Monday, April 26, 2010

The Body's Wisdom

[A talk given at a Quiet Day, February 20, 2010]

The body is as problematic today as it has been at any moment in human history. Few of us seem 'comfortable in our skins' as the old saying goes. Our toxic culture is saturated with subliminal signals that tell us there is always something more wrong with our bodies which we need to fix.

This negative attitude is magnified as we begin Lent. We are bombarded with language about sin and penitence, stories of incredible feats of fasting, images of devils, judgment, suffering and hell—all of which may in our time seem somewhat quaint. Today, however, we have an opportunity to go beneath all this negativity, to discover what asceticism means in the modern world—a notion that is more about reverencing our bodies than subjecting them to bizarre excursions into self-torture, provoked by exaggerated expressions of misplaced piety.

As we go about this task, one of the problems we face is language: dualism is inherent to language; that's one of the reasons it's so hard to talk about the interior life, which is non-dual. We tend to blame Descartes for the mind-body split, but in fact his dualism is the end result of centuries of religious and philosophical ambivalence towards the body, which often entails a confusion of feeling with function.

There is, in addition, an inheritance of mis-interpretation of accounts of ascetics' attitudes toward the body, often promoted by readers who are far more interested in text than the practice that underlies the text. And then there is the institution's interest in controlling its constituents by increasing their anxiety about their bodies, especially the other-worldly, body-denigrating, even sado-masochistic attitudes of the Counter-Reformation, which was the context in which Descartes did his work. [We have to be careful not to put Descartes before the horse.]

Contemporary science has both widened and narrowed the illusion of the body-mind split: the phony war between science and religion has widened it; recent research confirming the inextricable and mysterious body-mind integration has narrowed it. We now know, for example, that what we do with our minds changes actual structures in the brain. So if we spend days and weeks and months playing violent computer games, our brains will build structures that enable those tendencies, whereas if we do the work of silence, our brains will become increasingly adept at restoring the flow between everyday consciousness and our core silence.

More specifically, today we will be reflecting on the body's wisdom; its role in teaching the mind to let go; and the special way it can help us to draw on the wellspring of deep silence in times of greatest stress.

[To be continued.]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Introduction to War Requiem

[This brief introduction was given at Bishop's Ranch on Good Friday Evening, 2010. I've quoted the section of the libretto at the end of this post more than once on this blog, but it bears repeating again. I've drawn on the liner notes and (unusually) Wiki. The Pavilion referred to in the text is the Swing Hospitality Pavilion, a multipurpose building (see Bishops Ranch website) that is extraordinarily welcoming.]

You'll notice that there are several boxes of kleenex scattered around the Pavilion. You might want to help yourself before we start, for if ever there were a work of art about the lacrimae rerum, the tears in things, it is this one. The phrase is Vergil's. He puts it into the mouth of Aenaeus as he weeps over the futility and waste of the Trojan war. It has come to have a broader meaning, signifying the fragility, pain and contingency of existence itself.

There is a great tradition of holy weeping in Christianity, from Jesus' remark to the women of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary to weep for themselves and their children; to Isaac of Nineveh who speaks of tears giving birth to the soul; to present day Coptic monks who have a special weeping room set aside for those who wish to be discreet after receiving communion. Tears are about letting go—our claims, our fears, our rage, our sense of possession and entitlement, our ideas about God, our selves— everything. They are more than cartharsis: they open the way to the deep silence in the heart where we behold God.

I must warn you that I find it difficult even to call the War Requiem to mind without weeping, so there may be some fits and starts to this short talk. I have listened to this requiem, weeping, every year on Good Friday from the time the first recording became available. For me it sums up the entire human tragedy. In a sense, anything said about this work is too much, an intrusion, and yet it might be helpful to set it in context.

If Christianity's institutional god lost credibility in the First World War by its "God on our side" attitude, its claims to be aligned with the overweening policies of the warring powers, by the end of the Second World War, the institutional god was dead. The bombs that destroyed Coventry cathedral were symbolic of the folly, of the growing irrelevance of a religion based on class and privilege, one that with shameless cynicism trumpeted duty and honour while the peoples of the world were slaughtered.

As the liner notes remark, ". . . what had been entered upon as a war of defence and liberation [had] become one of aggression and conquest." The relevance of this phrase will not be lost on Americans in the 21st century. The notes continue: "Officialdom suppressed, and the majority of non-combatants shunned and resented, all truthful reportage of fighting experience. No-one wanted to know how bad things really were, nor to think of the 'enemy' otherwise than as a faceless monster that had to be destroyed at all costs."

