Saturday, April 28, 2012

Solitaries As Bellweathers

People continue to make posts about me on a list I cannot access. I am hoping the following will be posted on that list:

T.....'s new post is a patronising and completely misleading account of our conversation. He cannot, or will not, understand the subtle and complex issues surrounding this very bad canon which has, for all the reasons I have already cited, inhibited and distorted the solitary life and given the bishops license. All he proved to me was that he was totally unqualified to write this legislation: he not only has no experience of the solitary life, he has no experience of monastic life. He appears to be locked into an institutional mindset that has created the ever-widening gulf between clergy and laity, and ignores any but its own agendas. The issues surrounding the solitaries are the issues the church at large is facing: beyond what Richard Holloway has inimitably called 'trading poetry for packaging, the clerical attitude of infantilising the laity is the primary reason that people are leaving the church. If this canon is a disaster, then Sisk's guidelines are apocalyptic. Asking someone who has not lived the solitary life to write legislation for solitaries is like asking someone who likes to make paper airplanes to write an aerospace manual.

But this whole sorry mess is symptomatic of much wider issues.

The clergy, for the most part, are completely deaf—to solitaries and to everybody else. It's the way they're trained. The abyss is absolute. In my view, getting ordained in the present situation is spiritual suicide. Most clergy know nothing of prayer; they're not trained for it in seminary (I get a lot of complaints about this from seminarians)—and in any event, most of the key texts, ancient, patristic, and medieval are mis-translated and mis-interpreted because of the Cartesian methodology that allows for only one form of epistemology whereas these texts are based on a model of two epistemologies (which accords with the findings of neuro-psychology). The word experience does not mean the same thing before the end of the 15th century that it does today, and this illusory modern idolatry of experience, is now nothing but a commodity that is bought and sold and used for packaging. 

For example, the Cloud-author uses the word experience exactly once: to ground something he is saying; to make sure the reader knows that what he is saying is embodied. The rest of the time he uses the word prove, which is in fact how most pre-fifteenth century people whose texts we read as guides to interior life understood experimentum or experientia They knew that experience is ALWAYS interpretation. The scripturally grounded Cloud is based on the word behold, which is arguably the most important word in the bible (it occurs more than 1300 times in the imperative). The Cloud-author uses it 35 times. The translation by Walsh (which is a disaster) in the Classics of Western Spirituality uses the word behold exactly once, and inserts the word experience in the modern narcissistic sense, 108 times. [I would be happy to send anyone the paper which will be published later this year in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII, coming out from Boydell and Brewer in Cambridge but I have addressed most of these issues already in my blog:]. 

Furthermore, scholars translating from Latin, e.g., Richard of St Victor, insert the word experience in the modern sense where it does not exist in the Latin, even in the passages about excessus mentis: if there is excessus, there is no mentis, and therefore, no experience. Hence the phrase 'mystical experience' is total nonsense. Incidentally, neuro-psychology supports the medieval view of experience as opposed to the narcissistic modern version, which is a linear, banal, and dead artifact, and is all that the left hemisphere can cope with. 

The reason I am going on at such length about these two words is that what passes for Christianity is now exactly opposite to what it was for the first 9 centuries. The loss of the word behold (in the NRSV it occurs only 27 times in the OT and not at all in the NT), which in itself is a précis of life in God, combined with the idolatry of the word experience, summarize not only the disease that affects the very roots of contemporary Christianity in general and TEC in particular, but also why people leaving are the church in droves in order to seek poetry and silence. Unless the people who are running religious institutions understand these issues (including the role of solitaries) then the situation will only continue to be destructive and to deteriorate.

What is going on vis a vis the solitaries is the same thing that went on in the middle ages when clerics wrote rules for anchorites in order to increase their status (bragging rights), rules that were so crammed with kitsch devotion that there was no space for prayer. People aren't writing that sort of rule these days per se, but they are trying to legislate what needs to be left alone. This has always been a problem in the church: too many words, too much desire for control, and if you have read McGilchrist Part I, the left hemisphere is taking what belongs and should remain the right hemisphere's and doing violence to it. It is the way of death: the death of humanity, the death of metaphor, the death of incarnation. 

Friday, April 27, 2012


Well, after some correspondence it is clear that the clerical mind is so far up the institutional fundamentum that it cannot understand what the issues are except from a clerical point of view. The abyss is indeed unbridgeable, and the issues too human and too subtle.

But the danger here is that encouraging the infantilisation of solitaries only reflects the infantilisation that the clericus on both sides of the Pond seeks to inflict on the bums in pews—which is why there are fewer and fewer of them. The issues surrounding the treatment of solitaries are those of the wider church.

