Friday, July 15, 2011

Problematic Words in Medieval Scholarship II

mystical/mystic are words that have become useless and misleading, associated with exoticism, a quest for self-autheticating experiences, occult practices, or, according to William Harmless, 'a catch-all for religious weirdness' (Mystics, p. 3). Gerson defined it well, but his definition is misunderstood and mistranslated. What has been translated as 'experiential' should in fact be translated as 'experimental'. 'Mystical theology is an [experiential] experimental knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love' (theolgia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de deo per amoris unitivi complexum). The misunderstanding of Gerson's famous definition is a prime example of how medieval texts are adversely affected when knowledge of the work of silence—theoretical or otherwise—is lacking. There is a tendency to seize on the first half of Gerson's remark—which is in fact the second and consequent phase of the dynamic he is describing. Gerson's definition has two parts. First there is the engagement with divine love, which is apophatic; then there is experiential knowledge, which is interpretation in retrospect of the traces which the engagement leaves. And finally, entailed in Gerson's remark, as the Cloud-author and others note, is the understanding that the contemplative is engaged in the process of relinquishing all claims to experience. The Cloud-author does not like the word. See Rosemary Lees, The Negative Language of the Dionysian School of Mystical Theology: An Approach to 'The Cloud of Unknowing', Vol. 1 1983 (Salzburg, 1983), pp. 251-53. Lees' work is frustrating because her instincts are good but her insights are short-circuited by academic convention, a methodology that demands closure; and the failure to realise that both Denys and the Cloud-author are writing about an empirical actuality, not merely about theories or linguistic transmission.

object is misleading when used in regard to God, or a dynamic continuum such as beholding. 'God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere' is an aphorism that can be traced to Empedocles and describes an interior image that is familiar to many practitioners of the work of silence. There is no 'object' in beholding yet the engagement of beholding is far more objective than subjective experience. See Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970.

rational when linear is meant. Ancient and medieval people did not think that the part of the mind that is not directly accessible was 'irrational' (e.g., Dawkins). They correctly understood, along with today's neuro-psychologists (see Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, 2009) that it has its own, far more advanced epistemology than the limited, linear, two-dimensional epistemology of self-consciousness, which was one reason they were so eager to find a way into the deep mind. Interpreters such as A.C. Spearing, a self-declared Cartesian ('Margurerite Porete: Courtliness and Transcendence in The Mirror of Simple Souls' in Carolyn Muessig, Ad Putter, eds., Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages (London, 2007) pp. 120-36), who will not accept any self but what he imagines, wreak havoc on texts such as the Cloud. The 'order without order' (ordo sine ordine) of Bernard and Richard St Victor refers to the relocated centre of the person in the deep mind.

self needs to be located when it is used. Does this word mean the imaginary construct or is it the unfolding and ongoing transfiguration that is happening out of sight, or something else? There is a very great difference between the notion of a shared nature with God of the patristic era and the Middle Ages, and the soul as 'a cavity of total depravity' of the Reformation.

spiritual direction is an invention of the Counter-Reformation, a practice that did not exist in the 14th century. The term is often retrojected onto 14th and 15th century texts by modern commentators (e.g., James Walsh, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (Mahwah, 1998)). Medieval monastic spirituality was above all based on the Vitae Patrum, Cassian, and associated texts. The Carthusians in particular understood the desert wisdom, from which they took inspiration at their foundation and which they enshrined in their statutes, that the same person would not always have the Word that was sought, and that spiritual maturity was acquired by exposure to many elders, not just one; that dependence and self-preoccupation were ever-present temptations. It is significant that the Cloud-author uses 'counsel and conscience' to indicate taking advice from the elders, making it clear that the ultimate discernment was up to the individual.

state (and similar words) implies linear, hierarchical, static, photographic, and is inaccurate when applied to mental processes, which are holistic. It implies a mechanistic model and instantiation. Optimally the global deep mind informs the linear self-conscious mind and vice versa. state gives the sense of a static hierarchy when the work of silence is a global process.

