Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comment Worth Foregrounding

Daniel Hoffman writes:

'Thank you for this statement. I have this question: Is it possible, in your view, for a parish through care in liturgy and teaching and embrace of silence to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation"? A priest has asked a friend for some comments on the marks of a contemplative congregation.'


Thank you for your very interesting and very tricky question which, to do it justice, would require a whole book for reflection.

From where I sit, your question begins with two contradictory (not paradoxical) parts, and then has a third part, about the marks of such a congregation..

1) 'is it possible...for a parish through care in liturgy and embrace of silence [to focus on beholding]' and

2) 'to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation".'

Let me respond to the second part first. As long as a congregation is worrying about its self-image or how it 'portrays' itself, it's going in the wrong direction. Contemplation, and the spiritual maturity it fosters, are about self-forgetfulness. Contemplation is coterminous with humility: if you think you've got it, you haven't even begun. So one sign of a congregation embarked on seeking to behold is that it will be modest and effacing about any claims it makes for itself; and what it says about its practice and the effects of that practice will always be provisional—precisely because spiritual pride is ever with us.

Now for the first part of the question: the short answer is emphatically yes; the focus of every congregation should be beholding—I'm not using the word 'contemplative' because it's surrounded these days by so much kitsch and hype, and is misunderstood.

The first requirement is purity of heart, single-heartedness. The goal is to behold for beholding's sake (I won't use the word 'God' because beholding is without object), to help one another find and live from that interior wellspring.

Of course, everyone is in a different 'place'. To move in this direction will be easiest for those who have never tried it (or thought they have never tried it). In addition, there always will be people who want the bells and whistles, signs and wonders, which are most emphatically not contemplation. Congregations are always a very mixed bag. However, the congregation can be brought to focus from wherever they are simply by the presence of people who are already trying to root their lives in silence. It's a process of presence far more than a 'programme', although there are many practical ways in which a congregation's engagement with silence can be enhanced.

Let me give you an example. At the grammar school I attended, all that the assistant headmistress had to do to start morning assembly was to stand up. She was not religious, as far as I know, but she had great interior silence. She was a small woman, not a flashy dresser (or flashy in any sense), but simply the act of standing silently in front of the noisy, heaving mass of several hundred writhing, chatting, laughing children had an almost instantaneous effect: everyone would fall silent and hush any others who were still twitching. This was not a 'technique'; it was simply who she was. No one ever gave us rules for this procedure, or told us what was going on, or announced before hand: it simply happened. It was, as you can imagine, hugely impressive, and I have never forgotten it.

Ideally, this shift should take place organically, a few people being, by their presence, the leaven in the lump. However, for a shift that is so drastic and against the cultural norms, a parish meeting where this re-focussing towards silence could be discussed is probably a must, if it is minimised. There are a lot of simple things that can be done: arranging service times so there is no rush to finish the liturgy; encouraging people to be silent when entering the church; cutting down the quantity of words in the liturgy; editing out conflicting theologies, especially the breast-beating, miserable sinner stuff, which is not part of Eucharistic origins, and especially not after an absolution has already taken place!

At the beginning of this blog there is a full-blown catechetical rite and some suggestions as to how it might be adapted for weekly use. Simplicity, beauty, effacement, silence: these are the key words for good liturgy. The Word should be allowed to fall on the ear without announcement or explanation. You can have as much silence as you like—the catechetical rite takes 4 or 5 hours. The key is that people will be as comfortable with silence as the person leading the rite is comfortable with silence. This pretty much eliminates control freaks, for one of the keys to comfort with silence is a willingness to be open to whatever will happen after the basic (minimal) framework has been established. Find a rite that works and stick with it for a space of time so that it becomes second nature. If necessary, have a different service for people who aren't yet ready for so much silence—but such a service should prepare the less mature congregation for the more silent one.

