Monday, December 27, 2021

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 Desmond Tutu was small in stature but a giant of a man. Others have commented on his greatness in terms of being a moral leader, one who spoke truth to power, one who was fearless in the face of opposition and death threats, even pulling a man to safety from a mob.

But I want to concentrate on Tutu's generosity. He was first and foremost generous with the love of God. When starting a conversation he would often look at a person and say, 'God LOVES you!' as if it were the most wonderful, miraculous, surprising state of affairs, which of course it is. The love of God pouring out through him to others was the foundation of his being, his ministry, and the power that kept him alive for 90 years and able to relate to so many people. It allowed him to conduct the Truth and Reconciliation process at terrible cost to himself. 

Fortunately he also had his wonderful wife Leah and his children and was grounded by all the joys and sorrows of family and the love only a strong woman can bring.

He was generous in sharing himself. He was generous with laughter and joy. He made time for people, even if it meant disrupting carefully made plans. He loved children. He answered mail from the most unlikely correspondents. He could never say 'no' to someone who put demands on his time. He needed to have someone to help him pick and choose and to have enough rest enough to avoid a breakdown. He continued to travel and teach even when he had cancer. He shared himself with everyone the great and small, ordained and lay, the religious and non-religious, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. He gave Communion to the Dalai Lama. He understood and acted on the principle that there are no bounds to the eucharistic love of God.

He was generous in material things. He would send flowers at the drop of a hat. As he became wealthy he set up foundations. He would send money to friends in need. It should also be said that he was terrible with money and had to have friends to help him put on the brakes and run the foundations.

He was generous in gratitude. As far as I know he never failed to acknowledge a source, no matter how unfashionable, as can be seen in Michael Battle's biography. If someone helped him through a dark patch he remembered it for the rest of his life and acknowledged the person publicly if the opportunity arose. He understood the interdependence of humanity, that no matter how high one arises, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who helped one along the way. He championed the downtrodden and the marginalised, such as LBGTQ+. He supported unpopular causes among his peers, such as assisted dying.

It is true that he had faults. He had a temper, but some of it was holy anger. He was impulsive, although that could also be an asset. He could be rude, but it was often because he felt that the people who needed to listen would not listen otherwise. He could be autocratic.

Like many other people I can humbly say that I had the privilege and honour of knowing him personally. I grieve the loss for all of us, the whole of humanity, and grieve even more because there is no one of similar stature, however diminutive physically, to pick up his standard. This means that each of us in our own way must do more in promoting human rights.

But I also rejoice. He has fought the good fight, he has stars in his crown, and at last he is seeing the Face of the One he sought all his life and beheld.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent 2020

 Happy Advent to all the readers of this blog. I'm sorry I haven't posted much this year, but events have been so significant—I almost wrote 'monstrous', thinking of various governments—that it has been almost impossible to find an impartial view or know what to say. This silence has been exacerbated by the two books on silence that I published; one might say I have written myself into silence.

Nonetheless, in the interest of keeping this blog alive for a time when words may make their reappearance, I will try to say something useful.

I'm afraid that I am not one of those people who think that, with the Biden presidency to be confirmed tomorrow by the electoral college, all the troubles of the last four years are over. Quite the contrary. Of course I am hugely relieved not only that he won and also that he has survived all the challenges, but I fear Trump has done and is still doing so much damage that this is only the beginning, not to mention his inhuman and shocking last-minute killing spree of prisoners, while pardoning those who are his cronies. And the corona virus gets worse by the day; he is responsible for many of these deaths as well because of his lies and sloth.

Add to that the problems here in the UK, facing a no-deal Brexit on top of the coronavirus epidemic—it's going to be an almost unimaginable maelstrom.

But in spite of all the doom and gloom the light does shine in the darkness and the mystery of the Incarnation is not only with us at this season but in every season; we encounter it most directly in the Eucharist. Recently I was asked to write 10,000 words on the subject of 'My Theology'. Even that request has left me baffled in silence. The only phrase that has come to mind is 'eucharistic entanglement' in its widest sense. Even with ten times the words requested, I don't think I could tease out the theology contained in this phrase, and I'm not sure if it is at the core of 'My Theology'. Besides, what theology can be said to be 'mine' anyway? 'We stand on the shoulders of giants', is the medieval phrase that cathedral builders (theology in stone) and theologians once used. We forget it at our peril.

But maybe 'Peace on earth, good will among peoples' is part of what could be if we recognised that life is eucharistic and everything in creation is entangled with everything else in the love of God, both materially and spiritually—although I wish there were a way to say this that isn't a dichotomy .

Please have a blessed and safe Christmas, and pray for the New Year.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Sanity in a Time of Insanity

In a time when sanity seems in short supply, I would like to recommend a resource which has provided me with some clarity and some hope amid Trump's gaslighting and bluster. It is the (free) daily newsletter of Harvard historian Heather Cox Richardson. Her work is deeply researched, interpretively canny, and she is able to bring some light into a time of obfuscation. I can't recommend it highly enough.

