Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pumpkin Love II

2011 was the first opportunity I have had in decades to grow pumpkins in the usual fashion. Although the tiny plot had for years been a building site, and in spite of a very cool and dry summer, and unfamiliar seed varieties, there are now several fruits sitting in the conservatory, waiting to be eaten, none of them very large, but usable. I tried the rouge vif d'étampes, and after initial alarm at the colour of the infants—they start out a very pale yellow, as if they were going to drop off—was delighted with their deep rouge blush of ripeness. I use the word 'rouge' advisedly because the red skins give the impression of having been rubbed with the old-fashioned cosmetic. But I'm leery of carving a jack-o-lantern: in spite of the explosion of interest in Hallowe'en in the UK, some people here take great exception to them, not so much because of fundamentalist leanings, but because the roots of dark magic run millennia deep in this part of the world, and ghosts and poltergeists are taken quite seriously. In any event, pumpkin-carving has become fine art, and my crude attempts would embarrass a child!

[First posted July 6, 2008 while living in Alaska]

As noted in the post of June 23, our cold spring and cool summer gave me the idea of bringing some of the vegetables inside, among them a trinity of pumpkin plants. I have always loved pumpkins, not only with a child's glee at jack-o-lanterns, but also with the ever-renewed astonishment that a small seed can produce such a structurally elaborate plant, with its dimorphic blossoms and spectacular fruit. While compassion for shattered lenses and jammed shutters has meant that few photographs of me exist, one of my favorites spared the camera in its taking as I managed to pass as the fourth jack-o-lantern in a row of three specimens of the genuine article.

My fascination is perhaps not as extreme as that of the boy in the short story who succumbed to trout envy, sticking his head under water for longer and longer periods of time until one day he grew gills, slipped into the stream and swam off. I would rather eat a pie than be one. But all the same, my attraction to these plants takes up hours of planning, watering, pruning and watching, a prickly vegetative lectio divina.

I'm happy to report that my pumpkin friends have so far done very well for themselves. They have adapted to the garden window and last week began producing the small globes that are potential fruits, along with many flower buds to provide the pollen essential to their fulfillment. But a dark cloud soon threatened all this cucurbitian bliss. There are no flying insects in my house and I was not about to enslave a bumblebee to do the work of pollination at the cost of its life. To complicate matters, the nubile fruits and their would-be lovers began blooming out of sync. Somehow I had to gather and save the pollen from the male flowers until a female flower bloomed.

In his essay, "How Flowers Changed the World," Loren Eiseley remarks: "Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know—even man himself—would never have existed . . . . Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man." But even Eiseley couldn't prepare me for the startling similarity of the pumpkin flowers' sexual organs to our own. It was with some delicacy, then, if not outright hesitation at invading their privacy, that I applied a Q-tip first to one and then, a day or two later, to the other—and waited to see if the little green ball would begin to swell or wither, yellow, and collapse.

Self-knowledge is often painful: I am no good at pumpkin sex. I really don't think it has anything to do with having been celibate for 31 years; you don't forget the basics. But one by one the first few pumpkin globes that suffered my ministrations wrinkled, paled and had to be cut off to encourage the plants to further efforts.

I was terribly apologetic. The pumpkins in their turn were very forgiving. Realizing they had a dork for a caretaker, they decided to start blossoming in sync. This made the process much easier as I could apply flower to flower, all the while blushing and turning my head to one side so as to preserve some semblance of the proprieties. Bees are much more discreet.

This technique seems to have succeeded: there is now a rapidly expanding fruit on each of the vines. I rejoice over them daily, hoping and praying that nothing harms them. I gently pinch off new buds to focus energy; in this environment even one pumpkin per plant would be an amazing outcome.

There is little more to do now except watch the miracle unfold and hope that I don't drop the watering can as I reach over the fattening orbs to give the tomatoes a drink. We're past the solstice; autumn is rushing toward us. The fireweed is about to bloom, and when their petals reach the top of the stalk, winter will be only six weeks away.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Riddling Exegesis

Isaiah 45:3-7 'Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: 2) I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3) I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4) For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.

