Thursday, September 15, 2011

Exploring Silence VIII

Having briefly looked at the silence tradition, it is now necessary to spend a few moments reviewing some of the elements that contributed to its decline.

From the beginnings of Christianity—whose trajectory is similar to those of other religions—there is conflict between those wishing to accrue institutional power to themselves, and those gathering for mutual support and thanksgiving for the transfiguration that occurs in the kenotic process of silence, through meeting the Word who is silence. In the second century, those advocating more interior interpretations of the Gospel were anathematized as heretics by institutionally minded bishops, who urged their followers instead toward imitation and martyrdom. [1] Throughout the first millennium of their history, western Christian institutions blew hot and cold, both on the tradition of silence and the guardians of that tradition; for the kenotic work of silence develops incoercible spiritual maturity that is inherently subversive to hierarchies and their claims, as we saw earlier in Jesus' remarks in John 14. [2] This is the freedom of the children of God.

The eleventh century saw a dramatic and fatal shift away from the silence tradition towards imitation, which, however piously meant, is a kind of performance art that creates the sort of self-observing feedback loop that leads to narcissism. [3] It is much more pleasurable to watch oneself playing a part in a grand ceremonial pageant than to turn away from such spectacles towards the invisible and immaterial, humble and hidden even from oneself. To put on the mind of Christ means to forget oneself, to relinquish the contents of self-consciousness—experience, perspective, interpretation, emotion, imaginative stereotypes and projections—into silence, so that the mind may be sprung from the trap of its own circular thinking. [4] In terms of the chart in your handout, the centre from which self-consciousness takes its energy moves from the left side into liminality, where, by intention ('nakid entente') it engages with the right side.

By contrast to this kenotic process, to imitate is to pursue a life based on imaginative stereotypes and projections, which are easily formed and insinuated by a controlling hierarchy. Its attention is reflexive. Imitation causes the mind to be stuck on the left side (Cloud ch. 19, 28/14-15); the depths of the riches of the knowledge of God that reside in hidden silence are unavailable to it. To exert more control over people's interior lives is one of the strategies behind many of Gregory VII's (†1085) reforms that sought to centralize Christianity in Rome and to extend the political power of the papacy. This renewed conflict between putting on the mind of Christ and institutionally controlled imitation, between contemplation and dialectic, is symbolized by the ironic coincidence of the dates 1084-1085, which are the marker dates for the foundation of the Carthusians and the translation of Aristotle, respectively.

Over the next three centuries, tensions rose to the breaking point between a political camp that used words as weapons under the guise of dialectic and sought to freeze doctrine into formulas, and a 'spiritual' camp that insisted that familiarity with the silence from which words spring and to which they refer must not be lost, that dialectic is to be used in service of silence. The deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure in 1274 mark the end of a scholastic theology that sought this balance between silence and speech. [5]

The efflorescence of contemplatives at the end of the thirteenth- and throughout the fourteenth centuries was in part a protest movement against institutional totalitarianism, the pursuit of analysis and definitions, and its claims at the expense of 'kynde knowyng'. [6] The hierarchy became increasingly threatened by any speech about silence that did not fit accepted formulas: Holy Church tells Will to be 'trewe of his tongue' and to obey the law and then he will know God, an inversion of what he asks and of what the ancient silence tradition—and neuro-science—understood as the way human beings function. [7] The Inquisition was authorised first in 1179, renewed in 1199 and finally established in 1231, the beginning, one might say, of the Counter-Reformation before the Reformation. [8]

Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 because she refused to conform her accurate psychological description of the work of silence to pious cliché. She could not in truth conflate two radically different and in many ways conflicting epistemologies in terms of the merely conceptual and reflexive; she could not deny that the Church had cut itself adrift from its incarnational foundation. She would not submit to the debaters of the age. She declined to defend herself—how could someone who had never done the work of silence possibly know what she was talking about?—and in silence went to the flames. [9]
One cannot help but be struck by the way Porete used her life her life to invert the meaning of 'imitation', which ordinarily manifested 'the weary conventions of contemporary passion poetry'. [10] She incarnates putting on the mind of Christ: as his life and thought threatened the temple system, so her life and thought threatened the church—and for similar reasons, the clash between rigid exterior observance and supple interior life. As he was provocative, so was she; as he was silent before his accusers, so she was silent before hers.

