Saturday, July 30, 2011

Exploring Silence IV

The mind's work with silence and its effects involves the entire person, including the body. It is a normal part of everyday functioning and is for the most part hidden. It is common to human beings and recognizable across cultures and religions. It is only when the process is observed and interpreted that it acquires philosophical, psychological and/or religious nuances. The model we are concerned with is available to anyone who cares to observe their own mind. It does not require an education. As Gerson remarks, 'Even women and the illiterate can reach the highest contemplation.'[1]

While self-knowledge in the ancient and medieval worlds includes a moral inventory, it is even more a matter of learning both how to understand the process and to receive the gifts of the mind working in silence. (Cloud, ch. 67; 66/31-34) It is only by accessing the silence and allowing it to do its work that human beings can come to the 'kynde knowyng' that Langland's Will so greatly desired, and which Holy Church so signally failed to teach him.[2] It is only by learning to drawing one's life from this kynde knowyng that the outward forms of living change, not the other way around (Cloud ch. 61; 63/11-13).[3] This process cannot be taught in the way that chemistry can be taught. The teacher of the work of silence can only point the way; each person has to experiment—or 'prove' it, as the Cloud-author would say, for him or her self.[4]

For this reason it is possible to say that each of the authors who writes about this dynamic could have done so without reference to any of the others (Cloud ch. 70; 70/9-15). In that case the texts would have been far different to what we know—but we need to be aware that there is not always a textual trail to be followed, nor is the knowledge contained in them necessarily inherited. But in fact these authors do not write in a vacuum, not only because they are educated people writing in a context of community and communion, but also because they are keen to cite any authority that will give their work credibility. To those unfamiliar with it, the work seems incredible; it is counter-intuitive, and it is threatening to certain kinds of institutional leadership (I Cor. 1:23). In addition, the nature of the work makes it very difficult to find language to express this dynamic. This poverty of language cuts several ways: it means that writers do borrow from one another, but it also means that similar phrases occur in authors who may have no connection at all. It also gives rise to extravagant allegory and metaphor.

For readers of these texts who are unaware of the work of silence, language that describes the details of the process may be misinterpreted as expressing philosophy or metaphysics. Conversely, a description of what a particular phase of the process feels like may be mistaken for a theological, doctrinal or spiritual declaration.


[1] Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, 'The Emergence of the Individual' in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 624. [Given the medieval attitude towards women, it is tempting to translate ydiota as idiots; etiamsi sit muliercula vel ydiota seems deceptively and patronisingly translated by Duby and Braunstein as 'the humblest of believers, the simplest of spirits' ('. . . lorsqe le fidèle le plus humble, l'esprit le plus simple').] The entire sentence reads: Ex quo alteram concludimus differentiam quoniam theologia mystica licet sit suprema atque perfectissima notita, ipsa tamen potest hubri a quolibet fideli, etiam si sit muliercula vel idiota. De Mystica Theologia IV.30, Gerson, Oeuvres complètes, Introduction, texte et notes par Mgr [Palémon] Glorieux (Paris, 1960), vol. 3, p. 276.

[2] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255. As Julian says in chapter 69, 'And the beholding of this while we arn here, it is full plesant to God and full gret spede to us. And the soule that thus beholdyth it makith it like to him that is beholdyn, and onyth it in reset and peas be his grace'. By the time of Piers Plowman, the institution had nearly lost the ability to teach 'kynde knowing', if indeed it remembered what it was.

[3] In his little-known treatise for nuns, De perfectione vitae ad sorores Bonaventure he says, if you do not understand your worth as one who shares God's divinity, then your relationships with yourself and the world around you will be troubled. He states the difference between the positive effects of the self-respect gained through contemplation and the destructive ones of narcissistic self-esteem, although of course this is not the language that he uses. In this treatise for women his idea of capax dei, or capacity for God, is not that we are mere passive receptacles, but includes an active dynamic of—paradoxically—our being drawn by God's outpouring.

