Monday, October 18, 2010

Comments Worth Foregrounding

These comments on last week's post seem worth foregrounding.

mamadar said...
I have the recent Penguin translation by A.C. Spearing, which includes other works of the same author, and Carl McColman has been recommending Carmen Acevedo Butcher's new translation. Are you familiar with either of those? I have not read The Cloud more than once, and only in the Spearing version, I think.

6:15 AM, October 13, 2010

fs said...
I'm glad you're taking this on, Maggie; it sounds an excellent match for your interests and strengths. Ideally, words attempt to convey meaning as clearly as possible or, with poetic and meditative writing, replicate as closely as possible the nuances of the author's vision or reality. My copy of The Cloud of Unknowing is a fairly old one, purchased second hand, a 1973 version edited by William Johnston. It's always seemed good, but I have nothing with which to compare it.

Have been reading your Pillars of Flame, which is so very welcome at this time in my life. Throughout my church experience, I've been repeatedly jarred by involuntary glimpses into the massive, sometimes even insane, egos of some priests and equally shocked by the attitude of parishioners who perhaps choose to ignore this phenomenon or perhaps are truly impervious to it. I made the mistake, apparently, of reading the synoptic gospels prior to joining a church, so my expectations may have been unrealistically high.

Your book should be required reading in seminaries and by all who take part in the discernment process. Actually, I think Garry Wills has it right when he says that priestly hierarchies are simply antithetical to Jesus' teachings.

In trying to come to terms with this, the relief for me is in knowing that there are people who do care about the internals of what it means to try to follow Christ.

12:02 PM, October 13, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
To Mamadar: I'm afraid the Spearing suffers from the same problems; he interpolates the word "experience" where it is not intended among other things. I haven't yet done as close work with it as I have with Walsh in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, which in my opinion is so misleading it should be withdrawn.

I have not seen the Butcher translation although I looked at the preview online and shuddered. The last thing the Cloud needs is an "O Wow" paraphrase.

I have found (confirmed by a recognized Latinist) the same problems with the word 'experience' in the Zinn translation of Richard of St Victor in the CWS series, though Zinn to his credit does understand and use the word 'behold'.

Carl McColman is very well-intentioned but there is a difference between feeling good and scholarship and/or the work of the spirit. Just because someone has a feel-good message does not mean either that they understand the work of silence or the classic texts that describe it. There is a lot of wishful thinking going on.

To FS: Thank you for your kind remarks. Yes, Gary Wills is correct: the ecclesiastical system is antithetical to the Gospel. As Jesus says in John 14 (check out the Greek) "You [the disciples] can behold [theoria], but the system [kosmos—he is referring to the temple system but it applies to any system] cannot behold, and because the system cannot behold, it cannot receive the Spirit of Truth. Do you know the site "Great Treasures"? it's invaluable for checking out translations for the non-specialist.] So it is incumbent on every person involved in a system to call it to account; of course this does not happen; we are coerced into being clones, so we are stuck with the dead-end of Christianity.

2:36 AM, October 14, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
I should add that, unpopular as this remark may be (pace, Carl McColman), there is a limit to toleration in these matters. The spiritual life is about truth, the truth of God, and the unfolding truth of the incarnate person in the light of God. This unfolding takes place out of our own sight. Contemplation is not about experience; it's about relinquishing all claims to experience, as the Cloud author, Richard of St Victor, Julian and others point out. There is a price to be paid, but our age not only does not seem willing to pay it, it seems to want to justify its "have your cake and eat it too" attitude; greed posing as spirituality. As the Cloud author remarks, if your practice is authentic, it will "bind" you so that you must have silence, solitude, and live a life of rectitude. You will not be able—or want—to engage in any activity that distracts from it. Few people in our culture are willing to pay this price.

The way the human mind operates, the way it goes into silence, is universal; it is the interpretation that is culturally influenced. Ancient and medieval writers were close observers of their minds (as we all can be) and their texts are often about this process as it manifests. Although they had no idea of neuro-biology, their interpretations were uncannily accurate. Science is only beginning to catch up. Our modern notion of 'experience' (which is opposite to that of ancient and medieval people—the Cloud author's word is a form of 'prove'—is in fact not consonant with what neuro-biology is telling us.

