Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Memoriam: Wangari Maathai

What was most distinctive about Wangari Maathai was her warm humanity, a quality that she never lost no matter how famous she became. When she greeted you, you felt as though you had entered a spacious place of peace. She listened with her whole attention; she opened new depths and new horizons simply by engaging you. And there was that smile: a smile that lit up the entire world.

She could have followed the course of so many people from developing areas who, having obtained a Western education, decide to take advantage of more lucrative possibilities in a foreign land. Instead, she went back home, the first woman from her part of the world to earn a doctorate.

Her concern was for the ordinary: water, trees, biodiversity, the coinherent relationship of environment and human well-being and dignity. She encouraged her country-women to collect seeds and to plant millions of trees. She fought irresponsible development, corruption at all levels; she was arrested and beaten for her pains. Her husband divorced her, saying that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."

The BBC obituary sums up her work as follows:

'Her unique insight was that the lives of Kenyans - and, by extension, of people in many other developing countries - would be made better if economic and social progress went hand in hand with environmental protection ... The straightforward environmental benefits of that would have been important enough on their own in a country whose population has grown more than 10-fold over the last century, creating huge pressure on land and water.

'But what made the movement more remarkable was that it was also conceived as a source of employment in rural areas, and a way to give new skills to women who regularly came second to men in terms of power, education, nutrition and much else.'

She was awarded the Nobel Prize, but for once it was the Nobel panel who was far more honoured than the recipient of their prestigious medal. Through it all she remained Wangari: an African woman, without Western affectations or cynicism.

Plant a tree in her honour; give to a charity that works for the visionary ideas that she fostered.

Her life epitomizes what I think of as sanctity; if anyone deserves an instant place in the calendar of saints it is Wangari Maathai.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On Retreat

Gentle Readers,

I am going on retreat and will be unavailable for the next week or so. Look for the next post around September 28, 2012.



Now Available

"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing
and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real
presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that
eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of 'experience'.
A really transformative book." —jacket comment by The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

"This book is intended for everyone who has had enough of 'spiritual
writing' and is looking for something that will make sense of normal human experience and integrate it into the knowledge of God through Christ." —from the Foreword by The Rev'd Professor John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford

Review by The Revd Dr Johnny Douglas, Free Presbyterian Church, Antrim, N. Ireland

If obedience is deep listening to God, then Maggie Ross's new book is a powerful, effective and understated guiding to faith and soul-truthfulness. There is a rarity, freshness in her writing. Insight, scripture, wisdom and prayer swirl around here in this challenging earthy write. You will see God clearly and more honestly than in most other places.

The sense of having wrestled with the wilderness, wanderings and wideness of humanity are striking. Repentance, tears and fire rarely get such a wise and moving exploration. Reality permeates this wonderful new BRF title. Faith and experience will be enriched should you invest in the reading of this fine book!

Review by Carl McColman, www.anamchara.com

Almost twenty years ago I read Maggie Ross’s wonderful book on the theology of priesthood, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity. Not only was it a valuable book in helping me to affirm my ministry as a lay Christian, but it also struck me as one of the most lyrical and eloquent statements of Christian spirituality in general that I had ever read. Yes, that is high praise. But the book deserved it. Ross, an Anglican solitary, clearly understood how tainted Christian theology had become by imperial, Greco-Roman, concepts of God-as-controlling-political-authority — and how such a domineering image of God had corrupted not only Christian spirituality in general, but particularly Christian thinking about priesthood. Only by regaining an understanding of God-as-kenotic-love, as evidenced by the witness of Christ and the New Testament authors, could we ever hope to re-vision priesthood as the radical servant/ministry that Christ intended it to be.

So when one of the brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit sent me an enthusiastic email insisting that Writing the Icon of the Heart, Ross’s newest offering, was by far one of the most important books on spirituality that he had read in a long time, I took him at his word. And now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to commend it to you as well.The book is a collection of essays Ross had written over a twenty year period, most of which had been published in journals like Weavings or Sobornost. But they have all been revised/rewritten for this collection, and she requests that the essays be read in the order presented here. So what emerges feels less like a hodgepodge anthology and more like a thematic introduction to her singular perspective on what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, from considering the missing element in so many discussions of contemplation (“beholding”), to a frank but sober assessment of how a spiritual awakening might be our only hope as we consider the breadth and depth of environmental degradation that characterizes today’s world. Ross divides her time between Oxford and Alaska, and so her writing is infused with an appreciation of wilderness, not only for its own sake but also as a key element in an authentically kenotic spirituality.

Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day. While I am not willing to be quite as damning in my critique of experience as she is — I see the turn toward experience as a necessary corrective to the overly intellectualized propositional theology that has bedeviled so much Christianity, particulary in its Protestant form, over the past few generations — I broadly agree with her assertion that the quest for experience has become a religious cul-de-sac, reducing Christianity from its splendor as a threshold to the mysteries to a mere consumer spirituality, trading transformational kenosis for mental-emotional entertainment. The Christian mystery takes us far beyond what we can think or feel — to the place of “beholding,” a splendid word that Ross notes has been all but erased from modern translations of the Bible (not to mention most modern translations of the writings of Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing, which helps to explain why Ross is so critical of reading those texts in translated editions).

Unlike consumer spirituality where a warm cosy experience of God’s love can be engineered by the right music and a carefully crafted sermon, true contemplative beholding ushers us into radical encounter with the terrifying living God, a place beyond our puny attempts to control and our feeble insistence on good feelings as the arbiter of sanctity. True beholding, therefore, is transfigurative rather than merely experiential — echoing Teresa of Avila’s insistence that the only sure way of assessing progress in the spiritual life is by considering one’s growth in holiness, which is to say, growth in love and humble service of others.

For Maggie Ross, the “others” we are called to love and humbly serve are not merely our fellow Christians or even the larger human family. Rather, she eloquently speaks of the entire sweep of creation as our brothers and sisters in the Divine economy. From cranberries to walruses to a hair-raising near-encounter with a grizzly bear, her essays are vibrant with the beauty and splendor of God’s good earth. She also pulls no punches in considering how much damage our consumer economy has caused. Only by abandoning consumerism and accepting the call of kenosis — of self-emptying love — is there any hope for our fragile and distressed biosphere. And only by beholding God in silence and self-forgetful abandonment can we hope to discern, and accept, that uncompromising call.

In the end, Maggie Ross writes eloquently of the experience of tears — not as some sort of emotional manipulation, as so much religious spectacle seems to promote — but rather as an authentic embracing of sorrow, of loss, of repentance, of grief, of letting-go — that ushers us in to that place, where, in our letting go (kenosis) we encounter the kenotic God. This is the place of transfiguration, beyond any “technology” or “experience,” whether religious or otherwise. May we all be carried by our tears to such a graced encounter.

Note to USA and non-UK buyers:

From ABE (Book Depository--Guernsey) USD 11.85

From Amazon UK: USD 21.15

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Exploring Silence VIII

Having briefly looked at the silence tradition, it is now necessary to spend a few moments reviewing some of the elements that contributed to its decline.

From the beginnings of Christianity—whose trajectory is similar to those of other religions—there is conflict between those wishing to accrue institutional power to themselves, and those gathering for mutual support and thanksgiving for the transfiguration that occurs in the kenotic process of silence, through meeting the Word who is silence. In the second century, those advocating more interior interpretations of the Gospel were anathematized as heretics by institutionally minded bishops, who urged their followers instead toward imitation and martyrdom. [1] Throughout the first millennium of their history, western Christian institutions blew hot and cold, both on the tradition of silence and the guardians of that tradition; for the kenotic work of silence develops incoercible spiritual maturity that is inherently subversive to hierarchies and their claims, as we saw earlier in Jesus' remarks in John 14. [2] This is the freedom of the children of God.

The eleventh century saw a dramatic and fatal shift away from the silence tradition towards imitation, which, however piously meant, is a kind of performance art that creates the sort of self-observing feedback loop that leads to narcissism. [3] It is much more pleasurable to watch oneself playing a part in a grand ceremonial pageant than to turn away from such spectacles towards the invisible and immaterial, humble and hidden even from oneself. To put on the mind of Christ means to forget oneself, to relinquish the contents of self-consciousness—experience, perspective, interpretation, emotion, imaginative stereotypes and projections—into silence, so that the mind may be sprung from the trap of its own circular thinking. [4] In terms of the chart in your handout, the centre from which self-consciousness takes its energy moves from the left side into liminality, where, by intention ('nakid entente') it engages with the right side.

