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'.