Ideally, there should be a group of people who will undertake the arduous work of restoring the readings to something like what the originals say. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, ALL the modern translations of the bible are wanting, not only because they are done with no ear to poetry and rhythm and in consequence are almost impossible to read aloud; but far more importantly, because all the contemplative threads have been edited out, as evidenced in the missing word 'behold' in modern translations such as the NRSV. This committee could meet and go over the readings (probably a month ahead, as this sort of process needs two or three revisions with reflection in between so the words can sound in the heart) using interlinear bibles, and tools such as Great Treasures, all of which are online, restoring the word 'behold' as well as the read-aloud rhythms necessary to get the text across. And being alert to institutional fudges, such as the word 'world' for 'system' in John 14:17. This sounds ambitious, but it can be done.

In addition, the readings can be shortened and there should be plenty of time between them: better to have only part of a reading and to have it read well and have time for silence afterwards than to do the full reading. (Morning and Evening prayer (especially the latter) can usefully be cut in half to allow for more silence: the psalms, one reading, one canticle, with prayers—but five-minute intervals of silence between each element.) People need to be taught how to read aloud: to read slowly, very slowly, but not artificially slowly (although it may feel so at first), allowing each word or phrase enough time to sound in the silence. They should come through the reader, not have the reader putting his or her own emphasis on: reading in church is the opposite of dramatic reading. If you are reading correctly in church you will feel the words taking on their own power and speaking through you in the context of an enormous silence; the reader's only job is to get out of the way.

People will ask about children: children will behave as their parents and those around them behave: if they sense silence, they will be silent. Go to any Orthodox church on Sunday and see how many children and babies are present for the 2-3 hour liturgy. And most of them are silent. When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the children either had their own liturgy—and it was a regular liturgy, complete with small altar, candlesticks, psalms, hymns, not some trendy, chirpy kindergarten thing, but simplified and instructional—or else they were with the rest of the congregation. They were ALWAYS with the congregation at the monthly Eucharist (in those days—the 40s and 50s— the parish Eucharist had not yet been established). Just to be present at the Eucharist and hear the King James bible and the beautiful words of the 1928 (modified 1662) Prayer Book was formative for me.

I would ponder words I didn't understand, or words that were used in a way I didn't understand. It didn't matter that my family was such that I could never discuss religion with them (they went to church for political reasons) or that there was no one else I could talk to—in that respect I was very, very lucky, because there was no one to put restrictions on what I thought. I longed to take Communion. It was very important to me when I was confirmed (how important I never let my parents know), even though the instruction was enough to put anyone off.

Also in those days people had a lot more respect for everything—an age of innocence, perhaps, that is gone forever: one simply didn't talk in church. Nor did one applaud. There was also a lot more unspoken pressure about dress: hats and gloves were mandatory, homburgs for men and understated hats (often with nose veils) for women! Of course the dress concern can be carried to an extreme, and the hats and gloves requirement would be silly today in a lot of places in the USA, but the point is that going to church was not just another social occasion in a lifetime of social occasions (this was Washington, DC): one's dress was a sign of respect for what we were about to do together—a paradox, perhaps, that we took trouble over how we looked in order to learn to forget ourselves, even if no one in those days would have ever expressed it that way. This was a kind of Episcopal church that no longer exists. I often wish there were modern signs of respect that flowed naturally for us; I look at the courtesies of the Jane Austen era with envy, the tiny curtsey, the slight formal bow—wrong for us, sadly; we have lost so much.

Yes, of course, people should be encouraged to have silence integrated into their ordinary lives, and even to get together during the week for silent prayer, but it should be exactly that: a space prepared, people come in silence, settle themselves, the door is closed; the time is begun and ended with a sweet gong, and people leave in silence—no reading, no discussion, nothing but the silence. But again, this is a re-orienting of ordinariness, not taking on something exotic.

There should be bible study that reads the bible for its silences. What I mean by that is looking for the ways in which a particular passage points to silence, or talks about silence, however parabolically—God's silence, our silence, practical silence, environmental silence, the silence of the holy of holies—or points beyond itself. For example, 'who loses their life shall gain it' is short-hand for stilling the self-conscious mind to be open to what may arise from the deep mind.

