Monday, August 29, 2011

Who Sneers First Dies First

There are headlines in this morning's papers sneering at a storm that they claim was more hype than hurricane. Clearly the vultures who write such cant have never been through a major storm, and have little or no understanding of how capricious weather systems can be, even more so now that global warming is turning the weather chaotic and extreme. It is also clear that the people who write these headlines are reincarnations of those who used to attend spectacles in the Roman coliseum, hoping for a five-star bloodbath. Sorry to disappoint you, guys, this time around at any rate.

It is hard to see how a conservative estimate of three billion dollars worth of damage and 23 deaths [as of 10 PM GMT the count has risen to 35] is less than catastrophic for the people who have taken the full brunt of the storm. The enormous amount of rain that fell from this slow-moving weather system is still flowing into rivers vulnerable to flooding. One river in Pennsylvania has already reached levels not seen in 150 years.

It is hard to fault the Obama administration and the New York mayor for prudence, or FEMA for getting ready for an even worse event. As it is, this storm affected the largest number of people of any storm in history. New York had an extremely lucky break: if the winds had not diminished, there could have been far greater damage, not only to low-lying areas from flooding, but also to skyscrapers: wind speed increases geometrically with altitude. Not to mention the funnelling effect of New York's streets: anyone who has lived there, as I have, knows the danger of straight-line winds that can develop in its concrete canyons.

These headlines show the degrading of human mentality to a mechanized view of storms and tides. This alienation from nature is shocking and foolish. Anyone who has lived in an area where life depends on tides and respect for the weather knows how stupid it is to underestimate, to be ill-prepared. Many is the day when I was fishing in Alaska in perfect conditions only to have my interior alarm bells sound; I'd pull the gear and head in, feeling a bit of a fool. Nine times out of ten, however, the wind would start shrieking just as I entered the harbour, leaving my more macho colleagues to face seas that can grow from flat to 10 feet within a couple of minutes.

Tidal surges are also unpredictable, whether or not there is a storm. In Alaska one year, there was a spring tide that just kept coming: it was supposed to be 22 feet; it ended up being 24 or 25 feet. It is possible there had been an undersea landslip, but whatever the cause, it was frightening to stand in total helplessness as the small waves lapped higher and higher up the shingle.

Storms can arise seemingly from nowhere, especially at more northern latitudes. Ask the people of Boscastle or Cumbria. Ask the people who live along the Cornish and Welsh coasts, who live on the islands off of Scotland.

It is incredible that there are still those who doubt the human impact on the planet's weather and climate, who delude themselves about the fragility of ecosystems. Anyone who has lived close to nature knows how inconceivably fragile any ecosystem is. Only slight variations in such factors as temperature, animal birth rates, water availability can set major, often irreversible changes into motion. Anyone who lives in a place like Alaska sees the impact of global warming and the degrading of the environment on a daily basis. It is almost impossible to overestimate the damage already done, much less to anticipate the further damage to come, which in all likelihood will increase geometrically in terms of both acceleration and impact.

The excellent BBC programme on chaos/complexity theory was shown again only last week. The Secret Life of Chaos is still available on iPlayer. Watch it if you want to understand the forces at work over which we have absolutely no control, but which we can survive if we respect them and prepare.


Update: 3 PM GMT

The Wall Street Journal now reports 26 are dead in storm-related incidents.

CNN reports that the hurricane's damage extended far inland. Here is part of an account of the situation in Vermont, not a state usually associated with hurricanes:

Fueled by rain from Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont's normally tranquil streams turned into raging monsters Sunday night into early Monday, inundating towns, washing away four of the state's iconic covered bridges and killing at least one person.

The water was receding Monday morning, but not before inflicting some of the worst flooding the state has seen since 1927, according to state emergency officials.

Some towns were "entirely covered with water," said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the state's emergency management division.
Virtually every waterway in the state flooded, and 260 roads were impacted in some way after as much as 6 inches of rain fell as Irene passed the state. ...

