X Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...
So-called mystical phenomena over which so much ink has been spilt are related in a specific and liminal way to the suspension of self-consciousness and its dynamic, although there is no way to ascertain this claim empirically precisely because the suspension of self-consciousness is most especially subject to the law of the paradox of intention. These phenomena as they are described in language and even as they may be imaged pre-conceptually are already being interpreted through the filter of the drives and needs of individual incarnate human psyches. This is the case for the simple reason that language can only be self-conscious, and it is a commonplace that such phenomena are not to be trusted. This is a lesson many seekers refuse to learn, which refusal is evidence that their unconscious goal, contrary to what they may state, is reflexive, and their desire for phenomena, again because of the paradox of intention, renders any seeking for the Other self-defeating.[i]
But immediately in referring to a core experience we face both another paradox and further problems with language. First, in ancient languages there are no words equivalent to the phrase ‘the suspension of self-consciousness’, although Isaac’s snatched mind appears to come fairly close. Secondly, since language can only be self-conscious, there is no possibility of describing its suspension or what occurs during the time of its suspension. The complete suspension of self-consciousness can be described only in terms of what the restoration of self-consciouness feels like, and since many theologians are unused to thinking theologically in terms of feeling, they appear to forget that some statements that appear theological may in fact be describing what the restoration of self-consciousness feels like qua the body.[ii] Thus to attempt self-consciously to describe the suspension of self-consciousness is a contradiction in terms because by definition feeling, too, can only be self-conscious.
Thus it can be seen that the most profound experience of union with God is not experience in the self-conscious sense at all but a relinquishing of experience, of everything by which the self is defined, a complete letting-go of the need for self-regard and self-observation.[iii] This relinquishing is not to be confused with unconsciousness or self-hatred. For during the suspension of self-consciousness, the person can be seen to be functioning normally: the gardener continues to garden, and the monk to stand in prayer. In addition, remembering that language can only be self-conscious, it follows that accounts of so-called religious experience are already interpretation through the individual psychic filter, just as the traces left on computer screens at the particle accelerator, CERN, under the Swiss Alps, are already mathematical interpretation of the invisible collisons, which cannot be directly observed.
Thus the search for the so-called core religious experience undertaken by analysing the language of personal accounts of phenomena is futile because in terms of everyday speech the core experience is not an experience at all but a relinquishing of any claim to experience. In the wake of the suspension of self-consciousness, there is also a relinquishing, a disinterest in the phenomena that may attend on the littoral of the complete suspension of self-consciousness, as may be attested by such writers as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Much is given in these ineffable moments, but by definition it can never be known what is given, except indirectly as it is effected through incarnate lives, particularly in certain kinds of personality integration and related healing which probably cannot occur any other way.
One reason that concentration on phenomena is self-defeating is not only because that way madness lies, but also because whatever subtle communication might find its way through a wormhole in the continuum of consciouness will go unheeded because attention is fixed on the self-conscious images and language generated by the energy made available in its suspension. This is not to denigrate what is known loosely as ‘religious experience’: such experience can reveal much about the needs and desires of the human person, and may enhance awareness of the interplay and mutual enrichment of cataphatic and apophatic, which is one reason that the greatest adept can never afford to abandon simple petition, thanksgiving, scripture and sacrament.[iv]
Phenomena are too often interpreted as direct knowledge of God, and as a sign of the holiness of those who experience them, just as self-consciousness and language are frequently mistaken for identity or the truth of the self, which are always in process. The divine may be in the experience, but the experience is not the divine.[v] There is a tendency in human beings, perhaps not unrelated to their reluctance to sustain the descriptive rigour of paradoxes, that yearns for the fabulous, in the course of which stereotypical templates attach to ‘religious experience’ and ‘miracles’, creating untenable dualisms and encouraging concentration on phenomena, which is self-defeating (for example, Mt. 11:20 f; 16:2-4; 18:10-11).[vi]There is the additional danger of suggestion: a person will subliminally create ‘experiences’ to fit the stereotypes, just as analysands will sometimes dream the dreams they feel the analyst wishes them to dream, instead of allowing the necessary dreams to arise.
[i] These attitudes may also be responsible for continuing insistence in some circles on the dualities characterised by ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ , ideas that are particularly suspect when present in an avowedly incarnational religion. People who seek ‘religious experiences’ are vulnerable to their own projections, which obviates the openness requisite for kenotic reciprocity.
[ii] It would be interesting to re-read Augustine, Pseudo-Denys, Bonaventure and other authors with this in mind. For example, perhaps the Celestial Hierarchies is an attempt (abandoned because it became too linear) to describe grace moving from the centre to the circumference of the circle (see below); it is also interesting to conjecture that the paradoxical descriptor in the second chapter of the Divine Names is calling on the corollary between the image of God and God, for the description is that of what happens in the suspension of self-consciousness and also of psychological health: humans are most completely themselves when they are most self-outpouring i.e., self-forgetful. This is also the description of divinity in Phil. 2:5-11 (see below). In a sense, it could be said that these two works set a question to which the Mystical Theology is a response. This conjecture is echoed in Bonaventure’s Interarium Mentis in Deum in which he scales a ladder movement by painful movement, but towards the end (VII,4), in a sudden disjuncture, shifts into a completely different mode of discourse reminscent of the Mystical Theology. It is also echoed in Julian of Norwich who deliberately poses Boethian questions, often in syllogistic form, which are answered with paradoxes that elide into the apophatic. [Additional note 2012: it would be useful if someone looked at the Divine Names as an extended gloss on Ephrem's poem on metaphor, and the Mystical Theology as an extended gloss on John the Solitary's hymn of ascent. In translation, at least, there are phrases that seem nearly identical.]
[iii] For a description of the self, see ‘Sexuality and Otherness’, op. cit. This relinquishing is ‘losing one’s life to gain it’ and those who have done so see the kingdom before they have tasted death. Giving up the illusory world of self-consciousness is forfeiting what has only passed for life but is not; giving it up for the sake of Christ is to enter the empty space of the mercy seat and the Virgin’s womb, the empty tomb and paradise regained (see Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise, tr. Sebastian Brock, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990). It is the mirroring of Christ’s kenotic outpouring, and from this comes new life in transfigured perception that lives the ordinary in the kingdom (Mt.16:24 f.).
[iv] It can also, as Carolyn Bynum has shown so clearly, reveal political agendas. See her Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Berkeley: University of California,1987.
[v] See The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Phyllis Hodgson, Exeter: University of Exeter, 1982, p. 87 and 114-5.
[vi] The same might be said of textual ‘phenomena’ in the form of literalism. Additionally, in discussions such as this, care needs to be taken that the notions of duality and distinction are not confused. The indwelling of the divine in the creation and ‘God at the centre’ of the human person overcomes duality in ‘likeness’ but not distinction. Julian of Norwich is particularly good on this in the Long Text, ch. 25 f.