Tuesday, March 31, 2009

He Outpoured Himself . . .

To reflect on one's own mind does not require education: as Jean Gerson (1363-1429) remarked, "Even women and idiots can reach the highest levels of contemplation." Humans have long understood that while self-consciousness—the awareness that we are aware, the observing I/eye—seems to distinguish us as humans from animals, its elision opens us to the divine. To realize our full humanity, we must put on divinity. To realize our divinity, we must put on the "mind of Christ" (the work of silence).

To put on the mind of Christ means a kenotic relinquishing all of the contents of our self-consciousness—experience, perspective, interpretation, emotion, imaginative stereotypes and projections—into silence so that we may be sprung from the trap of our own circular thinking. This breakout is salvation, for everything that we call "law" arises from the insecurity underlying the world of illusion we create with our self-consciousness, driven by its fear of death. (Heb. 2:15)

Imitation opposes the mind of Christ. To imitate is to pursue a life based on imaginative stereotypes and projections, which are easily formed and insinuated by a controlling hierarchy. Imitation, however piously and devoutly meant, becomes a kind of religious performance art, progressively reductive with the passage of time. Imitation breeds dependence on arbiters of stereotype and fear of consequence if one does not measure up. By contrast, putting on the mind of Christ results in an inviolable vulnerability, a healthy autonomy and an unshakeable integrity.

[For the full article, see "Jesus in the Balance" in Word and World, April, 2009]

Thursday, March 26, 2009

God and Mammon

My dear Readers,

"You cannot serve God and Mammon."

These are difficult times for everyone. Perhaps one of the most discouraging aspects of the economic downturn is the sense of betrayal many of us feel for having entrusted our money to "financial managers" who, while assuring us they would guarantee our security, were interested only in taking management fees and making money for the brokerage houses to which they are linked.

Our expressions of anxiety were repeatedly met with "You're all right" even when the situation was very wrong. We were never offered alternative options, e.g., to get out of the market and put everything into CDs, but locked into the brokerage mentality that assured us that the managers were experts and we were idiots. When these attitudes combined with the market crash and the inexcusable ignorance of these managers as to how stocks would be valued if they fell beyond a certain point, some of us were wiped out.

It is not easy to acknowledge the fact that the people one has trusted—in this case there had been two generations of association—are not trustworthy; that their claims of competence are questionable; that they are not listening to your concerns over the years about getting out of the markets completely (because they would make less money off of you); and that they do not have your best interests at heart.

Those of us who are engaged in some way in trying to make a difference to human lives, for whom money is a means to an end and not an end in itself, have been particularly vulnerable to this sort of cynical exploitation that cloaks itself as interest in our well-being.

"To sell all you have...." is a phrase that in the present circumstances can seem both grimly ironic and entirely apropos. Along with the sense that one is looking down a black hole, there is also, however, a tremendous sense of freedom. For those seeking simplicity, the anxiety of markets often created dissonance and stress, as did property ownership.

Like many others, I never thought I would be in a position in which I didn't have enough money to live on for the last few years of my life, but, having sold everything—house and contents, anything that might bring in a few dollars—by the end of April I will leave my present location without really knowing what will happen to me, though I am exploring every possible route to find a job or an arrangement where the gifts of solitude may be shared.

But wherever I am I will try very hard to keep posting on this blog.

My goal has always been "to give and not to count the cost," as the old English prayer expresses it, but now it is necessary to ask if you are able to help. Three churches have said they will receive donations on my behalf:

The Rev. Jonathan Appleyard
St. Saviour's Parish
41 Mount Desert Street
Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, USA

The Rev. Roger Greene
St Timothy's Episcopal Church
8101 Beechmont Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45230

The Rev. Scott Fisher
St Matthew's Episcopal Church
1030 2nd Ave
Fairbanks, AK 99701

If you are able to donate, thank you. If you are not, please pray for me, and know that I will pray for you.

With my love and gratitude,

Maggie Ross

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Green Faith Day V

5. Can you give us an example from creation of something that inspires your faith and explain why?

On November 5, 2001, seven weeks after the attack on New York, there was a display of aurora borealis so intense it was visible as far south as Alabama.

Unlike most auroral displays, which are unstable and short-lived, this one went on for hours. In Southeast Alaska, we could see it even before the sun was below the horizon. The entire sky turned blood red.

An auroral corona began to form, shimmering rays of every shade of crimson from the palest pink through rich king salmon, to dark, dark magenta streaked with gold, all seeking a focal point.