    The times have been so confusing on both sides of the Pond that one might say that I have been shocked into silence. Sometimes I feel that I have escaped the worst of things by living in England, but sometimes also I feel guilty for not being on the other side of the water trying to help out. Things in the UK are in upheaval too, though we face incompetence of a different kind. I don't understand—or perhaps I understand all too well—British politics; I only know that the government isn't working to manage the pandemic properly, and that we are having a catastrophic rise in cases.

    What is happening in America, however, seems to be politics as a blunt instrument. As Richardson has pointed out, Trump has done many things each of which would have sunk previous presidents, but no one is willing to call him out. One can only hope he loses the election so he can go to jail for the rest of his life.

    With that hope, and hope in God, I will sign off. As the Queen said at the beginning of the pandemic, Never give up; never despair.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Fortieth Anniversary of my Solemn Vows June 12, 2020

Gentle Readers,

June 12, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of my solemn and irrevocable vows professed in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City, into the hands of Bishop Paul Moore. Anglican Franciscan friars and Roman Catholic Cistercian monks were the sponsors. I was professed as a religious solitary for the whole church. When Paul Moore died, he transferred my responsibility to Rowan Williams, who is my Bishop Protector to this day.

Please join me on June 12 in prayer and thanksgiving. Thank you.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Silent Knowing IV

Some people complain that silence is elitist, that it is isolationist and ignores the problems of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is eucharistic, returning and offering our life’s God-given energy back into the vast beholding of God for God to use where it is needed. We are never less alone than when we are alone and, as Antony of the Desert wrote, ‘Whether alone or with the elders, your life and your death is with your neighbour.’ Communities are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up, so that it is incumbent upon each of us to do the transfiguring work of silence.
I started this talk by quoting Graham Ward, and would like to end in the same way. It is a poem, and reading poetry requires that we use both hemispheres in optimal harmony:

                                                   Silent Knowing

Silence tenderizes, senses constellate,
Edges angulate, fuse and melt. I tend
To the gold circlet bounding the black eye
Of a blue-jay, scratching through the dead leaves
On a spring morning. I tend to the bold
White bells of the snowdrops poised between proud
Beauty and heads humbled by its presence.

Silence tenders the vivid, the vital,
Scintillas of sense, attentive delights:
Diamond frosted spiders’ webs, white carved swans
Paddling the infinite waves of quietness.
I contend that all things portend their glory
When we can see – receive – when we can care.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Silent Knowing III

