Tuesday, May 29, 2012

IV Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

Some implications of the paradox of intention become immediately apparent.  It is not a self-help technique since by definition the goal cannot be reached by effort. The dynamics of the paradox are most easily demonstrated by the practice of one-pointed meditation, which is common in some form to virtually every religion and is enjoying a revival in contemporary Christian circles.[i]   That is to say, silence cannot be entered except by the paradox of intention;  the gift of silence is gratuitous (‘by grace’);  the meditator can only become available to receive the gift by focusing on something else and relinquishing the self-conscious desire for silence.[ii]
The most obvious psychological dynamic at work in the paradox of intention is the subversion of self-consciousness.  It is the subversion of self-consciousness,  effected by the paradox of intention and described by the paradox of vulnerability and power that appears to be the nexus of the theology-religion-psychology-apophasis cluster, and the empirical referent for many texts that are central to the development of theology.   The loss of perception of this nexus -- and without apophatic praxis it is easily lost -- leads to much unnecessary disagreement and the mistaking of texts that refer to experience for abstract philosophical statements;  for the linear tendencies of language fossilize and domesticate experience, and dismantle its necessarily paradoxical descriptors.[iii]  
It may be seen from Shaw’s description and from the model that follows that consciousness/self-consciousness is a continuum (as opposed to a spectrum), and that its subversion is operative at many levels.  But for now suffice it to say that the paradox of intention particularly as it is effected in one-pointed meditation takes advantage of the fact that very little human consciousness resides at the discursive level, and that both discursive and non-discursive are in this process gathered, integrated and focused.  In the context of Christianity, cataphatic and apophatic    -- images and affectivity and imageless, wordless silence -- are mutually enriching, enlarging and performative, and there is an aspiration, union with a mutually self-emptying God, that entails all else.[iv]

[i] The literature in this area is expanding exponentially.  See for example, Gerry Pierse, Silence into Service (Dublin, The Columba Press, 1992);  Gerald May, The Awakened Heart, (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1991);  John Main, Word Into Silence,  (London, DLT, 1990);  M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer, (Garden City, Doubleday, 1980). [Addition 2012: Martin Laird Into the Silent Land, OUP, DLT, 2006.]
[ii] This is not to say that one-pointed meditation is the only way to enter silence.  That entrance is as varied and unique as there are people and moments.  However, the entry into silence seems inevitably to involve the paradox of intention in some form.  See the examples below.  I am deliberately avoiding affective language in this article for obvious reasons. For the best modern affective treatment, see the series The Way of Silent Love: Carthusian Novice Conferences, London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1993.
[iii] Insistence on the sole use of this reified methodology also leads to teaching that destroys the ability of theologians to create new texts of the variety most studied by their contemporaries and successors.
[iv] One-pointed meditation and the silence into which the practitioner enters has a different ‘flavour’ in each context, on the one hand, the context of the individual meditator and, on the other, the context from which the teaching emerges.  For example, the difference between TM and Christian meditation is marked.  TM is, generally speaking, a reflexive exercise.  The goal is relaxation.   The context of TM is individualistic, inconsistent and without semiotic continuity. The discussion in this paper of specifically Christian meditation is hampered by the theological debasement of the word ‘Love’, as in ‘God is Love’ as the essential ek-static performative word.

Maggie Ross at Manchester Cathedral

In case it is of interest, I will be speaking at Manchester Cathedral at 7 PM on Thursday, May 31, 2012. Hope to see you.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Excursus: Comments Foregrounded

Please, if you want to communicate with me privately, send a comment with DO NOT PUBLISH at the top, with your email included. At the age of 70, I can't always remember the person behind the on-line use name—there are a lot of you! 

The following comment was from Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown but it was buried in the  post labelled 'And Don't Forget'. I would very much like to be in touch with you, but I can't find an email for you and there are several Cloud-Hiddens using this name!

He/she writes:

"Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day."

I am so glad we are in the same ship. What do you think of the word "spiritual" today? Was Jesus "spiritual?" And the word is so very seldom seen in the NT, at least in the Greek and when it does it means contextually "in the [person of the] Holy Spirit," not just some "spiritual" thingy it seems to me. What do you think? I don't think of you as "spiritual," if you know, see, what I am trying to say...

p.s., you don't have to publish this comment, but I wouldn't mind an email. I'd really like to know your thoughts after all these years.

 Dear Cloud-Hidden,

I'd be happy to send you an email but I don't have your email address! If you will send it in a comment headed DO NOT PUBLISH that would help!

I have come to LOATHE the word 'spiritual' almost as much as I abhor the word 'mystic'. To give you an example: I was recently invited (it will become obvious why I refused) to participate in a kind of spirituality/prayer fun-fair that is being held at our local theological college. Here is the ad from the diocesan rag:

'The Festival of Prayer 2012 is a day conference for those who would like to taste or delve deeper into different ways of praying. It builds on the success of the first festival last year.' 

'Taste?' even worse, 'success'? 'Festival'? Clearly it is not God who is being celebrated!!! These words caused my imagination to shift into its most satirical key:

'Hur-ry. hur-ry, hurry! Step right up ladies and gents; try being a Carmelite. You'll never believe what you are about not to see. Here, Lady, maybe you'd like to flirt with Ignatian spirituality instead? Some of the fantasies will surpass your most lurid dreams. And you, sir, perhaps you'd like to be fitted on the procrustean bed of a so-called spiritual director?' Or maybe you'd like to walk our little labyrinth that leads to the beer stand....'


PS I am very honoured that you don't think of me as 'spiritual'. I don't think Eckhart or Pseudo-Denys would have like the word, and Jesus would have cast it out with his shoe.

