Friday, December 30, 2011

In Between

On this penultimate day of the year, grey and lowering, threatening heavy rain, I walked into town to buy a few vegetables to see me through the weekend and the bank holiday. I went as much to fulfill a need to move, to break the suspended animation of the between season, as to restore food consumption to something resembling normalcy after a few days of what might seem to the ordinary world a laughably small indulgence.

The city centre was, for Oxford, empty. The few people about appeared lethargic—or perhaps it is only me trying to shake off lethargy. But the lady at the kiosk at Tesco refused to take the four steps required to weigh my bananas, so I left them sitting there and walked out. She and the nearby security person, seated firmly on his stool, tried half-heartedly to bully me into using the self-checkout, but I refused, saying they are dehumanizing, they waste time, and I hate being shouted at by a machine.

I moved on, bought my bananas elsewhere, walked home; a misty drop or two began to laze down from the clouds. Even the weather seems exhausted, unable to get its act together to give us some proper and, from an agricultural point of view, badly needed winter cold.

But there is another aspect to this in between time, one that doesn't border on anomie. Along with the earth's solstice, we have the opportunity between Yule and the New Year to take a deep breath, not just to add up our taxes, acknowledge our sins and failings, rejoice in the goodness of life and love, and give thanks—in spite of the horrors of human culture disintegrating around us—but also to learn to wait without anticipation or projection.

This peculiar week is an existential liminality, if you will, a lived-in-time example of the liminality discussed in this blog over the past year. Instead of lapsing into soggy lassitude, we can perhaps glimpse a little of what interior liminality might be.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I find the words mystic, mysticism and mystical completely useless. As William Harmless has pointed out, these are now magnet words for all sorts of weirdness, just as the word experience in its modern sense, when used in a religio-spiritual context, is now tainted with William James' preoccupation with séances, and Thomas Merton's pathologies of narcissim, alcoholism, sexual predation and misogyny.

But if I were, God forbid, forced to try to define them, as I may be at an up-coming conference, I would suggest that they all pertain to liminality: to the attentive receptivity that is willing to relinquish all claims to experience, concepts, and pre-conceptions; that is willing to receive the transfigurative effects of restored communication with, and re-centering in, the deep mind.

This sense is more or less opposite to the scattershot, solipsistic and voyeuristic way these words are currently being used, at both scholarly and popular levels, but research suggests it is much more in line with what ancient, patristic and medieval authors—and those who have preserved or rediscovered the work of silence—are pointing to.

We should remember that Pseudo-Denys, to whom defenders of the current misuse of the word 'mystical' often desperately point, means simply 'mysterious'—he is talking about the way the mind works, about the mysteriousness of the larger part of the mind to which we do not have direct access, where the Spirit is at work, where Christ is enthroned in the seat of the soul. We need also to recall that Gerson's famous definition is usually mistranslated (see the July 15, 2011 post in this blog). In short, contemporary writers are discussing ancient, patristic, medieval and related texts through a methodology that allows for only one epistemology, when in fact the writers of these texts are using models of the mind that employ two epistemologies. The mental models of the latter are far more consonant with the way the mind actually works than that of their modern interpreters.

The mystic, then, would simply be someone who has committed to this re-centering in the deep mind, no matter what the cost. Mystical would refer to beholding and the effects that irrupt from the deep mind and manifest in liminality when self-consciousness is elided (this would exclude claiming as 'mystical' interpretations or experience or phenomena such as visions). And mysticism would refer to the effort, process, and effects of living the absolute primacy of re-centering in the deep mind so that one's daily life is informed by continual beholding.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hodie Christus Natus Est

Hodie Christus natus est
hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt Angeli,
laetantur Archangeli:
hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo, alleluja.

Today is Christ born;
today the Savior has appeared;
today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice;
today those who receive him rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!

[The translation of justi as 'the just' or 'the righteous' often communicates the wrong impression to today's ear, so I have paraphrased for the sake of meaning. Happy Christmas!]

Friday, December 23, 2011

O Virgo Virginum

The Sarum rite adds another Great O for Christmas Eve:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? for neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after: Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me? the thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

And sometimes on Christmas Eve is sung the following responsory:

Judah and Jerusalem, fear not, nor be dismayed;
Tomorrow go you forth, and the Lord, He will be with you.
Stand still, and you shall see the salvation of the Lord.
Tomorrow go forth, and the Lord, He will be with you.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
Tomorrow go forth, and the Lord, He will be with you.

Gentle Readers, may each and every one of you have a most blessed Christmas!