[4] Buddhist meditation is taught this way to this day. So are modern 'secular' versions as this one from The Guardian: However, for the Cloud-author and similar writers, meditation is only a first and minor step in a process that shifts the centre of consciousness from the conceptual mind to the wellspring of silence.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now Available

"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing
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Note to USA and non-UK buyers:

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Exploring Silence III

What he beheld as present he will have to comprehend as an object, . . . only as an It can it be absorbed into the store of knowledge. But in the act of beholding it was no thing among things, no event among events; it was present exclusively. . . . . And now it is locked into the It-form of conceptual knowledge. Whoever unlocks it and beholds it again as present, fulfills the meaning .[1]

Seeking into the beholding is the work of life -- the ‘travel’ [travail] of spiritual childbirth.[2]

That the British and the Americans are divided by a common language is a very old joke, but many tragic arguments have arisen over the simple but fundamental misunderstanding that in British English everything is assumed until it is mentioned, and in American nothing is. No matter how long an American lives in the UK, it is still possible to be tripped up by absent cultural assumptions, a kind of persistent aporia in one's consciousness. It is only minor comfort to observe that among themselves the British seem to play a national game of trying to guess what the other person really meant by his or her remark.

However, the joke becomes very unfunny when scholars of any nationality deliberately refuse to address their own epistemological aporia. Many ancient and medieval texts are riffs on the structures and processes revealed by the mind's work in and with silence. They mark the unmeasurable paths by which it becomes quiet and self-forgetful, relinquishing its contents into the core silence of the person, where a transfiguration of perception takes place that effects profound changes in speech and behaviour (Cloud ch. 59; 61/37-62/1)—what I have called the work of silence. Yet much of today's scholarship that focuses on these texts is structured by and confined to dialectic. [3]

Too often scholars bow to the pressures of prevailing academic fashion, ignoring or rejecting outright the very notion of the work of silence on the grounds that it is 'religious'. This is a misperception: the workings of interior silence are entirely neutral and become religious only through interpretation. As the philosopher Karmen MacKendrick has noted:

Perhaps mysticism seems so odd or archaic to us because it has no place in a fully confessional [4] culture. Many of us scoff at the ineffable, at the very possibility of ineffability, and assume that whereof one cannot speak, one is simply inadequately educated and articulate—or lying. [5]

A chosen and deliberate blindness and deafness to the dynamic of silence and the ineffable that is a key to understanding many ancient and medieval texts [6]—and art—distorts scholarship for future generations. And, as we shall see, ineffability plays an essential role in the way the everyday human mind works in fact.

Let us first look briefly at the model of the mind and then list the tell-tale signs by which this model becomes apparent in texts. I will be using the phrase the work of silence not only because I want to emphasize the neutrality of the process, but also because I want to include in it not only what the Cloud-author means by the werk, and what Julian of Norwich means by seeking to the beholding, but also convergences with observations that have become apparent in neuro-biology.[7]


[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 91. I came across Buber's stunning exposition of behold vs experience only in the winter of 2009-2010, thanks to a passing reference in Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God, OUP 2007, pp. 167ff. I must have read I and Thou fifty years ago at Stanford, but it had completely gone out of my mind, if at that immature age I understood it at all.

[2] 'The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julia of Norwich' by Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V (Cambridge: 1992), p. 71.

[3] These texts are often dismissed in the name of scientism. In the 1950s, clinical psychologist Ira Progoff translated The Cloud of Unknowing because he felt it would be useful in his work. (The Cloud of Unknowing Introductory Commentary and translation by Ira Progoff, Rider & Co., London 1957). In his introduction Progoff wrote: '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 [the 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 dismissed. 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. . .' (pp. 15-16) He is referring to the work of silence. 'Nonetheless,' he continues, '. . .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 [the medieval sense of the word], through individual trial and error over the eyars, 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.' (p. 17).

[4] One might add: consumerist.

[5] Immemorial Silence by Karmen MacKendrick, New York, SUNY, 2001, p. 4.

[6] And for certain early modern and modern authors such as Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[7] There are innumerable articles and books that render current findings accessible to non-scientists, for example, in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, and The New Yorker, as well as in books such as The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian MacGilchrist, Yale, 2010; The Psychology of Religious Knowing by F Watts and M Williams, CUP, 1988; Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuro-Science of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rich Hanson and Richard Mendius, New Harbinger 2009; or The Neuro-Biology of Religious Experience by Patrick MacNamara, Greenwood, 2006 (with the caveat that this book has a very crude account of 'religious experience').

