Recently I complained in this blog about a seminar I have been going to. Yesterday I had my chance to try to clarify to the group some of the many problems I feel we are facing. Here is the paper.
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
neither voice nor word can bring?(1)
I follow John the
Solitary in the way I regard silence: silence is an infinite interior
spaciousness; a way of being in the natural world
At the outset,
however, I want to register an objection to the use of the word mystical and its cognates: this word has changed in meaning
from something mysterious to being, as William Harmless says, "a catchall
for all sorts of religious weirdness." In this paper I will attempt to
give a definition of the word but we would be better off without it.
This paper also
attempts to put some empirical order into what is often a chaotic subject.
Hence the diagram on your handout. Because most scholars approaching religious
texts are using a post-Cartesian methodology, their method is at war with the
content they are studying. That is to say, their mental model is merely linear
and their hierarchies of argument require closure. Many of the texts they
study, however, are polysemous: they are based on two ways of knowing and they
try to lead the reader or hearer into the infinite spaciousness of silence.
I will first
present some fundamental facts about the way the mind works, which can be
discerned by anyone who bothers to watch their own mind. These processes have
been confirmed—but are not dependent on—the findings of contemporary
neuro-psychology. I want to emphasize that I came to this interpretative model
through the close reading texts, not through extrapolating from fMRI scans, and
that my research and understanding has independently paralleled that of writers
such as Iain McGilchrist.(2)
Secondly, I will
give some examples of problems that issue from reading without the model of two
ways of knowing, and from reading literally instead of literarily. These errors
have contributed to the mis-use of the word 'experience', and the loss of the
crucial word 'behold' and its cognates. It has also led to the careless use of
the words "transform" and "transcend" when
"transfigure" is meant. I will discuss the theology surrounding these
words. I will also suggest some ways that the texts that concern us could be
classified, as the present system is unsatisfactory. Finally, if there is time,
I will list some of the tropes involved in reading literarily. Many ancient and
medieval texts should be read as poetry, even though they may be set out as
There are two
aspects to knowing. Self-conscious knowing is everyday mind; it relies on the
information given to it by deep mind, which it then categorizes in a
reductionistic way. Ideally it then returns this material to deep mind for
further enhancement. The second aspect of knowing I am calling deep mind, or
apophatic consciousness. This is the greater part of the mind, what
Pseudo-Denys calls the 'hidden mind'(3) and which contains, but encompasses
more than, what is called the 'nous',(4) the faculty by which our shared nature
with God is realised. This part of the mind has direct perception, processes
the more complex aspects of language—though itdoes not speak—and is inclusive,
The primary feature of deep mind for our
purposes is that it is inaccessible to self-conscious mind except by intention.
The permeable membrane between the two aspects of mind is marked by paradox,
although it should be noted that paradox is paradoxical only to the self-conscious
mind. The role of paradox is to halt the ratiocinating, schematizing activities
of the self-conscious mind to give it a moment of quies. In this moment it is open to receive the gifts that
deep mind is ready to offer. Because
self-conscious mind has no access to deep mind except by intention, there can
be no phenomenology of deep mind.
(1) Sebastian Brock, 'John
the Solitary, On Prayer', Journal
of Theological Studies, New Series,
30 (1979), 84-101, 87.