Sunday, October 09, 2011

Exploring Silence IX

If understanding of the work of silence had not been lost, Martin Luther might not have had the crisis that ignited the Reformation fuse already in place, which further inflamed the war of words piled on words that are often received today as meaningless and irrelevant, in part because they have lost any connexion to praxis in terms of the work of silence. It is significant that during this generation Thomas à Kempis wrote his Imitation of Christ, a text that abandons the primary Christian goal of beholding (onyng with God) for '. . . an appeal made for a practical asceticism in the hope of a more submissive alignment of the initiate's own will with that of the Creator' [1] —the definition of the Creator's will being reserved to the institution.

Luther's crisis was provoked in part by the mental feedback loops that take over when the language of faith no longer refers to the silence from which it arises and to which it returns. The practical means to free him from his mental prison through the work of silence had been lost. The word 'faith' is key to his theology, but it is now tied to self-conscious claims and interpretations turning on Anfectung. By contrast, in the silence tradition, the word 'faith' gestured towards self-forgetfulness, an infinite opening in trust, a relinquishing of all claims to experience (Cloud, ch. 43; 45/38 - 46/8), the predominantly intransitive verb of the Gospel of John. [2]

Luther cements the shift from the medieval understanding of experience as experiment to one of subjectivism.[3] By the time of the Reformation both Catholic and Protestant theological and spiritual strictures have cut off the circulation between speech and silence. Spiritual praxis is officially confined to an often extravagant devotionalism, and to the distortions of self-consciousness. Rome demands assent to dogmatic formulas, conformity in observance, and good works as an act of will, a kind of objectifying performance art, as opposed to an overflowing of the mind of Christ. The work of silence is replaced by credulity, which is the opposite of faith. Luther's approach and that of most other Protestants was fiercely and determinedly experience-based in the sense of subjectivity and self-authentication.

Both Catholicism and Protestantism had become stuck in the merely conceptual, sensory and circular world of the self-conscious mind; both failed to help those who sought, with Langland's Will, the way to 'kynde knowyng' for which he persistently asked, which is found in the deep mind. Both cultivated attitudes of minds-cut-off-from-bodies, disregard for the natural world, and an abysmal Christian anthropology.


[1] E.E.S. Lotz, Secret Rooms: Private Spaces for Private Prayer in Late Medieval Burgundy and the Netherlands, unpublished DPhil Thesis, Oxford University, 2005. The 'alignment' to which the submission is made is entirely controlled by the images and rote practices prescribed by the institution. By the 15th century continental Carthusians had long since succumbed to patronage and penetration by the rich and royal. (p. 117) As policies developed at a glacial rate in the Order, the process must have begun much earlier. By the 14th century the Carthusians seem also largely to have abandoned the Desert ideal of apophatic prayer for the sort of pious devotions that nurtured what was to become Devotio moderna. Lotz points out (p.201) that by the 15th century they were abandoning the goal of the more difficult imageless prayer and generating popular devotional sentimentality, which is exactly what Carthusian life supposedly seeks to discourage.

[2] This insight derived from a lecture by Judith Lieu given in the Oxford University Classics department in the autumn of 2006.

[3] There have been some recent attempts to 'justify' integrating these two mutually exclusive approaches to 'experience'. These seem invariably to end in solipsism, e.g., Steven Chase: 'Finally, one could choose to employ exclusively a modernist methodology of positivism striving for "objective discrimination" and "objective" and "value-free" research in an attempt to uncover the truth" about the past. But why should one want to do so? A larger human capacity is the ability to distinguish (that is, to "objectively discriminate") and to synthesize at the same time (that is, the capacity to search out the "truth" in the context of one's own experience, training, attitudes, politics and spirituality). Of course the study of the history of Christian theology and spirituality is in part an academic discipline, but such a study is not lessened by a scholar who meditates, nor is it forbidden to him, especially if the text is concerned with meditation and contemplation as Richard's is. I do not believe such a practice either valorizes the art of the academic study of religion or subjects it to dangerous reductionistic tendencies; rather, the practice increases the risk of a life lived within an ethical centre . . . Thus as a final methodology, this book will incorporate the writer's own experience of mediating on and contemplating the ark and cherubim.' Angelic Wisdom: The cherubim and the Grace of Contemplation in Richard of St Victor, Notre Dame, 1995, pp. xviii-xix. The problem is that Richard's text, like The Cloud of Unknowing, demands precisely the progressive relinquishing of all reflexivity and claims to experience (interpretation). See section 2 of this paper. Chase's coda at the end of his book exposes the problem, first contradicting Richard's apophatic refusal to name the centre by calling it 'experience', and then making shift or confusion of the meaning of contemplation with something more resembling Walter Hilton's anti-apophatic definition of the word. After telling us that 'Richard's center is celestial. Bonaventure's center will be the Passion. . . [he is wrong about Bonaventure, for whom the Passion is an image for moving into apophatic silence at the centre (see ch. 7)] Richard will not name the center [because it is not experiential] . . . Richard's invitation is for you likewise to experience [what Richard precisely did not 'experience']. . . Beyond Richard's teaching for the weaving of the ark and cherubim in the heart, there is still your own personal experience, your own vision of God, your own touching, thinking, reason, meditation, contemplation, even ecstasy beyond symbol.' pp. 140-141. Bracketed comments are mine.