It is imperative to avoid the demon of so-called 'spiritual direction'; this movement in my view is the most destructive movement in Christianity since fundamentalism. It is divisive; it sets up new hierarchies and cliques; it is counter-productive as it only makes the congregation more self-conscious and narcissistic. There are plenty of resources around in terms of books, and there will be people in the congregation to whom others will naturally go for a word, but it should be very informal, very low key, best done over a cup of coffee as part of an ordinary friendship. The minute it is made special in any way, it's self defeating. Spiritual growth is something that can't be manipulated, or taught; it takes place mostly in solitude, and is encouraged by friendship, not dominance: we're all in this together. People who think they are going nowhere are often, if not usually, in a very good place! And the whole point is to learn to listen, deeply, to whatever is going on: there is always a Word to be had in any given moment, if you know how to listen, and it does not always or even often come from a person.

These are only a few suggestions.

Congregations are only as mature as the solitudes that make them up.

Of course there are times in parish life for noisy celebration, for pulling out all the stops, and so forth, but if the congregation has a basic orientation towards silence, not only will such celebrations be more fun; after some time the character of these festivities will change indefinably. They'll be even better, more meaningful.

Signs that a congregation is going in the right direction:

first of all, you will feel it as soon as you walk into the church building, even if it is empty.

Next, everything the congregation does will be low-key, outwardly oriented. People will have more respect for each other. Each person in the congregation is a God-bearer. People respond in kind to the way they're treated: if they're regarded as stupid and infantile, if they are patronised and talked down to, they will tend to behave in an infantile way: their minds will shut down and they will be unconfident of doing anything on their own.

Another sign is an atmosphere of gentle and easy self-restraint—Joseph Conrad said that civilisation is characterised by restraint. This is not repression, but a reserve that says there's something precious here, not to be lightly used or spoken of, a silent ground note or organ point to the activities of everyday life. People will become increasingly reluctant to 'let it all hang out' while at the same time becoming more human and more humane. People will become less concerned about their self-image and more compassionate and concerned for the welfare of others. The congregation will come to realise that the people they ordinarily think of as marginal, either among themselves or newcomers, often have great spiritual depth and creativity that should be listened to. The congregation will be low-key about the practical charity it offers, undertaking it as a given, and not blowing their own horn.

The worship, if it truly communicates silence, will catch up in wonder any stranger who comes in, no matter how simple it is.

Problems will be handled with discretion. Congregations interested in this path might want to look into the Quaker way of having meetings and making decisions.

And yes, everything I have said here goes against the way that clergy are trained, so it's going to be a very hard job, if not impossible, to find an ordained person who not only would go along with such a project but would be able to facilitate it.

Clergy training and the people who do the training need to be re-tooled from the ground up. The seminaries for decades have been sowing the seeds of the demise of what they think of (but isn't) Christianity in the West.

Thanks very much, Dan, for opening up this discussion.

Gentle Readers, your comments and suggestions, as always, are most welcome.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Contemplation/contemplative is traditionally defined as a specific disposition of attentive receptivity. It causes 'experience' to recede. One can dispose oneself towards attentive receptivity but contemplation is itself gratuitous; its arrival may be gradual or without warning; it is often imperceptible except in retrospect because it elides self-consciousness. The word contemplation entails relinquishing all claims to experience; it opens to what is uncircumscribed and other.

To say 'contemplative text' is nonsensical. In addition, visionary texts do not describe contemplation unless, like Julian's, they move the reader from image to the contemplative event-horizon. The same is true for didactic texts. Devotional texts are not 'contemplative', although they may indirectly foster contemplation if only because the practitioner becomes bored with watching him or her self starring in his or her own religious psycho-drama.

Nor can the word contemplative be used for trance-inducing texts, such as Rolle's canor. Trance is liminal, but self-consciousness is still in control. Abstraction—for example, Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ—is not contemplation; abstraction belongs rather to the realm of self-consciousness, not deep mind. In terms of the Middle English texts with which they are usually grouped, only Julian's Long Text (Sloane) and the Cloud are properly associated with contemplation. To these might be added one contemplative interlocutor: Will, of Piers Plowman.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


The offer of free downloads of my books are being used as bait to get people to download MALWARE, which will take over your computer.



