Penny Warren wrote:
fascinated by your writing and appreciate all you have to say about silence,
but I am disturbed by the angst within your writing. I find myself led into a
fiery silence that is almost an end in itself instead of an opening into the
beauty of God. And yet I understand from Writing the Icon of the Heart that
beholding God, holding in love His being, is what you are wanting to lead us
Thank you for your good comment, Penny.
It is rather
God first loves us and holds us in being; we would not be aware of ‘holding’ in love His being;
it is rather that he in his generosity allows us to hold him in being by sharing his nature
with us. It is already within us, but that shared nature is at work in us most optimally when we seek to
you write it sounds as though there is a concept in your mind about what
beholding ought to be and what it ought to feel like, that there are parts of
us—such as ‘fiery silence’— that are inappropriate.
is a wrong idea of beholding to think that we are required to eliminate the
normal emotional range or, for that matter, any part of our humanity. Certainly the preponderance of one emotion or
another will change with beholding. But we have to remember that there is
certainly a role—as we see in the life of Jesus in the gospels—for what you
call ‘fiery silence’: think of the money-changers in the temple (which wasn’t
so silent). And wasn’t there something about ‘I am come to bring fire to the
earth’? Didn’t he weep over Jerusalem and sweat drops of blood? Beholding is
not an escape from our humanity or its angst but rather its transfiguration.
‘What is not assumed is not redeemed’, as the ancient writers put it; it is
precisely through our wounds that we come to beholding.
When I see the institutional churches
unnecessarily committing suicide, and the ecology falling apart, angst is not
inappropriate. The present Manchester paper was given to an audience of mostly
clergy (a theological society). As clergy are often impervious, it's necessary
to add a little of what a Buddhist retreat master friend of mine calls
"vajra anger"—do you know the ceremonial Tibetan knives? With such audiences, there is often need for a polemical edge, but out of compassion, not revenge. Being nicey-nice
to such an audience only makes them think you're patting them on the back!
a ‘fiery silence’ maybe some of the dross gets burnt up and the phoenix rises?
Isn’t there an image in Isaiah about the refiner’s fire? Isn’t, perhaps, the
‘fiery silence’ necessary before we can behold the beauty of the Lord?
Certainly a lot of clergy and the institutional church make seeking to the
beholding opaque, if not impossible.
I am not suggesting a Savonarola
solution; but the accumulated junk, not the beauty, certainly should be thrown
on the fire. Richard Holloway sums it up in Leaving
Alexandria when he suggests that the church has exchanged poetry for
packaging. He says far more in this phrase than perhaps he realized.
There is a
certain anguish that runs through the whole of the Christian tradition Often a
writer who beholds will see the potential for the richness of life and the
mutual abiding with God failing to be to be realised simply because people
don't want to be bothered.
We need to
remind ourselves that the beholding we have leads not to curling up in cosy
silence with God and forgetting about everyone else in a kind of ‘spiritual’
catatonia [this is Bridget of Sweden's attitude, and Gerson was correct in opposing her canonisation], but demands rather that we return with the 'vision' to the
community. Beholding gives us a more solid base from which to exercise a
critique, and, in a sense, it is an obligation.
This understanding is in the
earliest ritual of the First Temple (see Margaret Barker's work). It is also in Bernard’s sermon 41 on the Canticle, and in the hermit
Anthony’s aphorism, that even, or rather, especially, in solitude, and
overflowing from solitude, ‘Your life and your death are with your neighbour’ and in many other places—in the Buddhist ox-herding tale, for example.
angst’ is evident in God's exasperation because of the people's refusals: first
of all, to behold, which is all God requires, and for which a bloodbath of
livestock is a poor, if not negating, substitute; and second, because they miss out on the divine banquet
on offer because they long for the onions and garlics and quails...
words, they substitute their own very linear, small, and material ideas of the
good life for the vast love that God wishes to give them.
Translating this to
our day it would be celebrities, Cartier, Chanel, a rave, a club, or even a Big
Mac that people want, desperately inadequate substitutes for the simplicity of God which,
if engaged, relegates all of these desires and ideas of ‘fulfillment’ to the dustbin
from their sheer irrelevance to the reality.
