Thursday, March 31, 2011


I stayed home from the library today because of the violent wind—and also to see if I could get to the end of the parallel text project. Suddenly I heard a clattering sound; I thought the person whose long-term guest I am might have come home early from the conference she is attending. But no, it was the postman. Among the letters was a white padded envelope. I opened it to find . . . an advance copy of my new book, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding.

It's a strange, strange experience—at least for me—to receive the first bound copy of a book I have written or translated. The emotions are all mixed up together: gladness-grief; welcome-alienation; gratitude-embarrassment—though childless, it always bestows a vague sense of why women go into post-partum depression. I don't know if there is a preventative for mothers, but for writers it is prophylactic to have already begun the next project, which, thankfully, I have.

Gladness because the publisher did such a good job cramming it into 128 pages and thereby keeping the price down; grief over the fact that books are never finished: they are abandoned, and whatever good this one contains is in spite of me. Welcome to a new literary child in the world; alien in the sense that the writer never really knows where the writing comes from. Gratitude for people who have taught, mentored and encouraged me, for the life I've survived thus far that has given rise to the book, for the lives of those who will read it; embarrassment because this blog sometimes reveals the darker side of the author and the matters the book addresses—maybe, in the end not such a bad thing.

It is such a strange time for religion, for religious writing. There is so much fluff, so much wishful thinking, so much grandstanding and band-wagoning, so much violence, verbal and otherwise; and while all this is going on, there is also a huge population of large-hearted, intelligent people engaged in deep questioning, who are undeterred from the hope of finding a better way to manifest the silent and hidden beauty of divine love in all that is.

Upon these waters this book is cast; may it bless and be blessed.

[Published May 20, 2011; available to pre-order from]

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Four Elements of Deep Silence: Earth

Working on The Cloud of Unknowing has given rise to many thoughts that don't have direct bearing on the text itself. One of these is that metaphors that gesture towards the deep silence, where the Holy Spirit does the work of transfiguration, at various times employ the imagery of the four elements which ancient and medieval people thought were the building-blocks of all that exists.

Way back in the middle of the 20th century people got very excited about Tillich's phrase 'ground of being'. He was, of course, drawing on German philosophy; but the phrase has many ancient and medieval antecedents. Julian of Norwich speaks of the 'ground of beseking' (often mistranslated as 'beseeching'). God as 'ground' is also an image beloved of Eckhart, and St Paul as well.

There is a certain rationale behind the use of such an earthy image to gesture towards what is utterly imageless. One thinks of the streets of solid gold in Rev. 21, which are also somehow translucent. Paradoxes such as these stop the mind momentarily, and encourage liminality. But there is also a theological sensibility that attaches to them, and it's one that the Cloud-author stresses in his chapters (50s) that deal with the literal-minded, who contort themselves into all sorts of odd behaviour in their desire to imitate the metaphorical words 'up' and 'in'. It's the notion that in God there is no direction, no geometry; the only security is to give up security, to free-fall in the love of God, as it were. The foundation is laid by giving up foundations—one thinks of the several biblical references to the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

Once again the metaphor reflects reality: in space-time too there is no 'up' or 'down'. One tantalizing aspect of the Cloud-author's world-view is that it is Copernican (Walsh) a hundred years before Copernicus himself. This knowledge makes the Cloud-author's remarks about direction take on a double, if not a triple aspect. Anyone who has practiced one-pointed meditation (the beginning first step of what the Cloud-author is talking about) will understand what he means about any direction being the same as any other, that direction in this context becomes meaningless.

The Cloud-author pushes even an extreme apophaticist like me. As I read him over and over (as he advises), creating a parallel text of different versions, the process opens up meanings, not only those that insist that nothing means nothing (this morning I woke up with a catchphrase in my mind: 'if there's excessus, there's no mentis') but also the biblical allusions to death and resurrection that occur towards the end of the Cloud chapters numbered in the fifies and the early sixties.

It is in deep silence that we shall all be changed; in fact, it almost seems as if the Cloud-author is saying of what he self-deprecatingly calls an 'exercise' that it is, in fact, a matter of life and death. The choice to behold that the people in the desert refused is always available to us in the deeps. We make that choice for life or death by intention: are we willing to cast our intention in to the abyss of love along with our thoughts, ideas and all our preconceptions; are we willing to be attentively receptive to the life that emerges in response? or will we intend to remain in the idolatry of the construct we have created, the pseudo-security of what we think we know? a construct whose maintenance demands that we squander all our energy, but which will shatter at the slightest provocation? Holden Caulfield would call this construct our 'phoniness' but the irony is that not only it is all we have to offer, it is the gift that God wants us to offer, so that stripped of it, we become available to the transfigurative process that in turn will inform the constructs we need to create to function in the presenting world.