Here is a quote from Sunday's Guardian. The speaker is Rick Falkvinge of Sweden, who is one of the moving demons behind internet piracy:

"It's not theft. It's an infringement on a monopoly. If it was theft and it was property, we wouldn't need a copyright law, ordinary property laws would suffice." Nor does he have any truck with the argument that file-sharing hurts art and artists.

"It's just not true. Musicians earn 114% more since the advent of Napster. The average income per artist has risen 66%, with 28% more artists being able to make a living off their hobby. What is true is that there's an obsolete middle market of managers. And in a functioning market, they would just disappear."

But in any case, he says, it's not about the economy or creativity. "What it boils down to is a privileged elite who've had a monopoly on dictating the narrative. And suddenly they're losing it. We're at a point where this old corporate industry thinks that, in order to survive, it has to dismantle freedom of speech."

What it boils down to, rather, is greedy entrepreneurs like himself wanting to increase their own elite positions.

Where do these cockeyed statistics come from? 'Privileged elite' is hardly a term that applies to the majority of writers and artists who have to support their work with day jobs, often negatively affecting their real work. Some creative people find the tension too great, go mad or kill themselves. Perhaps Falkvinge thinks that you can only be called an 'artist' if you are a financial success. And art is a 'hobby'? Evidently he thinks that only making money at the expense of other people is real work.

Ask any writer or artist: creativity is painful, hard, life-consuming. Annie Dillard compared the creative process to setting fire to the end of your own gut and burning it for light.

Mr Falkvinge is an exceedingly rich man. Perhaps he aspires to being Prince of Thieves, but he is no Robin Hood. Is he going to pay for my food? My rent? Perhaps I should send him an application for a grant. In the last few days I have found three sites offering downloads of two of my books. This represents catastrophic losses for me and my nonprofit publishers. Will he make up the lost revenue for the publishers or my missing royalties?

The copyright question most certainly IS about creativity and an economic sector that allows that creativity to survive. Very few writers make any kind of profit at all, myself included, certainly not enough to live on. Long gone are the days of patronage when writers were supported by their publishers to give them space to create. It's strictly hardscrabble now.

I emailed the host of the pirating sites and one of them has so far been taken down.

The biggest puzzle, in the end, is that these thieves have downloaded moral books. Perhaps this is further evidence of what happens when 'spirituality' is hived off from the context of a value system (religion).

As noted earlier, you can meditate to become a better killer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to be Quiet

Theo asks: 'Hello again, Maggie, Could I trouble you to say a little more about blocking out the static and exercising care about what we expose our minds to and what we put into them that feeds the static.'

Theo, it entirely depends on the person. People are so very different; rules are dangerous because they tend to become ends in themselves. Common sense is the best guide—and a sense of lightness, of play! (See Hugo Rahner's God and Man at Play). The Cloud-author writes of 'good gamesumli play'. However, here are some of the things I am careful about—a scattershot account, I'm afraid, as I am still knackered from the conference (one reason I so rarely go to conferences is that I get overstimulated):

The body is the best starting place: avoid junk or processed food, e.g., ready meals. Eat simple, good food, simply prepared, in moderate quantities. In my view, sugar and white flour are poison, even though I eat them now and again (at Christmas, for example). Drink tea instead of coffee. The body needs exercise: walking can be a great aid to quiet and clear the mind so that insight can arise. Have contact with nature through walking, gardening, or deliberately going to wild places to be quiet. Much of the problem with noisy minds is that we are cut off from our proper context, which is nature. Get enough sleep: 7-8 hours a night. If you are overtired, your brain can get stuck in high gear and there are in my view fewer more unpleasant sensations. Use whatever sleep aids work: I put a warm, not hot, hot water bottle at the foot of the bed on cold nights, and have (granary) toast and milk just before I go to bed if I'm having trouble sleeping. Soft classical music can also help (avoid flutes). Avoid alcohol: an occasional glass of wine with friends over a meal may seem harmless but realise that alcohol both stimulates and depresses, and that the effects can be so subtle that we think nothing is happening—but it is. Slow your breathing down and breathe deeply from the diaphragm. Have a minimal structure to the day without being rigid about it, e.g., times of waking and going to bed, mealtimes.

