Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Exploring Silence VII

Irenaeus (2nd c.) '. . .is the first writer to have a Christian bible before him. . . . [He] completed the first great synthesis of Christian thought . . . . what became the main elements of Christian doctrine'.[1] His worked is summed up in a famous aphorism, but it is telling that today only the first half of the phrase is usually cited. 'The glory of God is the human person fully alive; and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God.'[2] The two clauses are interdependent. According to Irenaeus, God and the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve were in continual communion in silent beholding.[3] Adam and Eve are distracted from this beholding by the first conversation with the snake—speech is both cause and consequence of their distraction. This break was necessary, however, so that Adam and Eve could have their freedom and grow to maturity; they had to learn to choose to behold: otherwise they would only have been automatons. To choose to behold and to live from that beholding is the Christian task (Cloud, chs. 4, 6 Hodgson 14/21-22).

For Irenaeus, as for much of early Christian tradition, especially monastic tradition, obedience is synonymous to listening with the ear of the heart. The theme is taken up by the key New Testament text, Phil. 2: 5-11, which uses the Greek word υπηκοοσ, intense listening, for 'obedience'. Responding to its instruction, Egyptian and Syrian desert dwellers, like John the Solitary, made silence their lynchpin. As Ephrem (4th century) tells us, Mary conceived through her ear;[4] her beholding reverses the distraction to which Eve succumbed through hers. It is in this way that Mary be-holds, holds God who is beyond being in being and time by conceiving her son—the word ιδου appears three times in the annunciation in Luke 1: 26-38. The notion of the ear of the heart is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures.[5] In silence—of which the desert is symbolic—listening with the heart and beholding interpenetrate. By contrast, Athanasius' life of Anthony the Great says that noise is a sign of the demonic (cap. 9).

For Augustine (354-430), '. . .true rhetoric culminates in silence, in which the mind is in immediate contact with reality . . . . all dialectic, true rhetoric, and thought itself were but attempts to re-ascend to that silence from which the world fell into the perpetual clamor of life as fallen men know it.[6] His contemporary, Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), is another incisive observer of the psychological processes of the mind seeking silence and the attacks to which it is subject.

Syriac writers are particularly keen observers of the work of silence, of the need to redress the balance between self-consciousness and core silence, to restore the circulation of the self-conscious mind seeking silence and re-emerging from it trans-figured. Isaac's predecessor, Abraham of Nathpar writes: 'There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is the silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit . . . .The silence of the spirit is when the mind ceases even from stirrings caused by spiritual beings, and when all its movements are stirred solely by Being; in this state it is truly silent, aware that the silence which is upon it is itself silent'.[7] Although he writes in Greek, Pseudo-Denys is a Syriac monk familiar with the Syriac liturgical tradition.

Beyond those writers already mentioned, those in the medieval West who give accounts of this topic also include, to name only a few: Cassian, Guigo II, Bernard, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich and Gerson. The last institutional advocate for the work of silence was Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Cusanus says that the image of God in the human person is found in the mind's ability to transcend itself.[8] He is doing metaphysics based on an observable phenomenon,[9] the suspension of self-consciousness, which is the primary meaning of excessus mentis in these writers, although it is not limited to that term. Richard of St Victor uses deficio, for example. But more on this in a moment.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons by Eric Osborn, CUP, 2001, pp. xi, xiv, 10.

[2] Privy Counselling, Hodgeson 83/33-35. Jesus can be thought of as the undistracted.

[3] Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 4:38. While Julian of Norwich almost certainly knew nothing of Irenaeus' work, her text could reasonably be seen as an extended gloss on this famous aphorism; she is the Apostle of Beholding.

[4] See Hymns on Virginity, 23:5. The Luminous Eye, by Sebastian Brock, Kalamazoo, Cistercian, 1992.

[5] E.g., Deut. 6:4; Ps. 45:10; Ps 46: 11; Ps. 62:1; Ps. 95:8, Is. 30: 15; Is. 50 4; Is. 55: 3. God, who is found in silence, has a name that cannot be pronounced. God's word is silent, but is spoken in the lives of those who have heard it in their hearts; 'it shall not return empty' (Is. 55: 10-11). I AM will be wherever this hearing happens.

[6] 'St Augustine's Rhetoric of Silence' by Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 23, No. 2, (Apr. - Jun., 1962), pp. 187 . . . 192.

[7] The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, tr. Sebastian Brock, Kalamazoo, Cistercian, 1987.

[8] Pauline Moffitt Watts, Nicholas Cusanus: A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1982), 139; Becoming God: The Doctrine of Theosis in Nicolas of Cusa by Nancy Hudson, Catholic University Press, 2007.

[9] 'The biological and metaphysical were understood as wholes within wholes, the one never precluding the other.' Gretel Ehrlich, In the Empire of Ice, Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2010, p. 232.


Anonymous Hawkman said...

Idou seems to me to mean something like 'take note' and theorei 'pay attention'. My poor understanding of your use of 'beholding' is well expressed by your older word 'gazing'. This means to me something called forth in love, adoration, appreciation, that you might catch yourself doing but which cannot be willed or commanded.

9:49 am, August 30, 2011  

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