5)' I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, 6) so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7) I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things'.

There is a school of exegesis that says there is nothing of the contemplative life in the Bible. This seems to me to be one of the more extreme expressions of a) a tired but still fashionable scientism among academics, and b) yet another consequence of the loss of the work of silence. Recently I heard a sermon in which the first part of the above passage was interpreted to mean 'mineral wealth'.

Now certainly Cyrus had the opportunity to strip the land of its mineral wealth, but I don't think that's what this passage is saying. Rather, it may be saying something quite amazing, something that would have been absolutely shocking to Second Isaiah's readers or hearers.

First, the passage speaks of Cyrus as the Lord's anointed. This is startling enough: Cyrus, who is most certainly not numbered amongst the 'Chosen people' is anointed with the spirit of God over these peoples; he is to be God's messenger. The second verse sounds far more like military road construction and the looting of palaces than 'mineral wealth'.

But the chapter progressively deepens. Verse 3 is more likely about mining the soul than the earth, a bestowal of deep knowledge, an intimate knowledge of God hidden in the heart so that Cyrus will act from out of this knowledge, even if he does not acknowledge the Lord or worship him. The passage is stating firmly that the knowledge of God is not confined to one people or another, or one way of interpretation or another, and indeed that the knowledge of God by foreign nations and kings in fact can benefit Jacob and Israel—in this case by their necessary humbling. Indeed, the Lord goes so far as to give Cyrus a patrimony, a surname.

Verses 5-7 are a reiteration of the summary of the law and an echo of the beholding in the creation story—again, all the more extraordinary because the recapitulation of this knowledge will come through Cyrus—who does not keep the law. It is through this alien king that those who do acknowledge the Lord and keep the law may be taught by God, reminded that God can use anything and anyone to convey the message that idols of any sort—and even the law can be an idol—are insignificant in comparison to the over-riding vision, the beholding of God, which should rule their days.

Isaiah is telling the people that the knowledge of God and the workings of God are not what you might expect: they are found in what may seem the least likely people and places, including those whom you dread, and whose appearing distresses you.

This theme is, of course, picked up by Jesus: you do not know the day or the hour (Mt. 24:42); God's revelation is hidden from the wise and revealed to infants (Mt. 11:25); the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of heaven first (Mt. 21:31).

Like beauty in the eye of the beholder, the word of God is in the ear of the hearer: it is everywhere. Only those who are not preoccupied with the materialism of the law and its institutions are likely to receive it (a notion echoed in John 14).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Princess and the Pigpen

[Originally Posted October 19, 2009]

Sermon for the Solemnity of St Frideswide, All Saints Convent, October 19, 2009 [Ephesians 3:14-19]

Frideswide belongs to that group of women saints who seem to inspire veneration from men by defying them. I use gendered language advisedly, for much of her life and her legacy are fraught with such issues. A multi-paneled window in the Latin chapel at Christ Church depicts the life of this 7th century Ango-Saxon woman, who preferred to contemplate God in her priory rather than live as consort in the court of Algar, the Mercian king.

Even so, his relentless importunings forced her to flee the monastery for a time to take refuge in the muck and mud of a pigsty. But she was without rancour, for when Algar was struck blind, she caused him to be healed by water from the well at Binsey that miraculously appeared in response to her prayerful compassion.

These days we have an uneasy relationship with hagiography in general, and it has to be said that the church, and Christ Church in particular, which is built on the site of Frideswide's foundation, appear to have had a vexed relationship with her from the beginning. This history makes her patronage of Oxford all the more remarkable in a post-Christian era.

In the Middle Ages, Frideswide's nuns were kicked out of their priory to make room for some Austin canons, who in turn were evicted so Cardinal Wolsey—and subsequently his overlord—could establish a college in a university whose foundation, in spite of its motto—Dominus illuminatio mea—was not prayer but dialectic.