Enter Wilfred Owen who shattered the romantic, even sentimental, jingoism, which was the fashion in British war poetry, with an appalled and appalling realism that spoke truth to power in no uncertain terms. He was born in 1893 in Shropshire, and raised in very modest circumstances, though his talent was recognized early on. He died in the trenches a week before the armistice at the age of twenty five. His mother received word of his death even as the town bells were ringing out to celebrate the end of hostilities, and he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for bravery in leading his troops.

He himself underwent a profound shift between his first and second tours on the Western Front. He was shell-shocked after being trapped for an extended period in a German bunker. He was sent to Scotland to recuperate, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was from the wealthy merchant class, attended Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge. His background could not have been more different to Owen's, yet he encouraged Owen's poetry and in turn, Owen, whose reputation was to eclipse that of his mentor, admired Sassoon almost to the point of idolatry.

Owen did not see the enemy as a monster, nor, he thought, should anyone:

But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

By the time Coventry Cathedral had been rebuilt in 1961, ". . .the full sorry failure of twentieth-century humanism in regard to international relations could be seen in perspective." [Liner notes] The War Requiem was commissioned for the rededication of Coventry in 1962, using the most searing of Owen's poems to form the libretto set to music by Benjamin Britten.

Britten's weaving of this poetry together with the text of the medieval Requiem exposes the vacuity of panoply, of propaganda, politics, international diplomacy, military splendor and religion. They are as nothing before the final silence, Death. The flowers for the dead, Owen observes, are not the sentimental clichés we employ in a futile attempt to frame and control death, to avoid genuine emotion, but rather "the tenderness of silent minds,/and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds." The shuttle wound with threads of memory whispers across the shimmering warp, slows and stops.

For Owen unspeakable grief and bitter irony form a stark memorial for the young men and women for whom there was no ram in the thicket, sent off to war in the name of God by uncovenanted Abrams who refused to sacrifice their pride, just as today's world leaders refuse to sacrifice theirs; who refuse to listen to any word that will not support their arrogance; who refuse to notice, much less pay attention to the carnage; who refuse to question whether they just might have got it wrong.

We cannot divorce our individual selves from this narrative: it is alive in each one of us in our refusal to have mercy on our own and on one another's weakness; in our refusal to sacrifice our selfishness so that others may survive; in our refusal to change our ways so that the planet might remain habitable for all creatures.

The solo voices in the War Requiem were written for specific people and nationalities: the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the English tenor Peter Pears, and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In Vishnevskaya's first harrowing entrance in the Dies Irae, we hear the agonized screaming of butchered innocence, the holocaust of 20 million Russians and 6 million Jews, the incomprehension of the incomprehensible madness of tyrants and fools. In Pears we hear the jaunty stiff upper lip alternating with resigned compassion at the inevitability of senseless death, the squandered hopes and shattered dreams. His duets with the German Fischer-Dieskau, whose voice resonates grief and remorse, remind us of the clandestine kindnesses German and British troops did for one another in both wars; taking breaks for soccer games, exchanging Christmas presents in the no-man's land between the trenches; then returning to their posts to resume the killing.

Owen's words in the Libera Me sum up the ghastliness and the hope, and bring us to a paradoxical resolution. The scene is set by the liner notes: ". . . the soldier encounters his enemy-comrade in some phantasmal remoteness, beyond the living world yet envisioned from a tunnelled dug-out of the Western Front. All the poem's . . . timelessness is incorporated in that cold G minor chord of imperceptibly-changing nuance, and . . . when the second soldier sings for the first time, the chord relaxes its grip and warms into another, and the human bond is establish."

"Strange friend," sings the first soldier, the English tenor, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None, said the other, the German baritone, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold.
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go upon and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried, but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century VI


This wellspring becomes the source of all we do, affecting any part of our life or mind we desire to commit to it. We can intend that any part of our mind that is not actively in use should rest there; we can learn to listen with the active part of our mind for what arises from it to inform our speech and actions. Growth into God is never a matter of either/or: we need a balance of words and silence, so that our words are logophatic, that is, that they arise from and are refined by the energy of engagement in the deepest silence where the truth of the self unfolds. [21]

The work of silence exposes the danger of words, of doctrines and dogmas written in stone. It generates a kenotic ethics, a self-emptying in our relationships that create a welcoming, safe and neutral, non-manipulative non-judgmental space where the self-outpouring truth of the other may be free to emerge and engage ours. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up, and those solitudes are healthy only insofar as they do the work of silence. Any "ministry" (a word that should be eliminated from our vocabularies along with "formation" and, above all "spiritual director") that does not have its source in the work of silence is dysfunctional, patronizing and exploitive.