For instance, Otter Creek in Rutland, Vermont, went from a depth of less than 4 feet Sunday morning to more than 17 feet at 1:45 a.m. Monday -- nearly four feet higher than the record set in 1938, according to the National Weather Service. While it was falling Monday morning, it was still 8 feet above flood stage. ...

In Brattleboro, a city of 12,000 people on the New Hampshire border, Whetstone Brook flowed out of its banks and undermined a three-story building, threatening to bring it down.

"We've seen nothing like this," said Barbara Sondag, town manager for Brattleboro.

The rampaging waters also battered the state's iconic covered bridges.

Between four and six of the bridges were were lost, state emergency officials said.

Life-long resident Jesse Stone watched the White River rip away at the footings of the historic Quechee covered bridge as it washed through the heart of the town.

"It is just about impossible to imagine this bridge being taken out," Stone said in an iReport. "It's usually (way) above the water level."

In the ski resort town of Ludlow, near Okemo in south-central Vermont, town communications officer Dave Vanguilder said about three dozen roads in the area were closed. Three or four bridges were washed out.

For Chris Perkins of Washington, a weekend wedding turned into a longer commitment after rains cut off all routes out of Rochester.

"The bridges that connect the town to other areas have been washed out," according to iReporter Perkins. ...


Update 8 PM GMT

A friend who lives in the Northeast has sent a damage report:

Lost three trees. Ripped out of ground, roots and all. No power or water. Town has 100 percent without power or water. Trees and power lines down everywhere. Nearest prediction of when electric lines will be picked off road, trees removed off road and power and water back up is 7-10 days. I live in a beautiful shoreline community with state parks and beaches. They are all ruined. All sand off the beaches. Docks destroyed. Roads washed away.

. . . We won't be normal for weeks. My kids were supposed to start school today. Canceled until next week. This smart phone can charge in the car and connects me to the Internet and to texting and phonecalls.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Exploring Silence VII

Irenaeus (2nd c.) '. . .is the first writer to have a Christian bible before him. . . . [He] completed the first great synthesis of Christian thought . . . . what became the main elements of Christian doctrine'.[1] His worked is summed up in a famous aphorism, but it is telling that today only the first half of the phrase is usually cited. 'The glory of God is the human person fully alive; and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God.'[2] The two clauses are interdependent. According to Irenaeus, God and the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve were in continual communion in silent beholding.[3] Adam and Eve are distracted from this beholding by the first conversation with the snake—speech is both cause and consequence of their distraction. This break was necessary, however, so that Adam and Eve could have their freedom and grow to maturity; they had to learn to choose to behold: otherwise they would only have been automatons. To choose to behold and to live from that beholding is the Christian task (Cloud, chs. 4, 6 Hodgson 14/21-22).

For Irenaeus, as for much of early Christian tradition, especially monastic tradition, obedience is synonymous to listening with the ear of the heart. The theme is taken up by the key New Testament text, Phil. 2: 5-11, which uses the Greek word υπηκοοσ, intense listening, for 'obedience'. Responding to its instruction, Egyptian and Syrian desert dwellers, like John the Solitary, made silence their lynchpin. As Ephrem (4th century) tells us, Mary conceived through her ear;[4] her beholding reverses the distraction to which Eve succumbed through hers. It is in this way that Mary be-holds, holds God who is beyond being in being and time by conceiving her son—the word ιδου appears three times in the annunciation in Luke 1: 26-38. The notion of the ear of the heart is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures.[5] In silence—of which the desert is symbolic—listening with the heart and beholding interpenetrate. By contrast, Athanasius' life of Anthony the Great says that noise is a sign of the demonic (cap. 9).

For Augustine (354-430), '. . .true rhetoric culminates in silence, in which the mind is in immediate contact with reality . . . . all dialectic, true rhetoric, and thought itself were but attempts to re-ascend to that silence from which the world fell into the perpetual clamor of life as fallen men know it.[6] His contemporary, Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), is another incisive observer of the psychological processes of the mind seeking silence and the attacks to which it is subject.

