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.


Blogger Vasso-Athene said...

Dear Maggie Ross,I am now a regular reader of your wonderful (literally) blog, which I find trustworthy, comforting and true. I am very sorry that, having given such succour to others, your winter has been so difficult and I hope you feel much better soon. Best wishes from Vasso-Athene

12:45 pm, March 06, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for your concern and good wishes; I'm afraid it has only become worse, as due to a critical blunder made by those who handle my finances, I am going back to Alaska to sell up. I am now down to zero. There are millions of people in this situation; at least I have something to sell.

4:06 pm, March 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to just sit around and look inward at the incredible mystery of it. Instead I had to work, deal with difficult situations and constant interruptions. I felt constantly enraged at everything, all the constant intrusions.

Years later I was talking with a colleague about that time, and she told me what a model of serenity I had seemed.

It's nice that you had the chance to 'see' yourself fulfilling a purpose you didn't realize you even had at that moment! Prayers continuing for you as always.

11:00 pm, March 08, 2009  

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