All of the usual vices—pride, anger, avarice, greed, narcissism, condemnation, scorn, must be let go if we are to enter silence. It is not that we do not have opinions, but rather that silence teaches us how inadequate and provisional our interpretation of others, of life situations, is and always will be. [22]

Far from trying to wrench our wills this way and that, or forcing our selves to believe seven impossible things before breakfast, we come to the work of silence leaving behind all of our ordinary religious baggage and language. Only in this way can we begin to understand where religious language comes from, how provisional it is, and how essential is its continual reference to silence.


The work of silence is an effective tool of interpretation for Old and New Testaments, for religious writing, for discerning appropriate liturgy. For example, the story of Adam, Eve and the snake can be interpreted as a story of distraction. [23] Before the first conversation with the snake, their beholding is seamless. After it, they are completely disoriented. Everything that follows in the story is an account of their hallucination, just as our ordinary waking lives are more or less hallucinatory. Their new preoccupation with language and self means that what was once familiar, qualities of life they had taken for granted, are now strange, alien and painful. Their fear of God walking in the Garden, the angel with the flaming sword, the curses—these are images that grow in minds that are clutching at straws, even if those straws are terrifying. Poor old practical God never stops loving them but heaves a great sigh and makes them some clothes.

In a tragic sense we are luckier than Adam and Eve because we have got used to our ongoing hallucination and disorientation even though there is something in the back of our minds that beckons us to find our way home to the silence of the heart we share with God. It is far easier for us to remain in the prison of our projections and distorted interpretations, with all their devastating consequences, than to do the work of silence, which would enable us to have a life with God that is even better than the primordial one. We have the choice to remain in the heedless prison of our ongoing hallucination, which is acted out in the very real suffering of the material world, or to do the kenotic work of silence, which halts our heedlessness and reconnects us.

Through the transfiguring love we encounter in this silence, we are once more related to God by a restored innocence more profound than Adam and Eve's, for we have chosen and worked for it—the paradoxical work of letting go. As we become rooted in silence, the hallucination starts to fade, we forget about our selves, and we begin to engage the creation with something greater than original reverence. Jesus, the second Adam, is our model in this; we might think of him as the Undistracted, for his gaze never leaves the face of God. Even as he grows and matures, he is the paradigm and parable of silence. [24]

Jesus is the charismatic teacher who wishes his disciples to share in his messianic mission to manifest the kingdom of God—which is within us. [25] By his life and death he shows us the way to the en-Christing the kenotic hymn describes. Christ is a process, and since the work of silence is common to all human beings no matter how they may express it, we can understand in this way why a saying such as "Christ is the only way" might be appropriate even in a multi-cultural world.

The work of silence is also a tool of discernment. Liturgy, for example, should point us always beyond itself: however simple or splendid, the rule of thumb every true sacred sign effaces itself should be brought to bear. [26] Religion is not about the glorification of an institution, or those in its hierarchy.

I have referred to Rowan Williams several times in this article, not only because of his scholarship, but also because he shows how leadership can be kenotic. The sad fact is that the work of silence and the theology of kenosis have become so marginalized that most people fail to recognize such leadership for what it is. [27]

But if institutional Christianity is to survive it must return to kenotic theology and its work of silence. This ancient foundational process gives us twenty-first century tools to revivify our language, sift our doctrines, and enable us, however modestly, to become the bearers of the kingdom into which we are baptized.



[21] Martin Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith (Oxford: OUP, 2004). Notions of "true self" and "false self" are highly destructive. The spiritual life is not a procrustean bed. All is grist for the mill of silence; nothing is wasted.
[22] See posts on "Ethics Issuing from Silence," at, August 11,17,25, and September 8, 2008.
[23] Irenaeus (c. 130-200) understands "the Fall" (a non-scriptural term) as distraction.
[24] Using the work of silence as a tool of interpretation also casts new light on familiar and sometimes puzzling texts, such as the beatitudes and the parables.
[25] See, for example, Gerd Theissen and Annette Mertz, The Historical Jesus, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1998).
[26] See my "Liturgy in Truth" Weavings, vol. 21 #3, May/June, 2006, 31-40.
[27] His position is alluded to by Sally Vickers' review (in the September 19, 2008 Times) of his new book on Dostoevski. "There are no “right” beliefs or ideologies: there is always another way of looking or being. The only right is the exercise of freedom, freedom from the use of violence to control others or suppress their other ways."