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, expectatio gentium, et Salvator erum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, God with us, Our King and Lawgiver, desired of the nations and their Saviour: Come to save us, O Lord our God.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


A watching angel awakened me at exactly the moment of the solstice this morning: 5:30 AM. I'd only had four hours of sleep (writer's insomnia) but saluted the pause, the world's tsimtsum—holding of its breath—at the turn of the year. With strong black coffee in hand I watched light silver the blackness, then shift along the spectrum to midwinter's special blue, and then the blare, the glare of the sun, which today gives us Oxford-Henge: the sun shining directly up Woodstock Road, St Aldates and the Cornmarket.

Windham Hill's first recording entitled Winter Solstice has some particularly evocative cuts: "Engravings II", "New England Morning", "High Plains", "Nollaig", and "A Tale of Two Cities".

And as always on the Solstice, here is John Donne:


'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—--things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—--which word wrongs her--—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

O Rex Gentium

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unem: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King of Nations and their Desire, the Cornerstone that makes both one: Come, and deliver us, whom you formed from the dust of the earth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentis in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dayspring, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Justice: Come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: Come, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur; veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardere.

O Root of Jesse, which stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: Come, to deliver us, and tarry not. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Corporate Christmas

A little black humour for the holidays. Evidently the Supreme Court of the United States has declared that corporations are persons. Why does this not surprise me?

The person who sent me this URL said, '...declaring the corporation a "person" [is] tantamount to idolatry.'

In case this link doesn't work (computer dork that I am), the clip is called "Hallelujah Corporations".

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Advent of our God

... shine forth and let thy light restore
earth's own true loveliness once more.

Last Sunday, when we sang 'On Jordan's Bank', these words leapt out at me—probably due to the Durban climate conference and the ominous ending of the Frozen Planet series.

While it is true that some parts of the earth have been spoiled beyond imagining—the tar sands in Canada, the pollution of the Niger Delta, the industrial sprawl in urban areas, the wasteland (not just sterile earth, but mountains of waste) in far too many developing countries—I don't think the restoration of the physical earth, as desirable as that is, is the focus of these two lines of the hymn.

Rather, it is our attitude that needs enlightening, our eyes that need to be opened, our perspective that needs to be changed so that we see the loveliness inherent to the earth. Such an opening of our eyes would make us recoil in horror at what we have done, undertake to repair the damage, and refuse further despoliation.

Recently I've been playing around with the pre-Socratics, and along the way have looked again at the Greek word logos, which is usually translated as Word in the prologue to the Gospel of John. Perhaps it is translated that way to emphasize the paradox, that the Word in the beginning is silent (God dwells in silence), in a way similar to the opening of Genesis, in a way similar to the name of God in Hebrew Scriptures that is not to be pronounced. The migration of the Word from the silence of God to manifestation on earth also is a way of talking about how language, optimally rooted in, and arising from, continual beholding in the deep mind manifests itself in our self-consciousness as speech without destroying that beholding—the beholding that was, of course, characteristic of our pre-lapsarian life in the Garden of Eden. 'We beheld (theaomai, θεαομαι) his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth'. (John 1:14 KJV)

Elsewhere in this blog we've already talked about behold as the first covenant word (Gen. 1:29), as an exchange of being: God who is beyond being, consents to have his creatures hold him in being in time and space, even as God is holding them in time and eternity. The notion of exchange is intrinsic to beholding. The Prologue of the Gospel of John recapitulates the beholding in the first chapter of Genesis, but it opens further to make explicit what is implicit in Genesis: that it is God's glory in which we share. Perhaps John's Prologue is one of the passages that stimulated Irenaeus to write: 'The glory of God is the human person fully alive, and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God'.

Glory, in Hebrew, has a sense of density; this carries over into the New Testament in Paul's statement about 'the eternal weight of glory' (2Cor 4:17). It is as if we are given not only direct perception but also the ability to see beyond the appearances to the divine radiance itself that we, in beholding, share with God. Our beholding of God imparts to us that radiance, which, if you like, gives added weight (a medieval theologian might say substance) to our being (the mundane image of a star or planet displacing the web of space-time comes to mind). St Benedict's Rule has a thread of this meaning of glory running through it, a thread that is usually ignored in the darker translations of the contemporary age.

But there is another aspect to this glory-bestowing Word which we behold: logos can also be translated as meaning, 'the inward meaning which is expressed in speech, the sense of something, its coherence; orderedness that is both implicate and emergent' [Mark Williams]. It is not unreasonable to think that the author of the gospel is using logos in both senses: it is in the divine exchange of beholding that meaning is given to us, and it is in listening for the Word in deep silence that gives meaning to our speech and enables our two kinds of knowing to work harmoniously together. Equally, the meaning our speech—always fragmentary, a gesture—is enhanced and amplified when it is returned to deep silence to be refined and trans-figured in the direct perception of the glory of God that consents to dwell there. [1]

God truly makes a home with us, to share the divine nature as Word, as Meaning, and as glory.