Syriac writers are particularly keen observers of the work of silence, of the need to redress the balance between self-consciousness and core silence, to restore the circulation of the self-conscious mind seeking silence and re-emerging from it trans-figured. Isaac's predecessor, Abraham of Nathpar writes: 'There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is the silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit . . . .The silence of the spirit is when the mind ceases even from stirrings caused by spiritual beings, and when all its movements are stirred solely by Being; in this state it is truly silent, aware that the silence which is upon it is itself silent'.[7] Although he writes in Greek, Pseudo-Denys is a Syriac monk familiar with the Syriac liturgical tradition.

Beyond those writers already mentioned, those in the medieval West who give accounts of this topic also include, to name only a few: Cassian, Guigo II, Bernard, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich and Gerson. The last institutional advocate for the work of silence was Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Cusanus says that the image of God in the human person is found in the mind's ability to transcend itself.[8] He is doing metaphysics based on an observable phenomenon,[9] the suspension of self-consciousness, which is the primary meaning of excessus mentis in these writers, although it is not limited to that term. Richard of St Victor uses deficio, for example. But more on this in a moment.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons by Eric Osborn, CUP, 2001, pp. xi, xiv, 10.

[2] Privy Counselling, Hodgeson 83/33-35. Jesus can be thought of as the undistracted.

[3] Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 4:38. While Julian of Norwich almost certainly knew nothing of Irenaeus' work, her text could reasonably be seen as an extended gloss on this famous aphorism; she is the Apostle of Beholding.

[4] See Hymns on Virginity, 23:5. The Luminous Eye, by Sebastian Brock, Kalamazoo, Cistercian, 1992.

[5] E.g., Deut. 6:4; Ps. 45:10; Ps 46: 11; Ps. 62:1; Ps. 95:8, Is. 30: 15; Is. 50 4; Is. 55: 3. God, who is found in silence, has a name that cannot be pronounced. God's word is silent, but is spoken in the lives of those who have heard it in their hearts; 'it shall not return empty' (Is. 55: 10-11). I AM will be wherever this hearing happens.

[6] 'St Augustine's Rhetoric of Silence' by Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 23, No. 2, (Apr. - Jun., 1962), pp. 187 . . . 192.

[7] The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, tr. Sebastian Brock, Kalamazoo, Cistercian, 1987.

[8] Pauline Moffitt Watts, Nicholas Cusanus: A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1982), 139; Becoming God: The Doctrine of Theosis in Nicolas of Cusa by Nancy Hudson, Catholic University Press, 2007.

[9] 'The biological and metaphysical were understood as wholes within wholes, the one never precluding the other.' Gretel Ehrlich, In the Empire of Ice, Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2010, p. 232.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ecclesiastical History and Ecclesiology

I went to an instructive open meeting of Ecclesiastical History Society at the cathedral yesterday afternoon—though not, perhaps, instructive in the way that was intended. It was the opening event of their conference, a round-table discussion by an Anglican bishop (a descendent of Dean Inge, John Inge, now Bishop of Worcester); the head of Churches Together in England, a URC minister named David Cormick; and the head of Blackfriars, Richard Finn, OP. The theme was 'What has Church History ever done for the Church?' What follows in no way does justice to what any of these participants said, but I am highlighting points for further discussion.

As one might imagine, the opening presentations were suitably anodyne, everyone bending over backwards to 'be ecumenical'. I sat there thinking how out of date it all was, how every important question was being begged. While the Anglican, sitting there in purple shirt and pectoral cross, dutifully mentioned the humbling aspects of church history, he clearly wasn't into making any adjustments in practical terms, or bringing up any embarrassing subjects (which is doubtless why he is a bishop).

The URC person spoke about church history having put an emphasis, especially since Vatican II, on churches' individual identities. I inwardly groaned. More on this in a moment. He took up the baton—the usual sort of ploy in these discussions where the most Protestant representative takes up the cause of the most RC—in defending Eamon Duffy and putting down Diarmaid McCulloch. Duffy is a good historian, but sometimes, in my view, there's just a bit too much of 'because it's Catholic it's better' (e.g., Catholic ice cream is better than other kinds of ice cream just because it's Catholic) about some of the things he says. This is an attitude that I have run into with Catholics everywhere, but is particularly pronounced in England where RCs still regard themselves (in a rather self-satisfied way) as the martyred minority. In fact, there are more practising RCs than Anglicans in this country. This speaker also deplored the side-lining of systematic theology, at which, again, I nearly groaned aloud. More on this in a moment.