Yes to 'in the person of the Holy Spirit' or how about 'manifesting the Holy Spirit'? or 'in the presence of the Holy Spirit' (which is one of the reasons all the debates about who can celebrate the Eucharist are absurd as anyone can be in that presence if they open themselves, but a lot of the ordained most certainly are not open!).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

III Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

The Paradox of Intention and the Subversion of Self-Consciousness

In the late 20th century there have emerged a number of new terms that do not exist in ancient languages, such as ‘self-consciousness’, by which I mean in this paper what is expressed by the phrase, ‘He is so self-conscious it is embarrassing’, or ‘she made me self-conscious’.  Although a consistent and specific terminology for self-consciousness and its suspension was absent until the late 19th century, the perception of these phenomena were present.  In this discussion, by the suspension of self-consciousness I mean that phenomenon that is part of the spatial continuum of ordinary consciousness, and which is most easily observed in children but which also occurs in adults, when concentration becomes so complete that a distraction causes them to realise that they have ‘returned to themselves’.
A phrase that describes the dynamic of self-consciousness and its suspension, ‘the paradox of intention’, has existed only since 1988, when Marvin Shaw published his eponymous book.  This is one of the most fundamental laws by which self-consciousness operates, and it is implicit in many ancient texts.[i]  Because the writers of these texts do not have a universal language for self-consciousness and the paradox of intention, which appear to be universal constants in the human psyche not subject to time and culture in the way language is, the language they used for these phenomena is neither common nor consistent.   As they struggle to describe phenomena for which there are yet few words, their texts are culturally vulnerable and easily misinterpreted.[ii]  Before giving examples, it is necessary briefly to describe the paradox of intention.
The paradox of intention is a simple descriptor for a complex and familiar process that to a large extent governs the way humans think.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to think about anything but the simplest objects directly.[iii]  Instead, the mind works by description, attribution of functions, and so forth.  The most common manifestation of the paradox of intention is that experience of having a name, a reference, on the tip of the tongue, and being unable to express it.  The greater the effort to remember, the more self-consciousness intrudes and the sought-after information retreats.
To recover the lost information, it is necessary to forget the object of remembering, that is to say, it is necessary to subvert self-consciousness, which is casting an ironic eye and making unhelpful interior remarks such as, ‘What a dork you are for not being able to remember this’.  The forgetting cannot be a half-forgetting, with one eye on the imaginary place where the misplaced information may re-emerge;  the shift of concentration must be complete.  This phenomenon extends to many areas of life:

There is a universal and recurrent human experience in which the blocking of some sought for attainment leads us to modify our intention, and this is found to yield an unexpected fulfillment of its own;  experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us.  In either case we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it.[iv]

[i] (Atlanta, Scholar’s Press, 1988).  Shaw’s survey covers sayings in a variety of religions, but he seems to stop short of making the correlation attempted here.  The paradox of intention is pervasive, as he notes.  Beyond the example given, its effects are subtle and wide-ranging, although it is essential to retain a distinction between intention, attention and performance, and the communication between conscious and what is unseen in the mind, which includes far more than the ‘unconscious’.  Weight-loss provides a good example of the distinction between intention and performance:  weight will not be lost by eating more -- this is a confusion of performance with intention.  But to have the intention of losing weight as a deep desire, and to consciously intend a different and more encompassing aspiration, such as mountain-climbing, whose performance necessitates weight-loss and which intention entails it, may effect the desired result (it should be noted that the paradox of intention by definition does not guarantee any result).  In other words, weight-loss is no longer a self-reflective stricture, but part of the natural flow of self-forgetful aspiration towards a higher goal. 
The application to issues of morality and ethics is self evident:   taught as a set of rigid rules to be imposed as a template will inspire only rebellion as Paul notes above;   while as part of an all-encompassing and passionately desired higher goal, a moral and ethical life, while not without effort, slips naturally into place.  The key word is an old-fashioned one:  integrity.  That is, the truth of the self, the operation of the divine in the uniqueness of each person needs to have the freedom and reverence to unfold.  This highest aspiration entails all else and focuses the intention away from the subject.  By contrast, the psychobabble that surrounds ‘self-esteem’ is a poor substutite , more significantly, self-defeating as well because it is reflexive.  As shall be seen, morality entailed by the highest aspiration according the model presented is the opposite of individualism, which can lead only to facism.
[ii] Isaac of Nineveh (7th c) offers what is perhaps the most consistent language and modeling of the mind and its relationship to the body, which may be why his Ascetical Homilies for centuries were the only text given to novice monks in the Orthodox churches.  See The Ascetical Homlies of Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, p. 297.  Hereafter cited as A.H.  The translation by Wensinck may be more readily available:  Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh, tr. A.J. Wensinck, Nieuwe Reeks, Deel XXIII, No. 1, Wiesbaden, 1969.  Hereafter cited as Bedjan, as  references are to Bedjan’s numbering in the margin of Wensinck’s translation.  The phrase ‘their mind was snatched’ occurs in Bedjan 171.
[iii] One of the goals of Zen meditation is to see objects directly.
[iv] Shaw, p. 195.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Maggie Ross at Manchester Cathedral

In case it is of interest, I will be speaking at Manchester Cathedral at 7 PM on May 31, 2012. Hope to see you.

Monday, May 21, 2012

II Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

[With apologies for typographical inconsistency: Blogger is acting up.]