Blogger Ultra Monk said...

Your posts on silence have been really good lately. I've enjoyed them. Thanks

1:31 am, October 10, 2011  
Anonymous Henry Burke said...

Agreed: great posts!
Do you recommend one of the versions of Piers Plowman?

9:44 pm, October 10, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Ultra Monk

Thank you!

10:04 pm, October 10, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Henry

Thank you!

As to Piers Plowman, I am hardly literate, but the Kane and Donaldson edition is cited in the fascinating paper 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, in Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-253 available on JSTOR in your local state university library (if you are in America, and maybe your local county one). If I haven't hitherto cited this paper in this series on silence, it is an inadvertent ommission! I have so many versions of this paper floating around ...

10:08 pm, October 10, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

A seed must have access to water, a secure hold in inclement soil, and stored energy to sprout. Without these there is nothing at all (to being a seed)that would distinguish it from being a stone.

Words are like seeds. Perhaps faith communities are as well.

You advocate the reform of faith communities into something which foremost beholds, which means relies on communion itself and not on the words which speak of it.

Seems such a lovely row to hoe.

7:00 pm, October 11, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie,

I'm quite new to your blog and quite new to the work of silence, really.

I'm encouraged to know that there are others out there - you, those who read and contribute here and those you refer to in what you write - also treading this path.

Might I trouble you to suggest a few basic books that beginners might find nourishing and helpful? There is so little help, as you know very well, in our c/Churches.

Thank you for what you share here.


9:01 am, October 12, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Theodore,

Thanks for writing. A good place to start is the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Benedicta Ward's translation). For history, Olivier Clément's Sources of Christian Mystical Tradition.

As you know, everything is in transition, so it's hard to say 'read the classics' because so many of these texts are mis-translated. It's also difficult because religious language has been ruined and the words no longer mean what they were meant to. Additionally, we have the whole problem of people wanting to be spiritual celebrities. A good rule of thumb is: if they're on the circuit, read with an overflowing handful of salt and realise that most are simply riffing on one very small and often minor aspect of a much larger programme for motives that are not necessarily geared to the well-being of the spiritually hungry!

The work of silence is very, very simple, so don't be taken in by razzle dazzle. As Marion Glasscoe (editor of the best ms of Julian) said recently, 'Why does something that is so simple require so many words?'



9:34 am, October 12, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I echo your comment to Theodore about the work of silence being very simple?
I am a woman of average intelligence, I think, but I am certainly no scholar and a lot of what I read is way above my head, your writing included Maggie, valued as it is.
So Theodore, I would say do not get too much into studying but just go with the silence. Above all, listen to your heart.
Good luck and God bless.

4:47 pm, October 12, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you very much for your reinforcement! Book learning is most definitely not an advantage in the work of silence! Quite the reverse—hence the remarks in the Bible about the foolishness of the wise and the wisdom of the simple!

5:43 pm, October 12, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie,

Thanks for the reply. I was thinking more about 'spiritual reading' as 'food for the journey'. I have just found my copy of Ward's book and have the Carthusian conferences I think you translated years ago and one or two other things. They help keep me going. It's that type of stuff I was thinking about rather than anything written as academic Western Theology or treatises on prayer etc etc.

Thanks agin, Maggie.

All Good Wishes


4:40 pm, October 14, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Hi Theodore,

Thanks so much for getting back to me. Sorry I misunderstood. For 'spiritual reading' in my book just about anything serves in the sense of genre. Have you read Julian of Norwich in the Marion Glasscoe edition? Picking your way through the Middle English is an amazing lectio experience, revelation upon revelation.

Other than that, poetry—there's a lot of good poetry out there these days. Do you know Poetry Daily online? I've found several amazing poets there. There are the standbys like Mary Oliver, R.S. Thomas, etc. but have you read Charles Wright?

There are other authors who write in prose: Kevin Hart (he's also a poet) for example; Amy Hollywood. They are variously classified as philosophers or theologians sometimes.

Then of course there is fiction: again, hit and miss, but have you read Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot'?

'Spiritual reading' like the Spirit is where you find it!

Many blessings and thanks for being back in touch


5:32 pm, October 14, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maggie,

Thanks for the prompt reply. I'll keep an eye here!

Best Best Wishes


6:22 pm, October 14, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

PS to Theodore: I have just begun 'The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, Ecology' by Robert Bringhurst (Counterpoint 2008) which is absolutely wonderful

8:37 pm, October 14, 2011  

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