Now that we understand a little about how silent knowing comes to be, let’s talk about being silent. It should be clear from what has been said that entering into silence and becoming silent involve both kenosis and death, and that is why it is so frightening for some people. The kenosis is effected in setting aside our normal preoccupations and seeking for perfect attention, or, as Julian of Norwich says, ‘Seek into the beholding,’ which I think is a much more accurate description because it references the incarnational exchange of being between human and divine that is taking place. 
The death comes in that if we are doing this we are leaving our self-consciousness behind—and we wrongly think that our so-called ‘true self’ is our self-consciousness (the so-called ‘true self’/false self dichotomy is a static, destructive, and gnostic dualism, and we do not have the perspective to judge which is which; this is God’s business, not ours). Paradoxically, when self-consciousness is elided the dynamic and ever unfolding truth of the self shines forth. When we say to teenagers, ‘don’t be so self-conscious; be yourself’ this is what we mean. 
Moving into the spacious unknowing of God and allowing our self-consciousness to fall away into the background, we progressively move into the vastness of God’s idea of us, some of which will leave traces that will emerge in our experience. It is not too much to say that the goal of the spiritual life is to become more and more self-emptying, more and more willing to root ourselves in unknowing, or, better put, less and less self-conscious—which, casts so-called spiritual direction as it is practiced today (which is not the way it was practiced in the ancient world) in an unfavourable light because it only makes people more self-conscious. Having read Ian Stirling’s thesis, this problem is very similar to that he has encountered in hospices. I am sure he will be telling us about this. This does not mean that we should not have companions on the way, but the relationship should be more like that of Augustine and Monica at Ostia than the professionalized and institutionalized process we have today.
Of course becoming silent is not always, or even frequently, a seamless process. The process of taming our attention may make us self-conscious for a brief time, but this is another paradox: we have to gain control to lose control, that is, to focus our self-consciousness so that it no longer constrains our deep mind. In this process, unwanted thoughts may intrude as we try to focus our attention, sometimes things we’re not ready to deal with. While eventually they will be, must be, ‘dealt with’ not through confrontation and struggle but through the repeated practice of letting go, there are a lot of ways to banish them during the practice of meditation that leads to silence. One is to let them go with the exhalations you are counting for your meditation (up to ten and then repeat). Another, as Evagrius tells us, is to push one thought away with another. A third, Buddhist method, is simply to stare neutrally at the thought until it dissolves. A fourth is simply to return to the mantra or prayer-word as soon as you realise you’ve been distracted, if you’re doing that sort of meditation. Another is to ask yourself, ‘why am I clinging to this thought?’ and nine times out of ten it will vanish. 
It often feels that absolutely nothing at all is happening in meditation, but don’t be fooled: the breath-counting, or mantra, the repetition of a prayer word, or object you are meditating on is tying up the focus of your self-consciousness, giving it just enough to chew on, so its interference is out of the way and the right hemisphere can get to work out of your sight. Walking in nature is also a good way to set aside self-consciousness and allow insight to flow. In walking you don’t have to do anything but walk: the self-conscious mind will blur in and out. Gradually those who practice silence realise that profound changes are occurring out of sight, and that the most important work is, figuratively speaking, to keep your hands off and stick to the meditation. Occasionally in meditation time will spontaneously ‘drop out of mind’, which we can recognise only after the fact, but such events cannot be forced and cannot be sought, because—the paradox of intention again—the more you pursue the suspension of self-consciousness, the farther away it recedes and the more one is locked into his or her self-consciousness.
There is another practice of silence I want to mention, perhaps one of the most important, and that is learning to sit perfectly still for half an hour, perfectly relaxed mentally and physically, not meditating or doing anything with the mind except allowing the silence to seek it. This can be done, like learning to meditate, in increments. Even if you only manage to do this once for half an hour it is life-changing. It gives you a resource you can draw on at any time, especially when things are fraught. 
Gradually, over time, again without your knowing why or how, silence will seat itself in you, in your core, and you can access it with increasing fluidity. In fact eventually you will be living from the wellspring of silence instead of having silence as something you seek. It will come to live in your core.
Silence is ecological, our natural habitat, not the world of noise that surrounds and stresses us. It’s no wonder that so many people are subject mental illness. When humans first emerged on the savannah they learned to communicate, yes, but if they were not to get eaten, silence had to predominate. Let me illustrate what I mean. I have spent a lot of time in Alaska, out in the wilderness alone, traveling by kayak. You have to save your VHS radio for emergencies, so you count on your skin’s sensitivity to humidity and barometric pressure to let you know when a storm is coming. Or, in a not so isolated situation, once, not far from the Arctic Circle, I was picking blueberries from a group of tall bushes at the top of a hill. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I got out of there, fast. 
When I reached the bottom of the hill my friends were hugely relieved because a very large grizzly bear had also started picking berries on the other side of the bush where I couldn’t see, hear or smell it. But clearly my body had picked up his presence. Perhaps another example of the entanglement that reveals itself in silence? I would not be here talking to you if I hadn’t been picking berries in silence
The same is true of fishing. Some young people take radios out on their boats when they are fishing, but they aren’t the people who catch the fish. Those are the old timers who will tell you, ‘I don’t know what I mean but the only way I can say it is that I listen for the fish.’ These are very practical silent ways of knowing that we have forgotten to our detriment and that of the planet. But all is not lost: it is possible to take the most die-hard city slicker out into the wilderness of a place like Alaska and these subtle senses that are out of sight of our self-conscious minds, will come alive. But you don’t have to go all the way to Alaska to practice silence. It can be done any time, any where, even in the noisiest contexts. I knew one novice-mistress who used to take her novices to the airport and the subway to teach them this.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Silent Knowing II