The issue of praxis first:  few scholars would insist that they could engage in, much less teach, pure mathematics without having first mastered arithmetic and calculus.  Or consider the question the other way round.  Someone who knows only arithmetic cannot teach it properly.  Such a person might be familiar with numbers and sums, but without an appreciation of the abstractions that numbers represent, without calculus and the beauty of pure mathematics, what would be taught might resemble arithmetic, but distortions would occur in transmission, and the range of application would be very limited indeed, leading to immense frustration.  And not insignificantly, the sheer delight of the mystery of numbers, the fun of mathematics, the play of presence and absence will be lost in this reductio as well.
But this situation is precisely what seems to have obtained in Christian theology and religion for centuries as they have become divorced from apophatic praxis, resulting in the loss of specific psychological reference points and the multidimensional character of the creation in which they operate.[i]  Transmission of theology and religion without praxis leads to distortion in interpretation and doctrine, especially as regards the body.  A statement of what meditation feels like, for example, can easily be mistaken for a philosophical or doctrinal statement about the relationship between the soul and the body.  Along with Paul, Augustine is a classic example of a theologian who struggles with the burden of neo-platonic language, philosophy and received interpretation, at odds with his own experience.[ii]  In addition, bracketing gender arguments about models of God, in the context of the model set forth in this paper, it can be seen that the monarchical model, as opposed to the kenotic, is regressive and self-defeating.
The mention of Paul and Augustine raises the problem of language.  Muteness can signal its apotheosis or its failure.[iii]   The movement from multidimensional to linear transmission is marked in Christian history by the shift from christophany to christology, from shared discourse unself-consciously open to experience, to the reflexive and self-conscious internecine conciliar warfare that signals the progressive loss of incarnational referents for scriptural and non-scriptural gnomic aphorisms.[iv]   It is not a coincidence that the solitaries’ flight to the desert was already well underway by 325, or that they reverted to the aphorism, because for them, unlike the debaters of the age, praxis was once more the means of transmission.

[i] To sustain paradox is a matter of being willing to make the effort, and without that effort, what is multiplex in terms of the integration of body and mind is rendered simplistic, fragmented and linear.  To sustain paradox as accurate descriptor is much more rigourous than to dismantle the paradox into its constituent parts, which renders it useless and contradictory.  It needs to be be remembered that paradox is a seeming contradiction and that one criterion of the early church to discern heresy was whether the paradoxes were sustained.  The theological climate has so deteriorated that the reverse seems true today.
[ii] For example, Paul’s description in II Cor. 12:2-4 , however else it may be interpreted, sets an interesting foundation for all of his remarks on the body and towards which they gesture.  ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death’ (Rom. 7:24 REB) is the cry of someone who has known apophatic union and struggles with the discipline of incarnation -- and incarnation is a discipline before it can be a doctrine -- and the intrusive tyranny of self-consciousness.   His distinction between the intentional self and self-consciousness dominated by the super-ego which enslaves to ‘law’ is clear in this chapter, even though he lacks modern language.
For Augustine, see De Gen. ad litt.  xii. 12,15 & 6, 53, and the famous experience at Ostia (Conf. 9, 10), to name but two of many passages.
[iii] For further discussion, see my “Sexuality, Otherness, and the Truth of the Self” in Vox Benedictina, 1993, revised, 1995, and published on this blog beginning July 2007; and Gillespie and Ross, “The Apophatic Image:  The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich”, The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, ed. Marion Glasscoe, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer,1992).  There is a vast literature accumulating on the question of whether language talks only to itself.
[iv] See A. Grillmeier, S.J., tr. J. Bowden, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, (London and Oxford, Mowbrays, 1975), p. 35.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model: Notes for a Quantum Theology

[This paper was published in Literature and Theology, Vol. 9, December 1993, pp. 325-353, three years after I sent it to them...]


In Werner Herzog’s beautiful and terrible film, ‘Lessons of Darkness,’ there is a scene set against the surreal planes of a concrete courtyard in which a small Kuwaiti child squirms suspiciously as his mother tells their story.  During the Iraqi invasion, his parents were roused in the night and taken to their son’s room where he was snatched from his bed and thrown to the floor.  An Iraqi soldier placed his boot on the child’s head and stood on him with his full weight, removing it only at the mother’s plea.  Later, after torture, the father was shot in front of his family.   The child has spoken only once since these events to say, ‘Mummy, I don’t ever want to learn to talk.’  As she repeated these words, he looked at the camera for the first time:  his face was a glimpse into the abyss.
The Gulf War and its aftermath unsparingly reveal the failure of theology, set adrift from its contemplative roots, from the reciprocal kenosis of the human person with divine Love, whose laws are most clearly revealed in the ecology of a primordial landscape and the interior wilderness of apophatic prayer.[i]  It is equally alienated from cultic praxis, which is the ritualisation of human integration with apophasis.  The Kuwaiti child’s perception of the debasement of language and his commitment to its integrity in the face of unspeakable and incontrovertible truth once again forces an appraisal of theology’s contemporary irrelevance and ineffectuality.
Theology in recent years has become uneasy, and rightly so.  There is a sense that it is talking only to itself, that it has lost its direction, that it refers to nothing.  There is a certain truth in these charges, due, in part, to prevailing attitudes that dismiss praxis and paradigm shifts, and cling to the ‘dying bride of German rationalism’ like Linus to his blanket, to a scientism that most scientists have long since abandoned.  It has so far failed to make the transition from a Newtonian to an Einstinian view of the universe -- a view that admits multidimensionality, and the accuracy and rigour of paradox as descriptor.[ii]   Paradoxically, this view is closer to the insights of ancient religions than many of the theological and religious trends that have predominated since Nicea.  The entire situation has been complicated by the search for the ‘essence’ of Christianity and the ‘common core’ of religious experience or so-called mysticism.[iii]
This theoretical paper[iv] cannot hope to do more than point to some of the specific problems that theology needs to address, many of which are inextricably linked with literary criticism;  and, perhaps more important, to suggest that there are significant consistent and observable corollaries, an ineluctable integration, among the theology-religion-psychology-apophasis cluster, which may be seen by superimposing them on an ancient paradigm.   It necessarily proceeds by a series of paradoxes, and it may be a frustrating read for those who have no experience of the discipline of apophasis or one-pointed meditation, just as reading about calculus is frustrating for one who does not know algebra.