It is unsurprising, then, that during the Reformation, the medieval shrine was smashed, and her bones, so legend has it, thrown on the midden. Sometime later, a bag made of cloth of silver containing some bones was found in the cathedral. For years, wishful thinking suggested these bones were hers, a speculation that now has been disproved. However, Jim Godfrey, the verger at the cathedral, says it is thought that the bones are somewhere in the building, but no one is quite sure where.

When I first came to Oxford twenty-five years ago, a dignified, polished black stone with Frideswide's name beautifully carved was set apart by a low railing on the floor of the Lady chapel. The fragments of the old shrine and the watching loft rested in the background. At the time, I was living in college and had a set a keys to the cathedral. On her feast I used to go in very early to put a lily on her stone—anonymously I hoped—a gesture that I realize in retrospect very likely irritated the somewhat erastian dean and all-male canons of the day.

It wasn't the bones I sought to honour—I never assumed they were there. It was rather to keep alive the memory of an intransigently holy woman in an excessively male world—both her world of the 7th century and mine of the cathedral in the late 1980s. Since then, the parameters of the shrine and the legend have continued to shift: recently the entire Lady chapel area was altered yet again. The medieval shrine has been relocated to the Latin chapel, and the stone with Frideswide's name on it is covered with chairs and appears to be more or less ignored.

My attention to Frideswide while I lived at Christ Church was something of a departure as I have never been much of one for shrines or relics except to appreciate the great art that was often lavished upon them. [2] But Christ Church is an ancient place, and the communion of the particular saints who are buried or remembered there is vibrantly living and active, as anyone who prays in that building morning after early morning comes to realize.

Whether or not the person or persons who decided to make Frideswide patron saint of the county, city, and university—of government, commerce, and argument—were aware of her vital presence is not relevant here. It was a good idea for the simple reason that is proclaimed in today's epistle, that following her we might "will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the eight and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.."

But there is a problem in the translation of this passage, for the word "grasp" seems to contradict its meaning that the love of Christ is limitless. "Grasp" implies that the saints have subjected this love to the constraints of dialectic, when in fact they have refused to make any claim, intellectual or otherwise, that might put limits on it. They revel in un-grasping so that they might instead be claimed by that which surpasses knowledge; as one lexicon puts it, "Christ by his holy power and influence laying hold of the human mind and will, in order to prompt and govern it." The saints are set on fire by this limitless vision of outpouring love, which they mirror, as opposed to domesticating it into a manageable commodity.

I would like to suggest that the particular grace Frideswide has to give us is that of an overarching vision, a glimpse of our share in the divine nature to which the rest of life may become subject, even if we are reduced to seeking refuge in a pigpen. We might say that Frideswide came into the fullness of her princely status in that porcine context, the self-emptying that is royal priesthood made manifest through putting on the mind of Christ.

Unfortunately, this way of knowing and the exalted view of the human person that is its consequence, is almost entirely absent from our relativistic and fragmented consumer culture. How many people today have a sense of vocation at all, much less one that is willing to put up with muck and mud and persecution?

Yet an overarching vision is not an exotic notion. Blackberry picking provides a homely analogy. It's simple cause and effect: if you want berries in any useful quantity, you're going to get scratched, no matter how carefully you prune the canes or protect your arms. You either can just get on with it and plunge in, testing each berry for ripeness, pulling it off or leaving it, so focused that you don't notice the thorns, and pick a gallon in an hour. Or you can cringe and whinge and shrink from the task, in which case it will take an hour to fill a small pummet, while every encounter with the slightest thorn will feel like an injection and an affront.

These days it seems as though people spend an awful lot of time kicking against the pricks, no matter how tasty or life-enhancing the feast set before them for the taking. We seem to rank what is important to us by how easy it is to obtain; we persuade ourselves that we have a right to immediate gratification without effort or discomfort, without having serious demands made on us.

