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.


Anonymous John Marks said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

2:55 pm, March 22, 2011  

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