It is futile to hope that those clergy involved in this issue would be anything but deaf—as they are deaf to the laity in general.

Does anyone hear the echo of the Middle Ages when a lot of male clerics, wanting to raise their status, wrote absurd rules for anchorites, so filling up their space with devotional kitsch that there was no space for contemplation? Plus ça change...


A comment (still have not figured out this dreadful new Blogger format) from Ray:


Checked out your blog last week and today. Sorry there are so many unenlightened people in high places.

This came to mind (please alter the "male" language 8^) ) :

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.
Phillips Brooks
US Episcopal bishop (1835 - 1893)
I pray for your centeredness and calm.
Blessings in Easter!

Alas, Poor Solitaries

A number of people have forwarded to me some correspondence that has been appearing on the House of Bishops (TEC) mailing list, including one from the person who confesses (he's rather proud of it) to having written the dreadful canon governing solitaries. In this post he names me in a hostile way. Of course, as usual, I have no way to reply because I do not have access to this list. Hence this post.

At the time (late 80s) the legislation was written, his community had been in existence only 20 years. It was not even a residential community. It was at that time little more than what one saintly, now deceased, Franciscan called 'a sewing machine community'. No wonder the canon was so dreadful!

Why can't the institution leave us alone! Or, if it is so threatened, why does it appoint totally unqualified people to write its legislation?

Two years ago I got so fed up I wrote the PB; I was fobbed off on the bishop who runs the committee on religious life. Below is the correspondence, with names blacked out to protect the guilty. Of course I never received a reply.

The first item, however, is a letter to a new player in this sorry game, who seems somewhat sympathetic. I have little hope he can make any difference.

[written yesterday]

Dear P....,

Someone has forwarded to me  your circular on legislation about solitaries. I shudder to think what that will be. I'm forwarding some correspondence with Bishop J..... two years ago after I wrote to the PB.

My letter is ascerbic, frustrated and exasperated for self-evident reasons. Many of the issues as they affect the church at large have been and continue to be discussed on my blog: As there have been nearly 70,000 hits in the last 22 months from 103 countries, there seem to be a lot of sympathetic people out there.

I would be glad to help in any way if my input would be useful to develop a sane legislation. Frankly, I think the solitaries should be responsible for each other, oversee each other, profess each other, and leave the bishops out of it except for having a bishop protector.

With every good wish,


9 June 2010

Dear Sr. Martha Reeves/Maggie Ross,

Your e-mail to the Presiding Bishop was forwarded to me as I chair the House of Bishop’s Standing Committee on Religious Communities.

At our meeting in spring our committee discussed with the House of Bishops the interpretation of the Canon regarding individuals who have been “set apart” for the religious life but are not members of any religious community (Title III Canon 14 section 3).  Those persons, whom many call solitaries, are canonically under the authority of the local bishop, and the receiving of their vows need to be filed with this HOB Committee.

The Bishop of New York, who has received several solitaries, shared the guidelines he uses for the local recognition of solitaries in his diocese.  I have attached those guidelines.  Note that these are only guidelines as suggested to other Bishops who may have oversight of Solitaries in their dioceses.

We did gather information from those living the solitary life and shared with the House their views on this solitary life, and their suggestions regarding “recognition”, either by the HOB Committee on Religious Communities or the local Ordinary.

In your e-mail you spoke of “legislation that was forced on the solitaries by the religious communities”.  I am not familiar with such legislation.  If you could inform me of that legislation I would appreciate it.  If you have information from your life-long study of the solitary life, I would also appreciate that.

You made a statement about who is not qualified to discern alone the solitary vocation.   I agree no one alone can discern for themself or for another any religious vocation.  But can you suggest what persons together would be qualified and should be involved in the discernment of a vocation, especially the vocation to a solitary life?

In the future the HOB Committee on Religious Communities will continue to discuss solitaries and other issues, but I don’t believe we will be invited to discuss this again with the whole House, at least for some time.

I look forward to any information you can share with the Committee that will help us look at our relationship with solitaries through their local Bishop.


Dear Bishop,

As a matter of interest, your email is the first time any bishop in the Episcopal Church, or anyone on a committee on religious life has ever been in touch with me about the solitary life in the 30 years of my profession (the anniversary is this coming Saturday the 12th). I was irrevocably professed as a religious for the whole church and my current protector is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I'm afraid Bishop Sisk has been disingenous at best. He obtained questionnaires from two solitaries whose mental health is very much in question and whose views of the life are eccentric to say the least and geared to 19th century—if not 17th century— stereotypes. Sisk presented these responses as typical of the solitaries. They are not. I have a degree from Stanford and have taught at Oxford University where I lived for many years. Another solitary is a graduate of West Point and retired from the army with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Sisk's guidelines, as also Title III Canon 14 section 3 are guaranteed to attract the wrong sort of person to the life, and to guarantee its failure. God so loved the world that he didn't send a committee. His guidelines are all about the bishop covering his rear end and not at all about the welfare of the solitary and the proper discernment and nurture of the vocation—and the nurture of the vocation takes place  in solitude.