It can't be emphasized often enough that regaining the balance that is normative for human beings—beholding, to use the biblical term—is not a matter of choosing either experience or deep silence; it's rather a matter of re-establishing the circulation between the two, between the true origin of our shared nature with God, and our engagement with time—for which we need constructs. What is different when we have recovered that balance is that these constructs become informed by the silence; they're no longer trying to feed off their own vacuity but are given life from the primordial love that is beholding. The liminal area between the cloud of forgetting and the cloud of unknowing becomes the arena of communication, of receptivity and creativity.

Earth images: there have been catastrophic earthquakes recently as tectonic plates slip past one another and seek to release tension. By analogy there is tension and stress within our selves created by the slippage between the construct and the reality, the fault-lines between our self-consciousness and deep silence. Unlike the slippage of the tectonic plates, which is natural, our slippage is unnatural; it needs to be justified so that we can regain our nature, function optimally within our selves and with each other, so that the life we share with God emerges into the everyday.

The earth will keep moving, and so will we. The tensions and stresses caused by the tectonic plates will not be relieved; they will only be displaced to build again until the next cataclysm. By contrast, as the Cloud-author notes, the movement and justification that humans undergo through healing transfiguration in deep silence is a kind of rest, where tension and stress will fade away; where sorrow and pain will be no more; and where every eye will be wiped of every tear.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Exotic Religion

I have been working on the chapters in The Cloud of Unknowing where the author is at his most satirical. Wildly funny, in fact. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. His depiction of the antics of those he calls the 'devil's contemplatives', and his likening of what happens to those who try to take what they think are short cuts to life in God, to a devil with a single expanded nostril up which you can look to see the fires of hell, which are his brains, would make great commedia dell'arte. (One can also imagine he was thinking of a different orifice, as depicted in the margins of the psalters of his day).

His account of those who 'wear their fringes long' (Matthew 23:5) in the words of today's reading at Morning Prayer, their pompous behaviour and the like can still be seen in many of today's churches. There's no escape from long fringes even at 7 AM on a weekday morning here in Oxford. On the way home after the Office, today, I followed someone on the pavement (sidewalk) in a cassock and short cape who fit the Cloud-author's description of the po-faced to a T.

Here is a sample from Spearing's translation: 'These people will care more and lament more for an ill-regulated look, or a disagreeable or unsuitable word spoken in public, than they will for a thousand empty thoughts and stinking stirrings of sin willingly indulged in or heedlessly spewed up in the sight of God and the saints and angels in heaven.' And Johnston's: "Ah, Lord God! Surely a great deal of humble affectation denotes a proud heart."

While the Cloud-author's raillery is hilarious, his point is serious: life in God is normative, not exotic, not eccentric. People who live in God from the wellspring of silence are people who not only behave normally but also people who become immensely attractive to other sincere seekers. They don't need to wear special clothes; they don't need to stick their noses in the air or patronise others; it's not about what they can get (especially attention) but what they can give, i.e., welcome and breathing space and silence. It's not about looking for experiences but about relinquishing all claims to experience so that God can create something new.

One of the liturgical blessings used during Lent speaks of 'taking up your cross', a phrase often grossly misinterpreted as doing precisely what Matthew and the Cloud-author are objecting to. Far from 'giving up' some treasured delicacy for 40 days, or publicly wearing sack-cloth and ashes to show the world that one is fasting, to take up one's cross is, instead, one of those liminal paradoxical phrases that means dispossession, even, or especially, of one's ideas about the cross (one thinks of eye-rolling, effusive renditions of 'When I survey the wondrous cross'); just as the phrase 'clinging to God' when used in the context of contemplation means clinging to dispossession, especially of one's ideas about God.

For Lent I wish the church would take up its cross and dispossess itself of the seven Ps (see my paper "The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination" in Crossing the Boundary, by S. Waldron-Skinner)—pompousness, privilege, preferment, etc. It would also be salutary if the clergy would look at the simpering and flouncing, noses in the air, and lack of discretion in dressing up that goes on. Oh yes: it would also be nice if they got over their allergy to paying lay people for their expertise, and their contempt for the laity in general.

Of course the laity are complicit in not calling the institution to account, and now it is probably too late: the clergy are deaf. It is not too late, however, to call our selves to account, to ask our selves whether we are taking what the Cloud author calls the easy path to hell instead of the hard road to heaven. Forget about the institution; it will only become more and more irrelevant as it most certainly doesn't want the hard road to God and has forgotten how to teach it. Read Chapters 50-56 of the Cloud: you will laugh, but if you really understand them, you will cringe as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vanity vs Meaningless

The bible translation scattered around the church where the KJV reading took place was the NIV supplied by the Gideons. I happened to pick one up out of curiosity during the reading of Ecclesiastes, and almost immediately put it down again when I saw that it translated 'vanity' as 'meaningless'. It seemed to me that this was the translator's feeling about Ecclesiastes projected into the translation more than it was a reflection of what the text says.