Richard Finn, the Dominican, was actually the most impressive, laughing in rueful way that the Dominicans suffered fewer losses during the Reformation than anyone else.

Then the discussion was opened to the floor and after what appeared to be a planted question from a don from Cambridge, a woman stood up and asked the most wonderful awkward question. What is the relationship, she said, between ecclesiology and ecclesisastical history? Everyone gasped.

I nearly shouted for joy, because the elephant in this particular discussion was that every historian worth his or her salt knows that claims such as 'apostolic succession' as that is traditionally understood have absolutely no basis in history, nor is there any justification in the gospels for the sort of religious institutions we have today—and yet here were these professors, nodding and bobbing and weaving about each other as if it nothing were askew. This is the problem with ecumenism, and even more, trying to mix ecumenism with ecclesiastical history: for decades the discussions have been and are still being conducted on assumptions that absolutely no one who has even the slightest knowledge of church history any longer accepts. And as this knowledge is no longer confined to scholars and ecclesiastics, but is out there and available to the interested and discounted laity, the people conducting these discussions evidently have no idea how surreal their activities look to those not in the loop, or if they do, they think playing the game is more important. But the problem with this game is that they are playing with people's souls.

The impact of this awkward question created the most delicious moment. I really admired Richard Finn because he had the grace to blush; he turned beet red and was clearly embarrassed but in the best possible way; he knows the claims his magisterium makes have little factual basis or justification in light of the gospel. (I was talking to another RC scholar earlier this week who said teaching in the RC church is like living in Soviet Russia.)

Of course all the panelists talked around this awkward question; no one responded to it directly. I went over to the woman afterwards and thanked her; she and the people sitting nearby were talking about today's church as a construct of the context of the present, not really having anything to do with Christianity per se. This is one conference I would really like to sit in on but there's no possibility of that. What a great beginning—though probably not in the way the powers that be might have expected. I hoped beyond hope that they would see it as an opportunity to foreground what has been repeatedly shoved into the background.

This morning we had the proof of the would-be ecclesial pudding that refuses to acknowledge its ingredients and be mixed: after Matins the group bifurcated. On opposite sides of the cathedral, Anglican and RC Eucharists took place simultaneously, each making their own magic cookies. It was grace, surely, that dictated that the only moment the two liturgies were in sync was at the Our Father—in different translations, of course.

Lately I have been working on Pseudo-Denys (Paul Rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols ... ), who says that our salvation is not in the elements but in the ever-deepening interpretation of symbols (a word that has far greater depth of meaning than the impoverished sense of today), and that the highest form of interpretation is without words. In light of this work, the events of yesterday afternoon and this morning were more than ironic, and very, very sad. I will be writing more on 'salvation through interpretation' in future posts.

A brief word about identity, systematic theology, and, by extension, methodology.

Identity: human beings are most themselves when they forget about themselves. We say to teenagers, 'Don't be so self-conscious: be yourself'. We are the last to know who we are; the self is not the construct we make in our self-consciousness; it is the truth that is continually unfolding in the directly inaccessible, far reaches of our minds/hearts, as I have been discussing in the current series of posts, and in my recent book Writing the Icon of the Heart. If churches really wanted to come together—and it's hard to believe that they do, for who is going to give up power, status, self-certifying authority and the self-perpetuating myths?—then they need to stop worrying about their identities. They need to start practicing the self-forgetfulness for the sake of the community that the Lord that they claim to follow teaches. This is a futile hope, as John 14 teaches (see the last paragraph of my most recent post): it is impossible for institutions or any system to behold—but the situation does not have to be as extreme a travesty as it has become. The problem is that those in power are so blind that they do not realize that they are skeletons at their own feast. If there is one truth I have learned in a lifetime's association with the Church and with Academia, it is that a single-hearted seeking of truth—and the acceptance of human finitude in the face of the elusive qualities of truth—is not high on the lists of priorities; and the humility required to undertake this task is almost unknown.