We are thus conditioned to compete for status, to defend our imagined territories, to look out for Number One, no matter how destructive to the common good, to charity or hospitality, to the making of peace, much less our souls. Worst of all, these attitudes destroy any notion of what used to be called integrity, a word we hardly hear any longer, which is the opposite of narcissism. We are left floundering in a quicksand of shifting loyalties and appetites that bubble in and out of fashion.

Frideswide's gift is celebrated every year in a grand Evensong held on the Tuesday closest to her feast. [1] This service reminds the officials who attend that while governments may come and go, commerce may fail, and dialectic cease, our life together in all its diversity is sustained by an overarching vision. We may not need to endure tempest and pigsty as Frideswide did, but to survive as a human community in this complex and dangerous world requires a motivation that drives us beyond our selfish short-term interests and discomfort.

For those of us gathered here in this chapel where the communion of All Saints is lively and active, Frideswide's grace questions each of us daily and directly: What is my overarching vision? What do I really want? What price am I willing to pay? What goal would strengthen me to suffer anything in pursuit of it so that I may contribute to the common good?

What will enable me, along with Frideswide and all the saints, to catch fire, to become part of the conflagration that extends throughout the breadth and length and height and depth; to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that fills us with the utter fullness of God?


[1] The Lord Lieutenant, the Lord or Lady Mayor along with all the other invited guests, dressed in full regalia, are seated in the choir; many religions are represented among them. At the climax of the service, the choir leads these officials in a procession to her symbolic resting place where a motet is sung, after which all return to place. It is English civil religion at its best; it is at once deeply moving, yet laced with barely-suppressed merriment, the eutrapelia of divine-human play.

[2] When a few weeks ago I heard that the bones of St Thérèse were coming to town, all I could think of was the story of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who took a bite out of a relic of the supposed arm of Mary Magdalene when he was visiting her shrine at Fécamp. Simon Jenkins' article in the September 17 Guardian, recounts this story among others, and is well worth reading for an account of the some of the more outrageous practices religions get up to.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Exploring Silence X

While the silence tradition was kept alive by a dwindling number of advocates—dissenters (e.g., Quakers, Shakers), humanists, metaphysical poets, hymn writers and, in the twentieth century, by figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil—for mainline Christianity it was lost. Silence became alien, even something to be feared. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) remarked, 'Silence is the virtue of fools.' [1] In the next generation, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in the Pensées would say of the skies, 'The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.' [2]

The consequences of the loss of the work of silence and especially the silence of the natural world were devastating; we live with them still. Robert Bringhurst notes: 'The cultural prosperity of North America before the colonization arose from the fact that human cultures were sustained within the larger culture, which is nature as a whole. But to those who ran the [residential Native American/First Nations] schools, the integration of humans with their natural environment was not just undesirable, it was evil; it was satanic. The schools, therefore, taught the subjugation of nature as a duty ... the unsustainability of a human-centered system posed no problems for those who ran the residential schools. If they were faithful to their creed, they expected the age of human mastery to give way in its turn to the kingdom of God.' [3] This notion of the kingdom of God is, of course, entirely opposite to what is meant by this phrase in the bible, as the gospels themselves and countless witnesses from the early days of Christianity have testified.

To briefly sum up:

The everyday self-conscious mind has a small capacity. It tends to get caught in feedback loops of its own making. It is full of preconceptions, fixed ideas and images. It is where the imaginary construct we think of as 'self' resides. It is full of noise and subject to emotional storms; it cultivates self-dramatization. Its thoughts are blown around like leaves in a storm. Yet it thinks it thinks it sees clearly; it thinks it is autonomous; it thinks it is in touch with reality. In fact, everything it experiences is distorted and what it thinks is direct perception is interpretation at several removes. All of its experience is interpretation (Cloud, ch. 8; 18/17-23.)

This superficial conceptual mind is not 'bad', merely a mess. It is what is left after beholding is broken—its flow of exchange with the deep mind. Self-consciousness plays a positive role. It is where the human person becomes aware of imagination. Self-consciousness sorts and classifies images and relationships through linear reason; it receives, orders and interprets images and relationships, and all the beauties and wonders of the sensory and material world. But it is paradoxical: it is trying to create a virtual organized world out of chaotic thoughts.