Before the ability to verbalize deserted me, I was possessed by a longing for everyone in Washington, everyone in the Middle East, everyone planning violence and revenge to experience this overwhelming transcendence. If only they could see it, everything else would pale into insignificance. They couldn't fight, they couldn't . . .

Then the tears began: this is why psalms are written, this is how myths are born, holy salmon guard in their flesh the light of this blessing from heaven. . . .

I went into the house, put on my warmest parka and returned to the beach.

I lay down on stones.

Around me the horizon arced 200 degrees, a hundred miles north to south before the mountains blocked it at either end.
The aurora extended over the entire vault.

What is more, the zenith of the corona, the vanishing point at which all the rays gathered and from which they proceeded, formed above me. Cathedrals of light ascended and descended, pillars of eternity.

In some way my life ended that night. If I had turned into a block of ice while baptizing in the aurora, I would have died a happy woman.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Green Faith Day IV

4. In the areas in which you specialise, what are the key decisions that need to be made now?

a) We must return to a sense of the sacredness of ordinary life, which has been lost due to urbanization, industrialization and clericalism. The institution must authorize lay presidency of the Eucharist, especially in the villages, if these churches are not completely to disappear. This means teaching everyone who is confirmed how to do celebrate and when it might be appropriate; it means licensing, not ordination. Ordination needs to be completely re-thought; we do not need yet another para-clerical layer. Lay people are fed up with being infantilized and, what is more, the laity often have a far better liturgical sense than the clergy. The laity will not put up with magic cookies sent by courier from the cathedral.

As Cranmer tried to express in his liturgy, the Eucharist is our lives offered on the altar to be transfigured with Christ's, and if we could restore this eucharistic sense to the everyday round, we might live with greater reverence for our selves and for the earth. The loss of this eucharistic sense, which helps us realise our shared nature with the divine, combined with the negative anthropology and dualism that is an inheritance of both the Catholic and Puritan traditions, spirals our culture ever deeper into negative aspiration. The current economic and environmental crises are directly related to this negativity, and to our confusion of self-esteem for self-respect. Our low view of our selves and one another drive us to the former in the short term, often at the expense of the latter in the long term. We seem to have lost any sense of consequence.

b) It is far past time for the institution to return to the vision of God as its primary goal, for it to teach the way to that vision as the source of everything it does. "Where vision fails, the people perish," as the proverb says (29:18) To accomplish this, it needs to revamp its goals, training and selection process according to the criteria provided by the work of silence, of which the most important is: every true sacred sign effaces itself; that is, points beyond itself towards the face of God from which all true relationship and ethics flow.

At the moment we have exactly the opposite: a situation where people come to religion to try to have their pain transfigured, while the institution, deaf to need, is only interested in imposing what it thinks the laity, which it regards as ciphers and idiots, ought to know—and that confined to a merely intellectual level. The institution responds to the cry of pain with a session on the procrustean bed of programme.

Religion that has lost its proper balance with silence has lost the ability to help us realize our shared nature with the divine, and by extension, with the creation of which we are a part. Religion that has lost the practice of silence, the goal of silence, silence as an interpretive tool, is subject to all the distortions with which we are far too familiar today: hierarchy, bureaucracy, legalism, money, preferment, power, infantilization, empty and/or banal ritual, and division. Rules have no meaning if they do not issue from a vision of God, and behaviours will not change unless there is insight and trans-figuration (change of perception, the way we 'figure things out') at the deepest level of our being.

Religion has become the kingdom of noise. Its main goal appears to be the self-preservation of the hierarchy. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that much of Christianity today is in the same condition as Judaism at the time of Jesus.

c) The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten its task of bringing the transfiguring silence of the heart into the static world of noise. Clergy are no longer trained for lives of holiness but for career trajectories. It is holiness of life, not de haut en bas 'ministry' that changes and heals the world. One shattered deacon said to me, “The only thing I learned in seminary was how to lie.” If the institutional church has become part of the kingdom of noise, then it should not be surprised when those who come to worship in spirit and in truth, who seek support for living transfiguration in the world, turn away.

