XIII Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model
To model the permutations of self-consciousness it is necessary to bracket the continuum metaphor and think of layers: the outer surface is ordinary distraction. The next layer might be called concentration, the first gathering of the distractions and noise of the surface into some sort of attentive focus in which the person first becomes aware of the silence. As concentration and focus increase, self-consciousness in its simple sense begins to fade, although it may continue to try to intrude at every moment. This relinquishing of self-consciousness (which masks as self-consciousness holding onto the person) is difficult because initially it seems too much like death. The process of focus on the single point is both active and passive: it is actively attentive to the gathering point, and it is passive in its relinquishing of whatever is not the point of focus, and in its receptivity to silence.[i]
As the gentle effort to focus persists, the person both follows and is carried by the point of focus towards the centre.[ii] The region of liminality is entered, a consciousness that is content to be without content. Between this region and the centre are phenomena, the so-called paranormal (this word belittles incarnation). Here lie visions, locutions and, if the warnings about phenomena go unheeded, madness. For many creative people, it is in this liminal area that creativity emerges from silence to find its way into the world of sense and time through their bodies as musical notes, art, or words put onto paper.
On this turning point of the paradox of intention, ignoring everything that may occur, that is, letting go the last vestige of spiritual materialism,[iii] returning to the point of focus as necessary, the person waits without expectation or conscious hope. In the paradox of intention, desire and hope are still present, but out of sight, gathered and integrated with the rest of consciousness around the point of focus. Desire is so great that desire is given up.[iv]
It is at this point that a text such as the kenotic hymn in Phil. 2:5-7 takes on particular significance. The turning point is the ‘therefore’ in meditation, corresponding to the textual nadir which paradoxically is also its apogee. Thus the paradox of vulnerability and power. The parabola -- equality with God, abasement, exaltation -- is only textual, not theological, because divinity is humility and humility is divinity, and the ‘therefore’ is not ‘it was axiomatic’ but rather ‘it was because of this’,[v] in other words, a gift.The suspension of self-consciousness at the centre of the sphere relinquishes all claims to and therefore all control over experience. There are only two other events in life that mirror this suspension of self-consciousness, and only one of these has exact correlation: they are orgasm and death.[vi] Thus the effect of the suspension of self-consciousness is the perfect love that casts out fear (I John 4:18), most especially the fear of death (for the fear of death is self-conscious fear of the loss of self-consciousness), and in this freedom from self-consciousness and fear, the person is no longer subject to death, because death in the form of the loss of self-consciousness has been revealed as the source of deepest life.
[i] Another way to imagine this is to think of intentionality as a ship moving through the sea that turns aside all that is not itself.
[ii] Boethius, De Cons. III, 9.
[iii] The phase is Chogyam Trungpa’s in his eponymous book, Boulder: Shambala, 19.
[iv] Or in the famous words of Staretz Silouan, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’ See ‘Purification by Atheism’, by Olivier Clément, in Orthodoxy and the Death of God, ed. A.M. Allchin, Supplements to Sobornost, #1, 1971,p. 243.
[v] Julian’s most frequent preposition is ‘for’ or some variant of ‘therefore’.
[vi] Thus one aspect of the profound relationship between sex and death in the human psyche. This relationship has intriguing implications for reading ancient texts, for example, the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Seafarer”. It is possible that the poem is a parable of meditation, or even an account of the thoughts that come during meditation that are gathered as the poet embarks on the waelweg in line 64, the way of the slain, not the emendation of hwaelweg, the way of the whales, which ‘way of the whales’ does make sense in line 60. As Vincent Gillespie has pointed out, line 64 is the turning point, the still centre around which the poem turns. The relationship of sex and death to apophasis is not irrelevant here, either. [2012 The poet Richard Crashaw comes to mind, with his use of the word 'die' in the poem beginning 'Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace....'].