XI Manchester Talk May 31, 2012
The decline of the work of silence and its beholding has made way for the rise of the mis-use of the word experience. The ancient, patristic, and medieval meaning of the word as experiment (experimentum, experientia) recognises that experience is an interpretation, always provisional, to be submitted and resubmitted to deep mind in the light of scripture, silence and the wisdom of the elders. This notion of experience stands directly in opposition to the subjective, solipsistic and self-authenticating meaning this word began to acquire at the end of the fourteenth century, when Walter Hilton redefined the language of contemplation. A century later, Gerson becomes acutely aware of the dangers of this shift in meaning: he tells us that a visionary told him that in contemplation her mind had been annihilated and created anew. 'How do you know?' he asked. 'I experienced it,' she replied. 'The logical absurdity of this reply,' remarks Bernard McGinn, 'had sufficed him to prove the reprehensible nature of [her] fantasies.'
But in spite of Gerson's best efforts, the modern, self-autheticating model of experience had not only won the day, it had become materialised. The Council of Constance insisted on exterior observance at the expense of life in God with catastrophic consequences for those monks, and especially nuns, who were genuinely intent on their life in God. For example, Aljit Bake rediscovered the work of silence on her own and introduced it to the Sisters of the Common Life, whose numbers swelled in a very short time from nine members to over a hundred. The sisters' male watchdogs, appalled by the positive changes they saw in the nuns, removed Aljit as Prioress and drove her into exile, where she quickly died. They instituted draconian measures. John van Engen tells us that '[the following resolution was made at the] Windesheim General Chapter [of] 1455: No nun or sister of whatever status should copy books containing philosophical teachings or revelations, either themselves or by way of others, whether compositions of their own (ex sua propria mente) or of other Sisters, and this on pain of imprisonment. If someone hears of or sees such books, he should cast them into the fire; nor should anyone presume to translate such books from Latin into Dutch.'
Little more than half a century later Luther, now trapped in his own self-consciousness, finding no one who could help him, further altered the theology of contemplation. He declared experience, in its solipistic mode, to be the basis for theology; he intellectualised life in God. The irony is that both Luther and his followers, and their opponents in the Counter-Reformation movement are by this time locked together in the smoke and mirrors of the self-conscious mode. We should remember that Descartes was educated by Jesuits; it could be said that his angelism was an inevitable consequence of the loss of the work of silence.
The modern sense of the word experience has now had five centuries to acquire weight and influence; in recent times it has suffered especially from the tainted nuances visited upon it by the paranormal preoccupations of William James and the pathologies of Thomas Merton. The logical absurdity that made such an impression on Gerson is not so obvious to twenty-first century readers.
 Walter Hilton, Introduction by John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, CWS, p. 19.
 Bernard McGinn, '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions Between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church', The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. xc, April 2004, No. 2, pp. 193-212, p. 211; Gerson, Epistle 26, April-June, 1408, Haec tandem dixit et scribi jussit quod spiritus suus comtemplando Deum fuerat annihilatus vera annihilatione, dehinc recreatus. Et dum quaereretur qualiter hoc scire potuerat, respondebat se expertam. Jean Gerson, Oeuvres complètes, Introduction, texte et notes par Mgr [Palémon] Glorieux (Paris, 1960), vol. 2, p. 98.