[1] (See blog post January 9, 2010 or the chapter 'Practical Adoration' in Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding.)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Barking at Angels III

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for Him whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Julian of Norwich understands the importance of the word 'behold'. Her Revelation of Divine Love is an explication of this single word. 'Behold' is profoundly theological. It describes a reciprocal holding in being, the humility of God sharing the divine nature with what it creates. God, the creator of all, God who is beyond being, in humility allows us, created beings, to hold God in being in space and time, even as God is sustaining us in existence and holding us in eternity.

Behold. Behold the God who is infinitely more humble than those who pray to him, more stripped, more emptied, more self-outpouring—and we need to remember that humility is not aware of injury or humiliation; humility and humiliation are mutually exclusive. Humility knows only love, and God is love. The scandal of the Incarnation is not that we are naked before Emmanuel, God with us, but that God is named before us and, in utter silence, given over into our hands and hearts. And it is in the depths of this beholding, in the silence of the loving heart of God, that the divine exchange takes place most fully, where each of us in our uniqueness and strangeness is transfigured into the divine life. And it is for this that God comes to us, the Word made flesh, stable-born and crucified.

And there is something else in this beholding: the great commandment tells us that this seamless love applies equally to our neighbour as to God. It invites us to abandon our very limited perspectives and ideas, making many aspects of life in community that are difficult not so much easier as irrelevant, to the point of not being noticed.

This living beneath the level of personality unfolds without denying or wasting any of the richness of the human person; it brings us, in our entirety, warts and all, to fullness. To behold God in everything is the antidote to frenetic activity, to stress and busyness. It enables us to live from, continually return to, and dwell in the depth of silent communion with God. And as this is something God does in us, we have only to allow it, to cease our striving and behold.

It might be helpful to realise that we are already, by virtue of the divine indwelling, in that stillness, and it is the thoughts and distractions that drag us away from it. This stillness is the very stillness of the heart of God, which lies in the realm of beholding in itself. We bring everything to it, and we draw everything from it. As we come to the manger, high and low, rich and poor, each brings a gift. Gospel accounts and legends recount a multitude of gifts, but there is one that we share in common, without exception, which each of us bears to the radiant child, and that is suffering: the devastated suffering of those shattered by war; the sorrowful suffering of those who mourn; the anguished suffering of the abused; the hungry suffering of the poor; the hollow suffering of the rich; the interior suffering that is the simple longing that burns for God.

Behold! he is coming with the clouds and everyone shall see him. Behold! the Lamb of God. Behold! the hour comes. Behold! I bring you good tidings. Behold! the Lion of Judah. Behold! I lay in Zion a stumbling block. Behold! I am sending a messenger. Behold! the bridegroom comes. Behold! lift up your eyes. Behold! I show you a mystery. Behold! the tabernacle of God is within you.

Behold! in that dark cave the radiance of the Child; behold! and in that beholding, in the light of his radiance, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay, all our sin and guilt. We bring the gift of suffering, and in receiving it, he takes it from us, transfiguring, giving in return new life, the joy that no one, and nothing, can take from us.

Behold! you shall conceive. It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives and we also. It is in this self-forgetful beholding, this eternity of love gazing on Love, of Love holding love in being, that all salvation history occurs. The words that come after 'behold' in the angel's announcement are for those who do not behold, who are still chained by the imperious noise of those who wield power and control by means of the fear of death. The Word yearns with the promises of God if only we will turn and behold, and in that beholding, be healed.

Behold: behold, and all the rest will be added unto you. 'Behold,' says the angel. It is in the consent to behold, the fiat that our fear is transmuted into love.

The beholdings that irrupt as annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to the shepherds, to Mary, to First Isaiah, or to us. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances. When we realise that something beyond our knowing has happened, we may be at first incredulous or even embarrassed. But when we realise that we no longer can dismiss the evidence—the traces left from an encounter hidden even from our selves—we are filled with awe.

Annunciations leave us with a sense of strangeness for we cannot wrap our minds round what has happened. They cannot be circumscribed by concept or by the self-reflexive interpretation we call 'experience'. They are too wonderful, they are beyond what we can ask or imagine, and in their wake life never again will be the same. Yet by welcoming this homely strangeness of God in beholding we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbour and, indeed, the strangeness of our selves.

