provisional interpretation that is to be tested against scripture and tradition. This is opposite to the modern sense, which is related to self-authentication. The modern sense is incipient in the later Middle Ages (e.g., Gerson, Epistle 26, April-June, 1408). While it is appropriate to say religious experience it is nonsensical to say contemplative experience and absurd to say experience of excessus mentis. If there is excessus there is no mentis. Experience may be associated with fele in texts that describe exercises designed to stimulate artificial emotions, self-dramatization and performance, but not with fele as it is used in The Cloud of Unknowing, where it gestures towards touching the unfathomable and dazzling dark.

false self/true self (the former needing to be destroyed or suppressed) is a modern notion, a dualism that has also insinuated itself anachronistically into academic study of medieval texts. It is a self-judgement that takes place entirely in the self-conscioius/conceptual mind, not the deep mind. It is not only not a medieval notion, it is not even a Christian notion (Matt. 7:1), as everything created is good, and 'synne is behovabil' (Julian LT, ch. 27).

grasp is not appropriately used in terms of faith or contemplation, e.g., 'those who have difficulty grasping faith', as both are about un-grasping. Most of the pistis verbs in the Gospel of John, for example, are intransitive. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith has been confused modern times with propositional belief because it has been used as a term for a body of doctrine, e.g., the Faith.

habitual is a word associated with self-consciousness (habitual sinner—to sin requires self-consciousness) and is not appropriately used when speaking of contemplation, because a contemplative has given over initiative to the Spirit who animates.

lifestyle refers to fashionable outward forms of living; it is inappropriate when applied to the medieval monastic world of the Cloud, which is a way of living that arises from within. There were, of course, monasteries such as Cluny that were far more about style than about the monastic life. It is important to make the distinction for the modern reader.


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