Systematic theology: Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest systematic theologian, was a contemplative. His systematic theology was an attempt to reconcile what contemplation taught and what the hierarchy wanted people to hear. It was, of course, an impossible task, as Aquinas himself recognised. More recent systematic theology has been done under the influence of positivism. Systematic theology is not only so last century, it is also completely antithetical to the content and methodology of the gospels. Systematic theology creates a hierarchy of linear thinking. It is two-dimensional. It fails to represent the religion based on beholding—in fact, it is entirely destructive to it. There has been uneasiness about systematic theology for years, but the problem is that the scholars and theologians, like hierarchs, cannot bear to give up total control. Controlling 'God' is so much exhilarating. Systematic theologians seem never to have heard of Gödel.

What Christianity needs is not more systematic theology but rather the development of a relational theology, a molecular theology, a theology that admits it can only gesture but that somehow is able to point to the global, inclusive and infinitely open character of Christianity. This would be an interdisciplinary theology that learns to be content with ambiguity and acknowledges the absurdity of ecclesial claims. To put this in McGilchrist's terms, all of the brain's tools for 'religious' processing are in the right hemisphere. By contrast, systematic theology precisely appeals to the simplistic, grandiose, repetitive and controlling views of the left hemisphere. In such a circumscribed, virtual theology there can be only absence. I have gone on about this at length in previous posts, so will not belabour the point here.

This brings me to methodology. To quote from the paper, 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', that will shortly appear in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII (Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 2012): 'It is folly to examine texts that teach contemplation [and I am convinced that many sayings in the gospels are doing precisely this, and that patristic and medieval writers understood them so] using the very system of thought against which they are written. To use a methodology that demands closure on a text that is leading the reader into infinite openness not only destroys it, but also locks the reader into lesser beholdings. [Privy Counselling 92/45-93/5 in Hodgson's edition]. This is a recognized problem in philosophy, and if philosophy, then even more ipsa philosophia Christus (LeClercq, Love of Learning..., p. 100). As Karmen MacKendrick notes:

"We still must use words; we still must draw out the questions that lie within philosophy. It is only that we have learned that we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we know that we lose them together with ourselves. [Karmen MacKendrick, Immemorial Silence (New York, 2001), p. 5.]"'

Monday, August 15, 2011

Exploring Silence VI

Because this positive sense of interior silence and beholding coinhere, we must for a moment anticipate. The English word behold accurately reflects the psychological and theological nuances of the Hebrew [e.g., hinnay, hinneh;] and Greek [e.g., ιδου, θεωρει, idou, theorei] words it translates, confirmed in part by Jesus' commentary on behold in Luke 17:21, which is echoed in Matthew 24:26 and Mark 13:21.[1]

Having lost the word behold, post-Enlightenment translators have often found this passage incomprehensible.[2] The point of the passage is that the word behold is not analytical; it does not refer to the external; it is not applicable to the linear and the material. It is a wrong use of the word behold to use it to say 'here it is, there it is'. The word behold is appropriate only to the kingdom of heaven within, and that kingdom is beholding. By extension, the kingdom of heaven cannot be manifest among you until it is manifest within you (the same Greek word entos (εντοs) is used for both within and among, but the word choice of which to use is clear from the context if one understands the significance of the word behold in the Hebrew scriptures.

Emphasis on the third idou is implicit. In the earlier version of his bible, [3] Wycliffe uses 'lo' twice followed by 'forsooth lo'. The Geneva Bible, the Bishops Bible and KJV use the more idiomatic 'lo' in the first two instances and the more formal 'behold' in the third. The New King James omits the 'behold' but retains the emphasis 'see. . .see . . . indeed' even though the entire sense of the passage is lost. It is fundamental to Gregory of Nyssa's theology;[4] Luke 17:21 is in the background of the famous passage in Augustine's Confessions X.27.38. Cassian quotes it in Conference 13 immediately following his remark equating distraction with fornication.[5] And The Cloud of Unknowing could be seen as a gloss on this passage.