[i] In this article I am using ‘apophatic’ in its widest sense of imageless and wordless, and in its sense of making a leap (one might say a ‘quantum leap’) see O. Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, London: New City, 1993, p. 38.
[ii] That is, the shift from a photographic to a holographic perspective, from a two or three dimensional mechanical universe, where cause, effect, and entropy reign supreme and can be analysed systematically by a mythical objective observer using a ‘cartesian grid’, to a multidimensional universe -- twenty-two dimensions according to one version of super-string theory -- a universe that is contingent, chaotic, relational and interactive, where all time exists in every moment, and motion and all space exists at each point of time, where particles are said to make decisions, quarks and forces are spoken of in terms of flavours and colours, and indeterminacy is the rule of order;  where paradox is the normal descriptor, the observer is part of what is observed, and the whole is an ‘implicate order’ , to use David Bohm’s phrase from Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: ARK, 1980, p. 177, or Julian of Norwich’s insight in Chapter 5 of the Long Text.
[iii] I am thinking particularly of the work of the Alistair Hardy Institute, and the philosophical debate stimulated by the work of Stephen Katz, et. al.
[iv] Which necessarily makes methodological concessions in order to try to establish a bridge. Thus the somewhat clinical tone of its approach.

And don't forget...

Church Times 2 Dec 2011  Canon David Adam is a former Vicar of Holy Island.

[Sorry for the small type: here is what the review says with typos corrected:]

Maggie Ross, the author of Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, is an Anglican solitary, who has spent long hours in silence. The book's subtitle captures its essence; for it is about silence and our need to "behold" God. "Beholding" is a concept that not only are we in danger of losing, but that is often lost in translation, even by the NRSV and the Jerusalem Bible. "Beholding" needs to be rediscovered both in theology and practice.

Ross is very aware of "poor talkative Christianity". There is a twofold plea to enter into silence, for "[lack of] silence erodes humanity"—and to behold the radiance of God. This is a deep book full of questioning and the testing of our assumptions. Throughout, there is a great love for the world and for our humanity with a sadness at how we are so easily distracted. Was the sin of Adam and Eve that of being distracted?

We are invited into a silence that is not necessarily an absence of noise, but is a limitless interior space. Ancient texts are used in new and exciting ways, and many of our worship practices are challenged. She is in no doubt that "the glory of the human being is the beholding of God".


"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of 'experience'. A really transformative book." —jacket comment by The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.


"This book is intended for everyone who has had enough of 'spiritual writing' and is looking for something that will make sense of normal human experience and integrate it into the knowledge of God through Christ." —from the Foreword by The Rev'd Professor John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford.


Review by The Revd Dr Johnny Douglas, Free Presbyterian Church, Antrim, N. Ireland

If obedience is deep listening to God, then Maggie Ross's new book is a powerful, effective and understated guiding to faith and soul-truthfulness. There is a rarity, freshness in her writing. Insight, scripture, wisdom and prayer swirl around here in this challenging earthy write. You will see God clearly and more honestly than in most other places.
The sense of having wrestled with the wilderness, wanderings and wideness of humanity are striking. Repentance, tears and fire rarely get such a wise and moving exploration. Reality permeates this wonderful new BRF title. Faith and experience will be enriched should you invest in the reading of this fine book!


Review by Carl McColman, www.anamchara.com

Almost twenty years ago I read Maggie Ross’s wonderful book on the theology of priesthood, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity. Not only was it a valuable book in helping me to affirm my ministry as a lay Christian, but it also struck me as one of the most lyrical and eloquent statements of Christian spirituality in general that I had ever read. Yes, that is high praise. But the book deserved it. Ross, an Anglican solitary, clearly understood how tainted Christian theology had become by imperial, Greco-Roman, concepts of God-as-controlling-political-authority — and how such a domineering image of God had corrupted not only Christian spirituality in general, but particularly Christian thinking about priesthood. Only by regaining an understanding of God-as-kenotic-love, as evidenced by the witness of Christ and the New Testament authors, could we ever hope to re-vision priesthood as the radical servant/ministry that Christ intended it to be.

So when one of the brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit sent me an enthusiastic email insisting that Writing the Icon of the Heart, Ross’s newest offering, was by far one of the most important books on spirituality that he had read in a long time, I took him at his word. And now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to commend it to you as well. The book is a collection of essays Ross had written over a twenty year period, most of which had been published in journals like Weavings or Sobornost. But they have all been revised/rewritten for this collection, and she requests that the essays be read in the order presented here. So what emerges feels less like a hodgepodge anthology and more like a thematic introduction to her singular perspective on what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, from considering the missing element in so many discussions of contemplation (“beholding”), to a frank but sober assessment of how a spiritual awakening might be our only hope as we consider the breadth and depth of environmental degradation that characterizes today’s world. Ross divides her time between Oxford and Alaska, and so her writing is infused with an appreciation of wilderness, not only for its own sake but also as a key element in an authentically kenotic spirituality.

Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day. While I am not willing to be quite as damning in my critique of experience as she is — I see the turn toward experience as a necessary corrective to the overly intellectualized propositional theology that has bedeviled so much Christianity, particularly in its Protestant form, over the past few generations — I broadly agree with her assertion that the quest for experience has become a religious cul-de-sac, reducing Christianity from its splendor as a threshold to the mysteries to a mere consumer spirituality, trading transformational kenosis for mental-emotional entertainment. The Christian mystery takes us far beyond what we can think or feel — to the place of “beholding,” a splendid word that Ross notes has been all but erased from modern translations of the Bible (not to mention most modern translations of the writings of Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing, which helps to explain why Ross is so critical of reading those texts in translated editions).

Unlike consumer spirituality where a warm cosy experience of God’s love can be engineered by the right music and a carefully crafted sermon, true contemplative beholding ushers us into radical encounter with the terrifying living God, a place beyond our puny attempts to control and our feeble insistence on good feelings as the arbiter of sanctity. True beholding, therefore, is transfigurative rather than merely experiential — echoing Teresa of Avila’s insistence that the only sure way of assessing progress in the spiritual life is by considering one’s growth in holiness, which is to say, growth in love and humble service of others.

For Maggie Ross, the “others” we are called to love and humbly serve are not merely our fellow Christians or even the larger human family. Rather, she eloquently speaks of the entire sweep of creation as our brothers and sisters in the Divine economy. From cranberries to walruses to a hair-raising near-encounter with a grizzly bear, her essays are vibrant with the beauty and splendor of God’s good earth. She also pulls no punches in considering how much damage our consumer economy has caused. Only by abandoning consumerism and accepting the call of kenosis — of self-emptying love — is there any hope for our fragile and distressed biosphere. And only by beholding God in silence and self-forgetful abandonment can we hope to discern, and accept, that uncompromising call.

In the end, Maggie Ross writes eloquently of the experience of tears — not as some sort of emotional manipulation, as so much religious spectacle seems to promote — but rather as an authentic embracing of sorrow, of loss, of repentance, of grief, of letting-go — that ushers us in to that place, where, in our letting go (kenosis) we encounter the kenotic God. This is the place of transfiguration, beyond any “technology” or “experience,” whether religious or otherwise. May we all be carried by our tears to such a graced encounter.


Book Review: Writing the Icon of the Heart by Maggie Ross   BRF £6.99  ISBN 978 1 84101 878 2 The Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen, New Directions, January 2012

There are so many good, rich insights in this book:

All our ills come from the loss of silence and beholding, our failure to listen and our insistence on our flawed and limited interpretation...,

The public rhetoric of religion employs such words as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ even while it is taking away our sense of wonder...

The tragic search for security in exterior validation makes us hostage to what other people think...

The book blazes with originality. Maggie Ross is an anchorite, a solitary – a role which she manages to combine with that of a professor of theology who spends her winters teaching in Oxford. She is a mystic, a contemplative, a strong supporter of negative theology and the apophatic way...

There is no mistaking the spiritual depth in her book. Anyone who reads it will come away with a transformed view of prayer and the spiritual life. Maggie Ross offers no anodynes and she is brave enough to insist:

Most worrying of all is our unwillingness to accept pain as part of the ordinary tissue of life, and the waste and suffering that are the consequence of efforts to avoid it at all costs.

... [There is profit in] this fervent and faithful book. Nowhere more movingly than when Maggie Ross answers her aged mother’s fears about death in these words:

My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Of Orcs, Elves, and Men

One night recently I happened on a scrap of Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings. It was the moment when the first of Saruman's uruk-hai—a bigger and better model than Sauron's—emerges from the earth. Jackson has elaborated on one of Tolkien's passing remarks to create a metaphor that one cannot help thinking the author would have approved.

You may remember that orcs are elves gone bad. Orcs abhor the light and cannot function in it. By contast, elves celebrate both day and night—indeed to them 'darkness and light are both alike'. Elves are tall, beautiful, and clear-eyed; orcs are tortured, grotesque, disgusting—yet, for all that, pitiable.

You may remember, too, that Saruman's destructive arms factories are gouges in the earth, underground caverns ripped from the rock, full of fire and stench. It is in one of these caverns that Saruman's first uruk-hai, a hybrid between orcs and men, is expelled from the earth. Uruk-hai can function in daylight. Unlike Saron's crabbed version, Saruman's are upright, nearly tireless, fed on man-flesh. 

The scene shows two orcs scrabbling at the earth, plunging their hands deep into the polluted mud. They uncover what looks like a birth-caul, and indeed, that is what it is. When uruk-hai's appalling visage bursts through the membrane, the orks recoil; the uruk-hai snarls. The frightened orcs back off as this night-terror unfolds fully formed, perpetually raging, and ravenously hungry—it is clear that if man-flesh is not available, orc will do.

The scene is so riveting that it is only on the second or third viewing, or by chance, as I saw it the other night, that the depth of the metaphor begins to be revealed. This creature is the issue of Saruman's ultimate rape of the earth: the cinematographer shows the earth quite literally delivering the uruk-hai in the wake of penetration and gestation.

It isn't necessary to spell out the meaning of this visual metaphor and its implications for the direction the human race is headed as it continues heedlessly, despite all warnings, to rape and destroy the earth. And Gaia in the end will have her revenge, perhaps not through a Treebeard, but by means we cannot imagine. Time is short. Either we wake up, or we become uruk-hai and perish.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Maggie Ross at Manchester Cathedral

In case it is of interest, I will be speaking at Manchester Cathedral at 7 PM on May 31, 2012. Hope to see you.