Friday, July 15, 2011

Problematic Words in Medieval Scholarship II

mystical/mystic are words that have become useless and misleading, associated with exoticism, a quest for self-autheticating experiences, occult practices, or, according to William Harmless, 'a catch-all for religious weirdness' (Mystics, p. 3). Gerson defined it well, but his definition is misunderstood and mistranslated. What has been translated as 'experiential' should in fact be translated as 'experimental'. 'Mystical theology is an [experiential] experimental knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love' (theolgia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de deo per amoris unitivi complexum). The misunderstanding of Gerson's famous definition is a prime example of how medieval texts are adversely affected when knowledge of the work of silence—theoretical or otherwise—is lacking. There is a tendency to seize on the first half of Gerson's remark—which is in fact the second and consequent phase of the dynamic he is describing. Gerson's definition has two parts. First there is the engagement with divine love, which is apophatic; then there is experiential knowledge, which is interpretation in retrospect of the traces which the engagement leaves. And finally, entailed in Gerson's remark, as the Cloud-author and others note, is the understanding that the contemplative is engaged in the process of relinquishing all claims to experience. The Cloud-author does not like the word. See Rosemary Lees, The Negative Language of the Dionysian School of Mystical Theology: An Approach to 'The Cloud of Unknowing', Vol. 1 1983 (Salzburg, 1983), pp. 251-53. Lees' work is frustrating because her instincts are good but her insights are short-circuited by academic convention, a methodology that demands closure; and the failure to realise that both Denys and the Cloud-author are writing about an empirical actuality, not merely about theories or linguistic transmission.

object is misleading when used in regard to God, or a dynamic continuum such as beholding. 'God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere' is an aphorism that can be traced to Empedocles and describes an interior image that is familiar to many practitioners of the work of silence. There is no 'object' in beholding yet the engagement of beholding is far more objective than subjective experience. See Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970.

rational when linear is meant. Ancient and medieval people did not think that the part of the mind that is not directly accessible was 'irrational' (e.g., Dawkins). They correctly understood, along with today's neuro-psychologists (see Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, 2009) that it has its own, far more advanced epistemology than the limited, linear, two-dimensional epistemology of self-consciousness, which was one reason they were so eager to find a way into the deep mind. Interpreters such as A.C. Spearing, a self-declared Cartesian ('Margurerite Porete: Courtliness and Transcendence in The Mirror of Simple Souls' in Carolyn Muessig, Ad Putter, eds., Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages (London, 2007) pp. 120-36), who will not accept any self but what he imagines, wreak havoc on texts such as the Cloud. The 'order without order' (ordo sine ordine) of Bernard and Richard St Victor refers to the relocated centre of the person in the deep mind.

self needs to be located when it is used. Does this word mean the imaginary construct or is it the unfolding and ongoing transfiguration that is happening out of sight, or something else? There is a very great difference between the notion of a shared nature with God of the patristic era and the Middle Ages, and the soul as 'a cavity of total depravity' of the Reformation.

spiritual direction is an invention of the Counter-Reformation, a practice that did not exist in the 14th century. The term is often retrojected onto 14th and 15th century texts by modern commentators (e.g., James Walsh, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (Mahwah, 1998)). Medieval monastic spirituality was above all based on the Vitae Patrum, Cassian, and associated texts. The Carthusians in particular understood the desert wisdom, from which they took inspiration at their foundation and which they enshrined in their statutes, that the same person would not always have the Word that was sought, and that spiritual maturity was acquired by exposure to many elders, not just one; that dependence and self-preoccupation were ever-present temptations. It is significant that the Cloud-author uses 'counsel and conscience' to indicate taking advice from the elders, making it clear that the ultimate discernment was up to the individual.

state (and similar words) implies linear, hierarchical, static, photographic, and is inaccurate when applied to mental processes, which are holistic. It implies a mechanistic model and instantiation. Optimally the global deep mind informs the linear self-conscious mind and vice versa. state gives the sense of a static hierarchy when the work of silence is a global process.

supernatural in the present age has connotations of magic and the occult, implies dualism, and evokes a world view that is no longer understandable to today's readers. The word has lost its earlier sense of grace building on nature.