Of course, such radical change is far too much to expect from an institution. I can't tell you how many clergy have said, "I know this is right but I could never do this in my parish." Instead, it seems that without listening to anything but its own internal fantasies about itself, the institution will continue to tell people what it thinks they ought to know, about which the people could care less. It will continue to be deaf to the fact that the people who come to religion for help are looking for a way of transfiguration for their pain, and a vision to pursue. The institution will continue to inflict appallingly banal liturgies, theologically incorrect and poorly written translations of the bible, and general trendiness on people who seek something better than this sort of cartoon noise which merely traps them more deeply into the tediousness of everyday existence.

c) Why do clergy continue to think they have something to tell us? Many of the traditional claims of the institution will not stand up to modern scholarship, which is now widely available to everyone through books such as Saving Paradise [see previous post]. People who are educating themselves and learning the work of silence will no longer support the system's present processes and practices, which are antithetical to the gospel and destructive to the life of prayer.

d) Beyond its ignorance of the work of silence as essential to its nature and work, the basic problem of the institution is its contempt for the laity. If ministry—which is a word that should be eliminated from the ecclesial vocabulary—does not arise from contemplation then it is patronizing and exploitive.

e) Given the situation in the institution, we the laity, who are the church in fact, must go on alone. We cannot wait for the noisy institution. We need to support one another to find our way back to the core silence that reawakens our environmental and religious sensibility and brings us to spiritual maturity. Without this silence, we will be unable to change our destructive habits or realize our shared nature with God. Without silence we lose our humanity, and all that is most precious, including life itself.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Recommended Reading

Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, (Boston: Beacon, 2008).

This is the most hopeful book on Christianity I have ever read.

NB The questions and answers from Green Faith Day will resume after March 10.

Apocalypse Now

I used to live in Manhattan, but it's been decades since I flew into JFK. By a quirk of fate I landed there last Saturday under a sky that exuded grey. Grey seeped into the jetway, the terminal, the air itself. The drive into town via the Triborough Bridge was like the opening of a horror film. New York has become seedy; decay gnaws its buildings and monuments.

We passed by the old World's Fair grounds, its tower ringed with lidless eyes of broken windows, its concrete eaten with disease. Even the relatively new tennis centre seemed to apologize, and Shea is clearly showing its age. High-rise after high-rise, condemned and boarded up, loomed over us, strings of buildings in an architectural dance of death. We thudded along the bridge, pocked with potholes. Loathing, pity, fear and sorrow twisted my stomach into a queasy mass.

Along 126th Street some of the city's 100,000 homeless shuffled below windows nailed over with metal sheets. The filth seemed filthier; the noise, noisier, the screams more despairing. A foot of snow failed to purify the hopelessness even for a day.

My flight out of Newark was delayed, but I went through security anyway, hoping to find a quiet corner. First, however, there was TSA: Torture Seniors Always. There were no other passengers in sight; I was the only one going through.

I asked them to put my sandals in the x-ray and then give them back to me so that I could pass through the gauntlet like anyone else (I can't walk without supported feet) but no, I was going to be forced to submit to the humiliation of the confiscated passport, the sadistic female uniform, the pat-down, the desperate worry that my things would be stolen.

But first—ah, first there was a nightmare new sci-fi machine, an elongated vertical aluminum rectangle, like an upright shower, with weird nozzles on all surfaces, pointing inward towards the centre. My loathing turned to terror. The showers at Auschwitz flashed through my mind. No one told me what this machine was or what would happen inside it; no one spoke to me at all. I balked; I worried it was an all-body x-ray. I have had too many x-rays. For someone who had just spent five months in the rare book room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, and who rarely travels, it was a vision of hell.

Someone shouted at me. By this time I was near collapse, heart pounding, blood pressure doubtless at stroke levels. Not good for a senior. Thoroughly traumatized. I entered. A barrier slammed down behind me; a black rod blocked my way forward. Suddenly, without warning, I was blasted on every side by strong jets of foul-smelling air. A noiseless scream; I nearly fainted, froze in place. Now I was being shouted at to come out but the barrier hadn't lifted; I didn't dare touch it, not understanding that I was supposed to push it open. I emerged, babbling. It was one of the most disgusting, dehumanizing, assaults of my life. I felt as though I had been raped. I felt as though I were in a concentration camp. Which, in a sense, I was.

Shaken and nearly incoherent, I was then forced through the usual metal detector, which was set off by my glasses. I was pushed to the side into a chair, then told to walk. This woke me up and I croaked. "I keep telling you, I cannot walk without my shoes!"

My Birkenstocks were taken away.

"Stand up."

"I cannot walk without my shoes."

"Stand on this mat."

