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.


Anonymous Ryan said...

Thank you for this.

I've recently been mulling over this passage (1 Cor 3):

"For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God."

"All things are yours..." I wonder in what way dispossession, holy poverty, emptiness, can be spoken of as 'having everything.' Perhaps that's a way of saying the same thing.

3:02 pm, October 01, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Ryan,

Yes, you are correct. These phrases are referring to the same process (see posts for July 8 and 11). All of these phrases, all monastic or other 'praxis' has a single goal: to bring us to the 'event-horizon' where we wait in attentive receptivity (the technical definition of contemplation) in the liminal space between self-consciousness and deep mind. It is this intense receptive listening that is the heart of any serious seeking. 'Listen' is not only the first word of Benedict's rule, it is the root of the Greek word for 'obedient' in Phil. 2:5-11.

At a more mundane level, this praxis leads us out of the prison of the left hemisphere and into the open holographic and wholistic right hemisphere.

4:36 pm, October 01, 2011  
Anonymous AM said...

Evagrius seems to have captured this left-brain domination of religion also, the very pitfall of modernism which led Michael Legaspi to his scholarly work (work like this makes me think over and over of your point on silence, that is, any issuance from the right brain, becomes a fruit of the fig tree spoken or written) The Death of Scriptures and the Rise of Biblical Studis.

"One only can love what one stops to observe." Evagrius

12:07 am, October 02, 2011  

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