Monday, May 07, 2012


OK, I see that I need to clarify some things, and I know this will make a lot of people who are into 'have your cake and eat it too' very angry.

I have, for a long time, been saying that 'we are all solitaries'. And this is true: communities of all kinds are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up; and those solitudes have the responsibility to the community to do the work that will help them to be spiritually mature. But that does not mean that everyone who likes their solitude should take vows. You can be ihidaye, have singleness of heart, within a marriage, community, and even alone in the woods. It does not mean you are 'a solitary' or should or, more importantly, could, from an eremitical point of view, make vows.

Vows of solitude, whether they are made to God in the hands of someone, or whether they are not made explicit, as was the case with the desert fathers and mothers, many of whom fled the institution in protest to what it was becoming. 'Flee bishops' was their watchword, and with good reason. Furthermore, to make a vow creates a dualism: singleness of heart might also be translated seamlessness of heart; to think of vows implies a divided heart, because it is a distraction from beholding. 

The desert way of implicit commitment is preferable because a vow also means a commitment on both sides. The 4th century desert dwellers knew that in their beholding God would never fail them: vows would have been irrelevant, if not destructive to their life, because it would involve them in the very institution they had fled, and which would inevitably betray them. 

Religious institutions today are not willing and have no interest in committing to supporting a solitary life (or any life except that of the clergy: it is of, by, and for the benefit of the clergy as the diocesan structure is also—see the post on the Diocese of Eastern Oregon on September 16, 2010) so it makes no sense at all to involve anyone who is formally part of the institution in a life of solitude. 

There are neuro-psychological reasons for this: institutions operate out of the self-conscious mind, and are concerned with all the linear, small-minded (because the capacity of the self-concious mind is very small compared to that of deep mind) and self-absorbed issues of power, preferment, control, numbers, money, careers and self-perpetuation. You cannot serve God and mammon.

By contrast, solitude (see next paragraph) is a sign that the person has already begun the process of re-centering from self-conciousness to deep mind, which is holographic and kenotic. From this alone it can be seen both why ordination is spiritual suicide (and why the desert hermits avoided it like the plague), and why it is inappropriate for ordained people to try to oversee or 'form' (dreadful, Procrustian, stereotyping word) or become solitaries.

Living a solitary commitment entails a number of key factors: 1) physically alone; 2) mentally alone; 3) chaste and celibate; 4) no dependent relationships of any kind, either the solitary on someone or someone on the solitary; 5) no distractions, such as pets (which do, after all, have personalities and make bonds and are dependent) —unless there is a question of vermin and a needed cat; 6) absolutely minimal use of electronics: telephone, mobile phone, internet, computer and gawd knows what other intrusive nightmares now available or which lie ahead in the future; 7) as self-sufficient as possible; 8) manual work balanced with mental work; 9) limited hospitality; 10) going out of the cell only when necessary for work or charity's sake (e.g. a necessary visit to the library, the doctor, a 50th birthday of a long-time confidante, on very rare occasions, to respond to invitations for teaching or preaching). [NB a solitary will seek work that, if possible, enhances the solitude. This will be work to support the solitude as opposed to the drive for a 'career', which is incompatible with solitude; 11) avoidance of fulfilling one's own or others' stereotypes (the garden gnome, the fetish, etc.—anything that takes away from allowing the solitude to unfold on its own in ordinariness).

For a married couple to want to make 'vows' as solitaries degrades both the marriage (the participants are vowed to each other) and the life of solitude (as described in the previous paragraph). Ditto for the ordained: they are vowed to the institution. And as I have shown above, vows in any event are inappropriate.

In addition, I think it dishonours the millions of men and women who for centuries were irrevocably committed to and lived the asceticism of rubbing up against one another in community for their entire lives; who wore simple clothes, which became the ancestors of what became the religious habit up to Vatican II; who made a sincere attempt to live selfless lives under appalling, often overcrowded conditions for most of their often very long lives—I think they are dishonoured when some loose association of people who are married, single, or civil partners, style themselves 'religious communities' but meet together only once or twice a year (perhaps to share religious consumption preferences?) and assume (presume: it is presumptuous) sometimes extravagant 'religious' habits (see remarks about sewing machine communities in a previous post) including, in the case of women, veils. This is a bit too much like one of the characters in the film The Producers, who cried triumphantly, 'If ya got it, flaunt it!'

In the developed world not only is it inappropriate to wear a habit outside of a religious house (it can be appropriate inside the house for a number of reasons, as long as it isn't worn all the time, which leads to all sorts of community and individual problems); it is also now quite simply too dangerous: habits attract all sorts of mentally ill and violent people. In our culture walking down the street stark naked would be less obtrusive than wearing a habit.

If you want to love and serve God, hide in plain sight; don't dress up in 17th-19th century peasant costumes (or, in the case of the royal monastery in Spain which endured (I use the word advisedly) until the 1950s, habits so elaborate it took two maids more than two hours to shoehorn each nun inside them for feast days. It is rather by your being—that part of your being that is out of your own sight—that God through your self-forgetfulness will transfigure the world, and it can only happen out of your sight (see the quotation from Matthew 6 about the right and and the left hand below).

Those concerned with these issues often seem to have forgotten one of the key passages of the gospel:

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father 
in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.'