transcend/transform are words that are misused and misleading when describing the processes of the work of silence, and related theology. Both words are dis-incarnating. The interior life leaves nothing behind (transcend) nor is one thing changed into another (transform). There is no magic involved; frogs do not change into princes and princesses. Neither word is appropriate to describing spiritual maturity. Instead, through beholding the disciple is transfigured in every sense: perspective—the way one 'figures things out'—is changed. Nothing is wasted, nothing is left behind; through wounds comes healing. In the resurrection, the wounds of Christ do not disappear; they are glorified. Only the devil appearing as Christ has no wounds, being too vain to bear them.

union has dualist connotations, the coming together of two entirely separate entities. Onying carries more of the sense of shared nature with God.

visionary needs to be located as the word has taken on nuances of exoticism. Are the images described associated with lectio divina? Are they made public in didactic form, e.g., what might have been a chapter talk? Are they story-telling? Do they show signs of being eidetic images (such as children have; as Blake had and taught his wife to have)? Are they political? Do they accord power to the visionary? If so, do they follow the First Commandment as formulated by Anthony (e.g., Bridget of Sweden's do not): 'Your life and your death is with your neighbour'?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Event Horizon and Deep Mind/Theology

This post is a response to some questions from someone who wishes not to have their comment published but was asking what I meant by the 'event horizon' and 'engagement with the deep mind. Also if I have a sense that at some point Christianity turned away from Christ and if I seek that breaking point in my scholarship (yes, that's one of the minor goals). What is the relationship between the deep mind and Christ, and what does this have to do with going to church on Sunday morning. Quite a menu, but thank you for asking! I'd much rather respond to people's questions than write into a vacuum.

[But please, when you don't want your comment published, PUT THE REQUEST DO NOT PUBLISH IN BIG LETTERS!!! Otherwise I might inadvertently overlook it.]

As a friend of mine recently said, it's amazing it takes so many words to explain something that is to utterly simple! So, apologies for the length of what follows. It will be expanded in subsequent posts.

It's a bit frustrating because there is a diagram I have created that for copyright reasons I can't (yet) post on the blog.

Imagine a flask laid on its side with the opening pointing to the right. Imagine that it has a connecting space, a wide tube, if you like; then imagine on the right side of the diagram an infinitely open, multi-dimensional space. Imagine that the energy centre is on the R. and that there is free flow between the two sides. This is the ideal; most of us are stuck on the L. and that's where the culture wants us, because if we're stuck on the L., it can exploit us.

This diagram represents a very simple version of how ancient and medieval writers understood the mind to work, much of which finds consonance with modern neuro-psychology. Writers such as Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Denys, Richard of St Victor and the Cloud-author understood that theology develops in part from how the mind works.

The left-hand side, the flask-shape, is the self-conscious mind. The connecting tube is liminality, and the right-hand side is the deep mind, which we can't access directly, but which we can influence by intention, paradox and resonance. The 'event-horizon' is at the point where liminality elides into the deep mind; beyond this point the self-conscious mind cannot go. Writers exploit this faculty all the time. I will think: 'next week I will write about pumpkins in my garden' and then forget about it. When next week comes around the essay is already done. All I have to do is sit down and let it flow through my fingers. Or think about another example: the word on the tip of the tongue, which you have to forget (and forget you are trying to remember) in order to create a mental 'space' into which the word can be given back to you (it is gratuitous) from the deep mind. The deep mind is also activated by word-knots, that is, a word that carries many meanings, puns, allusive language, apophatic images, rituals, etc.. Self-consciousness, by contrast, likes banality and repetition.

L. side (self-consciousness) has virtual perception; R side has direct perception. L side of brain can hold 40 items in play at any moment; R side, 11 million. L side tends to circularity and has one form of attention (which in meditation it uses to subvert itself). R side perceives directly. It is multi-dimensional and has at least six kinds of attention; it is where the connections are made, where metaphor and wordplay are processed (See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the History of the World (New Haven, 2009). The R side, then, is anything but irrational, but scholars often call cognition that is non-linear 'irrational', and use the word 'rational' when 'linear' is meant; the R. side is not irrational, it is rational in a far more sophisticated global and multidimensional way.