By contrast to this kenotic process, to imitate is to pursue a life based on imaginative stereotypes and projections, which are easily formed and insinuated by a controlling hierarchy. Its attention is reflexive. Imitation causes the mind to be stuck on the left side (Cloud ch. 19, 28/14-15); the depths of the riches of the knowledge of God that reside in hidden silence are unavailable to it. To exert more control over people's interior lives is one of the strategies behind many of Gregory VII's (†1085) reforms that sought to centralize Christianity in Rome and to extend the political power of the papacy. This renewed conflict between putting on the mind of Christ and institutionally controlled imitation, between contemplation and dialectic, is symbolized by the ironic coincidence of the dates 1084-1085, which are the marker dates for the foundation of the Carthusians and the translation of Aristotle, respectively.

Over the next three centuries, tensions rose to the breaking point between a political camp that used words as weapons under the guise of dialectic and sought to freeze doctrine into formulas, and a 'spiritual' camp that insisted that familiarity with the silence from which words spring and to which they refer must not be lost, that dialectic is to be used in service of silence. The deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure in 1274 mark the end of a scholastic theology that sought this balance between silence and speech. [5]

The efflorescence of contemplatives at the end of the thirteenth- and throughout the fourteenth centuries was in part a protest movement against institutional totalitarianism, the pursuit of analysis and definitions, and its claims at the expense of 'kynde knowyng'. [6] The hierarchy became increasingly threatened by any speech about silence that did not fit accepted formulas: Holy Church tells Will to be 'trewe of his tongue' and to obey the law and then he will know God, an inversion of what he asks and of what the ancient silence tradition—and neuro-science—understood as the way human beings function. [7] The Inquisition was authorised first in 1179, renewed in 1199 and finally established in 1231, the beginning, one might say, of the Counter-Reformation before the Reformation. [8]

Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 because she refused to conform her accurate psychological description of the work of silence to pious cliché. She could not in truth conflate two radically different and in many ways conflicting epistemologies in terms of the merely conceptual and reflexive; she could not deny that the Church had cut itself adrift from its incarnational foundation. She would not submit to the debaters of the age. She declined to defend herself—how could someone who had never done the work of silence possibly know what she was talking about?—and in silence went to the flames. [9]
One cannot help but be struck by the way Porete used her life her life to invert the meaning of 'imitation', which ordinarily manifested 'the weary conventions of contemporary passion poetry'. [10] She incarnates putting on the mind of Christ: as his life and thought threatened the temple system, so her life and thought threatened the church—and for similar reasons, the clash between rigid exterior observance and supple interior life. As he was provocative, so was she; as he was silent before his accusers, so she was silent before hers.

The flames that consumed Porete lit a warning beacon to which the writings of some—Meister Eckhart,the Cloud-author and Julian of Norwich—but not all, of the fourteenth-century contemplatives were, in part, a response. But by 1310 when Porete was burned the game was already lost and by 1464 when Nicholas of Cusa died, it was over. It did not take even a generation for the last vestiges of the work of silence to be lost to institutional Christianity. Luther's prior and teacher, Johann von Staupitz was born in 1460, four years before Cusa's death, and it is clear from his writings on rapture, ecstasy and excessus mentis that while he certainly read earlier authors in the group we are concerned with, he did not seem to understand that excessus mentis in their texts referred to an actual process. In fact, he felt free to redefine them, as Hilton seventy-five years earlier had felt free to redefine contemplation in the course of his support of the institution, [11] a process Luther would carry even further in his break from it. [12] When Luther co-opted these 'rapture', 'ecstasy' and excessus mentis into the service of a theology extrapolated from self-authenticating experience as opposed to experimental praxis, they became dead leaves floating on a dark and contentious lake.


[1] See, for example, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, New York, Viking, 2007. For a similar point of view coming from a completely different starting point, see also Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise, Boston, Beacon, 2008. This latter book has an excellent discussion of the profound impact on Western Christianity of the need of Charlemagne and his successors to justify—to spin, theologically—the slaughter of Saxons and the consequent development of sacrifice/atonement theology.

[2] It is not that contemplatives necessarily are in opposition to the Church; they write what they write because they love it and are loyal to it, and wish to offer a corrective. The problem more often comes from the side of the institution, not from the contemplative.

[3] It should be noted that the rise of the devotion to the humanity of Christ, which became a brickbat of orthodoxy, is a humanity without a mind. It is spiritually useful as an aid to understanding Phil. 2:5-11 (as in Julian's Showings; or PC 89/41- 90/7; 91/7-13; or Walsh's Cloud note 142, quoting Guiges du Pont, '. . .his concentration must be the Godhead rather than the humanity. He must take hold of God by the handle of his humanity, and embrace rather the feet of God', p. 156). But used as an end in itself it undermines the Philippians passage, on which Christianity turns, evidenced, for example, by its centrality in the Holy Week liturgy. See, for example, The Riddle of Christian Mystical Experience: The Role of the Humanity of Jesus by Paul Mommaers, [SJ] Leuven, Peeters, 2003. Walsh's note 72 cites Gallus quoting I Peter 4:1 but it is more likely he is quoting the Philippians passage, '"Christ having suffered in the flesh, you must arm yourselves with a mind like his . . . the mysteries of the divine humanity are like a ladder which brings us up to the contemplation of the divinity"'. (Explanation on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, chap. III.) Walsh, p. 172.