This passage is foregrounded in the contemplative tradition. Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.), drawing on much earlier writers, insists that the kingdom of heaven has always meant contemplation.[6] This sense also occurs in Richard of St Victor's The Mystical Ark III.5, 10; it is alluded to in Walter Hilton's Scale 2.33.

From this it is not difficult to see how misleading translations of the bible can lead to contemporary misinterpretations of medieval texts, if one is not using the medieval Vulgate. It is also not difficult to see from this understanding of behold why institutional Christianity is quite rightly afraid of contemplation, for in John 14, Jesus says to his disciples that while they can behold [θεωρειτε], the system [κοσμοσ] cannot behold [θεωρει], and because it cannot behold [θεωρει] it cannot receive the spirit of truth or know it. κοσμοσ is usually translated 'the world' but the Gospel of John is about Jesus as the new temple and by extension the human heart as the holy of holies. Here Jesus is alluding with particular irony to the temple system as he speaks of worldly systems in general, which are by definition confined to the linear and the hierarchical which are alien to beholding.[6]

It is not hard to see why the medieval church came to regard the bible as a very dangerous book indeed.


[1] This important verse is so obscure that it often does not appear in scriptural indexes (e.g., Walsh on Cloud; Zinn and Chase on Richard of St. Victor).

[2] For example, the New Jerusalem translation uses the analytical word look for all three occurrences of idou (ιδου), missing entirely the internal clue as to whether entos (εντοs) should be translated within or among.

[3] The Earlier Version of the Wycliffite Bible, vo. 7 the Gospels edited from MS Christ Church 145, by Conrad Lindberg, Stockholm Almqvst & Wiksell, 1994, p. 150. He also uses behold and see but a spot check does not turn up any particular pattern in his choice of these four words, which further study might reveal.

[4] From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa, Jean Daniélou, London 1962, pp. 100-101; On the Beatitudes, sermon VI, P.G. XLIV 1269C-1272A, quoted in the Negative Language of the Dionysian School of Mystical Theology: An Approach to the Cloud of Unknowing, Vol. 1, Rosemary Ann Lees, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, A-5020 Salzburg, 1983, p. 16.

[5] 'Fornication' in the bible usually means worshipping false gods. 'But we ought to be aware on what we should have the purpose of our mind fixed, and to what goal we should ever recall the gaze of our soul: and when the mind can secure this it may rejoice; and grieve and sigh when it is withdrawn from this, and as often as it discovers itself to have fallen away from gazing on Him, it should admit that it has lapsed from the highest good, considering that even a momentary departure from gazing on Christ is fornication. And when our gaze has wandered ever so little from Him, let us turn the eyes of the soul back to Him, and recall our mental gaze as in a perfectly straight direction. For everything depends on the inward frame of mind, and when the devil has been expelled from this, and sins no longer reign in it, it follows that the kingdom of God is founded in us, as the Evangelist says "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, nor shall men say Lo [ecce] here, or lo [ecce] there: for verily [Amen] I say unto you that the kingdom of God is within you."'

[6] Jesus seems to want to return to the pre-law Judaism of beholding; the law, after all, is a concession because the people refuse to behold.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

UK Riots

There are excellent commentaries at these links:

Monday, August 08, 2011

Comments Worth Foregrounding from Exploring Silence IV


"..meditation is only a first and minor step in a process that shifts the centre of consciousness..." What follows? Thank you.

Maggie Ross:

Meditation can be abused as well as used. One can, for example, meditate in order to become a more efficient killer.

Meditation has to have a context and be subject to intent. The modern distinction between religion and spirituality is very dangerous—not that believing the propositions of a particular sect is important, but it is vital to know what you believe, what your ethics are, and your purpose for meditating, that is, your intent.

Meditation can introduce you to silence, but it will not root you in silence, or shift your centre to the deep mind. Meditation can introduce you to the possibilities that silence offers for trans-figuration, but these effects are only incidental.