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Steven Horst's Remarks

I referred to Steven Horst's remarks at one point and evidently forgot to post them. Here they are:
But I would note that some of the deeper concerns Sr. Martha expresses echo those that the Eastern Orthodox express about the effects of the Enlightenment on Western Christianity.  In a nutshell:  the Enlightenment understanding of the mind or soul acknowledges sensation, emotion, and reason.  But the older Christian spiritual tradition also holds that there is an additional faculty of the soul, whose function is apprehension of God and the true natures of created things.  (In Greek, it is often referred to as nous, which is unfortunately often translated as "intellect".  The exercise of the faculty is called noesis.)  In his Orthodox Psychotherapy, Vlachos opines that the soul is only in order when nous is awakened and orders the other faculties, and that nous is activated only by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It was thus darkened and atrophied as a result of the Fall.  The Holy Spirit descends in baptism and chrismation, but the work of dethroning the lower parts of the soul and cultivating noesis requires much prayer and vigilance.  As Vlachos expresses it (and I take it this would be a common Eastern Orthodox viewpoint), the Enlightenment canonized a view of the soul that is completely oblivious to the highest part of the soul, and hence cultivating a Rationalist view of the person dethrones God in one's own soul by ignoring the nous and acting as though we were simply an amalgamation of beast and computer.

I think this view goes hand in hand with the fact that monasticism is still at the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, and often a monasticism much closer to that of the solitaries and skete-dwellers of the Desert, whose words form the heart of so much of the spiritual tradition in Christianity.  I cannot help but note that it was Bishop Athanasius who appealed to Anthony of the Desert for validation, and not the other way around.

[Actually I see that I posted this without a name under 'A Rare Courage' but it's worth repeating with a name attached.]

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Reflections on Solitude

One of the things that struck me (once again) about Americans during the recent kerfuffle on the HOBD listserve  was that it seems impossible for people in the USA to have a proper discussion any longer. It all has to be sweetness and light—which means that those who don't want to know will continue to feel smug and approved. It would be nice if Americans could start channelling their inner adults.

Here are some reflections on the solitary life I wrote to the person who appears to be moderating the discussion on solitaries that was not posted on the HOBD listserve, but which might be useful to readers of this blog.

I'd like to reflect a little with you on the solitaries' situation, especially some critical issues that will be raised by communities, bishops and others.

First of all, solitaries are born; they do not 'choose' the way of life (I won't call it a vocation since this word has been ruined). Rather it is the next passage in a trajectory. 

Solitaries often come from difficult backgrounds; however, anyone who has had an addiction problem in their past should not undertake physical solitude. [I would also question anyone who has a so-called spiritual direction certificate or who has been ordained!]

Each solitary is unique but many share certain qualities. Solitaries can be exquisitely sensitive people, although this may not be readily apparent as women, especially, learn to wear masks, something that is very, very difficult for solitaries; they're really lousy at it, and it's one reason they need solitude. They have little in the way of small talk; they can do it but only at great cost. Being with groups of people can be very wearing; they prefer one-on-one.

They often have a 'sideways' view of things; they see life through a different set of lenses. Because they usually have been persecuted for insights that do not conform to the current fashion, they often will not be very forthcoming. It is especially true that the person speaking will draw out an answer at the same level as the question: that is, if someone asks a solitary a superficial question it will draw forth a superficial answer, and so on. 

The good law-minded folk will talk a lot about 'formation' (a dreadful word; it's the worst sort of presumption), 'rules' and the like. For the solitary, these terms must be set aside. There is only one teacher in solitude and that is the Holy Spirit. And there is only one way to discern the way forward, and that is to be faithful to the solitude. A solitary will do almost anything to guarantee their solitude, including living in less than perfect circumstances (I lived in a tent for three years, ramshackle cabins (one with the snow coming in) for five or more years, and so forth. If possible, the solitary should have access to nature; their hermitage should be in natural surroundings. There are many reasons for this, too many to go into here. Obviously this is not always possible.

The solitary's worst fear is that someone will take their solitude from them, or impose some stricture that interferes with the unfolding seamlessness of time and eternity. The solitary's life in solitude is very mundane, very ordinary; a fly on the wall would not notice anything special about it. There is no set Office, no set pattern (except a lot of solitaries get up in the night to pray); sometimes the Office will be important; sometimes life will be wordless. But the solitary needs to be immersed in the bible, especially the psalms, and the writings of the desert, which anyone can read. The words form an internal concordance and certain phrases arise in the silence, which are often guides to choices or barometers of the solitary's interior/emotional state. It's a good idea for someone taking on physical solitude to already be familiar with the bible, psalms, hymns and so forth so that there is a basis for this internal concordance to develop. Even for non-believers, the psalms are unsurpassed in their account of the human condition.

As to oversight, it's up to the solitary and he/she will have to experiment. There are varying rhythms to the solitary life. In the beginning, there should be as much solitude and as little interference as possible. The solitary should have someone to consult, but it should most definitely NOT be what today is called 'spiritual direction' which is, in my view, the most destructive force at work in the church today since fundamentalism. I have written extensively about this on my blog so won't reiterate here. 

What someone who is deepening their solitude (what outsiders would see as a 'beginner in solitude' when in fact someone undertaking this has in fact been a solitary all their life in one way or another) needs is another person, any person who has proclivities for stillness and silence, to consult now and then, but most definitely NOT someone who will give advice or do anything beyond listening and encouragement and perhaps a bit of practical help. The solitary must resist forming a relationship that might involve dependence (and this is just as true in reverse for the mature solitary, not allowing people who come to see him/her to become dependent.)