It wasn't only the syntactic shift that bothered me; it seemed yet another example of the lack of sensitivity to the psychology and the resonance of observations about people that are as operative today as they were in biblical times. Plenty of people find what they think of as meaning in vanity, at least for a time, even if it is negative meaning. To live a life based on vanity may in the end lead to a sense of meaninglessness, but it is not in itself meaningless: it bestows pseudo-meaning. Vanity and meaninglessness at least share one thing: narcissism.

Not only is the Hebrew clear that what is meant by vanity is vanity—and the bible contains some delicious examples of vanity—but the word also has nuances of breath, of the ephemeral; in the case of vanity, we might say, a construct. In addition, there is the implicit and fundamental question, which is one of the foundational questions of the entire bible, of orientation: inward or outward? self or God? As the Psalmist says (119:37, Coverdale/Tyndale): O turn away mine eyes, lest they behold vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way. Turn me away from what is ephemeral to what is enduring.

There is a terrible insecurity in vanity, if not self-hatred. For the beautiful woman who is vain, there is the threat of losing that beauty and being loved for appearance instead of substance. For the person vain about a skill, there is the fear that someone else will be better or that his value as a person is tied to his performance. The same dynamic applies to wealth, as the Preacher observes: a poor man who has done a day's honest labour will sleep soundly, while a rich man's abundance will keep him awake at night (5:12). Life can be taken away in an instant. Many people find Preacher tedious, but his purpose is to teach what he has discovered as king: that even the trappings of kingship are nothing unless 'God answereth him in the joy of his heart.' (Eccles. 5:20)

True seeking into the beholding of God changes one physically, as writers of every age and epoch including the Preacher (8:1) and the Cloud-author (Ch. 61) have observed; the beauty is God's. (2Cor 3:18)

The question of meaning or meaninglessness is a false question, just as the question of happiness or unhappiness is a false question. The person leading a meaningful life does not think to ask it, nor does the one who knows the 'joy of his heart' ask herself if she is happy.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Reading Aloud the KJV at the Bath Literary Festival

Reading the entire King James Bible may sound like a mad project but after participating in the one in Bath last week, it's an exercise that is highly to be recommended, providing certain criteria are fulfilled. It can't be done without careful preparation. Readers were lined up in advance, and there was plenty of flexibility on site to allow for no-shows (of which there were hardly any) and to accomodate people who were late-comers and really wanted to read. There was a tremendous sense of letting people do their thing; people were hugely respectful of the occasion and the text, and there was no showing off. Nor did I see anyone in clericals or anyone wearing any sign that they were other than ordinary folk. In other words, no one did anything to take the focus away from honouring the KJV.

We were blessed by having a great event manager. He had a sense of who should read what, and he had enormous tact. He was also a tremendous reader: I have never heard 1Cor. 13 read so well. In fact, the reading aloud was generally of a very high level; there was only one reader who was truly awful, and unfortunately her chapters included Philippians 2. There were teams of four readers each hour, reading chapters in rotation, two chapters together if they were short. Professional actors started Genesis and finished Revelation. The only real problem was at the venue, which for the reading was, in general, great, not too big, not too small, with the seating focused in a semicircle on the lecterns. BUT this church had a café, and sometimes the users of the café were much too loud. To the readers' credit, they just 'stayed calm and carried on'. There was very little 'thumping'; most people let the text speak.

The reading lasted from noon on Tuesday to around 6 PM on Saturday. Someone told me their college had done it in three days, for charity, but this was not a reading that was rushed through just so the Bath Literary festival could say they'd done it. This was a reading to honour the KJV; it was done with as much beauty and care as people could summon. Volunteers came from all over: Alexander McCall Smith came from Edinburgh, for example; but most readers were just ordinary folk. If I were younger I would have camped out in the church and listened to the entire bible. As it was, I still received an immersion that gave me a sense of the arc of the text, of the prevailing themes, of the music—for even when the KJV translators' syntax was at its most obtuse, the music was still there; as opposed to modern translations such as the NRSV, which may be clearer (although the meaning of the text is drastically altered) but is horribly awkward to read aloud. Some of the KJV is quite hard going syntactically—endless subclauses which are hard to untangle in terms of inflection, and we only had a few moments to glance at the chapters before we actually read them aloud.