[4] This practice bestows greater objectivity than linear ratiocination. See below.

[5] Chartres cathedral is an architectural example of this balance. See the excellent discussion in Philip Ball's Universe of Stone (New York: Harper, 2008). See also the discussion in the shift in theology in Walter Hilton: The Scale of Perfection, translated from the Middle English with an introduction and notes by John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 28.

[6] This tension spilled over into the margins of manuscripts, particularly between the years 1250 and 1330, and even into the 15th century. See appendix.

[7] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng"', p. 242. There is a tantalizing parallel in recent research that shows that human decisions are made out of our sight before we become aware of them.

[8] McGinn states: 'It must be noted that there was never any institution as "the Inquisition" in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the application of the inquisitional method (i.e., a legal procedure in which the judge was the acuser), on both the episcopal and papal level, was important for the history of the relation between mysticism and magisterium. Although the de iure rights of heretical inquisitors did not generally differ from those of other inquisitional judges, in practice (de facto), heretical trials became a special world. '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions Between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church' by Bernard McGinn, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. XC, April 2004, No. 2, pp. 193-212', p. 211, note 50.

[9] According to McGinn, Porete's work '. . .circulated in four languages during the later Middle Ages, [but] it was subsequently lost to history until 1946. . .' '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy"', p. 196. It is easy to see why: institutional suppression of the work of silence on the Continent became draconian, as John van Engen's work on Alijt Bake demonstrates. In response to her renewed practice of the work of silence, which she introduced to the Sisters of the Common Life, the Windesheim General Chapter in 1455, having removed her as prioress and driven her from the cloister (she soon died) decreed: 'No nun or sister of whatever status should copy books containing philosophical teachings or revelations, either themselves or by way of others, whether compositions of their own (ex suo propria mente) or of other Sisters, and this on pain of imprisonment. If someone hears of or sees such books, he should cast them into the fire; nor should anyone presume to translate such books from Latin into Dutch.' Unpublished translation used by permission.

[10] 'Apophatic Image', p. 61.

[11] That Hilton saw contemplation as reserved to the elite few suggests that he was either unfamiliar with the model the Cloud-author is using or that he chose to ignore it. The Cloud-author and Hilton appear to share much in their approaches to ecclesiology and the lower reaches of the spiritual life, but in terms of the higher reaches of contemplation they appear to be fundamentally different. '. . . "reforming in feeling,"[is] something to which every Christian should aspire, whatever his or her state in life. This is part of a shift in the understanding of what actually constitutes "contemplation"'. Walter Hilton (Classics of Western Spirituality), p. 19. In fact, Hilton is trying to prevent people from the full extent of the practice described in the Cloud.

[12] See 'Religious Ecstasy in Staupitz and the Young Luther' by David C. Steinmetz Sixteenth Century Journal XI. No. 1 (1980) pp. 23-37. It is also true that these three words had often been freely used without being tied to particular definitons: ecstasis, for example, could just as well refer to a the Delphic oracle in ancient Greece as the suspension of self-consciousness. Seventy-five years earlier in England, Walter Hilton had begun to change the meaning of contemplation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Let Us Pray

— For the 3,000 people killed on 9/11 and those who killed them

— For more than 50,000 people killed in Afghanistan since 9/11

— For more than 2,000,000 people killed in Iraq since 9/11

— For the persecuted Christians in Iraq

— For the persecuted Muslims in America

— For an end to this senseless slaughter.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Layby for the Dead

It was doomed before it began, and the greatest tragedy is that the people whom it has most affected knew even as it was proposed how horrible it would be, but were powerless to stop the crass machinations of the government.

The repatriations through Wooton Bassett were deeply moving and appropriate for many reasons, but one in particular is worth looking at. The hearses passed through the centre of town, through the ordinary lives of of ordinary people: their businesses, shops, pubs, homes. The response was spontaneous for any number of reasons, the primary one being that when death passes through your life you pay attention.

