V Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...
The paradox of intention, especially as it is operative in meditation, turns on the vulnerability/power paradox. Whereas one-pointed meditation as it is commonly taught in the Christian West is relatively fail-safe, without an aspiration that entails the rigorous moral criteria inherent in this paradox, without reverence for the emergence of the truth of the self in each individual, and in the hands of the wrong people, the subversion of self-consciousness can render the meditator prey to a counterfeit silence, a ‘false peace’ or false apophatic and to manipulation by the unscrupulous.[i] The commonplace that the way becomes ever narrower as the seeker proceeds along it can prove frighteningly true for those who are serious about apophasis, and revelatory about the growth of hierarchical power in institutional religion and the origins of Christian doctrines such as ‘mortal sin’.[ii]
When meditation is practiced in a religious context where teachers have integrity and know what they are doing -- a rare contemporary coincidence -- worship, scriptures, and community appropriately reinforce integrity of praxis. In Christianity the ‘flavour’ of meditation and its context is love, although the ‘flavour’ of this love changes as the practitioner matures, and in the interplay of presence and absence, cataphatic and apophatic.[iii]
The insistence in Christian tradition that the greatest adept must continue to practice the simple prayer of a child -- simple petition, simple thanksgiving -- and to receive sacraments is intended to ensure that the person is earthed and non-reflexive, and that appropriate ardour is sustained, for it is obvious that in an incarnational religion, forays into romantic illusion and the fabulous are self-defeating. This discussion thus far may seem coldly clinical, but in a seriously incarnational religion, ‘mysticism’ constitutes living the ordinary through transfigured perception.
‘Living the ordinary’ means participation in the daily round of the most mundane human tasks, the vast majority of which in one way or another have to do with taking care of and creating contentment for the body, and therefore for the mind, soul and spirit, which are inextricably interdependent. The seriousness with which this definition insists on incarnation precludes platonising, angelism, the illusion of a life lived in an ‘altered state’ of consciousness, or the catatonia of Bernini’s bizarre statue of St Teresa in ecstasy.
The word ‘transfigured’ as opposed to ‘transformed’ or ‘transcending’ is also crucial for sustaining the incarnational paradox. The word ‘transfiguration’ creates different resonances than ‘transformation’, which implies one thing becoming something quite different and has echoes of magic and destruction of the body; or from ‘transcending’, which implies escape from the body, something surpassed and left behind, a duality.
Apophasis entered by means of one-pointed meditation requires a gently ruthless pursuit of the point of focus, and a gently ruthless honesty in evaluating any material that irrupts from the consciousness that is being gathered and integrated. In consequence, what emerges from apophasis is both specific and continuing transfiguration of perception. Transfigured perception has the clarity and fertility of an imagination purged of self-consciousness.[iv] Transfigured perception eventuates in true self-effacement, the clear discernment of disinterested action or nonaction. Thus humility and humiliation are antonyms. This is not stoicism, ‘quietism’, or the ennui of fatalism, but a highly subversive point of view. [v]
[i] The opposite can also be true, as Oliver Sacks notes in his moving, “The Last Hippie,” New York Review, Vol XXXIX, No. 6, 26 March, 1992, p. 51-60. ‘Greg’ became a Krishna follower, and his dedication to its ideals suvived even a massive pituitary tumor and its consequent blindness, amnesia and near total disability. There is also the case of Helen Waddell, recounted in her biography by Dame Felicias Corrigan, (London, Gollancz, 1986), p. 356.
[ii] I have in mind a particular case in which a meditating person nearly died because of the linkage of anger/hatred with someone who, unknown to the meditator, had committed suicide just prior to the time of meditation. The almost universal directives about purity of heart in prayer have their foundation in the perils of the presenting reality of apophatic praxis.
[iii] See ‘The Apophatic Image’, op. cit. The dialogue with Buddhism and other religions is too often undertaken without awareness of the psycho-dynamics common to human beings, or as if the occurences of the subversion of self-consciousness were mechanical and consistent, when, as noted above, consciousness, both discursive and hidden, is a continuum, flavoured by many hidden factors including time. The same is true as regards the complete suspension of self-consciousness, the entry into complete silence to the fullest extent possible for humans. Each occurrence is unique, as are the effects.
On the Buddhist Christian dialogue, see for example, Raimundo Panikkar, tr. R. Barr, The Silence of God, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1989), and Donald W. Mitchell, Spirituality and Emptiness, (Mahwah, Paulist, 1991). The tradition of God as Silence emerges from the primordial origins of religion; see the discussion of the exegesis of silence below and especially the writings of John the Solitary, Ephrem the Syrian and Isaac of Nineveh.
[iv] Thus necessitating both poverty and peace with which it is synonymous. Outward praxis of voluntary poverty and similar monastic exercises make no sense without this single-hearted focus, the emptiness requisite for fecundity. See The Way of Silent Love, op. cit.
[v] Archbishop Desmond Tutu repeatedly reminds his audiences that ‘Contemplative prayer is so subversive that if governments understood what it is they would ban it.’ Those who have entered the process of transfigured perception invariably become controversial, for it is not possible to co-opt them into the service of one power-group or another by employing the usual coercive tactics of flattery or fear, envy or desire. Such people will thus be free to make true and considered political choices that can and usually do go against the grain of mass opinion. These choices are usually costly because they expose lies, deceptions and hypocrisy, although this may not be their intention.
By contrast, it seems no accident that so-called Ignatian spirituality arose during the counter-reformation and is enjoying its current revivial under the present pontiff. The power that its practitioners allot to ‘spiritual directors’ e.g., Lavinia Byrne’s definition of this relationship as a ‘master-slave’ relationship’ (in Sharing the Vision, London, SPCK, 1989, p. 21) seems a gross misrepresentation of the desert tradition. By contrast, see, for example, the self-effacement of direction in Walter Hilton and the Cloud author.