Monday, April 05, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century V


We might say that the mind proceeds by narrative (normal, everyday consciousness), paradox (characteristic of stilling the mind) and reversal (transfiguration and new creation), which is also the form of the kenotic hymn. The insight research mentioned above sums up the operational paradox nicely. Experiments showed that a Zen practitioner was unmatched in solving insight problems, from "his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed . . . . He had the cognitive control to let go." A more familiar example of the mind's operational paradox is the word on the tip of the tongue. To have a chance of recovering the word, one must forget both the word and the fact that one is trying to remember. [15] One-pointed meditation is yet another useful model. Focusing on a word, or the breath or the task at hand allows our narratives to elide into silence. [16]

The work of silence, of which meditation is only a first and minor step, is organic. It focuses the mind away from itself. It has no hierarchy, no geometry. The problem in writing about it is that language is always self-referential, hierarchical and dualistic. To bridge this abyss, responsible religious language must always acknowledge its provisional character and continually refer back to the silence. [17] A related problem is that what we call experience, especially religious experience, is always interpretation. When we write about experience we are at yet another remove of interpretation; by contrast, the work of silence relinquishes all claims to experience.

There are many ways to bridge the gap between the organic nature of silence and the dual, reflexive nature of language. Some work by manipulating syntax and image; others create myth, folklore, parable. However else it is interpreted, we might think of the kenotic hymn (Phil. 2:5-11) in this way.

Paul introduces the hymn by emphasizing unity in diversity. He highlights humility, by which he means not hanging on to our idées fixes for the purposes of self-promotion and self-inflation. [18] Orientation toward the other is effected by having the mind of Christ, which is described in the verses that follow. [19]

Our self-consciousness coupled with our inventive rationality gives us the idea that we are little gods, each of us at the center of a little universe. If we cling to this illusory and anxious narrative, we become prey to manipulation, the push-me-pull-you of what other people think, our status, our possessions, our fame or lack of it. This is the level of noise. But it is very frightening to let go of illusion, what appears to be our life, our "equality with God." Here the RSV's "grasp" is a far more appropriate translation than the NRSV's theologically misleading "exploit". We do have a shared nature with God, but it is the opposite of what appears and what we attempt to hold on to.

To choose to enter silence, to let go of the illusion of power and control, is very like death. But it is this passage that sets "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." (Heb. 2:15) We must become willing slaves of a different sort, wholly given over to that silence where the observing I/eye is no longer present. This is faith, not propositional belief. Dread is appropriate: this is a "space for dangerous exploration and immense change." [20] This humbling, this letting-go of our ideas and stereotypes stretches and opens us far beyond what we imagine our selves to be; it is a crucifixion indeed.

Thus we enter the "therefore" of the hymn, the limitless space of gift and potential. Here is the tomb of our illusion and the birthplace of the soul, the transfiguration of our ordinary lives, of resurrection. Here we encounter the outpouring of love we call God engaging God's image in us, for it is our self-forgetful outpouring that is this imageless image. This engagement and its effects are known only in retrospect, of course, by hints, by the effects in our lives, for the observing I/eye is not present. There is no experience. This giving up of the illusion of security is the only security. It is not a place, there is no progress or achievement, only the kenotic gaze on gaze.



[15] Marvin Shaw, The Paradox of Intention:Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).
[16] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (New York: OUP, 2006).
[17] Gillespie and Ross, "The Apophatic Image."
[18] Humility and humiliation are opposites.
[19] Note the sequence: in modern terms, it is not "program" that has priority.
[20] Williams, private communication.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Love Unrecognized: Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Bishop's Ranch

The English spiritual writer W.H. Vanstone once said that the greatest tragedy is love that goes unrecognized. The entire history of salvation is centered on this theme. All that God ever asks of people is that they behold, that they engage in the exchange of love by which God who is beyond being, God the creator of all, consents to have us, his creatures, hold him in being, in time and space, even as God is holding us in eternity. God who unfolds being in the creation enfolds to his heart the gift of our selves.

In the second century, Irenaeus emphasized this reciprocity in his famous saying, "The glory of God is the human person fully alive; and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God." In our self-actualizing, self-authenticating culture, it's not surprising that only the first half of the saying is usually quoted, but the two clauses are dependent: we cannot be fully alive without the beholding of God, because it is from this beholding that our own truth unfolds, our conceptual life becomes transfigured, and our compassion overflows into service.

