XIV Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model ...
The fear of death that holds humanity in slavery (Heb. 2: 14-15) and is the source of all its problems is the fear of loss of self-consciousness. It is the loss of this fear that enables the transfigured perception of ordinary life, fully satisfying in its simplicity. It is a life no longer lived in terms of appetites and power games, which are symbolic battles with death at the level of self-consciousness. Rather it is lived simultaneously from the perspective of ‘time’, which is an illusory function of no where, and the centre, which is the timeless every where. It is a life lived in the community from an integrity that cannot be co-opted by the usual time-bound coercive tactics of flattery or fear, envy or desire (see note 18). It is a life that recognises that the Otherness of God is the otherness that is the truth of the self and otherness of fellow creatures, the common centre of the circle that is every where. This Otherness calls forth reverence, humility and respect, an awe before the divine, the self, other human beings and the creation that turns attention away from the linear loop[i] of comparison and enters the multidimensional perichoretic play of presence and absence. These are but a few aspects of the central Christian paradox of vulnerability and power.
The entry into silence entails a rigourous morality but again, subject to the paradox of intention, this is morality by aspiration, not the imposition of a restrictive template. It is a morality that takes on life as consciousness is gathered in the intention of the highest good. And here it is important to remember that
the mercy seat in the temple at Jerusalem was a vacant space between the cherubim in the holy of holies, the ‘great speaking absence’, in Rowan Williams’ phrase,[ii] that signified both Israel’s repudiation of earthly representations of the deity and the imageless space into which they sought to come by prayer and devotion. In the New Testament, the empty tomb is similarly eloquent in its absence of presence [and we might add that the cherubim surrounding this empty space wear the masks of tragedy and comedy MR]. The angel’s question in St Luke, “Why seek you the living with the dead?’ signals the necessity of passover into a new perception of the living Christ and a putting away of the old certainties. Christ's injunction to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me Tangere’ reinforces the sense of his transfiguration beyond the realm of earthly signification.[iii]
The centre that is every where is the mercy seat, and to this mercy seat everything in life is brought. Thus Julian of Norwich’s revelation that while humanity may not be spared tribulation, within this privitie all shall indeed be well.
But what of judgement? Judgement occurs on the surface of the sphere because it is disordered thinking in time that is under judgement, as Julian of Norwich clearly states.[iv] Judgement is neither too late nor too early because all judgement reflects ek-static communion with the centre through the essential kenotic likeness in Christ, which is constant, no matter how disordered the thinking. This judgement is ineffable; its perception is disordered by the projections of self-consciousness, the grasping super-ego, which extrudes from the sphere like one of the eyes on stalks of cartoonist Gary Larson’s weird animated blobs.
In the movement towards the centre, the eye is reabsorbed. It and the disorder of thoughts and perceptions, especially the disordered perception of divine judgement, are brought to focus toward the centre, and in that focus are justified. That is, disordered thinking that grasps shame, guilt, blame, confusion, appetites -- all is sorted out in the kenotic, unmediated and undistorted, self-outpouring Love which is God, and in this light the judgment of self-consciousness, the judgement of this simulacrum of the divine, is revealed as contradictory and antithetical to the justice of God.[v]
In an optical paradox, as the focus becomes more concentrated and deepens, perspective becomes limitless: justice, what is justified, is swallowed up in mercy and self-forgetfulness. While the journey to the centre at the sensory level appears to be undertaken repeatedly in fixed times of meditation, at the ontological level, each gesture towards the centre moves the person farther along the journey from which there is no turning back because the past now goes before.
The ordinary is now lived through transfigured perception. Every moment in time on the surface is perceived through the timeless centre, the ‘world to come’ which, in its semitic meaning, has little to do with the linear future. For one with transfigured perception, there is neither surface nor centre. Both perspectives are caught in singleness: the perspective of Julian’s doomsday and the ‘today’ of psalm 95; eternal life, resurrection, what Isaac of Nineveh famously calls the birth of the spiritual child and what Eckhart equally famously refers to as the birth of God in the soul. It is the perspective that perceives that what can be predicated of divinity can be predicated of humanity, a perichoretic interweaving of one being in a unitive act that is neither identity nor antithesis.[vi]
Without this transfigured perception, the outer surface of the sphere is no where, a simulacrum of where as it is a simulacrum of time and a simulacrum of self. It is, to echo Philippians 2, the illusion that is the consequence of attempting to grasp equality with God, for, once again, the parabola is only textual, and the attempt to grasp divinity is an attempt to sustain an illusory height, for divinity is humility. The surface of the sphere is the realm of narcissitic self-consciousness, of illusion, of a phantasmal and idolatrous self-awareness that seeks to rearrange creation and even God in a flattened, two-dimensional hierarchical order, in which me, my and mine have top priority.
It is the delusion of a world where every variable is absolutely under control, and where all energy is devoted to maintaining that control, where technology trammels with its noise, where difficult choices are taken away, and where poor little talktative Christianity provides protection from ambiguity, elusiveness (and therefore beauty, truth and goodness), adventure and unpleasant surprises. Most of all in this dark fantasy of a world, humanity is protected from the nightmare of its own making called Death, which terror manifests itself in the panic that ensues when minor losses and failures occur in the ordinary round, revealing the reality of powerlessness -- losses that frighten even more than death itself, which those who live in this hell try to pretend out of existence.
[i] The difference between a regular and a mobeus loop is instructive here. Take a long strip of paper and join the two ends. This loop has two surfaces and two edges; the inside communicates only with the inside; the outside with the outside. Now give one end of the strip a half turn (the ‘therefore’ of the Phil. 2,5-11 text) and put the ends together again. This is a mobeus loop that has one surface and one edge (and should be imagined as spinning very fast) in which the inside communicates with the outside, or, rather, there is no ‘inside’ or ‘outside’.
[ii] From an unpublished sermon.
[iii] ‘The Apophatic Image’, p. 53.
[iv] Julian’s anxiety about sin and judgement are a barrier to ‘onyng’, and her metanoia is to turn truly away from this self-conscious distraction into the true beholding. See especially chapter 29 of the Long Text.
[v] A few of the implications of this model, to name but a few:
(a) bracketing gender arguments, the superficial, self-defeating if not pathological character of the monarchical model of God;
(b) the primacy of the kenotic model of God. This would mean that the human tragedy assumed by Christ is precisely that of self-consciousness (symbolized by the fig-leaf clothes in the myth of the Fall) and its redemption is returning and reintegrating it in the stream of outpouring love. In other words, Jesus shows us what to do with self-consciousness: give it away. And it is significant that salvation is signified by a return to shameless nakedness, e.g., Ephrem’s “robe of glory”, i.e., clad only in glory.
(c) the significant correlations between the kenotic model of God, psychological health, and the process of prayer that leads to union. If this is correct, then perhaps discussions of doctrine, ecclesiology, hermenutics, exegesis can find a common new beginning.
[vi] I am grateful to Robert Dodaro for his discussion of this point. See his ‘Sacramentum Christi: Augustine on the Christology of Pelegius’, Studia Patristica, forthcoming.