VIII Manchester Talk May 31, 2012
Nicholas of Cusa appears to be the last church official to understand and teach the work of silence. With his passing, Christianity in the West inevitably became increasingly centred in the unreal world of self-consciousness. This loss of understanding and practical knowledge of the work of silence—the way to escape the the imprisoning self-conscious mind—was a major factor in Luther's crisis of conscience.
However, even in the face of the church's official policy of suppression, knowledge of the work of silence was not entirely lost: it was kept alive, by individuals such as the nuns at the end of the 15th century who made and circulated clandestine copies of Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. It continued and continues to be kept alive by humanists, dissidents, poets, hymn-writers and anyone who observes his or her own mind.
It's important to observe in passing that the autonomy of the work of silence suggests that tracing chains of supposed influence can be deceiving: writers such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Pseudo-Denys, Richard of St Victor, Bonventure, Eckhart and the Cloud-author could have written their texts in isolation, though of course the language and form of their texts would have been different. In Petrarch, Gerson and Nicholas of Cusa, to name but three authors, the shift in understanding of the work of silence is clearly marked: in Petrarch by his ascent of Mt Ventoux; in Gerson by the change in his language and emphasis towards the end of his life; and in Cusa by his shipboard insight on his way home from Asia Minor, which caused him to write the Docta Ignorantia.
To summarise: self-knowledge, then, is not merely a moral inventory but an engagement with and understanding of the spiralling process of continual exchange by which the two epistemologies work together to effect a quite literally trans-figurative conversion in the human person; that is to say, the self-conscious mind yields what it calls experience to the deep mind, and the deep mind clarifies, enlarges and returns to the self-conscious mind a new perspective on its experience: it changes the way we figure things out. When Evagrius says Who prays is a theologian and who is a theologian prays, he is making an empirical statement, for in his day, it was understood that doctrine emerges from interpretation of the mind's work with silence. We might call this optimal working of the mind ken-gnosis.