IX Manchester Talk May 31, 2012
This ken-gnosis is not confined to the mind: Isaac of Nineveh and the Cloud-author among others tell us that the very physiology of the person is changed by the work of silence. It is not insignificant that Isaac emphasises this shift in terms of the human relationship with nature. He says that not only is '...the body and the appearance of the face...changed', but the re-centering causes '...the burning of the heart on behalf of the entire creation, human beings, birds animals—even all that exists...he even extends this [compassion] to the various reptiles....' Such a person '...approaches beasts of prey, and as soon as their gaze alights upon him, their wildness is tamed and they approach him and attach themselves to him as their master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. For they smell from him the scent which wafted from Adam before his transgression...which was taken from us and given back to us anew by Christ... for it is He who has made the smell of the human race sweet.' Modern scholars confined to their dusty rooms might interpret these texts as metaphor, but anyone who has lived a life integrated in the wilderness will testify to their lived truth.
The process of the work of silence can be summed up in the single word behold. Behold is not an archaic word: it was used by Pico Iyer in a New York Times Opinion piece on New Year's Day this year; it was used by CNN in a headline on March 2; both educated and uneducated people use and understand it intuitively and correctly; and, if I may echo the apostle Paul, in my experience, uneducated people understand it far better than the debaters of this age.
An entire book could be written about behold: indeed, one has. It's known as the bible, and not only is behold arguably the most important word in it, understanding behold is essential to biblical interpretation. This word occurs more than 1300 times in Hebrew and Greek in the imperative form alone, and there are many other words and expressions that signify, and should be translated with the word behold.
It is shocking that the NRSV uses behold only twenty-seven times in the Old Testament and not at all in the New Testament. Behold is the first word of covenant in Genesis 1:29. All God ever asks of human beings is to behold. It is because the people refuse to behold that the law is given (Exodus), according to a standard view. But Margaret Barker suggests that the Second Temple reformers establish the law precisely in order to suppress the beholding that characterised the First Temple, a move weirdly parallel to the suppression of the work of silence in the medieval West thousands of years later.
Echoing Genesis 1:29, announcing the new creation, behold is the first word of the last sentence that Jesus speaks to his disciples before he ascends in the gospel of Matthew: 'behold, I am with you until the end of time.' His enduring presence is in the beholding itself, the en-Christing movement of kenosis described in Phil. 2:5-11: 'Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus'. Jesus was a person; Christ is a process of theosis, of mutual indwelling, that Jesus embodies, teaches and restores to us.
Behold is the word of incarnation. One might even say that incarnation expresses the optimal relationship of the mind's two epistemologies. In the bible, behold is specifically linked to the kingdom of heaven, for example in Luke 17:21, '...Behold, the kingdom of heaven is within you'. Behold exposes the essential relationship of the Old Testament to the New; it shows us that the New Testament cannot exist without the Old.