Monday, February 23, 2009

Green Faith Day III

What is the most useful thing we could all do to protect the environment?

Learn the work of silence.

The root cause of climate change (and most of our other problems) is that we have lost our core silence, inherent in our evolution, essential to our survival. Proof of this is our preoccupation with wildlife programmes on TV; as we watch the animals' core silence at work in their relationships with each other and their environment, we are looking at our own lost nature. Recent studies are suggestive: we can relieve stress to a certain extent simply by looking at a photograph of the natural world. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is now a psychosis known as "Deprivation of Nature Psychosis" , which afflicts urban dwellers.

The more we re-familiarize ourselves with nature, immersing ourselves in it physically, learning to see, hear and sense its subtle messages, the greater the interior healing; and with our healing, a greater sensitivity towards the earth. We see the healing impact of nature all the time in Alaska where elderly people come to learn how to die (even if they may not be aware that this is their agenda), and problems with alcohol suffered by Native people can often be relieved simply by their returning to fish camp and their traditional foods and ways.

Alaska's indigenous Elders know that to survive you must listen. Deeply. For them, when they are out in the wilderness or on the sea-ice, a mistake is the same as a lie, and a lie is the same as murder. For this reason Native peoples also regard with horror the white person's habit of ripping time away from space and motion, of which it is a function, and treating it as a discrete entity.

Our toxic, phantasmagorical pseudo-world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. A life of illusion adores only what it can consume and lives solely for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of deception and arrogance that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence. But when he comes, will he find faith on the earth?

One reason that the "dominion over nature" problem developed (see Question 2) is that human beings lost the balance between silence and speech. It's ironic that the Genesis story can be interpreted as the moment that balance is lost, leading to hallucinations—the paranoia, the flaming sword. God doesn't punish; God just heaves a great sigh and makes Adam and Eve some clothes. Their altered perspectives stemming from the distraction of the first conversation changes their relationship with and attitude towards the earth (once a gift, now a toil).

It is a sad fact that the institutional church has exacerbated the loss of this needful balance between silence and speech. By the time of the Council of Constance, which was held in the second decade of the 15th century, the hierarchy had effectively banned silence, for its members knew that a person who has been educated by silence has matured to an autonomy that cannot be coerced. The rise of the 14th century mystics can be seen as a protest against the institution's growing insistence on mind control and a relentless infantilization of its people.

This suppression of silence was so effective that between the death of Nicholas of Cusa and the birth of Martin Luther, silence, taught as a practice and used as an interpretive tool, completely disappeared from the official institutional repertoire. By the time Luther became trapped in his nightmare feedback loop of language about sin and damnation, no one knew how to help him. Although he had an instinct towards the work of silence, he was trapped by the language wars of the time. Sadly, the institutional church is still incapable of helping us recover our silence because it no longer knows, understands or teaches it. If we want to learn to live happily in simplicity, then we must recover the work of silence on our own. The laity are the church; we need not and cannot wait for the hierarchy. (The work of silence was preserved by certain humanists, dissenters, metaphysical poets and hymn-writers down through the 19th century; in the 20th by people such as Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.)

Religion without silence is madness because religion is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour, the resurrection of the mind through the body. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. If the people making the rules and writing the doctrines do not practice the silence from which these doctrines arise, then religion gets bent out of shape.

The work of silence can be described very simply: it is the process of getting beyond the noise of our own minds. Anyone who has practiced single-pointed meditation is familiar with it (counting the breath, focusing on a phrase). Merely learning to sit perfectly motionless and utterly relaxed for thirty minutes can change your life. But meditation is only the beginning of the work of silence. One of its goals is to help us to learn to seek silence our "default" setting; that is to say, that instead of turning on the radio as soon as we come home, to reach inward, beyond the noise, and tap into that core silence. After one meditates for a while, this silence becomes more accessible; one can go there directly without much in the way of mediating steps. With time, there is a continual flow between this core silence and ordinary thinking so that the balance between speech and silence is re-established. But be warned: this growth will alienate you from consumer culture.

This conference urges us to take action on climate change. But all the talk is pointless unless we recover the work of silence, which alone can help us change our consumer habits. So-called "will power" will not work. The work of silence enables us to want to live simply. When we repeatedly yield all our cravings, all our thoughts and ways to the silence, its mysterious transfigurative power will effect the necessary changes to our habits and our lives. Without it, we are trapped in the cycle of heedlessness.

I have deliberately used non-religious language to describe this process, but it is only a short step to understanding that however else the bible is interpreted, the work of silence is a major theme running through it, particularly through the New Testament. Paradox is often a signal that this theme is present: "Who loses life shall gain it" is the most obvious example. The bible keeps trying to turn our attention away from narcissistic distraction towards the face of the divine; yet the practices of modern religion makes us more reflexive. Bible translations are only one example: the loss of the God-ward word for the wondrous exchange, "behold," has been replaced by the reflexive and analytical words "see" or "look here". The sort of ignorance that gives rise to these dreadful, unmusical and often unreadable translations, is symptomatic of how serious the impact of the loss of the work of silence has become.


Blogger Don LaBranche said...

Dear Ms. Ross,

The Adult Sunday school at my (Lutheran) church recently studied a book on Luther's theology ("for armchair theologians") and so I was attracted by this sentence in your post.

"By the time Luther became trapped in his nightmare feedback loop of language about sin and damnation, no one knew how to help him."

I've been mulling over this since I read it yesterday and have a sense of its importance...speaking as it does to the existence of the Lutheran confession at the very least, and quite possibly to the Reformation itself. Big stuff.

I wonder if you could take a few moments to flesh out what you're thinking with this sentence?

Thank you for the work you are doing.
I wish you safe travel.

Don LaBranche

2:44 pm, February 24, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Don,

You're right. It's Big Stuff.

I have expanded on this theme in an article "Jesus in the Balance" in the Lutheran journal "Word and World" to be published in April. It is also expanded in a book "Silence: A User's Guide", which I hope to finish this year. For copyright reasons I can't publish the article for a year on my blog.

However, if you will send me your email (I intercept all comments so it won't be published) I can correspond with you privately.

Thanks for your interest.


9:21 am, February 25, 2009  
Blogger Bo said...

That was beautiful. And very true. Thank you for it. Travel safely!

9:29 am, February 26, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks, Mark!

10:45 am, February 26, 2009  

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