Because of its inherent instability, self-consciousness cannot see the sensory and material world or relationships clearly. It only can create artifacts out of what it receives the deep mind's direct perceptions of reality; it cannot see that reality. To make its contribution useful instead of destructive, its perspective has quite literally to be continually yielded back to and trans-figured in the silence of the deep mind; that is to say, it must continually submit its data to the silence so that its habitual patterns, the way it 'figures things out', can be closer to the deep mind's direct perception of reality, while at the same time helping the deep mind to expand its range. It is only when the self-conscious mind has yielded its constructs to the deep mind that the truth of the person is then given the possibility of unfolding. But as long as the energy and knowledge the self-conscious mind employs is primarily drawn from itself, it tends to selfishness and grandiosity, grabbing everything it can to shore up the house of cards, the illusion it has created which it calls 'life'. [4]

[1] De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum (1623) cited in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
[2]Pascal's Pensés, New York, Dutton, Pensée 206. (Project Gutenberg EBook).
[3] Robert Bringhurst, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (Counterpoint, 2008).
[4] Cf., Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale, 2009).

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Exploring Silence IX

If understanding of the work of silence had not been lost, Martin Luther might not have had the crisis that ignited the Reformation fuse already in place, which further inflamed the war of words piled on words that are often received today as meaningless and irrelevant, in part because they have lost any connexion to praxis in terms of the work of silence. It is significant that during this generation Thomas à Kempis wrote his Imitation of Christ, a text that abandons the primary Christian goal of beholding (onyng with God) for '. . . an appeal made for a practical asceticism in the hope of a more submissive alignment of the initiate's own will with that of the Creator' [1] —the definition of the Creator's will being reserved to the institution.

Luther's crisis was provoked in part by the mental feedback loops that take over when the language of faith no longer refers to the silence from which it arises and to which it returns. The practical means to free him from his mental prison through the work of silence had been lost. The word 'faith' is key to his theology, but it is now tied to self-conscious claims and interpretations turning on Anfectung. By contrast, in the silence tradition, the word 'faith' gestured towards self-forgetfulness, an infinite opening in trust, a relinquishing of all claims to experience (Cloud, ch. 43; 45/38 - 46/8), the predominantly intransitive verb of the Gospel of John. [2]

Luther cements the shift from the medieval understanding of experience as experiment to one of subjectivism.[3] By the time of the Reformation both Catholic and Protestant theological and spiritual strictures have cut off the circulation between speech and silence. Spiritual praxis is officially confined to an often extravagant devotionalism, and to the distortions of self-consciousness. Rome demands assent to dogmatic formulas, conformity in observance, and good works as an act of will, a kind of objectifying performance art, as opposed to an overflowing of the mind of Christ. The work of silence is replaced by credulity, which is the opposite of faith. Luther's approach and that of most other Protestants was fiercely and determinedly experience-based in the sense of subjectivity and self-authentication.

Both Catholicism and Protestantism had become stuck in the merely conceptual, sensory and circular world of the self-conscious mind; both failed to help those who sought, with Langland's Will, the way to 'kynde knowyng' for which he persistently asked, which is found in the deep mind. Both cultivated attitudes of minds-cut-off-from-bodies, disregard for the natural world, and an abysmal Christian anthropology.


[1] E.E.S. Lotz, Secret Rooms: Private Spaces for Private Prayer in Late Medieval Burgundy and the Netherlands, unpublished DPhil Thesis, Oxford University, 2005. The 'alignment' to which the submission is made is entirely controlled by the images and rote practices prescribed by the institution. By the 15th century continental Carthusians had long since succumbed to patronage and penetration by the rich and royal. (p. 117) As policies developed at a glacial rate in the Order, the process must have begun much earlier. By the 14th century the Carthusians seem also largely to have abandoned the Desert ideal of apophatic prayer for the sort of pious devotions that nurtured what was to become Devotio moderna. Lotz points out (p.201) that by the 15th century they were abandoning the goal of the more difficult imageless prayer and generating popular devotional sentimentality, which is exactly what Carthusian life supposedly seeks to discourage.