It is so very simple to turn and behold, but we are frightened of a love utterly outpoured, without condition, wholly accepting, able to weave even our most egregious acts into the fabric of our deification. We are terrified of the invitation it offers us; we are in dread of its strangeness. It demands that we go through a kind of death—and we are afraid of death; it requires us to forget our private soap operas, which are so much more familiar and interesting. Inevitably, this kind of love attracts persecution, exploitation, contempt—even violence and murder.

If and when those who perpetrate these outrages against love ever come to their senses and repent of what they have done, they continue to dodge the truth of their naked helplessness before a God, who is infinitely more naked and humble than they could imagine. They avoid facing this bare and loving truth by projecting their own self-loathing into the mythos of religion, which, in Christianity has led to the repugnant notion that the Father demands the sacrifice of the Son as ransom for our guilt.

While we have always with us those who think the response to violence should be violence—and such people are not confined to religion—the development of blood ransom theology—if it can be dignified by such a term—can be laid at the feet of Hincmar and Radbertus. It was part of their attempt to justify Charlemagne's slaughter of the Saxons immediately after they were forced to convert at sword point; and to better manipulate believers in general, a programme furthered by the 11th century Gregorian reform. Misinterpretation of Paul's Jewish Temple imagery has been further twisted by fundamentalists in our own day. The breast-beating that accompanies such propaganda is not repentance; it is a paradoxical form of narcissism. It is the enemy of beholding. It is the exact opposite of the message of Holy Week and Easter.

As an antidote, let us listen to Isaac of Nineveh, who, in the 7th century, insisted: "The whole purpose of our Lord's death was not to deliver us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might . . . become aware of the love God had for creation. . . . [that] we might be captivated into His love . . . by means of the death of His Son."

The word "conversion" means choosing to turn away from being held captive by disorienting illusion, turning towards the liberation offered by the pure attention of seeking into the beholding. This is the meaning of conversion in the baptismal vows we will renew at the Vigil on Saturday evening, which, as the Syrians insisted, are only a token of a lifelong opening and deepening into beholding. This process is often signaled by weeping, tears that are a mixture of sorrow and joy, like honey in the comb, as John Climacus reminds us. And we might note here that death has no place in the Syriac understanding and rites of baptism.

Beholding is embodied; it is incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection rapt up into one, and we must never forget that the body is the means by which it is effected, signed by the orans position of the arms at the Eucharist, which is the sacramental matrix for beholding, or should be.

But we are too often like the Hebrew people in the book of Numbers. All that God asks of them in the desert, whether the physical wilderness or the silence of the heart, is to behold. The people refuse. They murmur among themselves. Their lethal backbiting is projected into poison serpents. Moses makes a bronze serpent for their healing: they are presented with a forced choice: behold, or die. But even after this lesson, they turn away. They materialize everything to do with religion including the presence of God. The empty mercy seat in the holy of holies is all that is left of the desert presence. But God will not give up. If we will not behold the beauty of the Lord in the desert silence, then perhaps we will be persuaded to behold by beauty marred.

God in Jesus is lifted up like the bronze serpent, not to pay ransom for sin, not as blood sacrifice, but solely to show us the extent to which the divine love is willing to go, love that is willing to suffer even this extremity if that is what it takes to turn us from our lethal self-regard into beholding. As Julian of Norwich's joyful Crucified says, "If it were necessary that I suffer more, I would suffer more." And as our startled eyes turn to behold this transfigured and glorified serpent raised up for us, we are en-Christed with him.

There is no greater exponent of beholding than Julian of Norwich. "I tooke in al his own meaning", she writes, " . . .wher he seith full merrily, "I am ground of thi beseking,"; which word does not mean beseeching, as it is often mistranslated. Beseking is rather an habitual turning into the beholding, which becomes the wellspring from which we live.

Tonight we engage the simple acts of love by which Jesus gave his last lessons in beholding. Behold the beauty of humble human feet, flat and arched, fat and thin, short and long, smooth and wrinkled, sweet and smelly. Behold the love poured out with water to wash them, gentle hands to massage them, kisses to honor them. Behold the enfolding of our solitudes, grain scattered on the hillsides, gathered, ground, bound into this bread broken, where all our diversity is made one in this communion, this community.

"Woldst thou wetten thi lord's mening . . ." asks Julian. "Wete it wele: love was his meaning. Who shewid the? Love. What shewid he the? Love. Wherfore shewid it he? For love. . .. Thus was I lerid that love was our lord's meaning. And I saw full skirly in this and in all, that ere God made us he lovid us; which love was never slakid, no never shall. And in this love he hath don all his werke; and in this love he hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlestand. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein he made us was in him from withoute begynning, in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end."