On repatriation days, people put down their daily tasks as people do when strangers appear bearing the burden of grief. They opened their dwellings and their lives and offered what they could: food, drink, comfort, respect, their tears. Then, when the procession had passed, they themselves could take some comfort in turning back to what they had set aside to resume living—grieving, changed, but within the fabric of their ordinary round and familiar places: death and life were all of a piece.

This display of compassion and solidarity got up the government's nose, of course, so the government had to spoil it. They built a sterile 'memorial garden' in the middle of nowhere. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a lay-by for the dead. The repatriation procession no longer passes through people's ordinary lives. There is no possibility of taking the warm scones from the aga, through the front door, to be given into the hands of strangers.

No, it's all artificial now: you have to do the baking and cool the scones and box them up and put them in the car and drive miles into the middle of nowhere for an artificial gathering at an artificial site where everything is contrived and controlled and boring as hell; where everyone is dislocated, out of their patch, awkward and uncomfortable, knowing nobody: nobody's home, nobody's shop, nobody's pub, nobody's nothing. Children can't participate on their way home from school; old people must stay away if they can't drive. This shift away from Lyneham and Wooton Bassett is a callous and deliberate calculation on the part of the government to dehumanize not only those who have died but also those who mourn, to render them helpless, to make it as difficult as possible for people to honour the dead, in hopes the movement will just die out and disappear. It is the government's effort to sanitize death, to hide it, particularly to hide the human cost of a ghastly war, and to remove the last vestige of a sense of village and community from the process.

No one is fooled; how stupid does the government think people are?

The rest of us who are in solidarity with the Wooton Basset movement can only grieve for what cold comfort this new venue must be to the families of the dead, grieve for those other mourners who once took the soldiers and their families to their hearts as the procession passed through homes and shops and settled lives, mourners who are now stuck with planning, organising and commuting to the 'memorial garden', a banal, inauthentic, inappropriate, sterile layby for the dead.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Savour the Days

Oxford has shifted from late summer to early autumn with amazing rapidity. Friday was blissful: a friend had the idea to hire a Canadian canoe for four hours. On the Thames, water and wind were quiet; honeyed light angled through the trees and brush.

Few people were about and fewer boats, though traffic increased as the day unfolded. We had no sooner left the waterside park than we passed a series of ancient stone quays: circular steps, mooring space, a place for a grand barge overhung with willow and crusted with age. Ghosts of Regency ladies and gentleman laughed and swirled in the shadows. Anyone and anything could have emerged from the radiance behind the weeping branches. Magical doesn't even begin to describe it. Eventually we tore ourselves away and in silence dipped our paddles against the gentle current: we were Ratty and Mole consorting with the god Pan.

We idled upstream for a couple of hours in the languorous warmth, a little breeze cooling our exertions, visited by heron and doves, and once the flash and rattle of a kingfisher. At the confluence of the Thame we stopped and ate our picnic, talking little about not much and reveling in the ephemeral day.

Too soon we packed up and began the float home, letting the current play with us—until we realized we were uncertain of our time and, for the last mile or so, poured on the power, in the end arriving promptly, wishing we'd had more time.

What a difference a day makes: the weekend was cold and cloudy; Monday the showers began to blast through, and yesterday brought a full blown autumn gale: 86 mph clocked at The Needles on the Isle of Wight. Outside my window it was, quite literally, raining sideways.

Today the rain has cleared off and the wind abated but there is no question that the year is winding down. Children and parents began the new school year this morning, and scholars have begun to trickle into the Bodleian. There is a sense of gearing up for term, the quiet desperation of o-my-god-here-we-go-again as new undergraduates come in and exhausted DPhil candidates prepare to submit their theses and face their vivas.

Monday and Tuesday the St Giles Fair was in town. On the way to the cathedral Monday morning, everything was still quiet. It was a typical English fun-fair, rather down at heel, making no effort to disguise but rather revelling in its own flimflam. Garish wagons and thrill rides, rows of stalls selling what passes for food—all somehow crowded into St Giles with military efficiency, a feat remarkable in its own way, but somehow ineffably sad.

Mercifully the only sounds that invaded the silence of our neighbourhood the last two nights were the background static of generators and an occasional voice reverberating from a tannoy turned to maximum amplification. This morning, except for one articulated blank-sided lorry, the fair had vanished, the trash had been swept—only the reek of urine on the pavement from St Giles' church to Mary Mag's marked its passing. At St John's college the gardeners were sweeping up leaves stripped from branches in yesterday's storm. Sitting here in the Upper Reading Room, now, as I write, faint incense of woodsmoke seeps through the mullioned windows.

