Saturday, January 29, 2011

Writing the Icon of the Heart

Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding is now available to pre-order from Publication is May 20, 2011.

Poverty and Pain

Welcome to the new feudalism.

Poverty and pain: much of the twentieth century was spent trying to eradicate these evils; now ideological right-wingers are helping them make a big comeback.

No hip, knee, or hernia operations for the poor and the middle classes. This will mean far higher costs in the long run, because once people lose their mobility their health deteriorates rapidly and their need for medical care skyrockets. Where will they go? How will they live? Next thing you know, work houses will be brought back. This is the age of an unrepentant Scrooge: anyone unable to function as a cog in the machine that keeps a few people rich and maintains the uniformed armies of control will be considered, in Dickens' terms, 'surplus population'.

Given the government's refusal to control inflation, or to regulate commodities brokers who are driving up the cost of food and clothing; given the slashing of benefit programs that have meant the difference for many people between minimal comfort and going homeless on the streets, we can look forward to a Dickensian world with lashings of George Orwell. London will look like Mumbai with its swarms of beggars, some of them deliberately maimed children.

As we sink into the new feudalism, we can wave at India and China as they pass us on their way up. I suppose one of the most pressing questions for the government will be to decide which language to teach so that we can communicate with the new masters: Hindi, Mandarin or Arabic.

Cities will become hell-holes. There will be no escape, as the forests will have been sold off to commercial interests. There will be no place to walk and no place worth walking in. A 150 year lease is just about the right amount of time to destroy an environment so that trees will never grow again. Just look at all those areas of Scotland that were once forested. The natural world where we learn to be human and recover our souls will be off limits. And have you ever heard the screeching din or seen the slash and earth-gouging of a logging operation? Try having chain saws, tree extractors and tractor-trailers at the bottom of your garden.

Next thing you know we will have to buy the air we breathe.

Why is no one in this government asking, What is a human being?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Silence . . .

Silence is context and end, beholding the means. In the final analysis, this is all we need to know.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Question of Empiricism

In the 1950s, long before he became a superstar through his journaling workshops, clinical psychologist Ira Progoff translated The Cloud of Unknowing. Although his introduction is out of date as regards the identity of the author (now thought to be a Carthusian), and also as regards his application of a rather crude doctrinaire psychological analysis of what is going on in the work of silence, his introduction is well worth reading. It anticipates many of today's debates.

He sees the Cloud as a text that has a lot to offer to psychology, and this is his reason for translating it. He faces head-on the question of empiricism, and attacks clinical psychology for being too laboratory oriented. After all, he says, '. . . it is also essential to remember that psychology is the science devoted primarily to the study of the psyche, that is to the processes that operate within the human personality.'

He goes on to point out that biochemical—and now functional MRI and similar studies—'. . .apply only to a particular level of human functioning. They do not describe the more creative and also self-directive processes by which individuals, in non-mechanistic ways, seek to achieve a fuller development and realization of the capacities of the psyche . . .

'Those who seek to find the objective "mechanisms" of the psyche and who follow, consciously or not, a personal ideology of materialism in one variation or another, feel something alien in such procedures [development of the faculties of the inner life]. They react against them emotionally, castigate them as "spiritual", and dismiss them as non-scientific. The profound psychological significance of the many and varied disciplines of personality development is thus altogether missed. The evidence is dismissed peremptorily, simply by disdaining to discuss the subject. Thus in the name of science, a most unscientific act is committed; and the science of psychology is deprived of a source of information and insight that can contribute greatly to the task of understanding the dynamic processes at work in the inner life of man . . .'

Even more significant, perhaps, are these words: 'Nonetheless. . .experimental work has been going on for many, many centuries in the understanding and channeling of the dynamic processes of man's inner life. These. . .have not been "controlled" in the modern sense; nor have they provided quantitative data. But, by a persistent, cumulative gathering and testing of personal experience [he is using the medieval sense of the word], through individual trial and error over the years, by reflecting, reconsidering and reattempting the work, a process of experimentation in the disciplined development of the personality has been carried on and a body of knowledge has been accumulated.

'This knowledge is scattered in many traditions and is both concealed and conveyed in the symbolism of many religious and cultish doctrines. Because of the diversity of its symbolic forms, it is a knowledge that is not easily available to modern man; but it could be made available. . . if the science of psychology . . would take the trouble to study it interpret it, and apply its findings scientifically.

'If modern psychologists would turn their attention to studying some of the early records of disciplined psychological undertakings, they would soon realize that those prescientific men [and women] were working in a spirit of science not unlike their own, imbued with a high regard for the empirical testing of objective psychological truth. . .

[The Cloud] 'works toward . . .psychologically neutral ground . . . The author ' . . .never recommends that a given technique be taken over as a whole and applied in a fixed form, but rather that it be tested by the individual and adapted to meet the needs of his special case.'

