Monday, October 21, 2013

Teach Them to Behold

2 Timothy 3:16 (New Jerusalem Bible) 'Teach them to be holy'.

But that isn't what I heard.

I heard "Teach them to behold."

And of course I nearly fell off my chair.

In one way, it doesn't matter which was said, and in another way, it does matter. It doesn't matter because beholding and holiness go together. It does matter because if you try to teach people to be self-consciously holy, holiness will evade them: they may tear themselves apart, they may become pious prigs, they may lose their minds, but they won't become holy as long as they are trying to. It's the paradox of intention again. Holiness is about self-forgetfulness.
Seeking to the beholding is another matter altogether. Seek to the beholding, and everything else will be added unto you, including holiness; it's just that you won't know about it. You won't know about it because you won't care any longer: your attention will be focused elsewhere, into the love that is a single embrace of God, neighbour, self.
I've just about finished reading The Divine Names, and as usual, I don't agree with most of the stock interpretations. Maybe this is arrogance on my part; maybe it's just the reality of applying the two ways of knowing model. It seems to me that Pseudo-Denys is doing what he says he is doing in The Divine Names, that is, praising, hymning the unknowable God and the insights that God gives to those who behold—insights that must be taken lightly and provisionally, never more than hints of the God who surpasses all knowing and all language. 
Almost the first thing Pseudo-Denys says is: 'With a wise silence we do honor to the inexpressible . . . with our beings shaped to songs of praise, we behold the divine light, in a manner befitting us, and our praise resounds for generations' (italics mine. The word 'behold' also occurs at the beginning of the Mystical Theology. I haven't re-read the Ecclesiastical Hierarchcy or the Letters yet. But it's interesting that in the Celestial Hierarchy Ps Denys understands hierarchy as a way of ascent and self-emptying, the activity of the divine acting in the person, NOT humans setting themselves up as a controlling bureaucracy. The inner eye, as it were, is continually beholding—I haven't checked the Greek yet—but in 165A he says that a hierarchy ' forever looking directly at the comeliness of God, and is like God in its self-emptying open to receive the overflowing, self-emptying abundance of God). [Later: it's at 168A; those who behold are 'perfected'. It's also interesting that each level of the hierarchy should 'generously' raise up those below and should themselves be raised to beholding.]
Then he seems to outline the way the mind works. (Later on, in the Celestial Hierarchy 143C, he talks plainly about 'the hidden mind'.)  Over and over in the treatise he tells the reader that he is writing hymns of praise to the names that arise as insights. But I have never come across anyone who takes him at face value on this. Most scholars insist that he is doing abstract metaphysics, that in spite of his apologies for using Neoplatonic language, he is a dyed-in-the-wool Neoplatonist because he insists on speaking of God as 'the One'. A commentator in the Classics of Western Spirituality volume says he is doing 'metaphysics' and 'spirituality' in combination; of course what we think of as 'spirituality' didn't exist until the 20th century! I think of Divine Names is, rather, a psychodynamic hymn of praise.
We have to remember that Pseudo-Denys comes out of a Syriac tradition, Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic. In other words, for all that he uses Neoplatonic language he may have more of a semitic mind than a Greek one. He is soaked in scripture, and so is the treatise. Sebastian Brock in The Luminous Eye suggests that the Divine Names may be a riff on Ephrem's poem on metaphor. I think this is very likely, and I also have long had a hunch that the Mystical Theology is a riff on John the Solitary's hymn to silence:
How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring?
The point I am trying to make is that when Pseudo-Denys talks of 'the One' he could just as easily be alluding to the Great Commandment in Deut. 6:4: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one', and to the restatement of the Great Commandment in Matthew 22: 37-39, as well as to Neoplatonic philosophy. In fact, given his love for puns as well as his multi-culturalism, it is not far-fetched to think that he may be alluding to Semitic, Christian, and Neoplatonic notions all at once in a kind of allusive cluster. This suggestion is supported by what he writes in 980B: 
         'The reality is that all things are contained beforehand in and are embraced by the One in its capacity as an inherent unity. Hence scripture describes the entire thearchy, the Cause of everything, as the One. Furthermore, "there is one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ and "one and the same Spirit," and this is so in the overwhelming indivisibility of that oneness of God within which all things are banded together as one in the possession of a transcendent unity and in the transcendence of their preexistence. So all things are rightly ascribed to God since it is by him and in him and for him that all things exist, are co-ordered, remain, hold together, are completed, and are returned'.
It's quite possible I'm missing the boat; it's also quite possible that the controversies surrounding Pseudo-Denys' writings are examples of scholars tripping themselves up by too much complexity, especially in their reading of a text that is about ultimate simplicity.


Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Note to readers: Please do not submit highly personal 'experiences' as comments. That's not what this blog is about. It's rather about how we 'put away childish things' and come to some sort of spiritual maturity.

9:04 pm, October 21, 2013  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

The other day, i encountered a book by Peter Candler in Booksale (i did not buy the book because it was beyond my meas)- Theology, Rhetoric and Manuduction (2006). For the first time i encountered the word "manuduction". But basically, the word has something to do with the ways of knowing because it is "participation in the text," especially the praxis of adoration that is much needed in reading texts that emerge out of the same praxis:

"Candler introduces us to fertile medieval texts such as the Confessions of Augustine, the Glossa Ordinaria on the Bible, and the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas. At the same time he argues that modern thought has displaced their grammar of participation with a dualistic grammar of representation that determines our most taken-for-granted attitudes toward memory and learning. Offering a striking contrast to such attitudes, Candler’s opens the way to a more holistic account of reading, knowledge, and theology."

12:14 am, October 22, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

I suspect 'your' boat is fine and you likely heard it right.

Does "seeks to" have a passive sense rather than an active one?

12:18 am, October 22, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Changeinthewind: 'seek to' is both active and passive: it is active in that it is a refocusing of attention; it is passive in that the attention is pure receptivity and openness.

7:42 am, October 22, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hadn't cone across the word manduction either, but looking it up in a dictionary I found two interesting definitions:
1) Participation in the Eucharist (how typical that this sacrament which could be perceived as evidence of induction into faith begins with "man";
2)Grinding food in the mouth until it is soft enough to swallow
What an interesting pairing!

11:06 am, October 25, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Actually 'man—' refers to hand. The definition regarding the book is: 'the grammar of the modern, printed, indexed book: a graspable object containing its information between fixed covers, arranging it spatially into chapters and paragraphs and reproducing it identically for all contexts.. It is, in other words, the grammar of the book as delivery [system].' Beware of retrojecting modern feminist concerns in false etymologies!

11:52 am, October 25, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

Can you talk a little about vegetarianism and theology? Lately I've been enticed by vegetarianism. I'm not entirely sure but a friend told me something about eating meat lowering someone's 'vibrations'? I have no idea what this means but I thought you might?

Thank you.


6:29 pm, October 25, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I suspect what your friend was referring to is the pseudo-monastic idea that fasting decreases sexual appetite. In fact, it does quite the opposite. However, not eating meat does affect one's physiology. But the idea that vegetarians aren't killing anything is ridiculous: one of the most basic and toughest lessons of life is that all life feeds on life. Even lettuce screams in its own way when it is cut.

There are no hard and fast rules. Every physiology is different, and you need to find a diet that helps you centre and be calm. Not eating meat does change your digestion and the way your mind works (or doesn't); but it's important to get enough protein and iron, and some people must eat meat to stay healthy. 'Moderation in all things' is wisdom worth paying attention to.

8:11 pm, October 25, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
I think that most vegetarians and vegans are keenly aware that in nourishing their bodies something gets killed directly or indirectly be that plant or animal.
Our species doesn't doesn't do moderation well and we are paying a heavy price for it now. I think that most vegetarians and vegans are drawn to seeking a more balanced and simple. Their choices appear to me to be an effort to restore some sanity to their lives and to preserve this earth. Maybe the time for moderation has passed.

4:29 pm, October 26, 2013  

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