Because our culture has no silence and because "the work of silence" was suppressed by the church [see the post "Jesus in the Balance" in March-April 2010], we have largely lost the assumptions that the ancient and medieval writers have, and as a result we tend to think they are talking "philosophy" (which sometimes they are, of course) when in fact they are using metaphor to describe a psychological process for which they have no language except that of theology/philosophy. Contrary to what Walsh says, the Cloud author could probably have written his text if Aquinas had never existed. Another example is, Ps-Denys who was a Syrian monk. No one to my knowledge (I have asked Louth about this) has done any work on the impact of his monastic life on his writings, particularly liturgical gesture and the Night Office. Some of the Mystical Theology sounds far more like John the Solitary than a neo-Platonic ascent. Again, I haven't studied Ps Denys closely enough even in English to say any more than this (and I would not trust any translation at this point) but the question needs to be raised.

The Night Office is another issue that has not been factored into scholarship because it is no longer part of monastic life and awareness of its influence seems to have vanished. But the Night Office was one of the most important times for prayer in the monastic cycle as it was the only Office long enough for the pray-er to utterly immerse him/herself in. Richard of St Victor's "hovering" sounds very much like what happens in the Night Office to one who gives him/herself to it, and the Cloud author's reference to liturgy as a way to enhance "the work" also sounds very much like a reference to the Night Office. The same needs to be considered in regard to visionary literature.

There are some aspects of scholarship that simply cannot be undertaken without an understanding of the psychological dynamic at work, and often this dynamic cannot be inferred from texts.

3:08 AM, October 14, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
Here is an illustration of what I mean by a limit to toleration in these matters.

I was in a situation where I was helping design liturgies and the like. The person I was working with wanted to stage a popular event to which I am implacably opposed. This ordained person asked me why I was opposed, and I said because it misled people, and from a spiritual point of view it was bad for them. She said she realized that it was bad for them, but that it was what people wanted.

From my point of view that sort of attitude is totally irresponsible and a complete betrayal of what the spiritual life/scholarly life is/are about. So when we tolerate shoddy scholarship or wishful thinking on popular websites we are neither giving sincere seekers the help they need nor serving the wider goal of advancing and disseminating knowledge. Instead we are misleading them and giving them damaging information.

3:19 AM, October 14, 2010

Sr. Valerie said...
I, too, am glad you're examining The Cloud of Unknowing. I typically read this text once a year. The version I read is the 1973 text, edited by William Johnston. I'd be interested to know your take on it. If you don't have a take yet, I'm willing to stay tuned.

8:23 AM, October 15, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
To Valerie:

I haven't compared the William Johnston translation yet, except to check to see if he keeps the author's use of 'behold'—which in the two places in the beginning, he doesn't. So far Underhill's version seems to most faithfully follow the Middle English as given in Hodgson's text. There is a new edition from Kalamazoo that's online
but the introduction seemed to me so wide of the mark that I was amazed that it was published. The message of the Cloud author cannot be domesticated.

2:44 AM, October 16, 2010

AM said...
"and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be "experienced" in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd"

Just a bit shock over your take on Merton. Then i began thinking how in an early stage in his monastic life could he spend time immortalizing his personal life through his Seven Storey Mountain when even the Master have no self-referential writing at all except a wind-swept, never been deciphered one on the sand.

4:38 AM, October 17, 2010

To AM: Yes, with all the carefully manipulated hype we tend to forget that Merton was diagnosed by Dr Gregory Zilboorg as a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and that he was probably an alcoholic and certainly at times a sexual predator. Here is one of his most infamous quotes as regards experience: By contrast to the medieval notion of experience as something to be proved against scripture and tradition, here is Merton, whose view of experience could not be more unlike Bernard's: 'I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man's heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. . . .' [italics mine].