Liminality is as far as self-consciousness can go. Here are the threshold and effects of unseen communication with, and input from, the R. side, but liminality is not the R side. Liminality is where the effects of the work of R side first appear. The person must wait in liminality in attentive receptivity for gratuity, for what irrupts from the R side. This is contemplation properly speaking. There is an analogy with what physicists call an event-horizon. In this case the horizon is caused by the impossibility of direct access to the deep mind but, paradoxically, waiting in the event-horizon provides the necessary conditions for indirect access to and irruption from the deep mind (the deep mind can be influenced by intention, as every writer knows). See Rothschild Canticles f 104r at Contemplation is not to be confused with abstraction, which is a function of the self-conscious mind (à Kempis), nor with trance (Rolle). In auto-hypnosis, self-consciousness is still in control (see the works of Milton Erickson on medical hypnosis). Experience goes no further than liminality because experience is always interpretation—it is a function of the virtual mind. It is nonsense to speak of an experience of excessus mentis. If there is excessus, there is no mentis.

Excessus mentis, the suspension of self-consciousness, ordinarily happens many times every day. It is essential to the learning process. That it has occurred can be discerned only very rarely by its effects. The suspension of self-consciousness is entirely gratuitous; there is no way to force it. Excessus mentis is not the goal, however, and one-pointed meditation is only a first and minor step in a larger programme. The goal is to move one's centre from self-consciousness (L.) to the deep mind (R.) so that the latter can inform all of life through exchange with self-consciousness. As this process matures, excessus mentis fades in terms both of incidence and significance. It becomes the hidden source on which the self-conscious mind continually draws.

To translate this into Christian terminology: the L. side is our fallen mind; it was distracted from its continual beholding with God in the garden of Eden by the first conversation with the wise snake. If Adam and Eve hadn't been distracted they would have been automatons, and God wants his people to be free. He wants them to choose to behold. (This account is in Irenaeus, 2nd century). That is all God has ever asked of people. God is in the seat of the soul on the R. side of the diagram. It is here the Spirit is at work. So to receive what God has to give, we have to let go the chatter and ideas (even of God) in our self-consciousness (which is only a virtual picture of reality anyway) in order to re-connect with the R. side, where there is direct perception, continual beholding, and the Spirit gives new life. Once the mind is re-connected with itself and the continuum restored, the Spirit can increasingly inform all of our self-conscious life. It's never a question of either/or but rather putting self-consciousness at the service of the deep mind instead of the other way around.

This is what Phil. 2:5-11 is referring to: we need our self-consciousness, but it has a tendency to think it is God. All of its ideas, particularly the construct of 'self' has to be repeatedly relinquished into the silence to be trans-figured. Literally. It is the way we 'figure things out' or our perspective that is changed. It is incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection rolled into one. This movement to subject the self-conscious mind to the workings of the spirit in the deep mind is the en-Christing process—Jesus was a person; Christ is a process. We might think of Jesus as the un-distracted who taught us this en-Christing process, which is re-connecting with God's life in us and ours in him through beholding; continually choosing to turn away from the noise with which we distract ourselves to—metaphorically speaking—reach into the 'dazzling darkness', to wait on what it has to give. Gradually this process takes over so that we are no longer the initiators of the movement, but are animated by the Spirit.

* * * * *

So to answer your other two questions, yes, the church did turn away from this knowledge; in fact, it actively suppressed it until, by the time of Luther, within the institution, it was lost. Obviously there were people who kept it alive: women who had clandestine translations of Marguerete Porete made; Quakers, poets, hymn-writers, Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil—anyone, in fact, who had the patience to sit and watch their own mind.

And lastly, what does it have to do with going to church on Sunday morning? Alas, not much because without this knowledge those who create the liturgy and language no longer know how to help us be 'onyd'. The disappearance of the word 'behold' from modern translations of the bible is just one egregious example. Anyway, to help people be onyd with God is no longer their agenda, sadly; self-perpetuation is. And they certainly don't want us to be spiritually mature because we might wake up and find out the emperor has no clothes on.

And if the question arises but what about one's neighbour? What about charity? Good works? The answer is that a community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up, and any charity that does not arise from the overflow of love that comes from contemplation tends to be patronising and exploitive. 'Your life and your death is with your neighbour,' said Anthony of the desert. But we must learn the gracious spaciousness of God's love within ourselves first so that we can then welcome our neighbour into that gracious spaciousness.

Definition of 'Pathos of Shakenness'

Changeinthewind asked for a definition of 'shakenness'.

