Monday, March 03, 2008

Mud and Spittle

Sermon for St Saviour's, Bar Harbor, Maine
Lent IV, March 2, 2008, Lectionary A

Samuel is one of the great tragic figures of the Old Testament. In today's reading he is a mature man, but we first meet him as the sensitive young child who can still hear the voice of God while most others have gone deaf. But what he hears from God is terrifying: the coming destruction of the kind old man Eli and his wastrel sons.

It's a very dangerous thing to assume we have heard the voice of God. Often what we hear is far from the Word, caught as we are in the feedback loops of our own minds. By contrast, Samuel had the clarity of vision traumatized children often have, aware of the inevitable consequences of dysfunctional activity around him. To interpret the story this way does not diminish either its importance or the presence of God within it.

The prophetic vocation is often misunderstood: a prophet does not channel energy from a divine object or predict the future. A prophetic person is committed, sometimes against their will, to the purity of heart that is able to see through smoke and mirrors, that points to unavoidable consequences unless something is radically changed. Such a vocation is costly, and Samuel paid the price. But the price is not always a negative one.

The amazing number of people who braved the snow to participate in Bread and Silence at Hulls Cove yesterday suggests that the prophetic spirit is at work in Maine, that there is a movement toward clarity and stillness that is counter to the noise and narcissism that characterizes many institutional churches in other parts of the country, and much of the spiritual marketplace.

When we do the work of silence, we allow our concerns to fall away as our minds come to a single focus. It is the equivalent of having our eyes anointed with mud and spittle. Silence washes us in the pool of Siloam.

As we are bathed, what we have relinquished slips into a deeper part of the pool where the silence becomes transfigurative. Within this silence, all the perceptions by which we live—data, emotions, traumas, interpretations, what we call "experience"—are changed, and our lives are given back to us clarified, healed, a new creation.

This process can be put into religious language: losing your life to gain it, for example. But unless we understand what religious language refers to, where it comes from and what it is trying to do, it tends to deteriorate into slogans and clichés.

Religion is not about believing seven impossible things before breakfast; it is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour. Religion and its language become bent out of shape if the people using the metaphors, making the rules and writing the doctrine do not practice silence.

One of the main reasons for this distortion is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the authentic work of silence, which is organic and focuses us away from our selves, and speech, which can only ever be dualistic and self-regarding. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns.

Silence is normative for the human person. Humans have been around for about 2 million years. We only started talking about 200,000 years ago, and writing about 9,000 years ago. For most of our human existence our core silence enabled us to survive in the wilderness. We haven't lost this gift; it's the reason we are fascinated by wildlife programmes on TV, because as we watch the animals' core silence enable them to be at home in their environment and their relationships with one another, we are looking at our own lost nature.

Without silence we lose our humanity. Life and language become flat and one dimensional—life imitating not art but cartoons. Shared silence is essential to enduring relationships, and those that seem irrevocably damaged can often be reconciled by sitting in silence together.

But what is happening in the silence?

Anyone who observes their own mind can understand some basic things about it. The most superficial level is characterized by noise. There is the observing I/eye which comments on everything and can make us really miserable. There is the swirl of data coming in, which is distorted even before we register it at the second level of interpretation as "experience"—and it's important to remember that all experience is interpretation. There is something called "identity", a pastiche of what we surmise (usually wrongly) other people think of us, what we think of them, of ourselves and any number of other red herrings. In other words, in its ordinary state, this first level of the mind is a mess and it is out of this mess that we try to deal with the day-to-day world. No wonder our lives often seem chaotic. No wonder we have the urge to blot it all out.

But doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to get beyond the noise that give the mind enough breathing space to sort things out. In fact, forgetting the mind for a moment, if you can simply train your body to sit upright in a chair, perfectly relaxed and perfectly motionless for thirty minutes, you will acquire an unshakeable interior stability to which you can always resort.

To include the mind you can use any simple meditation technique, from counting exhalations to following a word into silence, allowing all expectation to fall away; resting in the breath and the single point of the number or the word. But meditation is only one way into silence, and only the first step. We also have to feed the silence with images and texts, with leisurely liturgy where sacred signs efface themselves, pointing always beyond.

We need to understand that the mind functions in a series of narratives, paradoxes and reversals. Religious texts are written with narratives, paradoxes and reversals that mirror this working of the mind. They reflect the fact that we have to forget in order to remember and we have to remember in order to forget. Scientific research has confirmed what all of us know anyway, that we have to "sleep" on what we learn. Whatever we've been trying to memorize won't seat itself until we've let it go out of conscious thought for a while. On the other hand, if we're recovering from a traumatic experience, we have to remember what happened, look at it objectively, and stare at it until it dissolves into the silence.