"I cannot walk without my shoes."

"Why not?"

"My feet will break."

Someone shouted something about diabetes (I don't have it, but my medical history is none of their business).

The female gestapo would have yanked me to my feet if I hadn't started to stand up slowly and painfully. She cared nothing about my pain, or my feet. She began the humiliation at a leisurely pace, the wanding, the pat-down; she clearly enjoyed it; she repeated several times. She even turned back my cuffs, told me to turn my trouser band inside out (and must have sensed that I was so shaken that I was thinking of pulling the trousers off and handing them to her, because she snapped, "Leave them on.")

Then I snapped back, "Why do you insist on torturing the elderly? Why couldn't you do the simple thing I requested and save us all this trouble? Why has TSA always been hostile to old people?" And on and on and on, my voice rising until she was finally finished and snarled, "Have a nice day."

"I want to see your supervisor."

A Hispanic man came over, obviously sympathetic.

"Why do you make this process such hell for old people? Where is common sense? We could have avoided all this unpleasantness and saved time (the queue was now building) if you had just put my sandals through and then given them back to me so I could be processed like everyone else." I shuddered at my own words. I was indeed but a cipher in prison. He said he would mention it to his superiors.

Upset turned to rage as I re-packed my computer and my baggie, retrieved my clothes, my carry-on, my computer bag, passport, boarding pass, and walked down the chute into Concourse A. But more squlaor awaited me. By Gate A18 (where my flight to Seattle was to leave from) I was choked by the stench of old frying oil; the air so heavy that droplets stuck to the inside of my nose, coating my eyes, my clothes. Crazy-making tinny drums and cymbals thumped from a loudspeaker.

To escape, I went to the other side of the concourse, beyond the barrier provided by the oval structure hiding offices and toilets. But there was no escape from the rattle and hiss, or the oil-slicked air. I became short of breath. It is no wonder, I thought, that people explode into air rage; they are goaded into it by demonic technology and small-minded people drunk on power.

I spotted another TSA officer lounging in a chair, his belly, hips and thighs overflowing into more chairs on either side, his fingers stuffing sections of an oversized and unidentifiable food item in his mouth.

"Are you on duty?"


"Can you please go over to TGI Fridays and ask them to turn that racket down?"

He smirked, "That's Port Authority." His eyes resumed their vacant stare; his features relaxed into their accustomed smugness. His fingers continued to pick and poke.

"Fine. I will tell them myself." And marched back to the other side of the concourse.

The hostess pointed me to a weedy, pimply, sallow rat-faced man behind the bar who didn't look old enough to drink, much less barkeep. When I made my request he flashed me a sick, slick programmed smile and said he would turn the sound down. As he moved away he sniggered.

I sat for nearly five hours in that greasy miasma, unable to read or do sudoku, watching the monstrous Anheuser Busch brewery on the far side of the runway belch CO2 into the atmosphere. By the time my plane was called, I was afraid I would vomit.

How could anyone remain human in this inhuman sterile vacuum, where everything and everyone is programmed, where breathing the air is like choking on plastic wrap, where anything resembling food has disappeared, where noise is inescapable, where the natural world might as well never have existed. "There is no healing for this mess we have made," I thought, despairing.

And then I recalled the remark of the exquisitely polite driver who had delivered me to the airport in his beat-up car. He was the only sign of hope in that weekend vision of the end of all things. I had quietly refused his courteous offer to turn on the radio if it pleased me, but said that he could if he needed it. He thanked me: "Silence is so hard to find in this city."

And we drove on in peace through the squalor of New Jersey under an intense blue winter sky.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Nothing Is Wasted

From a letter:

Actually I don't like using the word "self" at all. Merton put too much faith in psychoanalysis and categorization. Pseudo is not really a good word because of the pejorative connotations you note but your "would be" [would-be self] is rather good.

What God gives us is a share in the divine nature, which is not a self (since the notion of self is implicitly reflexive) but what I usually call an unfolding truth. In effect, we, who are usually in reflexive mode cannot ever know this truth and it unfolds and sometimes reveals itself to others when our attention is elsewhere.

