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!


Anonymous Matt said...

Thank you for the very helpful definitions of mystic, mystical and mysticism.

The re-centring in deep mind sounds parallel to what Zen is nudging towards-though it would clearly not look to meet with Christ there!

Happy New Year!

1:59 am, January 02, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie,

Happy 2012 to you!

I hope your forthcoming book has things to say to those of us who seek silence/God and are not solitaries.

I find much of your writing to be very nourishing and somehow it draws me on .... I hope God blesses you and your work.

All Good Wishes


8:57 am, January 02, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Theo,

Thanks for your kind words. 'Solitary' is just a word that says 'don't be afraid of silence, stillness, solitude'. Everyone is a solitary; it's the human condition. We're solitaries-in-community, as Anthony noted: 'Your life and your death are with your neighbour' no matter what one's physical living conditions.

Please be assured that the purpose of my forthcoming book—like the one published this past May ('Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding')—is precisely to make the ways of solitude available to everyone.

Blessings for the New Year


9:12 am, January 02, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good. I'm reading "Icon of the Heart" - a gift from my best friend (he found you on the web) for Christmas.


8:44 pm, January 02, 2012  

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