Andrew Shanks, What is Truth? Towards a Theological Poetics, Routledge, 2001, p. 15:

'And here, then, is what I mean by 'the pathos of shakenness'. Such pathos is that paradigmatic quality of the gospel story which John reflectively expresses, above all, where he writes of darkness and light; and which recurs wherever, through art or ritual, the Holy Spirit is at work carrying forward gospel truth in new expressive ways.

'As pathos of shakenness it is a registering of the sheer intensity of moral chiaroscuro belonging to any really decisive moment of truth. As pathos of shakenness it is a registering of the intensely urgent need of thought deriving from such moments, consequent upon the weakening and collapse of all the old fixed reference points of establishment-mindedness.'

Friday, July 08, 2011

Problematic Words in Medieval Scholarship

For the paper I'm giving next weekend, which will be published in the next volume of the Medieval Mystical Tradition in England series [Exeter Symposium], I've compiled a list of problematic words. In recent years, people seem to have become extremely sloppy about the words they use when writing about medieval religious texts—or any religious texts. Here's the first half of the list. I'll get back to the paper on silence in the next-but-one post.

achieve is not proper to contemplation or the higher reaches of the spiritual life, which are gratuitous (paradox of intention)

affective refers to the notion of the primacy of the heart (intention) over the linear intellect in matters of contemplation. It does not mean devotional kitsch. The extravagant expressions of love in Bernard, for example, are paradoxical because they are trying to communicate a love so deep as to be detached from its own desire.

contemplation/contemplative refers to a specific practice of contemplation,—attentive receptivity—which excludes interpretation. The term 'contemplative text' is nonsensical. Visionary texts do not describe contemplation unless, like Julian's text, they move the reader from image to contemplative event-horizon and engagement with the deep mind. Didactic texts do not teach contemplation unless, like the Cloud of Unknowing, they intend to lead the reader to the contemplative event-horizon and engagement with the deep mind. Devotional texts are not directly conducive to contemplation; nor are trance-inducing texts (Rolle; trance is liminal but self-consciousness is in control. See the works of Milton Erickson on auto-hypnosis). Abstraction (à Kempis) is not contemplation; it belongs to the realm of self-consciousness, not deep mind. This model suggests that Julian's Long Text and the Cloud are the only two texts that are properly associated with contemplation among the English texts with which they are usually grouped. To these might be added one contemplative interlocutor: Will, of Piers Plowman. See also habitual and mystical below.

experience in the medieval sense means an experimental, provisional interpretation that is to be tested against scripture and tradition. This is opposite to the modern sense, which is related to self-authentication. The modern sense is incipient in the later Middle Ages (e.g., Gerson, Epistle 26, April-June, 1408). While it is appropriate to say religious experience it is nonsensical to say contemplative experience and absurd to say experience of excessus mentis. If there is excessus there is no mentis. Experience may be associated with fele in texts that describe exercises designed to stimulate artificial emotions, self-dramatization and performance, but not with fele as it is used in The Cloud of Unknowing, where it gestures towards touching the unfathomable and dazzling dark.

false self/true self (the former needing to be destroyed or suppressed) is a modern notion, a dualism that has also insinuated itself anachronistically into academic study of medieval texts. It is a self-judgement that takes place entirely in the self-conscioius/conceptual mind, not the deep mind. It is not only not a medieval notion, it is not even a Christian notion (Matt. 7:1), as everything created is good, and 'synne is behovabil' (Julian LT, ch. 27).

grasp is not appropriately used in terms of faith or contemplation, e.g., 'those who have difficulty grasping faith', as both are about un-grasping. Most of the pistis verbs in the Gospel of John, for example, are intransitive. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith has been confused modern times with propositional belief because it has been used as a term for a body of doctrine, e.g., the Faith.

habitual is a word associated with self-consciousness (habitual sinner—to sin requires self-consciousness) and is not appropriately used when speaking of contemplation, because a contemplative has given over initiative to the Spirit who animates.

lifestyle refers to fashionable outward forms of living; it is inappropriate when applied to the medieval monastic world of the Cloud, which is a way of living that arises from within. There were, of course, monasteries such as Cluny that were far more about style than about the monastic life. It is important to make the distinction for the modern reader.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Andrew Shanks

A Friend writes:

As I have been sorting through things, I found an old email note (from 2002) where I was lamenting all the ways and places I have hoped that the Church might be the Church--and each time "I was wrong". Part of that was reference to a Yorkshire priest, Andrew Shanks, in an essay in CrossCurrents. He works in Hegel, Kant and the poets Holderlin, Blake, and Nelly Sachs.