Music: music activates a very primitive area of the brain. One of the purposes of singing the Office was so that psalm verses and the melodies assigned to them would take on their own life in the deep mind and continually well up during the day as an accompaniment to whatever was going on; but since no one sings the Office any longer, we have to find other music to fill that void. It is still true, however, that 'who sings prays twice'. The musical wellspring can warn as well as accompany: when I sense danger, for example, 'He trusted in God that he would deliver him' from the Messiah often wells up. The Spirit has a sense of humour, so sometimes the upwellings can also provide comic commentary. Classical music such as chant, renaissance or baroque music are good to absorb. The more 'pop' one gets, the more 'easy listening' or even what I think of as 'noodle music'—that is someone fooling around on a piano that's sold as meditation music but really has no structure, depth or melodic value—the more one activates and agitates the superficial, self-conscious mind. Boycott shops that have muzak thumping away and if it is a shop you need to use, be sure to find a manager and tell him or her politely why you won't shop there, pointing out that thumping, caterwauling muzak adds to everyone's stress levels (there are plenty of scientific studies to back up this claim). Take the quieter route: if you have to walk through a noisy part of town, take an alternative route even if it means that you take longer to get where you're going.

Avoid media. Forget the newspapers, throw away your iPod, don't watch television (exceptions: nature programmes, programmes on art, dramas such as Pride and Prejudice). Avoid all images of violence, carnage, betrayal, humiliation. Sometimes, however, banal TV can help quiet the mind down; I'm thinking of reruns of early Law and Order (but not SVU). But TV is insidious, and the images go far deeper than you realise, and tends to overstimulate. It's better to read magazines or books than watch TV, The New Yorker or nonfiction or a novel. Avoid novels that have too much suspense, violence, sex. Again, the images we take in go far deeper than we realise. This may sound like there's not much to read but in fact there's a lot: at the moment I'm reading Gunter Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion; I just finished Robert Bringhurst's Tree of Meaning. Avoid 'spiritual' books that tell you how to shape up your life with exotic practices or special language (jargon), or that separate out 'spirituality' from ordinary life.

At the conference I heard two wonderful papers on Eckhart, whose point is that if you are doing anything special that you mark as 'spiritual' you are going in the wrong direction: this from a Dominican friar. (It's the same reasoning behind my opposition to so-called spiritual direction). It's the same principle as the Ox-herding tale: at the end, the man comes back into the village, covered with mud, riding his ox, and laughing uproariously. There were a number of terrific papers; there were also a few dreadful ones, and I came away convinced that the voyeuristic tendency in the study of so-called spirituality/mysticism is just another form of pornography. Avoid dependent relationships. Cultivate whatever helps you to immerse yourself so that you are self-forgetful. Crafts such as weaving or pottery are often helpful in this regard, eg., Carla Needleman's The Work of Craft.

Avoid people who wind you up, make you anxious or feel bad. If you have a toxic family, you may have to stop having any contact. This is very, very hard and sometimes circumstances mean you have to stay in a situation longer that may perhaps be wise or good, but in the end, tough as it is, breaking off toxic relationships is essential.

Be vigilant about distractions: an opportunity may arise that seems like a good thing, or a creative thing, but may be tempting just because it distracts you. Choose your social activities carefully and limit them. As to thoughts, read Evagrius' account of what to do about thoughts ( Evagrius anthropomorphizes his techniques in terms of 'demons' but he knew as did Isaac of Nineveh that all demons arise from the human heart (and are figures of its activities). He points to a number of helpful techniques. You use the word 'blocking' about mental static: this, it seems to me, is not quite right because blocking is a kind of fighting, actively engages the static. You want to break the engagement, to ignore it, neither attack nor defend, but turn away to 'reach into the dark'—an image I find helpful, but others may not. The desert fathers and the Cloud-author put this very simply: they say, when your mind is full of static, cry 'help!' or use a short phase such as 'O God, make speed to help me'. Some people find 'Behold' useful—it doesn't matter what word or phrase you use: whatever will break the cycle of noise and focus your attention elsewhere, yielding to, receptive to, the silence. The self-conscious mind has a strong tendency to lock itself into loops, hamster wheels, squirrel cages (the image depends on which side of the Atlantic you are on) and the point is to break open that cycle. Again, physical movement such as walking helps most of all in this regard.