Progoff even seems to understand the problem with the modern notion of 'experience', although he is quite careless in the way he uses the word. He writes, 'One main characteristic of the goal of this work is that it cannot be attained in the ordinary condition of human consciousness . . . If, for example, the individual feels or experiences himself as being in unity with God, that very feeling and awareness of an experience indicates that real unity has not yet been achieved. . .The mere fact that the individual feels his presumed unity with God as a personal experience indicates that he is still separated from God. the individual who experiences God thereby emphasizes the duality of his own individual existence, his personal thatness, and the existence of God as separate from him.' [All emphases are Progoff's]

I have long felt that from an institutional view the decline of the work of silence reaches its endpoint in the 15th century; at this time Christianity loses its empirical base, the actuality of the way the mind works that is the experiment Progoff described above. That leaves people with two equally heretical options based on 'experience' in the opposite, modern sense of a self-authenticating subjectivism, that grew out of a merely devotional matrix, among other influences.

On the one hand, Rome demanded assent to dogma, conformity in observance, and good works at the expense of interior life and maturity. On the other hand, Luther's approach and that of most other Protestants was fiercely and determinedly experience-based in the modern sense of subjectivity and self-authentication. Both were stuck in the merely conceptual sensory world; both failed to help those who sought, with Langland's Will, the 'kynde knowyng' for which he persistently asked: both Holy Church and, later, Protestantism, either ignored his question or inverted it. [See Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255]

Both approaches are heretical in the patristic sense because they eliminate the work of silence, that is, putting on the mind of Christ, the work that the Cloud author and many other authors, Christian and non-Christian communicated through millennia from at least the time of Empedocles. Awareness of the mental model that underlies the Cloud and similar texts is very rare among contemporary scholars of ancient and medieval worlds; in consequence what is empirical in them has often been abstracted into metaphysics. In the patristic world theology and prayer were indistinguishable. If we are not to completely lose this heritage we must find a way to restore awareness of the actual.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reflections on 'Spirituality'

From correspondence about the book Beloved Dust:

Thanks for the quotes from Beloved Dust. I certainly agree about the corruptibility of interior life, and it's interesting that Luther's teacher, Staupitz, was already confused about the language of spirituality that, at least in some of the major writers (Aquinas, Bonaventure, Cusa) had been very specific about what was meant by certain words, e.g., excesus mentis meaning/referring to the suspension of self-consciousness.

By Stauptiz' time this language had been corrupted from referring to something actual to being an abstract theological expression. At the same time, the words rapture and ecstasy, never clearly defined but referring to phenomena, also became abstract theological terms, on a par and lumped together with with the abstracted excessus mentis.

Steinmetz, who wrote a rather well-known paper about this (16th c Journal vol. 80) distinguishes Luther's position from Gerson's but doesn't say why, only that it is different. Steinmetz, being Lutheran I'm guessing, doesn't appear to see the psychological shift or why it is so problematical, sowing the seeds of today's problems like dragons' teeth.

Luther, Steinmetz says, wanted to make contemplation something that was not reserved to an elite (a mistaken impression but evidence of how far the knowledge of the work of silence had been lost). But Steinmetz fails to see that by tying it to Anfectung Luther in fact reserves contemplation to a Lutheran elite. One can see in Luther's theology the origins of the Schwarmerei (enthusiasts) and even modern-day pentecostals, but while both groups, along with the illuminati (who influenced Teresa and John through Francisco de Osuna) are collectively regarded with suspicion by both Catholic and Protestant institiutions, their underlying psychologies are very different.

The former are self-authenticating through 'experience' and the latter become incoercible through the work of silence. The former make a lot of noise and—dangerously by any measure—take the subjective self as authoritative, but the latter threaten institutions by understanding more precisely how and why institutions have gone wrong.

By simply condemning (as with Porete who, I am convinced, was not masochistic but outraged to the point that she was willing to be martyred) instead of acknowledging and addressing clericalism and the lust for power, to name a few of many problems; instead of realizing that something had gone missing from the communication of the Gospel, the institutions have made their own beds in which they now have to lie (in every sense of the word lie). Of course, as always, the circumstances are far more complex, but these issues are central.

On the one hand, I think spirituality so-called needs context and discernment; it cannot be authentic in a vacuum. I was shocked when an American publisher, considering Writing the Icon of the Heart , wanted me to remove all the 'socio-political' bits; in other words, the editor wanted so-called spirituality in a vacuum. On the other hand, today's religious institutions are absolutely the last place to go to find that context and discernment.

I refused to delete the passages, of course; in fact, I would not know how to distinguish, much less extricate them. Every spiritual focus has a political consequence, as we have sadly seen in recent days in the tragic events in Tucson, the lethal effects of an atmosphere of self-authentication and the 'spirituality' of cross-hairs; for gun-toting movements are infected with religious zeal, if not in fact trying to justify themselves by what passes for religion. But this is a subject for another post.