Most people go no farther than meditation because they are more interested in justifying who they think they are, rather than becoming who they really are. The reason for this is that they are unwilling to pay the price, unwilling to let go of their ideas of themselves, to begin with; unwilling to wait in the dark in complete openness; unwilling to turn away from noise and static in their minds whenever they notice it in order to to reach into the dark; unwilling to seek solitude and silence; unwilling to radically simplify their lives. 

These are not conditions of entry in to the silence; rather, the silence itself demands them. Realising that the silence is costly, and not willing to risk the effects what they do not know, most people sell their souls for a mess of pottage and miss their inheritance, which is the kingdom of heaven, i.e., a life animated by contemplation.

Changeinthewind replied:

Wow! A thoughtful and provocative response. Thank you.

"These are not conditions of entry in to the silence; rather, the silence itself demands them.


I feel willing to do all of this. 

What you say is necessary to a contemplative life I now do or try to do.

There could be improvement but I live a deliberately simple life.

"..unwilling to wait in the dark in complete openness.."

Perhaps "just living" can be the dark I now feel? What once felt purposeful and beautiful is now a feeling of stuck ness in what seems to be just a meditation practice.

Are you suggesting that the stuck ness reaction was/is an ego defense; a not yet willing at the core to pay the true cost?

Or is it, this too shall pass.

Maggie Ross replied:

Perhaps the most important thing is not to worry what it "feels" like, nor to worry about the outcome, or the price, or anything else. Let go expectations. Let go ideas of what it 'should be like'. Let go evaluations. Just be.

Equally important is that you turn to 'reach into the dark' (or listen every more deeply in the silence, or whatever metaphor works for you to get you beyond what often becomes a meditation-generated capsule) outside of meditation, in your ordinary life. 

When you catch yourself allowing the noise and static in your head to be your entertainment, deliberately turn away from it towards the silence and make some sort of interior metaphorical (entirely metaphorical) intention/gesture (again, whatever metaphor works) of opening to the silence, of 'choosing' the silence instead of the noise, of reaching into the dark in love. 

It's utterly simple; there is nothing to 'do' except choose to have this intention when you catch yourself in noise of some sort [it will also help you survive environmental noise you can't do anything about, and calm strong emotion]. You only need to do it once in a lingering, leisurely sort of way and then forget about it and go on with ordinary life in as much simple silence as possible—forgetting even this. (You will recognize the paradox of intention).

Then the next time you catch yourself being entertained (or abused) by noise (internal especially, but also external) repeat the exercise. Gradually you are using your intention to influence your deep mind to change/shift your energy centre from self-consciousness to the deep mind. Eventually you will wake up one morning , or quietly realize over a cup of tea in the afternoon, that you no longer have to choose do this exercise, that the silence is now doing the animating.

Don't make too much of this. it's simplicity itself. It's a bit like trying to look at the star cluster called the Pleiades: if you look at them directly they tend to fade; if you look at them out of the corner of your eye, obliquely, they shine clearly and brightly. Try to avoid looking at what's going on out of your sight (you can't see it anyway and it's none of your business!); just make the simple choice/intention or 'reaching' into the silence in faith—a faith that is deep enough to relax and forget you have done it.

When you find yourself in noise, choose silence; that's it. As the shift takes place, the degree of simplicity of your external living conditions will find its own level. 

No two people are alike in this, and simple pleasures are important—think 'Babette's Feast'—in the sense of, for example, delectable, very fresh, food now and again, food that is carefully, thoughtfully, beautifully prepared in love and eaten with great attention and love; or some other simple pleasure—are greatly to be desired. For Fr Zossima in the Brothers Karamatsov, it was jam in his tea. It can be something very simple: a flower, a starry night. These moments of deep gratitude, beholding, appreciation, etc. enhance the silence and help you deepen into it. 

It's important to continue your regular meditation until the day you realize that silence has taken over, and meditation actually seems like a form of noise, or withers. All the same, you will probably have to go back to it from time to time as a kind of refresher, because it's rare that the shift is permanently seated; we do slip. It's not a fault. It just happens; we're humans, not machines, and we live in particularly tumultuous and uncertain times. Paradoxically the silence makes one both more sensitive—acutely so—and simultaneously more unshakeable.