By the way, thank you very much for your post on the book Immemorial Silence. Unfortunately it's not in the Bodleian, but it looks interesting.

To all my readers: I'd be very grateful for recommendations of books on silence; it's a hot topic these days and there are a lot of things being published I'm not aware of.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maggie Ross,

First of all, I'm honored even to be mentioned in your blog. I read Pillars of Flame years ago and was impressed by its eloquence, the force of its argument, and its spiritual depth. I still consult both appendices regularly.

Now, as to my unlikely appearance in your blog: I'm humbled by your words. As someone who freely admits I am not a scholar, and who because of family commitments probably will never be one, I find your perspective frankly rather discouraging. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying that reading bad translations of historic contemplative texts is worse than not reading such works at all. Without the scholarly credentials (on my part or on the part of my spiritual director, who is a Trappist monk) to guide the way, I am left wondering if, in some way or another, all translations are "bad." And even if I were to immerse myself in the study of Middle English to the point that I could profitably read the Cloud, Julian, and Hilton in the original, the same problem reasserts itself when I seek to read Ruusbroec, or Eckhart, or the Spanish Carmelites. Must I surrender my thirst for the wisdom of my ancestors on the altar of my own lack of academic training?

I understand your criticism of Merton, and, working as I do alongside Trappists many of whom knew him, none of what you say surprises me. Still, in a culture that worships the likes of Miley Cyrus and Sarah Palin, can we really afford simply to dismiss Merton for his flaws? And if so, then what hope is there for those of us who lack your erudition — or even access to competent guides with a similar level of scholarship?

And frankly, I could care less about Merton's narcissism, but I am bothered by his modernist assumptions concerning experience. But how many other errors are there in Merton's work? In mine? In yours?

I ask these questions not to challenge you, but to share with you my dilemma as someone keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, and at a loss as how to rectify that (or even if such correction is possible at this stage of my life). I hope and pray that my work conveys something more than just a "feel good" message, although your comments give me pause. As I writer, I have long been aware that my words always seem to be misunderstood, no matter how carefully I craft them. If, at the end of the day, writing an admittedly un-scholarly blog to encourage the exploration of silent prayer actually harms the contemplative life, then I would be the first to delete my blog. But here I must trust the grace of God to carry my readers beyond my many mistakes.

Carl McColman

12:55 pm, October 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contemplation is not about experience; it's about relinquishing all claims to experience, as the Cloud author, Richard of St Victor, Julian and others point out. There is a price to be paid, but our age not only does not seem willing to pay it, it seems to want to justify its "have your cake and eat it too" attitude; greed posing as spirituality. As the Cloud author remarks, if your practice is authentic, it will "bind" you so that you must have silence, solitude, and live a life of rectitude. You will not be able—or want—to engage in any activity that distracts from it.

This is very much what I have gotten from my study of the Buddhadharma over the past three or four years--the relinquishing of experience and the interplay of ethics, mode of life, and contemplation/meditation. In short, sit down and shut up; be still and know.

Your response to my comment inspired me to get the Underhill version of The Cloud for my Kindle.

2:50 pm, October 18, 2010  
Anonymous Henry Burke said...

Dear Ms. Ross,
Thank you for your response to my last question. Now I wonder if you have more to say about the Night Office. When I read your post, I was reminded of Terence Kardong's commentary on the Rule Of Benedict, in which he says that the Vigils was "primarily a time of listening." Of course, you may have in mind the general nature of contemplative liturgy. But I also expect that you have long experience of the Office in Cistercian monasteries.
Yours, Henry Burke

12:21 pm, November 24, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Harry Burke,

Thanks for your question

Yes, Night Office experience with the Cistercians but also and a lot more with the Carthusians—I prefer their pattern to that of the Cistercians as I think it is both more effective and more in sync with natural rhythms. I've written some comments on the NO in my new book, "Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding" coming out in May in the UK. I have made the occasional comment in this blog, but I can't remember where. When I have time (not this week!) I will try to write something more about it.


8:44 pm, November 24, 2010  

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