Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Paper IV

The word experience is a poisoned chalice. It twists interpretations to serve prejudices and reinforce reflexive feedback loops. The ubiquitous contemporary use of the word—banking experience, eating experience, religious experience and, most absurdly, worship experience—contains the insidious message that experience somehow bestows an objective platform from which to judge when, in fact, the opposite is true: it exacerbates tendencies to fabricate and dramatize.
People who study the books scholars write and translate bring with them this idolatry of experience. Many of them know nothing of, or are just learning about contemplation. They cannot imagine a way of being in which experience cannot be claimed; they cannot conceive that experience might be either provisional or inconsequential, much less left behind. Unfortunately, this attitude also seems to have infected scholarship.
We should note here that the self-conscious mind's version of the self is a static construct; whereas in the deep mind the truth of the self is perpetually unfolding. We can never know what our own truth is. We need the self-conscious construct to negotiate the world, but we equally need to realise that it is virtual reality and therefore representation that is dead, and that our truth is unfolding out of our sight. One affects the other: the purification of the construct affects the truth that is unfolding; opening to deep mind also opens us to the grace of our shared nature with God. God's kenosis is overflowing love; our mirroring of God's kenosis, however, is the overflowing of dross, because our fallen life is partially dis-incarnated by the constructs we create, and because we ordinarily live in a virtual as opposed to the real world which deep mind perceives directly. Our truth unfolds where these two kenoses meet and bestow us with wisdom or ken-gnosis.
The English language is deceptive and somewhat crippled in its vocabulary of knowing: many other languages have two words for knowing, which correspond very roughly to the two aspects of knowing I have just sketched out: wissen and kennen; savoir and connaître; saber and conocer; scientia and sapientia. It is possible that this lack of differentiation in English has contributed to the excessively linear and controlling approach to understanding of many important texts, and has led to their misinterpretation.
The Mis-use of 'Experience', 'transform' and 'transcend'
The modern solipsistic notion of 'experience' is a word that comes into the English language only in the late 14th century. It is the opposite of the French, for example: to this day expérience means to experiment, and indeed, this is the way the author of the Cloud of Unknowing and others understand the word. The Cloud-author is suspicious of the dangers of the English neologism. He uses the word prove instead—there is only one occurrence of the word experience, which he uses as part of a grounding strategy, a double affirmative to balance a double negative. The Cloud of Unknowing, as I have shown elsewhere,(13) is not about the 'experience' of unknowing in the modern sense of experience, but rather concerns avoiding mistaking lesser beholdings for the beholding.
It is therefore shocking that the translator of the Cloud for the Classics of Western Spirituality,(14) James Walsh, forges ahead with his self-proclaimed neo-scholastic template and inserts the modern sense of experience 108 times in his paraphrase, thus rendering the Cloud text both incomprehensible and opposite to the meaning in the original. He never uses the word behold, in spite of the fact that it occurs 35 times and contains the essence of the text. Grover Zinn, in his translation of Richard of St Victor's Mystical Ark in the same series,(15) has used the word experience nonsensically, not only contradicting his own analysis in places, but also in phrases such as 'the experience of excessus mentis', which is absurd: if there is excessus, the suspension of self-consciousness, there is no mens to construct an interpretation, an experience. Even noting that an 'experience' has occurred is already interpretation. Richard of St. Victor uses the Latin word for "flow" and contrasts it with 'experience'. Isaac of Nineveh gives an almost clinical description of excessus mentis when he says, 'The mind is snatched.'(16)
All experience is interpretation and therefore confined to the self-conscious mind. Even becoming aware that something has happened is already interpretation. Thus it can be seen that to talk of 'an experience of God' is nonsensical: God may be in an experience—an interpretation—but to say that one has had an experience of God is to cut God down to the limits of our interpretation. When medieval authors speak with confidence about such matters, there is an underlying assumption, which they assume the reader will understand, that all language about God is provisional.
This is not to denigrate experience, but to point to the mis-use of the word in translation and interpretation of these texts. All experience is optimally submitted to deep mind where interpretation is refined and transfigured in the sense of being given a new perspective, the way we 'figure things out', re-submitted to self-conscious mind and so forth so that our perspective on experience is continually being enlarged and deepened. But as long as a person concentrates on experience, which sets up expectation, as T.S. Eliot, among many others, reminds us, contemplation will be closed to them, for contemplation properly speaking is, once again, the relinquishing of all claims to experience. It is easy to see from this definition the absurdity of using the word 'contemplative' as an adjective for texts or other nouns, which are not only experiences themselves, but also are at several removes of interpretation from whatever incident they are attempting to describe. In addition, the word experience is often sloppily used when it would be more appropriate to use words such as 'incident', 'occurrence', 'engagement', or 'occasion.'
(13) 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', op. cit.
(14) James Walsh, The Cloud of Unknowing (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).
(15) Grover Zinn, Richard of St Victor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979)
(16) Isaac the Syrian, Homily 23, tr. Sebastian Brock in The Fountain and the Furnace, 270; this sense is also found in Richard of St Victor's Mystical Ark at III.iv; Grover Zinn's translation also uses the word 'snatched'.


