Monday, July 13, 2009

IX The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination, or, She Who Lie Down With Dogs Catch Fleas

[NB A reminder that the current series of posts is a chapter from a book published in 1994 and should be read accordingly. The reference to The Way of Silent Love vol. III is either The Freedom of Obedience or Poor Therefore Rich (sorry, can't remember which was published first and online time is very limited in my current location.]


There is nothing so simple as prayer and the journey into God. One needs but to sit in stillness with an open heart. The rest is sheer gift, the grace of Love alone.

Prayer is the mystery of the Resurrection by which we are drawn to the Father.

Modern advances in psychology have helped us better to understand what happens in our interior silence, but psychology is no substitute for still-prayer. One thing that has come clear is that we have to know enough of the truth of our selves [35] to have an unfolding truth to give to God. The truth of our self is continually emerging from silence and cannot be categorised; it is not the ego, or the much-vaunted self-image, which is primarily an illusory fantasy construction of a personality in search of itself. And the silence has to be fed, carefully, for in the silence, nothing is eliminated or left behind. ‘Our past goes before us,’ as St. Augustine (much misunderstood and fashionably maligned) observed.

Yet there is nothing so difficult as this still-prayer, for it requires that we relinquish our wilfulness. We are always devising ways wilfully to distract ourselves from the sometimes frightening confrontation with the holy, and the willingly docile receptivity required to receive it. Distraction which contemporary so-called spirituality provides in vast amounts. The ‘spirituality’ fad is riding the Thatcherite wave. It has become a market commodity and has created a ‘priesthood’ and clericalism of its own. [36]

The commodity mentality is evidenced by the occasional visitor, always someone I have never seen before, who comes into my study, sits down, and starts talking, can’t stop talking, talking without a break about this programme and that, Jung, Myers-Briggs, Ignatian spirituality, enneagrams, pilgrimages, the newest form of therapy.... I wait in silence, not that I could stem the flood even if I wanted to. Often the person is badly in need of basic psychotherapy. Usually the person has had a genuine glimpse of God, but has been fruitlessly searching for the ‘right’ way to go about pursuing it (the slot syndrome again). Usually the person is deeply angry, ‘angry unto death’ (Jonah 4,9), and angry at the time and, frequently, the large sums of money they feel they have wasted, realising at some level that something basic is missing and has never been addressed. [37]

We live not in the New Age but in the new age of empire-building celebrity gurus, spiritual technology and commodity ‘spirituality’. [38] Who was it who said that con artists succeed because in their heart of hearts people want to be fooled? A close look at some of these movements reveals further evidence of control. More than one Roman Catholic friend of mine (including a Jesuit) agrees that it is worrying to realise that St. Ignatius emerged in the Counter-Reformation and that so-called Ignatian spirituality is being revived under the present pontiff.

Similarly, behind the somewhat dubious claims of techniques such as the Myers Briggs inventory are yet more tools of ‘spiritual’ control. Such strategies simply put people more firmly in their slots, and amplify an erroneous impression of ‘normal’, which in its deep sense means not ‘according to a universal standard’ but rather ‘true to type’. Most of what goes on in the ‘spirituality’ movement appeals to the desire for a quick fix and the narcissistic pleasures of watching oneself be a ‘mystic’, which amounts to little more than additional distraction and further layers of self-consciousness. When added to the problematic British penchant for acting, an individual’s spiritual dilemma can seem byzantine. Much of it carries the loaded message of the self-help movement that there is always something more wrong with us that needs to be fixed—by us. Only God can effect the grace of transfiguration. Whatever made us presume to manipulate the holy? Whatever happened to the mystery of the human person, whose simple gaze on God can be more healing than years with a psychotherapist? Whatever happened to ‘sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything’?

Which is not to say that psychotherapy does not have its place. But in the last ten years psychotherapy seems to have abandoned its brief of helping people to recognise the truth of the self, of helping them towards maturity, which includes, among other criteria, the ability to postpone gratification and the ability to live with ambiguity. Psychotherapy (over 400 psychotherapies at last count—makes you wonder) also has joined the commodity market. This is especially true in the United States. In Britain, psychotherapy seems more like drip feed, and the subtext is that if you have let the side down enough to ask for help, then, bad luck, you’re a write-off. From an American perspective, British psychotherapy seems divided into schools that vaguely resemble the cultish groups one associates with Glastonbury. In addition, the few British psychotherapists I have met seem very much de haut en bas, which is not encouraging. I must admit that my point of view is influenced by the stories of the people who sit in the tear-drenched guest chair, and that I exaggerate (but only a little) to make a point.

To each their own poison, but whatever it is, the subtext, once again, is control. So-called lay ministry, especially when it takes the form of that loathsome phrase ‘spiritual direction’ can quickly degenerate into admission to the foyer of the clerical club, glamour and power by association. No degree or course of instruction can create a spiritual person, or a person capable of discernment.

'The life of prayer entails going beyond without end, a refusal to rest content, a thirst for the infinite that shatters the pious, safe idols we are endlessly making one after another. This is the desert.

'It is possible to live for years alone in a cell, occupied solely with the things of God, without even passing the threshold of solitude, for want of leaving an infantile world people with images, ‘spiritual’ pleasures, and words without end. An entire world that reflects only the multiple facets of our own self and our unconscious desires. it is this self that one risks adoring, and not God. We need images, sensibility, concepts, but we must know how to go beyond, to leave the surface to plunge into the silence of faith, the humility of solitude, the boundless infinity of Love.

'Get behind me, Satan! Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

'The way of faith is a Way that is not a way. It is the mysterious world of the Resurrection. It is Christ, his death and his life. It is the Spirit who blows where it will. It is the Father whose infinite love cannot ever be circumscribed. Let us leave our selves to be borne by the Spirit towards the Father, ever renewing our abandonment in Christ.

‘We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.’ (I Jn. 5,20-21) [39]


[35] See my ‘Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self' cited above.
[36] See Sister Lavinia Byrne’s description of ‘spiritual direction’ as a ‘master-slave’ relationship in Sharing the Vision, London, SPCK, 1989, p. 21.
[37] The West has become a haven for spiritual charlatans.’ Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, an invaluable book for getting fresh perspective.
This is not, however, to idealise Tibetan Buddhism, which shares many of the same problems with Christianity and other religions. It is only recently, for example, that the Dalai Lama has encouraged Tibetan nuns to become literate and read the scriptures (he is the first to do so) or to note the squalor and poverty in which they often live.
[38] For an apt parable, see Julian Barnes comments on the decline of caroling in ‘Letter from London: The Maggie Years’ in The New Yorker, 15 November, 1993.
[39] The Way of Silent Love, vol. III, forthcoming.


Blogger Bo said...

You are a damn tough one, you know that!? This was a searching read, and a very helpful one. x Mark

3:15 pm, July 20, 2009  
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3:09 pm, January 18, 2010  

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