In light of the paradox of intention we can see how certain passages of the bible make sense: for example, you lose your life to gain it. Without the input of the right hemisphere, the self-conscious mind is closed and a simulacrum, the pseudo-life that needs to be broken open. When we have seemingly ‘lost’ this artificial construct, the source of our real life can be accessed through the right hemisphere. I think the ancient and medieval worlds understood this paradox but didn’t have the psychological language. We have the psychological language, but have lost the insight about the paradox. In consequence, we have mis-translated and misinterpreted many ancient and medieval texts.
I want to make a slight digression here to suggest an analogy I have just begun to work on. The elements of a paradox, which is spatial, cannot be dismantled without destroying the meaning of a paradox. Paradoxes, far from being impasses, are descriptors, gateways, portals. When we come across them they momentarily silence the self-conscious mind because it can’t cope with something non-linear. It is possible to learn to use paradoxes as jumping off places into silence. But we can also think of paradoxes as being entangled in a way analogous to entangled particles. Even if entangled particles are situated at opposite ends of the universe, if you change the charge on one, the charge on the other will simultaneously change. On January 16, the BBC 4 broadcast an absolutely fascinating hour long programme called Einstein’s Quantum Riddle on how this theory of quantum entanglement was proved. One enterprising neuro-psychiatrist has already suggested that entanglement may eventually help us to explain the mind-brain mystery. I think when we are talking about silent knowing and silent relating we can see how important both the notions of entanglement and the paradox of intention are.
Now in light of all this, I want to say a word about the very vexed subject of experience. Originally the word is French and it meant, and still means, to experiment; in our sense it should include discernment, but often doesn’t. The word only began to take on the self-reflexive, left brain character that it has now at the end of the 14th century. All, absolutely ALL of what we call experience is self-conscious interpretation. Before we interpret and name its contents, the world is an abstraction. For example, the light coming into our eyes has to be interpreted by the brain before we can say we have seen an image. First of all, the brain has to figure out which pattern is being seen—a dog or a cat, and second it has to turn it right side up, as the pattern comes in to the retina upside down.
At the end of the Divine Comedy, as Prue Shaw recounts in her marvellous book, Dante ‘…has an intuition, though he cannot remember it, of the …union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Then his imagination fails as his intellect and will rotate, turned by the love that moves the heavens.’ (Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, p. 254) Intuition lies somewhere on the border of the event horizon where the traces from the right hemisphere communicate themselves to self-consciousness. It is important to remember that these processes work at lightning speed beyond our ken, and that both hemispheres are needed for most actions, with one or the other predominating.
Even merely noticing that something has happened to us is already interpretation. From all of this it can be seen that the term ‘mystical experience’ is not a paradox but a contradiction. Wittgenstein notes that birth and death are not experiences at all because there is no self-consciousness. God may be in the experience, but the experience is not God, and we can never know for sure if the traces left in our imagination, communicated to our self-consciousness, which it then interprets, arise merely from our wishful thinking or are a gift of grace. We can only give thanks for what we are given and wait in hope and unknowing. As Meister Eckhart says, if it can be named, it is not God.(German Works p. 204) Or, as he says in another place, if you’re doing something special it is not God.
Thus, the popularity today of hunting for so-called ‘religious experiences’ is not only futile, it is a form of hubris; it will only lock the hunter more tightly in the circularity of his or her own self-consciousness. This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek contexts that will help us be continually open to what God will give us. Certainly there are pre-verbal self-conscious events on the event horizon that we try to interpret to ourselves through language which we call ‘religious experience’, but the really significant events are those where self-consciousness is elided partially or completely, and the right hemisphere, which draws on far more than we have any idea, has a chance to leave new traces and insights, which we then may interpret as ‘experience’. 
For example, Teresa of Avila often says something to the effect that she couldn’t possibly put into words what happened to her but then she comes up with an elaborate metaphor of seeing Christ magnificently dressed as the king of Spain. Or there is the famous mutual ecstasy of Augustine and Monica at Ostia (Conf. IX:10). Ecstasy means standing outside, that is, standing outside self-consciousness, in their case, a mutual total attention on God. The key here is that, first, Augustine tells us that ‘we were in the present’ as opposed to past and future, and second, the Latin in Augustine’s Confessions says that their souls were amplified and they had access to the wisdom of God. He also says that in their ascent they came to their minds and went beyond them. The amplification is a clue that they were no longer subject to the constraints of self-consciousness and were plunged into the ineffable, which then left traces. He says, Then with a sigh, leaving the first fruits of the Spirit bound to that ecstasy, we returned to the sounds of our own tongue.Again, the key is the first fruits (the traces) bound to ecstasy and returning to the sounds of speech.
Or, there is the 19th and 20tth century Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, who wrote: ‘As long as we exercise extreme care, one of the benefits of silent prayer may be that we lose ourselves in spiritual contemplation of the Infinite Being.’ (Hans Boersma, Seeking God, p. 350)
Of course we will never know for sure what happens to anyone having such encounters, but it is very dangerous and genuinely misleading to apply words such as ‘experience’ to such occasions. This is one reason that the great spiritual guides of the past—and one or two in the present—say that if something like this happens to you, above all don’t talk about it. From what has been said above we can understand that anything we say will be reductive and scatter or freeze the energy, or grace bestowed by the event, and preclude insight that might come from it. Better, like Mary, to guard these things in our hearts and let them reveal their meaning, or lack of it, in their own good time. 
I think we should get rid of the word ‘mystic’ and its cognates, which have caused so much harm. Nevertheless, if I were asked to define it, I would say that mysticism is ‘living the ordinary through transfigured perception’. Note that I don’t say ‘transformed perception.’ Transform is a very misleading word in Christianity as it means changing one thing into another. What happens rather is that God takes us exactly as we are and transfigures us into glory. This is also the reason that the use of ‘true self’ and false self’ is so destructive, because it implies that some of the self, the part we don’t like, is left behind. It is precisely through our darkness that salvation arises. As Julian of Norwich notes, our sins become our glory—indeed, they are precisely the way to glory. Sin is behoovely.