If we choose not to ignore these annunciations—and we ignore them at our peril—we come finally to dread, to a forced choice: to remain in this state of alienation, to seek anaesthesia, or to plunge deeper into faith, into unknowing, relinquishing every preconception, every idea, image, notion we have, including those about God, about our selves, so that these annunciations may change and integrate us.

God, and the fathomless vision that God longs to give, will never fail. It requires only the opening of our hearts for God to purify with the fire of love; God whose thoughts and ways are not ours. Christ's peace is utterly simple, a simplicity that can never be comprehended, only received, and through it we are drawn into the mystery of God's own self-outpouring, into speechless wonder and ineffable joy.

Therefore in this world's night, let us enter more deeply into stillness so that we may behold the herald angels. Let us so plunge into this beholding that its silence and light will radiate even through our own darkness to illumine all the darkness and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him,
Give my heart.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Cold Comfort

This morning I came close to liturgical despair. If I hadn't been sitting in the stalls I might have left. The beauty of Palestrina was shattered by the cack-handed words with which we were assaulted.

First off, there was this abomination from the NRSV:


Comfort, O comfort my people,
 says your God. 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
 and cry to her
 that she has served her term,
 that her penalty is paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand
 double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: 
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
 and every mountain and hill be made low; 
the uneven ground shall become level,
 and the rough places a plain. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
 and all people shall see it together,
 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
 And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
 All people are grass,
 their constancy is like the flower of the field. 
The grass withers, the flower fades,
 when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
 surely the people are grass. 
The grass withers, the flower fades;
 but the word of our God will stand for ever.

Get you up to a high mountain,
 O Zion, herald of good tidings;
 lift up your voice with strength,
 O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
 lift it up, do not fear;
 say to the cities of Judah,
 ‘Here is your God!’ 
See, the Lord God comes with might,
 and his arm rules for him;
 his reward is with him,
 and his recompense before him. 
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arms,
 and carry them in his bosom,
 and gently lead the mother sheep.


'Here is your God'—here is a parking place; here is your iPod; here is your manicure. If ever the 'beholds' were needed to convey the sense of a biblical passage, it is the three that occur in this passage in the Hebrew in verses 9 and 10. KJV is good about the beholds, for the most part:


Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lords hand double for all her sins.

(3) The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

(6) The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

(9) O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
 Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.


Next, we were told what was in the Gospel before the gospel was read, as if we might be too stupid to listen for ourselves. I can't imagine any better way to get people to tune out than to infantilize them, than to tell them what the passage is going to say before it says it. The whole point of scripture is that it is to fall upon the ear and work the earth of the heart so that the individual receives what he or she needs.

All of this was bad enough, but the worst was to come. The celebrant used Eucharistic Prayer F, which demands a credal affirmation from the congregation after each paragraph, 'Amen. Lord, we believe'.

The eucharistic prayer is supposed to take us into silence, not into the noisy language of concepts. To put this in McGilchrist's terms, it's supposed to activate the right hemisphere's predominance, not the left. Credal statements are political attempts to force uniformity: they didn't work in the Empire—in fact, they brought more division—, and they don't work now.

Just to top everything off, on Monday there will be Compline—with an address! How utterly inappropriate. Compline is about turning the mind off in preparation for sleep, not about assaulting it with more spoken words. The chant reaches far more primitive areas of the brain; it is the church's lullaby, if you will.

For God's sake—literally—will someone please wake these people up?????

Friday, December 02, 2011

Review in Today's Church Times, 2 December 2011

‘Maggie Ross, the author of Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, is an Anglican solitary, who has spent long hours in silence. The book’s subtitle captures its essence; for it is about silence and our need to “behold” God. “Beholding” is a concept that not only are we in danger of losing, but that is often lost in translation, even by the NSRV and the Jerusalem Bible. “Beholding” needs to be rediscovered both in theology and practice. Ross is very aware of “poor talkative Christianity”. There is a twofold plea to enter into silence — for "lack of silence erodes humanity” — and to behold the radiance of God. This is a deep book full of questioning and the testing of our assumptions. Throughout, there is a great love for the world and for our humanity with a sadness at how we are so easily distracted. Was the sin of Adam and Eve that of being distracted? We are invited into a silence that is not necessarily an absence of noise, but is a limitless interior space. Ancient texts are used in new and exciting ways, and many of our worship practices are challenged. She is in no doubt that “the glory of the human being is the beholding of God.’

Canon David Adam is a former Vicar of Holy Island. Church Times, 2 Dec 2011