It is also important always to read very good things, a little at a time (like eating the good food above—quality, not quantity); to keep your eyes from harmful images—you will become more impressionable to such things and purging bad images, if you let them in, is a chore; to keep your ears from harmful words as far as that is possible, or violence in any form, ditto. Again, these things will follow automatically as you choose/intend/reach into the silence. If bad things are said to you or happen to you allow the silence to absorb them and your feelings with them.

Simple, simple. 'Unless you become as a little child. . ." This is what that passage means, in part. Bless you, and bless you for the courage to share these questions with others.

PS I have used neutral language in describing this for the most part, because religious/theological language has been ruined. But you can make the translation, I'm sure.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Exploring Silence V

How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring?—John the Solitary 5th c. [1]

In a single paragraph, John the Solitary (also known as John of Apamea, 5th c.) has created a map of the spiritual life: the longing; the mind's way into silence; the transfigured knowledge beyond knowing, tasted and yearned for, that is given there; the problematic relationship between silence and speech; and, by implication, the differential between global and linear, inclusive and discriminating, the knowledge of and through unknowing and the merely conceptual (Cloud ch. 68; 68/18-21). [2] Unknowing is not anti-intellectual but coronal knowing, relinquishing the merely logical to a multidimensional, relational epistemology.[3] Silence for John and for similar authors is not an escape from the world but a way of being in the world.

The word silence in this context is a liminal term that evades definition,[4] one of a small group of words that includes behold. They are performative in that they give the linear, self-conscious mind a taste of what they signify, a brief respite from its restless analytical processing (Cloud, ch. 7, H. 16/5). Thus to speak the word silence breaks the silence, but also bestows a momentary engagement with what it signifies.[5] These threshold words operate in such a way that normal grammatical rules are of questionable use. [6] Behold, for example, does not ordinarily take an object ('the rest of the sentence is for those who do not behold'),[7] although it does take personal pronomial suffixes for emphasis as in the biblical 'behold me', usually misleadingly translated as 'here I am.'[8] We might say that these words belong to a missing 'third voice', which English/American and other grammars lack: a voice that conflates active and passive, that indicates an alert receptivity and profound engagement.

Until the early modern period the word silence signified a life of interior space. For example, 'God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere' is a saying that can be traced back to Empedocles.[9] Isaiah 33:17 says, 'Your eyes will see [Heb. behold] the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches far away.[10] Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision.

[1] Sebastian Brock, 'John the Solitary, On Prayer', Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 30 (1979), 84-101, p. 87.

[2] The pre-Socratics and the Platonic and neo-Platonic traditions have much to say about the work of silence, as do the Hebrew scriptures, e.g., "For God alone my soul in silence waits." Ps. 62. The beholding of God is inclusive, e.g., The Cloud-author says that in 'goostlynes alle is one'. (ch. 37) The chapter title of ch. 68 reads: ' þat noȝwhere bodili is eueriwhere goostly . . .', and riffs on it in the next one (ch. 69): How þat a mans affeccion is merueylously chaunged in goostly felyng of þis nought, when it is noȝwere wrouȝt.'

[3] Cloud, ch. 14 last para. Bonaventure's description in the Itinerarium, especially chapters 6 and 7, gives a good description.

[4] Modern notions of silence tend to relate to the material world and to have negative connotations of suppression and restraint, e.g., to make silent, complete absence of sound (Compact Oxford).

[5] Behold seems to indicate grasping, but it is by ungrasping that one beholds. The paradoxical nature of these two words indicates that they are doorways into liminality.

[6] Ursula le Guin put it well: 'Rules change in the reaches.' A Wizard of Earthsea, New York: Bantam Spectra, 2004, p. 172.

[7] 'Jesus in the Balance,' p. 155.

[8] The shift in sense is from 'renew our I-Thou covenant' to a nuance of alienation and autonomy.

[9] Louth, op. cit.

[10] The first Hebrew word translated in the passage has nuances of a seer; the second what the seer sees from his beholding. In the NRSV the translator has chosen the weaker of the words to translate as 'behold'.