Or take the phenomenon of the word on the tip of the tongue. We have no chance of recovering the lost word, of breaking out of the feedback loop, unless we forget both what we can't remember and that we are trying to remember, and even then there is no guarantee it will be given back. This sort of forgetting without expectation or guarantee is a good example of what religious people call "faith" but it's operative in scientists too, no matter what they want to call it, for the phenomenon is universal to human beings.

In other words, there's part of the mind over which we have no direct control. We can access it only indirectly, but it will work for us in a positive way if we let it; the more we choose to use it, the more powerful its effects. Earlier I called it transfigurative silence, and it is to this silence that we need to consign our grief, our pain and everything else. In this silence, out of our sight, Christ comes most powerfully to meet us, and it is here that our wounds, like his, become glorified.

Today's Epistle and Gospel use the paradoxes of light and darkness, blindness and sight, knowing and unknowing to reflect the healing process I have just described. If we think we know the whole story, if we think we see a situation clearly, if we think we are sure we are enlightened, we are probably caught in one of those distorting feedback loops. This is particularly true when we are struggling with grief and pain. It is impossible to think our way through them.

The rational mind is limited by its desire to control, manipulate, and circumscribe, while trauma disturbs us at levels beyond the reach of rationality. We try to control the pain, when what we need to do is to relinquish our thoughts about it to the silence and rest there. The old familiar hymn, "Take it to the Lord in prayer" is precisely about this process. In fact, it's amazing how many of the old hymns describe and enhance the work of silence, if only we will pay attention. Realizing our shared nature with God is the work of poets, not academic theologians.

Pain is a reality but it is not truth, and the work of silence enables us to live the truth of our selves. It's hidden within our core silence. The final paradox is that we can never know our own truth, we can only live it. When we say to someone, "Don't be so self-conscious; just be yourself," we're saying, don't look at the construct we call identity, focus completely on the task at hand and let the chips fall. It's only when we look away from our selves that we can live our own truth; "who loses life shall gain it."

Over time, if we persist with the practice of silence, we not only engage the world from the depths and clarity of that truth, we become whole, autonomous, incoercible, and our own interior state ceases to be of much interest. The fear of death disappears. Pain is still there, but it becomes a bass line to the hymn the soul sings as it realizes its shared nature with God.

Early Christians were far more concerned with the resurrection of the mind through the body in this present life than of the body alone in an afterlife. They were not focused on heaven and hell; they looked for a new creation by means of the kingdom of heaven within.

They did not deny sin, grief and loss, but they held them in the light of God. They understood that in the work of silence, tears mingle pain and joy like honey in the comb, as John Climacus says. These tears arise far more from awareness of the unbearable mercy that enfolds our wretchedness than the wretchedness itself. Early Christians were keen psychologists: they knew that too much emphasis on what troubles us simply gives it more power over us, while opening our hearts to the gaze of mercy brings us to awestruck wonder.

We are approaching the darkness of Holy Week from which the light of the resurrection comes forth. The cross is in fact the first part of the work of silence, where we labor to ungrasp, to relinquish everything; to become blind so we can see, and deaf so we can hear, to rest in unknowing where true knowledge alone may be found.

As we are stretched ever deeper into silence we hear Jesus say, "Even in this moment, right now, right here on the cross, you are with me in paradise." We go with him to the tomb. He descends with us to our own hell and sets us free. In the depth of silence we are en-Christed with him. And there he turns our sorrow into joy, a joy that no one can take from us.


Blogger Alexander Massey said...

What I hear in your writing is that true Silence and God are one and the same thing. To enter or embrace either, is to enter and embrace both.

It also puts me in mind of a passage from Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' (1947):

"The point is that Buddhahood, Enlightenment, cannot be communicated but only the way to Enlightenment. This doctrine of the incommunicability of the Truth beyond names and forms is basic to the great Oriental, as well as to the Platonic, traditions. Whereas the truths of science are communicable, being demonstrable hypotheses rationally founded on observable facts, ritual, mythology and metaphysics are but guides to the brink of a transcendent illumination, the final step to which must be taken by each in his own silent experience. Hence one of the Sanskrit terms for sage is muni, 'the silent one'. Sakyamuni (one of the titles of Gautama Buddha) means 'the silent one or sage (muni) of the Sakya clan'. Though he is the founder of a widely taught world religion, the ultimate core of his doctrine remains concealed, necessarily, in silence." (pp.33-4)

2:10 pm, March 05, 2008  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thank you. Silence is so hard to get to in this world. But we need it no more than ever.

Sometimes I wonder if that blind man was sometimes dismayed by what he could now see. When we see, we are responsible to respond to what we see. Blindness gives us a claim to ignorance. That's why, when we understand something, we say "I see."

But this is a story of grace, freely given, and not understood by those who stand outside the giving: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see."

2:17 am, March 06, 2008  

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