In reading Steinmetz I was also struck at how much Luther, in what he created, repeated and passed along the very abuses and attitudes that had brought him to grief in the first place—a classic case of passing on what one has received. Luther is really a very late-medieval character, and in his theology it is possible to see the influence of the pernicious 'humanity of Christ' issue, which went from being a 12th c devotion to being the brickbat of orthdoxy. I have come to think that this so-called humanity of Christ is itself heretical because it is in fact non-incarnational, a humanity without a mind, and excludes 'putting on the mind of Christ', which of course is the whole point of the Christian exercise, not an idolatrous imagining of the physical Jesus or even the glorified Christ, with accompanying manufactured dramatization. St Bernard was quite right in emphasizing the Ascension as the most important doctrine, but ironically, that is not the aspect of his theology that was seized upon or has been emphasized right down to the present time.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Over the weekend I was taken with the programme 'Arctic' (Jan. 2; available on iPlayer) in which Bruce Parry visited endangered peoples in post-Soviet Siberia. His purpose was not only to explore the changing Arctic and the effect on indigenous peoples, but also to satisfy his interest in shamans. So there was a low-key and very well integrated religious theme that blended seamlessly into the narrative. Although curious, for the most part he allowed the practices to reveal themselves in the ordinary course of things, and while he was part of the narrative, he was never the centre of it, a hugely refreshing shift from the exoticism, voyeurism and sheer ridiculousness of Peter Owen-Jones.

The Soviets got rid of the shamans. Parry didn't say how; one assumes they were liquidated or perhaps went underground and died out. Shamanism was not an unmixed blessing: some of the old shamans terrorized and exploited their communities and competed with one another in outrageousness. One deeply attractive young man presented himself as a 'healer' and suggested that he was part of the people's efforts to try to recover some of the tradition; but far from being loaded with outrageous antique (or pseudo-antique) kit, or engaging in eccentric behaviour, he had an admirable, profound, self-effacing peace about him. (In one of the rituals he used a mouth-harp that illustrated the point about musical vibration in the December 17 post, "Who Sings Prays Twice".)

Parry then moved farther north from the horse people to the reindeer people whose way of life had almost disappeared under the Soviets. The reindeer people apparently had no shamans left, or even healers such as the young man of the horse people, but their spiritual sense and their rituals continued, thoroughly integrated into their lives which were themselves integrated with the staggeringly beautiful landscape. They were getting along just fine without clergy, thank you very much. These were people acquainted with science and technology who saw no conflict with this knowledge and the offerings left along the way, or the customs of the household, for example, the requirement that a newcomer throw a vodka offering to the spirits into the fire. Their attitudes drove home the point again of how limited and crude Western ideas of 'spirit' or 'spirits' are.

This programme (there will be two more) dovetailed with some vague ponderings on exoticism I'd engaged in over the Yule break, for example, the seemingly insatiable appetite people have for 'signs and wonders' even at the expense of their own happiness and well-being. Of course a lot of religious leaders exploit this tendency, finding it irresistible to augment their position and power, even if it means that the people they supposedly serve suffer in consequence. But the notion of signs and wonders is not limited to religion: it extends to the culture generally. Why do we glorify ugliness and squalor? why do we expose ourselves to extreme violence as entertainment? why do we put up with increasing pace and noise? what is the attraction of celebrities, either being them or idolizing them? why does 'having fun' now seem to be more important than meaning or significance or the well-being of oneself and the wider community? In asking these questions I'm showing my age, I suppose; but I grieve over the world that seems destined for further entropy of its own making in this New Year.

Exoticism and beauty are not the same. Parry rather foolishly (and out of character as he seems sensitive) asked about depth while attending a rather ordinary-looking festival picnic. The depth was there, his host assured him; it took time to recover the traditions—but one had the sense that it was in the very simple feast itself that the traditions were being recovered and the mystery was celebrated, that when the traditions were recreated for this very different world, they might not have the elements of the fantastic but would rather be more low-key; they would not centre on phenomena but on transfiguration. The schizophrenic life under the Soviets was destructive to the communities: the television programme did not say anything about a life in which no-one could be trusted, where you could not say what you thought, where simply being able to feed your family meant having to adopt ways of being in the world that were repugnant to you—but all of this was implicit in the remarks of the young man. Simply to recover the life of the community and be once again in the landscape touched the deepest mysteries of all. One wonders if their tribal languages are gone forever, as they incorporated the full continuum of experience in the multiple meanings of a single word. (see, for example, In the Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich).

My research today, Tuesday, is not so far from the situation in the Arctic. It centers on the shift from the ancient and medieval understanding of the practical psychological underpinnings of theology to an emphasis on the merely theoretical, words building on words; a faith that centers on personal crisis and the contrariness of appearances with an eye on judgement, rather than the transfiguration of the whole person in this life. Reformation figures mistake the imagined self for the reality; begin to develop the modern sense of the word 'experience', discarding its experimental, provisional, and more objectively accurate) medieval sense. There is a retreat into the merely theoretical.

Once again I am struck by how very much a late-medieval person Luther is, how much he incorporates his personal crisis and the abusive monastic system he came out of into his reform; and even more how quickly this shift took place—Cusa's death (1464) being the end-marker of integrated practical spiritual knowledge as far as institutional Christianity is concerned. I can't help but wonder what the future holds for contemporary Christianity in the West: there are a lot of movements, but they all seem to want followers, repeating the hierarchical patterns, as opposed to enabling spiritual maturity and an integrated, ongoing transfiguration. And they all want money and fame.