supernatural in the present age has connotations of magic and the occult, implies dualism, and evokes a world view that is no longer understandable to today's readers. The word has lost its earlier sense of grace building on nature.

transcend/transform are words that are misused and misleading when describing the processes of the work of silence, and related theology. Both words are dis-incarnating. The interior life leaves nothing behind (transcend) nor is one thing changed into another (transform). There is no magic involved; frogs do not change into princes and princesses. Neither word is appropriate to describing spiritual maturity. Instead, through beholding the disciple is transfigured in every sense: perspective—the way one 'figures things out'—is changed. Nothing is wasted, nothing is left behind; through wounds comes healing. In the resurrection, the wounds of Christ do not disappear; they are glorified. Only the devil appearing as Christ has no wounds, being too vain to bear them.

union has dualist connotations, the coming together of two entirely separate entities. Onying carries more of the sense of shared nature with God.

visionary needs to be located as the word has taken on nuances of exoticism. Are the images described associated with lectio divina? Are they made public in didactic form, e.g., what might have been a chapter talk? Are they story-telling? Do they show signs of being eidetic images (such as children have; as Blake had and taught his wife to have)? Are they political? Do they accord power to the visionary? If so, do they follow the First Commandment as formulated by Anthony (e.g., Bridget of Sweden's do not): 'Your life and your death is with your neighbour'?


Blogger changeinthewind said...

Hi Maggie,

If I walk into a canyon and the walls around me reverberate with sound, a source for the sound is accepted but not necessarily known.

Deep mind is where in this?

This is an experience when?

Thank you.

7:01 pm, July 15, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It's not either/or, it's a matter of circulation between the deep mind and 'experience' (the analytical and classifying function of the self-conscious mind. Any receptive listening with the analytical function suspended is opening onto deep mind.

The self-conscious mind creates a virtual reality (which by its nature distorts and limits); the deep mind perceives directly. They exchange information. Optimally, each enriches the other in a different way. As the self-conscious mind relinquishes its perceptions to the deep mind, the deep mind provides correctives to what the self-conscious mind has cooked up.

See the essay 'practical adoration' earlier in this blog (Jan. 9, 2010 or in the book, 'Writing the Icon of the Heart') for an example taken from hymn-singing, which might be close to your example.

8:48 pm, July 15, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

McGilchrist ['The Master and HIs Emissary . . .' p. 110] says, 'What language contributes is to firm up certain particular ways of seeing the world and give fixity to them. This has its good side, and its bad. It aids consistency of reference over time and space. But it can also exert a restrictive force on what and how we think. It represents a more fixed version of the world: it shapes, rather than grounds, our thinking.'

So in your example, what you call your 'experience' of sound may actually restrict the way your deep mind is listening, so that it becomes selective. But if you 'submit' this interpretation to the deep mind through contemplation, the attentive receptivity—which is substituted for looking for reinforcement to the fixed idea of what the sound is—can break open these restrictions so that you are listening globally again.

In other words, the sound you can't locate may be water dripping in a cave, and you are so intent on finding the location you don't hear the rattlesnake warning. If you are listening in a contemplative way, however, you can hear both.

11:32 am, July 16, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Perhaps I am trying to build something 'spiritual" out of deep mind and doing so is foolish.

Sound is heard. Then it is named a sound.

Thank you.

8:22 pm, July 16, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Yes, grace builds on nature, It works inherently, not separately!

8:42 pm, July 16, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Hi Maggie,

I read the Jan 09,2011 post and feel this closely , adorationexpresses what I was speaking to in my example.

To be taken in or absorbed by the echoing sounds is, I think, what you are calling adoration. In the clarity of such listening, I 'know' as closely as it seems to be possible, the source of that which produces, in my example, the echo heard.

It is this which becomes faith.

5:52 pm, July 19, 2011  

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