Our little garden at the house survived the storm, though foliage is somewhat battered, exposing orange and red pumpkins, green tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans, all rushing to mature before frost. The apple tree and the pear tree are laden with fruit, the apples tangy and crisp at this early stage of ripeness, soon to turn yellow and sweet.

Autumn ... days slipping by too fast, too fast. . .

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Comment Worth Foregrounding

BR writes:

Looking forward to reading the book. Your mention is a good excuse to ask the question I've been meaning to:

We agree that religion is a mess. And the story you've told from Pillars of Flame to Writing the Icon to this blog has resonated for me. But what to do about, well, church?

I ask because I've been out of church for years, and am moving to a new city. So I want to ground myself in faith again, find some people, and find something beyond silent prayer and reading heady theology in my garret. Yet I have little idea what to do. With your work, religion is rooted in silence, and I won't find that in almost any American church. Pillars of Flame suggests the whole enterprise is mad. I understand this, but I also can't bear to go it alone much more. Impossible to answer such a question for a stranger, I know, but thank you for your time and your work.


Thank you for writing, for your kind remarks, and for asking this very difficult question.

You give voice to what many of us feel, myself included. People like us don't wish to be apart from the community, but there is no community to be part of, not only in America, but in a lot of other places. Having said that, it may offer a modicum of comfort to know the following:

Last year Blogger—unbeknownst to me—put a counter on this blog, which, being a techno-dork, I only recently discovered. I was dumbfounded to learn that in the last 14 months there have been just under 40,000 hits from more than 77 countries, and, judging from the search information, these are not random accidents but intentional.

So, weirdly, those of us who feel as you do and find themselves in the same dilemma are numerous, but we have no way to form a community except this ephemeral one in the ether, a community of solitudes. This is only to offer cold comfort, but you are not alone.

I wish I had something helpful to say. I can only tell you what I do. I've sampled many of the churches in Oxford and the only one that is bearable is the cathedral. Of course there is no community there in the sense that the English don't do that in the way that Americans think of it—not that I ever was able to be a part of any American parish community, either. And then there is the English class system and the rest of it. In addition, there's something about people like us who understand about religion and silence that sets off everyone else's alarm bells, especially those of the clergy. What makes it worse is that a lot of the clergy know we're offering something they need to look at.

I can't tell you how many times a vicar or rector has said to me, 'I know you're right, but I could never do that in my parish'. This of course says volumes about the disdain in which the clergy hold their congregations, their reluctance to give up micro-managing, and also the fact that they don't want to expend the enormous amount of energy it would take to figure out how changes could be implemented—the most effort being the need to realise how they come across and to change their own attitudes. If they would listen to the laity and look in the mirror the laity are holding up, they might be pleasantly surprised and discover that there is far less effort in letting go the wrong kind of control.

At the cathedral there are several canons who understand the need for silence but they are caught up by their context and have this dreadful liturgical book—Common Worship—that they have to use. They also are stuck with the mostly cack-handed NRSV ("the sound of sheer silence" in the story of Elijah is one of the few strokes of genius). I don't understand the ins and outs of English canon law; there is freedom of choice but also draconian restrictions on when those choices can be exercised. And of course the congregation is inherently conservative.

Anyway, I try to go weekdays for the 7:15 AM Matins and the Eucharist. I go early to have time to sit in quiet. Sometimes one or two of the canons are there, too. But, to say we are community would be rather stretching it. Being a cathedral, and particularly an English cathedral, and particularly an Oxford cathedral, there is an even greater gulf fixed between the clergy and laity than normally obtains. Having said that, the cathedral clergy here have an unusual level of humanity, and the cathedral is a far more welcoming place than other churches in Oxford I have sampled.

This situation can't be helped; it's the nature of Oxford, and those who are both canons and full-time academics are all under tremendous pressure and need to protect themselves. American academics who come here are shocked at how hard Oxford academics work. I try to be silently supportive and sympathetic (except on occasions like last Thursday morning), but in fact, I have reached the point, now, where I am in fact glad of the gulf: as far as the institution goes, I don't want to be caught up in a hopeless and deluded situation—as you put it, 'the whole enterprise is mad'; I don't want my vision clouded with upset; I am reconciled with my exile, although that doesn't mean it is ever comfortable, and I'm quite sure that Christianity is most definitely not about being comfortable.