Another way to put this is to cite Cusa, who came right out and said that the image of God in us, our shared nature, is the mind's ability to transcend itself, to outpour as God outpours (God cannot be reflexive and we cannot think of God as having a "self" as we think of it since he is pure outpouring and nonreflexive; see the Omnia and Nihil sermon on my blog). The more deeply we are in silence and stillness, the more we are outpoured (usually without being aware of it even in retrospect), and our truth has a chance to unfold. This is rather clumsily stated, I fear, but it is a step beyond what your fictional monk says, which is a very beginning, early step in this process. After years of fidelity to silence, silence becomes the 'default' of whatever part of us is not occupied with our daily business.

The problem is that most people who write about this stuff today are still stuck in making categories and analyses, when what we need to do is to get people to stop categorizing and analyzing. Ultimately, silence is not about the presence or absence of noise but a receding of boundaries.

I can give you an example from everyday life of how this unfolding truth notion works (remembering, of course, that everything we say about God is metaphorical if not a lie!). Because of a number of external pressures, I have had a very difficult winter with a lot of internal negativity, fairly continual, even losing the will to live; I knew the only thing that would save me was the discipline of being in the library when it opened at 9 AM and staying until 2 every single day—my digs are not conducive to work. Even if I just sat there taking abuse from the demons, as the late antique monks would put it, I still came in everyday, although I was able to work through all the static to a certain extent, and actually made quite a bit of progress.

Shortly after term started, a lovely man began to come in most mornings at 10. He was in his 50s, not tall, slightly rotund, small trimmed beard, beautiful expression, very focused. I was amazed at the sureness with which he went to the shelves and pulled down what he needed (Duke Humfeys is a very confusing part of the library and after years I am still learning where things are). After he left (which he normally did at lunchtime for an hour or so) I would sometimes go to the shelves to see what he was reading, because it was clear that he was a medievalist.

Most everyone who comes into this most ancient part of the library is very contained, and there is an etiquette that unless you are greeting a long-lost friend or working with a student, there is no eye-contact. But one morning after about six weeks I happened to look up as he came in and he nodded good morning.

There was no further exchange until one morning just before Christmas. The demons were worse than usual, and I was feeling very noisy indeed. Suddenly he was at my elbow, smiling down at me, and saying, "I just want to tell you that you have been the still point of my sabbatical, and I hope very much that you will be here when I come back." He went on a bit about how my presence had facilitated his work. Turns out he is the head of a world-class library.

As far as I was concerned, he might as well have been an angel of God, and who knows, maybe he was. I nearly fell out of my chair from shock, and after thanking him and, laughing, telling him that he couldn't have said anything nicer as I am a professed solitary, we parted. But I continued to chuckle to myself in a rather rueful way, because all term I had felt anything but still and silent, much less giving out vibes that might help someone else!

This is a small example what I mean by the unfolding truth of the self that we can never know. If I'd been self-consciously trying to be a still point for someone ("ministry", a word and concept we need to get rid of for precisely the reasons I'm describing here) the vibes would have been dreadful. But God, if you will, preoccupied me with all this darkness, and the struggle to work in spite of it, so that the silence of accumulated years could emerge without any interference from "me" and help this other scholar with his work.

It's also an example of why it is so dangerous to talk about true and false selves or even "good" and "bad"—these judgements are not for us to make. Who knows why I have these attacks; and how can I call them "good" or "evil" when something far beyond my knowledge was going on to benefit someone else? I know better than to say they are part of my self or my truth; this is not my business. Perhaps God knew on this occasion that just this once I needed a reminder; otherwise our self-consciousness would ruin God's work if we knew what was being done through us. The importance of refraining from judgement is also applicable to the tragedies in our lives, which are often woven (but not always) into a creative and blessed pattern we can only realize in retrospect.

And further, I think that trying to nail our selves to any mast, true, false, enneagram, Myers-Briggs, just makes the spiritual task harder and, worse, grooves more deeply and in the wrong way the very problems and wounds that we are trying to allow God to heal or work on. Listening to the Lenten liturgy, one can hear the 11th century pasted awkwardly over the early liturgies to forge an inherent contradiction: "Repent" means turn around and look at God, not pick narcissistically at your scabs. Only the face of God can heal us, and if it were our "default", the transfiguration of ourselves and one another would happen without any "programme" or imposed exercises. Julian of Norwich understands this supremely. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God [the face of God] and the rest will be added unto you." If we really understood how to do this, we would instinctively understand how to relate to each other, read the bible, make liturgies.

More and more I come back to just two phrases: "Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything" and "Seek into the beholding." There is only a certain amount of thinking about the spiritual life that is useful; we have to commit to unknowing without in any way being anti-intellectual.