The point is not to engage in some exotic practice but to learn to use whatever is ready to hand. When you wash the dishes, as Zen Buddhists say, wash the dishes. If the noise continues in spite of everything, then simply accept it tranquilly and focus on getting on with your life. If you ignore it, it's more likely to dissolve from lack of attention.

Finally, both laughter and weeping can clear the mind and bring you to silence.

Hope this helps.


The Place Where You Go to Listen by John Luther Adams ( (

"Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.

When the words that we need shoot up of themselves, we have a new song."

-- Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder

They say that she heard things...

At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness. The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.

She listened. And she heard. But she rarely spoke of these things. She did not question them. This is the way it is for one who listens.

She spent many days and nights alone, poised with the deep patience of the hunter, her ears and her body attuned to everything around her. Before the wind and the great sea, she took for herself this discipline: always to listen.

She listened for the sound, like drums, of the earth stirring in ancient sleep. She listened for the sound, like stone rain, as rivers of caribou flooded the great plain. She listened, in autumn, for the echo of the call of the last white swan.

She understood the languages of birds. In time, she learned the quiet words of the plants. Closing her eyes, she heard small voices whispering:

"I am uqpik. I am river willow. I am here."

"I am asiaq. I am blueberry. I am here."

The wind brought to her the voices of her ancestors, the old ones, who taught that true wisdom lives far from humankind, deep in the great loneliness.

As she traveled, she listened to the voices of the land, voices speaking the name of each place, carrying the memories of those who live here now and those who have gone.

As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place -- how the snow falls here, how the ice melts--how, when everything is still -- the air breathes. The drums of her ears throbbed with the heartbeat of this place, a particular rhythm that can be heard in no other place.

Often, she remembered the teaching of an old shaman, who spoke of silam inua -- the inhabiting spirit, the voice of the universe. Silam inua speaks not through ordinary words, but through fire and ice, sunshine and calm seas, the howling of wolves, and the innocence of children, who understand nothing.

In her mind, she heard the words of the shaman, who said of silam inua: "All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid".

The heart of winter: She is listening.

Darkness envelopes her -- heavy, luminous with aurora. The mountains, in silhouette, stand silent. There is no wind.

The frozen air is transparent, smooth and brittle; it rings like a knifeblade against bone. The sound of her breath, as it freezes, is a soft murmuring, like cloth on cloth.

The muffled wingbeats of a snowy owl rise and fall, reverberating down long corridors of dream, deep into the earth.

She stands, motionless, listening to the resonant stillness. Then, slowly, she draws a new breath. In a voice not her own, yet somehow strangely familiar, she begins to sing...

This piece has appeared in The North American Review (March/April 1998), and in Terra Nova (Volume 2, Number 3).

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Heresy is in the ear of the listener—not the beholder, for one who cries, 'Heresy!' is precisely not beholding. If orthodoxy in early Christianity is about maintaining the paradoxes, then the concept of heresy is itself heretical; linear doctrinal statements destroy the paradoxes. It is absurd for one group to claim that its own provisional, linear, distorted and self-referential doctrinal statement is less heretical than that of another group, for neither can presume to represent the very different epistemology in which grace works. They are a different as a tabloid newspaper and a live holograph. The diagram suggests why the paradoxes must be sustained, for they provide connections between the mind's two epistemologies, between self-consciousness and deep mind. A patristic or medieval writer might say, 'Paradox opens the gate of heaven.'

Christianity in all its forms is today probably more heretical than at any time in its history precisely because it does not sustain the paradoxes, and the paradoxes must be sustained because they serve as descriptors, catalysts, transponders, passkeys, portals, and more. Evagrius' saying, 'Who prays is a theologian and who is a theologian prays' is empirical, observed: for him, as for other patristic writers, doctrine grows out of, and is interpretation of, the mind's work with silence, and must continually be yielded to it.