To complicate matters, the cathedral clergy know what I have written so that even if there are those who are sympathetic, they keep their distance. Although it was not my intention at the time—I was too new and naïve then to know how things work in Oxford—the temerity of writing a book like Pillars of Flame while living within the walls of an institution that has produced thirteen archbishops of Canterbury, John and Charles Wesley, etc. etc. etc. has left its mark of Cain, as it were.

At the same time, although it is painfully hard, I have been encouraged by more than one bishop to go to church precisely because my merely being there makes the situation uncomfortable. It's an aspect of my life I wish weren't there but I have no choice. How this came about is a tale unto itself not to be told at this point in time; it is not a role I sought but rather one that the dark underbelly of Oxford wished on me: a classic example of the fearful creating exactly what was most feared.

Long ago I realised that for all practical purposes the church that was the context thirty-two years ago when I was professed is dead. Nonetheless I go weekdays because I miss the monastic Office (especially the Night Office) and it's one way to dribble a little balm into that wound. (Monasticism, too, is dead; for all practical purposes, what is left is, for the most part, form without content.) I try to immerse myself in the Office and shut out all the rest. Or if the rest intrudes, I tell myself that it is good for me to go weekday mornings at least for the exercise (it's a two mile walk round trip), and that it's a painless way to keep the internal concordance alive, which I need to do for my research. Or if all of these rationalisations fail (as they did on Thursday), I skip a couple of days so that I don't get too depressed.

On Sundays during Term I go for the music, pure and simple—and also to people-watch, trying to fathom how other people cope with this dilemma. I know that there are many, many other people who feel as we do because in a critical meeting some years ago, a rare occasion on which I was permitted to lament all of these problems, I was, of course, challenged. The challenger called on the diocesan ombudsperson to contradict me, but she told the challenger that what I was saying was exactly the way ordinary people in the pews feel. That was twenty years go; things have become much worse. But people seem feel that the situation is hopeless, that there's no point in trying to address the entrenched status quo. I have a friend who has been doing clergy evaluations for the diocese for many years and she is quitting for precisely this reason.

Outside of term, on Sundays, I go to 8 o'clock at Mary Mag's, depending on who is celebrating. If it is someone who is intrusive instead of effacing, then I check out who is preaching elsewhere and try at least to find a good sermon. The cathedral has some preachers I will go especially to hear, which means I might go to two or three services on a Sunday.

I suppose I am getting ever more picky in my old age, but old age makes one more aware of silence. I can't stand folksy liturgy; I hate it when a deeply misguided organist drops the hymns by a third so we are all growling around at the level of the natural break in the voice; few people are trained singers with a seamless and comfortable passagio. We need to reach for the head tones as well as the chest tones to accomplish what hymns set out to do. I like full-blown liturgy and the smell of incense; I just don't like what far too often goes with it and spoils it: the posturing, the poncing, the preening, the noses in the air, the infantilizing of the congregation.

Unfortunately the rule that the squeaky wheel gets greased does not seem to apply to the churches; as you know, clergy do not listen to laity. It seems as though there are two classes of people to which the institution pays attention: in general the clergy pay attention to themselves as an in-group, and to those whom they patronizingly classify as 'the poor'. The rest of us, the majority, give the term 'the excluded middle' a whole new set of meanings. We're tolerated only for body counts and money. In the face of these attitudes, while it may seem like beating one's head against a brick wall, it is nonetheless worth suggesting alternatives to the clerics, recommending books, theologizing—and you will know soon enough if you are dealing with the sort of clergy who don't want input. A friend of mine was recently called obstructive and disruptive by her rector for simply participating in a bible discussion and departing from the script. The levels of conformity that American culture now demands are absolutely frightening.

In my own situation in the UK there are little flickers of hope here and there. Rowan Williams is one. Oxford has at least two very good bishops (I don't know the other area bishops) who are sympathetic to the problems but are also hampered by clergy attitudes, the very noisy and intransigent closed-minded evos, not to mention the other cultural difficulties peculiar to England. Another sign of hope comes from the growing interest in Iain McGilchrist's work on brain hemispheres (The Master and His Emissary), which eventually could be useful in showing how various doctrines and practices and developments in the church appeal to the side of the brain that does not have the tools for 'religion' in the sense of a sense of opening to real spiritual maturity, to what is unknown, the part of the brain that processes layered language and metaphor, symbol and ritual and so forth. The work of Andrew Shanks also holds out hope, although in my opinion he is far too optimistic about the possibility of changing the attitudes of the clerical status quo, though I applaud him for trying.