The flames that consumed Porete lit a warning beacon to which the writings of some—Meister Eckhart,the Cloud-author and Julian of Norwich—but not all, of the fourteenth-century contemplatives were, in part, a response. But by 1310 when Porete was burned the game was already lost and by 1464 when Nicholas of Cusa died, it was over. It did not take even a generation for the last vestiges of the work of silence to be lost to institutional Christianity. Luther's prior and teacher, Johann von Staupitz was born in 1460, four years before Cusa's death, and it is clear from his writings on rapture, ecstasy and excessus mentis that while he certainly read earlier authors in the group we are concerned with, he did not seem to understand that excessus mentis in their texts referred to an actual process. In fact, he felt free to redefine them, as Hilton seventy-five years earlier had felt free to redefine contemplation in the course of his support of the institution, [11] a process Luther would carry even further in his break from it. [12] When Luther co-opted these 'rapture', 'ecstasy' and excessus mentis into the service of a theology extrapolated from self-authenticating experience as opposed to experimental praxis, they became dead leaves floating on a dark and contentious lake.


[1] See, for example, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, New York, Viking, 2007. For a similar point of view coming from a completely different starting point, see also Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise, Boston, Beacon, 2008. This latter book has an excellent discussion of the profound impact on Western Christianity of the need of Charlemagne and his successors to justify—to spin, theologically—the slaughter of Saxons and the consequent development of sacrifice/atonement theology.

[2] It is not that contemplatives necessarily are in opposition to the Church; they write what they write because they love it and are loyal to it, and wish to offer a corrective. The problem more often comes from the side of the institution, not from the contemplative.

[3] It should be noted that the rise of the devotion to the humanity of Christ, which became a brickbat of orthodoxy, is a humanity without a mind. It is spiritually useful as an aid to understanding Phil. 2:5-11 (as in Julian's Showings; or PC 89/41- 90/7; 91/7-13; or Walsh's Cloud note 142, quoting Guiges du Pont, '. . .his concentration must be the Godhead rather than the humanity. He must take hold of God by the handle of his humanity, and embrace rather the feet of God', p. 156). But used as an end in itself it undermines the Philippians passage, on which Christianity turns, evidenced, for example, by its centrality in the Holy Week liturgy. See, for example, The Riddle of Christian Mystical Experience: The Role of the Humanity of Jesus by Paul Mommaers, [SJ] Leuven, Peeters, 2003. Walsh's note 72 cites Gallus quoting I Peter 4:1 but it is more likely he is quoting the Philippians passage, '"Christ having suffered in the flesh, you must arm yourselves with a mind like his . . . the mysteries of the divine humanity are like a ladder which brings us up to the contemplation of the divinity"'. (Explanation on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, chap. III.) Walsh, p. 172.

[4] This practice bestows greater objectivity than linear ratiocination. See below.

[5] Chartres cathedral is an architectural example of this balance. See the excellent discussion in Philip Ball's Universe of Stone (New York: Harper, 2008). See also the discussion in the shift in theology in Walter Hilton: The Scale of Perfection, translated from the Middle English with an introduction and notes by John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 28.

[6] This tension spilled over into the margins of manuscripts, particularly between the years 1250 and 1330, and even into the 15th century. See appendix.

[7] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng"', p. 242. There is a tantalizing parallel in recent research that shows that human decisions are made out of our sight before we become aware of them.

[8] McGinn states: 'It must be noted that there was never any institution as "the Inquisition" in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the application of the inquisitional method (i.e., a legal procedure in which the judge was the acuser), on both the episcopal and papal level, was important for the history of the relation between mysticism and magisterium. Although the de iure rights of heretical inquisitors did not generally differ from those of other inquisitional judges, in practice (de facto), heretical trials became a special world. '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions Between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church' by Bernard McGinn, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. XC, April 2004, No. 2, pp. 193-212', p. 211, note 50.

[9] According to McGinn, Porete's work '. . .circulated in four languages during the later Middle Ages, [but] it was subsequently lost to history until 1946. . .' '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy"', p. 196. It is easy to see why: institutional suppression of the work of silence on the Continent became draconian, as John van Engen's work on Alijt Bake demonstrates. In response to her renewed practice of the work of silence, which she introduced to the Sisters of the Common Life, the Windesheim General Chapter in 1455, having removed her as prioress and driven her from the cloister (she soon died) decreed: 'No nun or sister of whatever status should copy books containing philosophical teachings or revelations, either themselves or by way of others, whether compositions of their own (ex suo propria mente) or of other Sisters, and this on pain of imprisonment. If someone hears of or sees such books, he should cast them into the fire; nor should anyone presume to translate such books from Latin into Dutch.' Unpublished translation used by permission.

[10] 'Apophatic Image', p. 61.