The best time to be there was, of course, the middle of the night, and during my first night I heard the best reader I have ever heard in my life bar none. I have no idea who he was. No accent at all; wonderful voice, pace, inflection—I sat there entranced. I arrived hours before I was due to read at 1 AM. This reading had been arranged at the last minute and was added on to my scheduled reading at noon on Friday, and I was lucky enough to read again on Saturday afternoon, as the reading ran six hours over the projected time. But time meant nothing; I must have sat through eight hours or reading on Saturday, as well as many more hours on Thursday afternoon and night, and Friday, and it never got old.

Ever since I first heard about this project I had thought to myself that if I had my druthers the chapter I'd most want to read was Isaiah 6. Given the randomness of assignments and the pace at which people read, it was impossible to anticipate what you would be reading, so I was more than amazed when I was asked to read Isaiah 6 for my first chapter! I was very lucky in my chapters. I also read the very salacious Ezekiel 23, which is perhaps where the Desert Fathers and Mothers got the idea that distraction is the same as fornication. I had a lot of fun with that chapter—it is so deliberately mocking of superficial sexuality: the idiotic things that attract young women, and the vanity of the men displaying themselves—and I made the most of it. I'd only had four hours of sleep though, and was not entirely alert; and while I'd looked at the chapter before I read it, my tongue slipped on the first mention of 'Aholah', which came out 'Aloha', instantly converting her to a Hawaiian. I kept going without missing a beat and got it right the next time, but inside I was laughing uproariously. I also was given Hebrews 11, the second chapter of James and the first chapters of the two Peter epistles.

There was much that reverberated among these chapters: for example, Hebrews 11 talks of Rahab by faith and the James chapter I read next talks about Rahab by works. There seemed to be a lot of these resonances, and one also gained a sense of themes that emerged over and over again: fancy dress is a bad sign; so is the wrong kind of conversation. Some of the Ezekiel chapters I read have wonderful turns on the egocentrism of evil, specifically of the devil and of Assyria as God's instrument: the repeating 'I' and 'me' when these voices were ventriloquized was striking. There are some profound turns on the hand of God and grasping and ungrasping, and the salvation associated with these images of being set free from a trap. There is a lot about what you do with your mind. Throughout, as Adam Nicholson remarked, there is always the beauty, majesty, vision and music that this translation inserts into the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

At the Bath reading the readers were asked to sign a book of remembrance, and the comments were deeply moving. It's clear that the KJV for all its problems conveys something about religion that today's people are hungry for. One young reader summed it up by saying that she had never read KJV before, but she would now read it in preference to any modern translation.

There is going to be a similar reading at Plymouth, and also one at the Hay Festival—where on June 4 I will be on a panel on with Howard Jacobson and others; and by some miracle at 9 AM on June 5, I also will be giving a little reading, followed by questions and answers, to promote Writing the Icon of the Heart.

It's going to take a long time to absorb the wonders of this immersion in the KJV (instead of geothermal water) at Bath—and in the warm hospitality and kindness of my hosts. You know who you are; my gratitude is beyond words.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Reading and Writing

It's sometimes said that the last nail in the coffin of viable monasticism was the printing press. From the time that manuscripts were no longer copied by hand, the nature of the life changed. There are a number of reasons: the beauty of the work, the texts themselves, the art of illumination, design and creativity, the manual, often repetitive nature of the task, and much more. Creating a manuscript meant that you had to interiorly process the text in a particular way; that it had in some way to pass through the centre of your being. This is even more true with translation. A similar process takes place in writers, who often say that they write to find out what they think.

Creating a parallel text for versions of The Cloud of Unknowing has reminded me once again that if I really want to read a text, to get inside it, I have to type it out. It would be better of course, to copy it by hand, but my hands don't work that well any longer. There is something about putting the text down on paper (or on a screen): the words have to go through you; you internalise them, however fleetingly.

The process puts you into a liminal space, and then, one by one, the little bubbles of insight start popping to the surface: internal resonances of words, multiple meanings, intentions; even, sometimes, a sense of what the author is going to say next: as the text opens up on another level, you sometimes receive a glimmer of what is to come. It's a kind of enchantment that's better than any magic.

The same is true of reading aloud—that is, if you empty yourself and let the words come through you. I find this particularly true of reading the bible. Tomorrow I'm headed for Bath to participate in 400th anniversary celebration reading of the entire King James Bible, which began yesterday at noon and will finish Saturday at noon. I'm not only looking forward to reading; I'm looking forward to extended periods of letting those marvellous rhythms wash over me while others read; I'm looking forward to the great gift of beauty, vision, and majesty that the KJV brings into the ordinary life of anyone who reads it or listens to it, as Adam Nicholson recently remarked.