[2] This insight derived from a lecture by Judith Lieu given in the Oxford University Classics department in the autumn of 2006.

[3] There have been some recent attempts to 'justify' integrating these two mutually exclusive approaches to 'experience'. These seem invariably to end in solipsism, e.g., Steven Chase: 'Finally, one could choose to employ exclusively a modernist methodology of positivism striving for "objective discrimination" and "objective" and "value-free" research in an attempt to uncover the truth" about the past. But why should one want to do so? A larger human capacity is the ability to distinguish (that is, to "objectively discriminate") and to synthesize at the same time (that is, the capacity to search out the "truth" in the context of one's own experience, training, attitudes, politics and spirituality). Of course the study of the history of Christian theology and spirituality is in part an academic discipline, but such a study is not lessened by a scholar who meditates, nor is it forbidden to him, especially if the text is concerned with meditation and contemplation as Richard's is. I do not believe such a practice either valorizes the art of the academic study of religion or subjects it to dangerous reductionistic tendencies; rather, the practice increases the risk of a life lived within an ethical centre . . . Thus as a final methodology, this book will incorporate the writer's own experience of mediating on and contemplating the ark and cherubim.' Angelic Wisdom: The cherubim and the Grace of Contemplation in Richard of St Victor, Notre Dame, 1995, pp. xviii-xix. The problem is that Richard's text, like The Cloud of Unknowing, demands precisely the progressive relinquishing of all reflexivity and claims to experience (interpretation). See section 2 of this paper. Chase's coda at the end of his book exposes the problem, first contradicting Richard's apophatic refusal to name the centre by calling it 'experience', and then making shift or confusion of the meaning of contemplation with something more resembling Walter Hilton's anti-apophatic definition of the word. After telling us that 'Richard's center is celestial. Bonaventure's center will be the Passion. . . [he is wrong about Bonaventure, for whom the Passion is an image for moving into apophatic silence at the centre (see ch. 7)] Richard will not name the center [because it is not experiential] . . . Richard's invitation is for you likewise to experience [what Richard precisely did not 'experience']. . . Beyond Richard's teaching for the weaving of the ark and cherubim in the heart, there is still your own personal experience, your own vision of God, your own touching, thinking, reason, meditation, contemplation, even ecstasy beyond symbol.' pp. 140-141. Bracketed comments are mine.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Autumn shouldered summer aside and blustered into Oxford, spitting rain sideways, as the remnants of Ophelia shredded themselves over the British Isles. This past weekend the temperature made 85 degrees F.; today we will be lucky if it makes 60 degrees F., and there is a scattering of snow across the high Scottish mountains. Wind gusts to 40 mph and higher have a winter's edge as they chuff great piles of cumulus down the length of Britain from the NW, white and grey in the slanting yellow light against a washed out blue.

Cosmos, marigolds, nasturtiums and runner beans have valiantly held on in the very small garden, but pumpkins were brought in weeks ago to cure, and the tomato plants have given up. There remain a few courgettes in big pots sporting futile flowers. On Tuesday, tubers from the dahlias started from seed last spring were put to sleep for the winter in a box in the north room—the nick of time, it felt. Another two weeks and bulbs go in, followed by the aquilegias and lupines, also grown from seed, that have been nurtured all summer. Or what we were pleased to call summer! Virginia creeper, an import beloved of the English, cascades scarlet and burgundy down the back wall, and the mellow stone walls of many of the colleges.