The reason for this is that the deeper the solitary goes into solitude, the more he/she is subject to a series of subtle forces that she/he needs to learn to discern. He/she will make mistakes—everyone seems to expect solitaries to be hatched adult, like Athena from Zeus's forehead, but solitaries are like anyone else and they learn not by doing but by being in solitude and falling flat on their faces. The desert fathers put it perfectly: sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. The root word (and the root of the word obedience in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English) is 'listen'.* This helps the solitary shift her/his centre from the superficial self-conscious mind to the deep mind where God inheres most intensely, so that instead of drawing on the static of self-consciousness, his/her everyday self-conscious living draws on this deep wellspring. Steven Horst's post put it very well (his discussion of nous), but unfortunately this understanding has mostly disappeared in the West. 

This is one reason, over and above its inherent self-contradiction, so-called spiritual direction is so destructive to the solitary: the process drags the directee back into self-consciousness. If  you're thinking about what you're going to say to your so-called director at the next meeting, you will not learn self-forgetfulness and the ordinariness of life fully integrated, which is the whole point of a life of prayer!

The problem is that the institution and people who run it are largely control freaks; the solitary is gaining control (going into solitude) in order to lose control, to be entirely open to the Spirit, what Heidegger calls waiting 'on' as opposed to waiting 'for'. It is a kind of free-fall in the love of God. It is risky. It can even be dangerous. But it is nobody's business but the solitary's. Certainly not committees, even more most certainly not religious communities of any kind. At the same time, it is, in fact, what every Christian is called to do whatever their state in life or religion or none. What I have written here applies to every seeker.

In other words, only solitude can teach the solitary. If he/she is listening, the needful books will fall into their hands; the needful people will turn up; the needful context as well. But it takes time, and the solitary has to learn to trust, to not be overwhelmed by anxiety or fear, and to learn to be solitary in whatever situation he/she finds herself, to recognise that God's hand is most evident in inadvertence—another reason to learn deep listening and live without pre-conceived ideas about solitude and the solitary. In this day and age, solitude and silence are very, very difficult to find, and a lot of us, myself included, have to make do. Above all the solitary has to learn humour and patience with him/her self, with God, with other people; to be moderate.

The main temptations a solitary faces is to conform to the pressures that will be put on him/her by well-meaning control freaks who want solitaries to fit a set of stereotypes;  another is to feel 'useful', that is, to become active in a way that is visibly useful instead of being faithful the vocation of stillness and hiddenness, what appears to the world to be useless. Much more could be said, of course, but I think you get the general drift.

I hope these few paragraphs show why any kind of legislation for solitaries—beyond, perhaps, having a bishop-protector if one is in the church—is inimical to the life.

* While I think the word 'behold' should always be used in translation for hinneh, idou, and ecce, due to the theological nuances the word bears, if a translator can't resist using another word, 'listen' is far better than the object-driven, analytical, visual words such as 'look', or 'see', both of which throw the hearer/reader back into their self-conscious minds.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Rare Courage

It hardly needs saying that it is a very rare occurrence indeed when a member of the clergy club will stand up for a lay person who is being pilloried by other clergy.

The Rev'd Ann Fontaine is just such a person, and I am exceedingly grateful to her for standing up to the House of Bishops/Delegates listserve on my behalf:

"I think it is unfair of this list to discuss a person who does not have access to HOBD and of whom most of you have no knowledge.  All I know is that Maggie Ross/Martha Reeves is being accused with no recourse.  She has described her experience which none of us observed. I too like Tobias but that has nothing to do with this discussion. I also like and have learned much from Maggie.  This is such a classic pattern in the church -- we choose up sides and we really don't know what we are talking about.  And too often it is women who suffer from being called crazy, lying, and stupid when they speak their truth. I have seen this many times.

"So perhaps we can agree that solitaries can seek out bishops if they wish and otherwise be left to their solitude."

As long as Ann has opened up this can of worms, I will only say that the majority of the posts I saw, whatever their content, were written in the most unspeakable pompous style; even if I hadn't known I was dealing with clergy, I could have discerned it by the writing. They haven't a clue how they come across. Ordination is spiritual suicide, and the first thing to go is humanity.

On the other hand, there were one or two posts that shone with wisdom—the best one from—surprise, surprise—a layperson, and to them, and to Ann once again, my thanks.

Here is the post from the layman:

'But I would note that some of the deeper concerns Sr. Martha expresses echo those that the Eastern Orthodox express about the effects of the Enlightenment on Western Christianity.  In a nutshell:  the Enlightenment understanding of the mind or soul acknowledges sensation, emotion, and reason.  But the older Christian spiritual tradition also holds that there is an additional faculty of the soul, whose function is apprehension of God and the true natures of created things.  (In Greek, it is often referred to as nous, which is unfortunately often translated as "intellect".  The exercise of the faculty is called noesis.)  In his Orthodox Psychotherapy, Vlachos opines that the soul is only in order when nous is awakened and orders the other faculties, and that nous is activated only by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It was thus darkened and atrophied as a result of the Fall.  The Holy Spirit descends in baptism and chrismation, but the work of dethroning the lower parts of the soul and cultivating noesis requires much prayer and vigilance. As Vlachos expresses it (and I take it this would be a common Eastern Orthodox viewpoint), the Enlightenment canonized a view of the soul that is completely oblivious to the highest part of the soul, and hence cultivating a Rationalist view of the person dethrones God in one's own soul by ignoring the nous and acting as though we were simply an amalgamation of beast and computer.

'I think this view goes hand in hand with the fact that monasticism is still at the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, and often a monasticism much closer to that of the solitaries and skete-dwellers of the Desert, whose words form the heart of so much of the spiritual tradition in Christianity.  I cannot help but note that it was Bishop Athanasius who appealed to Anthony of the Desert for validation, and not the other way around.'