Anonymous desertfisher said...

Wisdom and knowledge distilled through a lifetime of solitude...

3:45 am, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

The modern usage of
'ex-perience" seems connected to "ex-pectation," the propensity to "see things out" the product of the deep mind; to "view over" how the deep mind works the way current neurotheology is busy about. Then there is the consumerist capitalism's obsession with popular, saleable, consumable, manipulable outcomes or products that the 'spirituality marketplace' is enamored with.

6:16 am, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
Reading this most recent post very much reminded me of Soren Kierkegaard's writing on grace. Most of what you write about Maggie is way beyond my comphrension and most of what Kierkegaard says leaves me scratching my head. No fault of your's Maggie or Soren's, its just that I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
That being said, I love this line from Kierkegaard, "I was always only becoming a Christian."
P.S. Maggie, I do not wish to imply that you do dumb things down, reading this blog is fun, as strange as that may sound.

1:15 pm, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How was this paper received at the seminar where you presented it originally?

3:18 pm, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Could you please clarify.

"the self conscious mind's version of the self is a static construct"


"the purification of the construct affects the truth that is unfolding"

Seems at odds. Thanks.


5:50 pm, May 19, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Very well. I convinced three German scholars and a Russian, among others!

6:06 pm, May 19, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

The self-conscious mind constructs its idea of itself from material it receives from deep mind and reifies, linearizes, makes two-dimensional. It also adds all those bits of self-deceit that self-conscious mind is prone to. When the construct is purified, the purified construct is handed back to deep mind. The reverse is true. So that the choices you make with your self-conscious mind DO affect the truth of your self, but so also efforts to eliminate the self-deceit. However many changes take place at a very deep level. It is possible that a choice made at the self-conscious level can trigger some opening at a deep level. The deep mind (and our own truth which we cannot know) are full of surprises!

6:11 pm, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous Hanna said...

I wonder if there's a connection to depression and other mental illness. With depression there often seems to be a sense of being cut off from love and being cut off from knowing (as in "kennen") in general. You may know (wissen) perfectly well that people care about you but since you no longer know (kennen) that they do it doesn't seem real or meaningful.

7:20 pm, May 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write "But as long as a person concentrates on experience, which sets up expectation, as T.S. Eliot, among many others, reminds us, contemplation will be closed to them, for contemplation properly speaking is, once again, the relinquishing of all claims to experience." I just wondered which bit of Eliot you are referring to. Can you say, please? Thanks

11:55 am, May 21, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It's in "East Coker" in the Four Quartets.

12:50 pm, May 21, 2014  
Anonymous abigail tingman said...

Dear Maggie and all:

I'm beginning to regard my self conscious mind as the hair shirt I can't quite remove. Even in considering the notion of "beholding" (as opposed to actually beholding), the "I" is present. It is unsettling. I'm beginning to wonder if that perhaps the purest form of beholding might in fact be the surprises that Maggie refers to.... the universal "Ahhhhhh."

Blessings. a.t.

11:55 pm, May 22, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhhhhhh! is residue. There is no form. There is intention and hopefully this is process.


11:13 pm, May 23, 2014  
Anonymous abigail tingman said...

Hi Mike!
Yes, Ahhhhhhh would be residue. But it was the most formless form of formlessness that I could come up with to express the surprise of knowing, or better yet, understanding.

Regarding intention: When I began centering prayer I heard and read much about intention. However, it somehow translated into expectation in me. Over time, the expectation has receded. The intention, for me anyway, is just being there. Best & blessings, at

2:15 pm, May 24, 2014  
Anonymous abigail tingman said...

Dear Maggie:
I love how you said in your comment: "(and our own truth which we cannot know)". It is true! We cannot know the truth about ourselves. It brings to mind Frankl's Paradox of Intention that Mike had referred to previously. Could it be, the more we seek to know our individual truths, the less we find it (them)? And Hanna... I appreciated your comment and agree that depression is very possibly the result of the muting of deep mind. I'm wondering about the "healthy balance" between the two. How would that be gauged? Bless, at

2:34 pm, May 24, 2014  

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