In terms of the USA, however, I am now so far removed from the American church—by choice—that I don't know what to say. I do know of a few, a very few, clergy and others who are swimming upstream, but they can be counted on one hand. It may or may not be significant that the book I published here in the UK in May—and which is selling very well—has not yet found a publisher in the USA, where only formula books, self-help and established pop spirituality authors seem to get published these days. Of course there's the excuse of the economy and publishers are running scared. But it's more than that. Fortunately enough people in the UK are still open to critical thinking on these matters and people here still read books.

I spent seven months in the USA last year running a chapel at a retreat centre, meeting hundreds of people from all over the country. It was an alarming experience because of the mindset that kept reappearing, and a set of cultural parameters that spoke of an increasing divergence between the blinkered way even educated Americans seem to interpret the world, and the way the British and Europeans do; the difference in goals and values. (Perhaps symptomatic was the group of Americans this past summer, who rented a house one street over from ours here in Oxford—they have now, mercifully, departed. Their noise levels, ordinary conversations as well as frequent parties, disturbed the entire neighbourhood at all hours of the day and night; their loud, penetrating voices woke everyone in the middle of the night when they walked back from the pub. It was their complete obliviousness to their impact on the surrounding community that was all too believable and, from an English point of view, inexcusable—but they're Americans, so what are you going to do?)

The bottom line is that those of us who are in the same boat with you have to do the best we can in our individual situations and contexts. It's pointless, however, to go to church and come away angry and depressed. The institution may deplore church-shopping but in the end that's what you have to do. Since institutional Christianity decided to be a business it can't expect its 'customers' not to respond accordingly. It may be that you will not be able to find any community of the sort you are looking for—in which case you will need to decide if you can settle for what is least offensive, or if you will have to continue your exile and mourning in your garret—and yes, the sense of isolation and loneliness is unbearable, whether or not one has found a place of worship one can stomach.

I suppose my basic attitude is that I know it's over, it's finished, and that in the end this may be a good thing, but the losses will be incalculable, not just cultural and scholarly ones, but what it means to be a human person. Even though I know I am probably whipping a dead horse, I keep on writing (thanks to the encouragement of people like you and the readers of this blog) and on the very rare occasions I am invited to do so, speaking up about what Christianity once was, is not now, and what it could be. Even the most oblivious cleric does not like to be bitten by a mosquito. I am impelled by the knowledge of centuries of Christians who have been cheated of their spiritual birthright, and even more by the spiritual suffering I see all around me. But of course this means I will always be in exile. If that is the price, so be it.

It's with this painful detachment that I simply go on doing what I know I have to do to be open to the peace of God—which, as the hymn reminds us, is 'strife closed in the sod'. Like so many other aspects of life, it's a matter of finding the balance. What, realistically, will feed your life in God?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Brief and Banal

This morning at Matins and the Eucharist, whoever was supposed to preside didn't show up, so we were running late. The person who filled in announced at the Eucharist that we would use prayer H and ordered everyone to look at their booklet and make the responses. Since I don't ever use a booklet (it's all in my memory) this seemed a bit ad feminam but I dutifully picked up a booklet (I always sit in the back) and opened to canon H.

Rather an interesting structure, entirely in dialogue form: as I recall, two prefatory calls and response, the consecration prayers (bread, cup) each with a response, the whole thing ending with the Sanctus and then communion. It would have been intriguing if a) the language hadn't been so utterly banal that halfway through I put my booklet down and refused to mouth any more of this drivel; and b) if the theology hadn't been the worst sort of bloody sacrifice atonement nonsense that was pure Paschasius and his successors (more on this in a moment); and c) if it had been short not because we were pressed for time but because we could have been spending time together in silence in a genuinely contemplative Eucharist.

All of these negatives were exacerbated for me because I have been reading Rachel Fulton's most wonderful book, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200, (Columbia University Press, 2002). This is one of the sources that Brock and Parker used for Saving Paradise and it is not only beautifully written, but also a very even-handed and subtle analysis of Paschasius' argument and what followed. She is not as blunt as Brock and Parker in describing the effects, but Brock and Parker are certainly justified in what they say. I have come to rephrase one of the questions rather crudely as, "How did we switch from understanding salvation as a kenotic putting on the mind of the risen Christ, to understanding it as a solpisistic putting on of the dead body of the historical Jesus?"

Rachel Fulton makes the answer to this question very evident. I cannot say enough good things about her book, from the level of scholarship to the humane presentation. If you really want to know why religion is in such a mess today, read this book.