Any doctrinal statement is virtual: it flattens (and today's language is getting flatter and flatter) the polyvalent insight of the deep mind into two dimensions and kills it; this is one of the insights that fuels objections to credal statements. It also illustrates the absurdity and destructiveness of inserting credal statements into liturgy such as Eucharistic Prayer F in Common Worship. Doctrinal statements, like experience, are necessary but provisional and subject to revision.

Friday, January 06, 2012


Apophatic / Kataphatic are two terms that are widely used and equally misunderstood. Apophatic means describing something by negation, e.g., 'it is not this or that' and then negating even the negation. Kataphatic is the other side of this coin, referring to description by positives, e.g., 'it is wet, it is good, it is invisible'. These terms are also used loosely to describe ways of thought that are without images (apophatic) or that use images (kataphatic). The two modes are dependent one on another, and mutually enriching. In terms of the diagram, the term kataphatic reflects the way the self-conscious mind operates, and apophatic the primary way of engaging the deep mind. The apophatic way is not 'elitist': it is simply a question of being willing to do the work of silence, to commit to it. It does not exclude the kataphatic, but balances and informs it. Each factor in the work of silence has its darkness, its counterfeit. For example, the counterfeit of the apophatic way is nihilism; that of the kataphatic, idolatry.

Having said this, the apophatic—especially in our day—is somewhat privileged for the following reasons:

— In order to restore our minds to their optimal balance, we need to co-operate with how the brain in fact works, not fight it ('grace builds on nature'). As Iain McGilchrist describes, the right hemisphere perceives through apophasis:

"This negating or apophatic mode of creation of whatever-it-is reflected in our experience that what we know about things as they truly are, starting with Being itself, is apophatic in nature: we can know only what they are not. Its particular significance is that it describes the path taken to truth by the right hemisphere, which sees things whole, and if asked to describe them has to remain 'silent'. It has no way of coming at what this thing is other than by pointing to it, or by unconcealing it, allowing the thing to reveal itself as much as possible (by not saying 'no' to it but by saying 'no' to whatever lies around and obscures it), as a sculptor chisels away the stone to reveal the form inside. Further, because what the left hemisphere has available to it is only what it does not say 'no' to of what 'presences' to the right hemisphere, it has parts of the whole only, fragments which, if it tries to see the whole, it has wilfully to put together again. It has to try to arrive at understanding by putting together the bits and pieces, positively constructing it from the inside, as though the statue were 'put together'. By such a process, a human person becomes like a Frankenstein's monster, rather than a living being—not for nothing one of the originating metaphors of Romanticism." The Master and His Emissary, pp. 197-198)

— We live in a time where increasing environmental noise and excessive information threaten to overwhelm us. [See Pico Iyar's article, "The Joy of Quiet" in The New York Times, Sunday, January 1, 2012] It is a commonplace that noise is damaging to health at every level. For this reason alone we need to privilege the work of silence. Furthermore, if we are to adapt in the best sense of maintaining balance in the face of this onslaught, we need to learn the art of interior silence, of apophatic listening. We need also to feed that silence with carefully selected information, and learn to block out the words and images that create interior static.

— As noted in the McGilchrist quotation above, we need to privilege the part of our minds that will root us in reality and help us to see the virtual world of self-consciousness—necessary and useful though it may be—for the artificial world that it is.

— It is through apophasis that we open our wounds to be trans-figured, though first they must be articulated in a kataphatic way. Medieval historian Rachel Fulton points to 'Elaine Scarry [who] says something very provocative (and wise) in her The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1986) about how pain destroys language, reduces us to animal cries. "Ah, ah, ah!" But as soon as we break into speech ("Woe is me!"), we take the first small step back into rationality and humanity. We begin to imagine things being other than they are, other than simply pain, and we start to articulate ways in which the world might be otherwise so that we are no longer in pain. Language is a tool for alleviating pain'. (, 19 November, 2011). The next step in healing is to yield the acknowledged and articulated pain to silence so that the newly acquired perspective may be refined and enlarged, and in this way each part of the mind supports and supplements the other towards healing.

— The apophatic movement is described in Philippians 2:5-11, arguably the central text for Christianity.

—The apophatic way frees us from the fear of death at every level (Heb. 2:15), whether it is of mortality itself, or the investment we have made in self-image, or ideas of how the world works or should work.