We need to
keep in mind several aspects of beholding.
is not a ‘state’; part of the problem with trying to write about something like
the workings of the mind that are holistic and dynamic and outflowing is that
words themselves are self-reflexive, linear, and can only make constructs. In
fact, the mind works on many levels at once—even the word ‘levels’ is too
static. The mind is polyvalent, and its workings polysemous. Beholding is not a
vending machine: one does not do not do such and such so that beholding will be
burped into one's hand. This is the key message of Philippians 2:5-11: you have to
give up attachment to everything in your linear mind so that you can open to
beholding happens out of our sight. You could never tell if a person is beholding,
but you might sense if they were
living from a well-spring of beholding, only you might not think anything more
than this is a person you want to spend more time with. Beholding is a gift; it
is a way of being in the world. We might sense an instance where the effects of beholding are expressed in
liminality, which we then interpret as ‘experience’ but beholding is not something
we can be aware of directly precisely because it opens on the deep mind. The
closest we can come to an ‘experience’ of beholding is to read poetry, but not
all poetry. See Jane Hirshfield’s Nine
Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Poetry acts as a conduit between
self-conscious mind and deep mind because it is drawing on and continually
referring to deep mind for the resonances expressed in words.
more one ‘seeks to the beholding’, in Julian’s words, through intention and
vigilance, the more beholding becomes the hidden referent, the fountain from
which we draw the energy for our daily lives. If we try continually to seek to
the beholding—not a ‘state’ or a ‘technique’ but as a way of being in the
world, of a deep inner opening and detachment—then gradually we will be
re-centred—we cannot re-centre ourselves.
It is a gift, something that takes place gradually. Meditation can help, but it
is only one small and very minor step in a much larger programme, which is a way of
being in the world. And the ways to beholding are as many as there are people.
analogy is that of tsimtsum, the
Lurian kabbalistic myth of creation in which God, because he fills every
available space, has to contract, as it were, so there can be a space for
creation. We might think of beholding as a reciprocal tsimtsum: by intention and the practice of detachment (especially
from our own ideas and even more especially our ideas about the so-called
spiritual life, and about God), we make a space where God can be present and
work in us, out of our sight. This is, perhaps, a form of tikun, which is the repairing of the damage to the shattered light
of God and the destructiveness in the world which we have effected by insisting on the very limited and un-sounded (in the sense of poetry above) ideas and perspectives of the linear mind.
re-centring is cumulative: usually it takes a long time before people realise
that they are trying too hard to impose their own ideas on what ‘should’ be
‘happening’ in their ‘spiritual life’ and relax and let God do the work out of
sight, while simply being vigilant to the intention [one can begin, if necessary, with wanting to want to intend—see The Fountain and the Furnace] of opening to the deep mind and detachment
from their own ideas, an attentive receptivity at the deepest level. This is
the reality of faith. As one desert father said, ‘The purpose of our ascesis is
There is an
ethics entailed in all of this: respect for the other, whether sentient or not,
a welcoming space for whatever one encounters; turning from interior noise
whenever one becomes aware of it; vulnerability; opening the heart to
compassion, generosity, and so forth. But also a willingness to do what is
necessary, at whatever risk to oneself, to discern and to appropriately stand up for the downtrodden, expose injustice, and
so forth. And some of that risk is the willingness to get it wrong.
also effects of beholding. Gradually
the person realises that he or she is beheld,
not from any ‘experience’ but from the tenor of his or her entire life which
has opened, or made space, for God to work out of sight. And at this realisation,
she or he will, without trying to hold on or sustain any particular
‘experience', do anything to sustain life in this particular tuning. Outsiders
might think of such a person as living an ‘ascetical’ life but it is rather
doing whatever is required to keep the interior harmony, to ‘walk in beauty’ as
the Athabascan and Navajo people say. Such ‘ascesis’ is not noticed as such by
the beholder/beheld; it is part of the ordinary melody of a perfectly ordinary
life—ordinary in the Orthodox sense, a life transfigured from hallucination to
We tend to
get ourselves all twisted up trying to reproduce what we fantasize is meant by
‘beholding’ or other words such as ‘contemplation’ or even ‘love’. We seem to
want, at least in the beginning, something exotic, something other that we are,
ranging from ridiculous behaviours to ridiculous clothing, to ridiculous
attitudes. Far too many people get stuck here. Perhaps the biggest ‘ascesis’ is
to accept what we think (and perhaps secretly despise) is ordinary, but which
is anything but if one’s perception has been transfigured by beholding.
To seek to
the beholding is so simple: perseverance in simplicity and ordinariness is the
difficulty. As St Paul says, beholding is always ‘more than we can ask or
imagine’. To have the deep interior attitude/intention of openness, receptive
responsiveness, attentive receptivity, is all that is required.