But for all this beauty and bounty, and in spite of my deep gratitude for being here, always in autumn I am drawn in memory to the American West:

" This past week [October, 1985] as I drove across southern Utah and Wyoming, the high peaks were already coated with white. The plateaus lay empty but for the skeletal snow fences, waiting for the storms to bury their bones, and the howling blizzard to sing their Dies Irae. They seemed vast and lifeless. Their cattle had been shipped in long lines of hurrying trucks and railroad cars; the few head kept for breeding had been brought down from the high country to shelter near barns stacked to the ridgepoles with hay. Stubble lay harsh and bleached under the angled autumn sun, and all the land lay quiet as it waited for the snow that soon would blanket its every feature, freeze its fertility until another spring.

"As the miles passed I couldn’t help thinking of our selves as that stripped prairie: our selves searched out and known by God, a sense of exposure and potential futility; sometimes, even, a sense that all that was once familiar and sweet is frozen, as we near despair that another spring will come when our service will take more tangible, visibly fruitful forms.

"But it is within this very winter of our lives that we learn to know Christ our Sun rising on each day of our willingness to use our tears to light the divine fire upon the earth, our tears which fall drop by drop upon our hearts like sparks in the stubble; tears that melt our hearts and thus enable the Spirit’s pouring out through us, anointing the earth.

"Often it doesn’t feel that way. Often we see our debility, our illnesses, our powerlessness to avert tragedy, our ageing as useless when in fact these are the times when we are offered an opportunity to render the most service by our willing powerlessness, our willingness to allow God to empty us of the self-consciousness that remains, now that the noise and distraction of activity is stilled. . . .

"Thus when we think of service, let us first think of this service of willingness, not willingness to do but willingness to be done to, to be handed over, to not know, to let go control, to be emptied so that we may be fulfilled and become the healing power of God on earth and in time.

"We need not be in a state of physical incapacity: it is vital that we understand that we enter this willingness each time we hush the noise without and within us, and are still before God in wordless prayer, in the silence that wells up from our hearts and from which we learn to speak and to do."

From a sermon given at Holy Apostles Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Lacking Nothing

We hear certain bible passages so often that we can't really hear them any longer. Or so it seems: in fact, sometimes they slip down into the deep mind, gathering new life, and then, if we are open, listening, and lucky, they rise up and stun us with light when we are least expecting it.

Thus it was last week with Mark 10:21. I was on retreat, sitting in my room, playing computer Mahjong. [Gentle Reader, you may be shocked, but it's a great way to help a badly over-taxed brain shift into neutral—and now I realise, as well, that the pair-matching can be a symbolic request to the deep mind to make connection]. As so often happens, the insight came in a blinding flash. Then, while I was still trembling, was further shocked when the passage was read out loud at the next Office: '... one thing you lack ... '

What the rich young man lacked was precisely nothing; no thing was what he needed most, whether physically material or intellectually/spiritually material. It is no accident that this passage follows immediately on the saying, 'Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it', for little children have not yet lost the capacity to live in beholding.

Mark 10:21 is one of those passages that can be read at every level, one that continues to unfold more and more deeply until it effaces itself, leaving the reader in silence.

At the most obvious level, as long as the rich young man was preoccupied with his possessions, his power, his status, his fawning friends, he could not hit the road and follow Jesus—he had to stay home and manage his affairs; nor could he listen to what Jesus was saying, the words that lead to deeper silence. Most of all, he could not follow in Jesus' way, that of beholding, for Jesus points continually away from himself to the kingdom of heaven, which he quite specifically notes is beholding (in Luke 17:21, as well as John 14 and in many other passages).

This rich young man has kept the law, he has moral discipline, he has purified himself; it's not as if Jesus has to start with him from scratch. But the young man clings to religious law in the same way he clings to his possessions and his influence. The temptation to materialise religion is always with us, whether we are attempting to reify it into something we can watch ourselves doing, or, to put this process in Iain McGilchrist's context (form follows function), to shift away from the predominance of the speechless, open, global, inclusive and directly perceiving right hemisphere, where religious perceptions and interpretations are processed; to the predominance of the talkative, linear, two-dimensional, exclusionary, mechanical, repetitive left hemisphere, where the right hemisphere's perceptions are cut down to manipulative size, systematised, distorted, and controlled, which anyone can recognise as the practice of institutions. I am haunted by Changeinthewind's comment on 16/7/11, which sums up so much of the problem of contemporary 'spirituality': 'Perhaps I am trying to build something "spiritual" out of deep mind and doing so is foolish.' How well he/she has stated the problem!