I realized that I also have a book by him, and found it: What is Truth: Towards a Theological Poetics. I discovered that I had never finished the book, and so turned to the end to read his conclusions.

'It not only has theoretical implications, for the reading of shaken poetry. I think it also has quite practical implications, for the reconstruction of the church's liturgy. For what has been the basic rationale traditionally at work in shaping our liturgical calendar?

'Judging from the results: for the most part, an absolutely primary importance has been accorded to the church's supposed role as the carrier-community for correct metaphysical doctrine. In view of which, the first priority for the designers of the church's liturgy has been the growth and prosperity of their community, by whatever means considered most effective for that purpose, virtually regardless of any other consideration.

'In so far as the carrier-community for metaphysical correctness is most likely to grow and prosper with the aid of a liturgy saturated with self-serving pathos of glory, well then, according to this logic, so be it. With the result that a liturgical year has developed which is, one might almost say, one long parade of all the reasons which the institutional church thinks it has to boast about itself. Much of our liturgy has, in effect, become a sort of salesman's pitch for the this-worldly church-institution, sublated into prayer. The sins we confess tend only to be those we commit as individuals; not those of the church as a corporate entity. But redemption is, all too often, more or less identified in practice with uncritically loyal church-membership.'

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Exploring Silence II

Much of the work on ancient and medieval texts has been done quite consciously and deliberately through the ideological filters of scholasticism, Calvinism, neo-scholasticism, Freudianism, positivism and empiricism; there has not been much opportunity for them to reveal what in fact they have to say on their own terms. We need to reconsider the methodology we use to examine them, and to be extremely careful in the choice of words we use to talk about them. Words can either help or hinder us in communicating a message that is difficult enough for any human being to take on board—difficult because it is simple, not because it is complex—much less twenty-first century people. Otherwise we are in grave danger of losing the ability to interpret these texts at all; and indeed, given contemporary cultural pressures, it may already be too late.

Most modern interpreters—there are a few exceptions—do not appear to understand the model of the mind or the dynamic that underlies ancient and medieval texts, nor do they recognize the significance of some biblical texts or the sense of the words within them, even though these texts may be quoted in the work in question. Interpreters often treat as philosophical abstraction or linguistic transmission what is actual—the way the mind works, or the way it 'feels', that is, its effects on the body—which anyone, literate or not, can work out if they take the time to observe their own mind. In addition, any use of the word mind seems to provoke a knee-jerk reaction that often wrongly labels the work (or the interpreter) Platonist. Just because someone is talking about the mind does not mean s/he is a Platonist. This label is particularly misapplied to biblical interpreters if they use the word mind, in spite of the fact that one of Christianity's core texts (Phil. 2:5-11) includes this word. The passage, among other things, is describing a psychological truth: that outward behaviour is changed only after and in consequence of a profound interior shift. Will, in Piers Plowman, persists with the question that underlies this passage: how can I come to 'kynde knowing'? But Holy Church and her companion Job's comforters not only will not but no longer can tell him, for the institution has lost its empirical base; instead, they subvert, invert, and ignore his question.[1]

Pseudo-Denys is another example. I have come to think of this much-discussed writer as John the Solitary (John of Apamea) in fancy dress, the costume being the language of neo-Platonism clothing a dynamic that cuts across religions and cultures. Pseudo-Denys is a hot topic, widely contested, but the confusion is all the greater because few of the scholars working on him understand this foundational dynamic/model. Since, as Iain McGilchrist [2] reminds us, form follows function, it is not surprising that there is a good deal of correlation between the insights of the ancient and medieval world about the the mind's work in and with silence, and contemporary neuro-psychology; whereas the assumptions of many modern interpreters of ancient and medieval texts are sadly wide of the mark—if, indeed, there is any coherence to their theories or their language. These misunderstandings distort scholarship in many disciplines: classics, patristics, medieval studies, history, theology, philosphy, to name but a few.

[1] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255.

[2]Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale, 2009).