[11] That Hilton saw contemplation as reserved to the elite few suggests that he was either unfamiliar with the model the Cloud-author is using or that he chose to ignore it. The Cloud-author and Hilton appear to share much in their approaches to ecclesiology and the lower reaches of the spiritual life, but in terms of the higher reaches of contemplation they appear to be fundamentally different. '. . . "reforming in feeling,"[is] something to which every Christian should aspire, whatever his or her state in life. This is part of a shift in the understanding of what actually constitutes "contemplation"'. Walter Hilton (Classics of Western Spirituality), p. 19. In fact, Hilton is trying to prevent people from the full extent of the practice described in the Cloud.

[12] See 'Religious Ecstasy in Staupitz and the Young Luther' by David C. Steinmetz Sixteenth Century Journal XI. No. 1 (1980) pp. 23-37. It is also true that these three words had often been freely used without being tied to particular definitons: ecstasis, for example, could just as well refer to a the Delphic oracle in ancient Greece as the suspension of self-consciousness. Seventy-five years earlier in England, Walter Hilton had begun to change the meaning of contemplation.


Blogger Maggie Ross said...

A reader has asked that I post the handout mentioned at the end of paragraph 3. For copyright reasons I can't do this, alas, but there is a description of it in the post of 11 July, 2011 'Event Horizon and Deep Mind/Theology.

3:45 pm, September 15, 2011  
Anonymous Matt said...

I'm just wondering what you make of Bernadette Roberts' work in respect of no-self and silence.

10:11 pm, September 15, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Sorry, Matt, I can't comment on something that personal. Blessings.

6:01 am, September 16, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To clarify: Bernadette Roberts' writing is very personal, so it doesn't seem appropriate to comment; we can never know another's experience.

Having said that, any autobiographical writing—mine included—is separate from the discussion of whether or not a teaching or teachings are sound. Such a discussion, however, needs long and careful study and analysis, and a blog, in my view, isn't the place for this kind of discussion.

3:57 pm, September 16, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Last night, at a church numbering about 700 members, we offered a gathering for Contemplative Prayer, specifically Centering Prayer as imagined by Thomas Keating.

Just simple and unadorned stillness. Silent listening. Walking meditation beteween two prayers.

Four people attended, all already active in the once weekly morning sits.

Once-upon-a-time and not-so-long-ago such a response would have been a discouragement but I now believe it does not much matter.

Offering this practice (as prayer) is practicing prayer.

Anyway I hope so.

When we were organizing this event, arrrggh, we had a discussion useful conversation concerning the speaking aloud of the Lords Prayer in closing.

I was opposed. It's like frosting a frosted cake. The point was taken and we let the silence of communion walk with us out the door in peace.

The winter wind blows this way from a warm southern sea.

5:11 pm, September 16, 2011  
Blogger Matt Lamont said...

Dear Maggie,
Thank you for your writing on the 'edge' - can you comment on where Quakers fit in the scheme of things silent from your point of view? Quaker silence is often deep but seems to lack a sound theological and spiritual framework...then again maybe frameworks aren't needed...however I sense both liturgy and non-liturgy both begin and end in silence but this isn't usually highlighted or explored by either Quakers or mainstream liturgical traditions.
Cheers Matt

10:05 am, September 18, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Matt,

I have a lot of time for the Quakers. They kept the practice of silence alive in an age that had rejected it, at great cost. Their way of consensus (when it works) is admirable. Their dedication to plain living is an example for us all at a time when our wasteful and heedless ways have put the biosphere at risk.

Having said that, the Quakers, like every other group, have their problems. There are the bible-based Quakers and the light-based Quakers (though personally I don't see any conflict between these two). As I understand it, the Quakers are divided into four main groups, but their differences are too subtle to be able to say that the range of groups cover the difference between 'fundamentalist' and 'high church'.

I am not sure what you mean by saying that the Quakers 'lack a sound theological and spiritual framework'. They have avoided systematic theology, which is a plus in my book. And I think we could use a lot more silence in our liturgies—a LOT more.

While I have never been to a Quaker meeting, I have been toying with the idea of going regularly for a long time because I am so fed up with the banality and noise of what passes for liturgy these days, as much as liturgy is food for my soul. You are right that liturgy should begin and end in silence, not for merely aesthetic reasons, but as a model for the way we should live every aspect of our lives.

The mainstream churches seem to be so adapted to a materialist, consumerist lets-have-fun culture that the Quakers—at least some of them—seem one of the few religious groups to hold out an alternative. There's nothing wrong with having fun but that's not what life or religion is primarily about.


8:21 am, September 26, 2011  

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