The more I read McGilchrist, the more the current practices of most institutional churches seem mad: all that they do is aimed at, and issues from, the left hemisphere. They turn people into objects. They are preoccupied with numbers of bums in pews and money, or clergy career trajectories, or whether women are fully human. They create banal, two-dimensional translations of the bible and liturgy, and use caterwauling, one-dimensional 'songs' to substitute for the poetry of hymns. These drivelling ditties do not gesture towards the 'nothing', the silence of poetry, but suggest further noise and greater materialisation, which lead not to nothing but to nihilism. This increasing materialisation means also that institutions have jumped on the bandwagon of so-called religious experience. The churches seem to encourage their constituents to go out and consume more experiences, which only locks them deeper in their own illusions; they domesticate and dumb-down; they teach methods of keeping what passes for 'God' for a pet—a pet that is composed of carefully controlled institutional stereotypes. Even so-called worship is no longer directed towards God but towards the worshipper: it's a 'worship experience'.

These practices are not only antithetical to the Gospel, they are counter-productive in terms of helping people to engage God in beholding—which is a right hemisphere activity that leaves the machinations of the left one behind. The people who have abandoned the churches have done so because the churches no longer give them a break from the dehumanizing processes of the left-hemisphere world, but rather impose more of the same. Institutions are far too frightened of what Andrew Shanks has called 'intransigent open-mindedness' (Anglicanism Reimagined: An Honest Church, SCM 2010 p. 15), a notion which is not far from my 'inviolable vulnerability' (Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, Harper 1988, passim).

Mark 10:21 gives us a classic apophatic double, if not triple, negation: to follow the way of Jesus, physically and/or interiorly, not only does the rich young man need to detach himself from his material wealth; he needs to detach himself from his spiritual materialism of the law. Only by this dispossession can he possess the 'nothing' that is 'all thing'; God is no-thing, as St Paul reminds us, 2 Cor. 6:10; to behold is 'having nothing yet possessing all things'. [Sunday, October 2: Today's reading from Philippians 3 gives a longer exposition of what Paul is talking about.]

If there is one process, one word, that ties together the Old Testament and the New Testament, one unifying link between Jesus and Paul, it is this word 'behold' and the notion of return to beholding the original Word who commands 'behold' (Gen. 1:29; Matt. 28:20), the first word of the original creation that transfigures into the new creation.

There is an echo in Mark 10:21 of Psalm 23:1: 'The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing'. The Hebrew is much simpler than the English, but the rest is implied. The shepherd image is one Jesus frequently uses: to have all that they need, the sheep have only to forget their chronic anxiety and behold the shepherd; they must follow the one who enters through the narrow gate of dispossession, especially of their own anxieties! And as humans, particularly anxieties about God.

This message of lacking nothing to gain all is repeated in other parabolic images: the pearl of great price; the treasure hid in a field; the lost coin; the widow's mite ....

A good liturgy, a silence-filled liturgy, a beauty-filled liturgy, the space between the two fractioned halves of the Host—which echoes the space between the cherubim, the empty tomb, the cave of Elijah, Mary's womb—there is much in the Christian heritage that helps to bring us to this nothing that the institutions have lost.

Religious institutions, like the rich young man, no longer understand what Jesus, 'looking on [them] and loving [them]', is saying. Religious institutions are like the rich young man: not only are they too shocked to take the message on board, but also far too self-regarding; they have too many material, social and political possessions which they seem incapable of abandoning for the one thing necessary, the one thing they lack.

Unlike the rich young man, however, they no longer seem to know even enough to grieve, but shuffle onward, oblivious, into oblivion.