In the first place, the notion that the solitary should report to the diocesan is destructive. First, there are very few diocesans who understand or are qualified to have responsibility for such a vocation. More often the solitary needs protection from the diocesan. For example, one solitary I know very well, the daughter of a bishop, made her vows to one diocesan who retired, and is now under another who is extremely unsympathetic. A solitary needs a bishop protector who is outside the diocesan system and can provide continuity and, literally, protection. This bishop protector would cross diocesan lines rather like the Canadian system for the First Nations bishop.

The legislation I spoke of is the Canon cited above. The way this legislation came about is as follows: as far as we know I was the first solitary publicly professed since the Reformation. There had been some other solitaries professed but these were in secret. At the time there were no canons, and the new RC canon law had not come out (in its original form Canon 603 was a good piece of legislation but it has been ruined) and would not for another three years. Bishop Paul Moore, who was at that time visitor to seven religious communities insisted that I go public because, "I want the world to know there is a way of living religious life without losing your mind." I was professed after very careful preparation, including a complete novitiate in a community (now disbanded) and a second novitiate under SSF, who recognised my vocation and enabled it, along with spiritual oversight from the Roman Catholic Cistercians, with whom I have a very long history in terms of doing retreats, counseling and the like.

Of course the communities, especially the communities to which he was visitor, reacted very badly. For example (only one of many, I fear), C...... [an English religious living in the USA] was extremely jealous and when I was in the library at L.......... one day overheard her complaining that "she couldn't possibly know what she is doing." The next morning I gently confronted her and suggested that we meet so that I could describe my preparation. She made three appointments and broke all of them, so she never had the information and yet she continued to slander me on both sides of the Pond. It is in this context that the Canon about solitaries was passed, and it is as destructive as Sisk's draconian guidelines. The issue was about control by the communities, not the welfare of the solitaries. Given the lack of education, preparation and so forth of some of  the new communities, it is ironic that solitaries should come up at this point. I ran into one member of a "community" in S....... in the most extravagant dress; the bishop (W.....) had recognised some kind of loose association that she couldn't really describe and in fact she didn't even know what canon law was. 

You ask that I share my information about the solitary life with you; I'm afraid that would take an entire book, and I have a book deadline of July 5 for Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, which is coming out in the UK (and perhaps in the US too), so I'm afraid at this moment can't write as I might; perhaps you would be interested in a Skype conversation? But in short if one looks clearly at the desert mothers and fathers, one realises that theirs was a protest movement. There was no set pattern: the whole point of the life is that it is at the behest of the Spirit. The solitary simply by existing speaks truth to power, and it was not for nothing that one of their principle maxims was "flee bishops". 

I'm afraid that the model most people have in mind is taken from the 17th century when great landowners advertised in the Times for gentlemen to live in their follies and be viewed by aristocratic house guests, the original garden gnome, if you like. There is a lot of stereotyping and in general the vocation has been made into something exotic, a kind of performance art. There is a confusion of obedience and dependence, which is one of the factors that has ruined both religious life and the church at large. There is little or no understanding of the psychology and spirituality of the vocation. There is a lot on my blog ( or just google Maggie Ross)  if you care to read it; I'm afraid the tone is somewhat acerbic and for good reason. A recent post called "Fantasyland" has responses from some other solitaries.

As to who should discern—this is of course quite difficult. There are very few people who have genuine gifts of discernment and the so-called spiritual direction movement has made the situation even more vexed, because people are being certified who are conforming to stereotype. Furthermore some of the major players—I know this because they came to me in my hermitage before the fact to consult—did not have the cure of souls as their primary motive but rather saving their expensive property and trying [to save] their disintegrating communities. The model is Counter-Reformation. Discernment is a gift and it cannot be taught. 

Frankly, at this point in time I think the hierarchy should stay out of it unless a bishop could be found who would act as a protector-general for the solitaries, someone who might know a bit about contemplative life and be able to listen to and trust those who have lived the life for a long time. He or she could work with a loose network of proven solitaries. The present canon should be revoked. Mostly it should be left up to the solitaries themselves. Each solitary vocation is absolutely unique and even those I have met who are mentally unstable often have a genuine core; however because their mental condition makes them unfree they are not able and should not be allowed to make formal vows. Obedience is only licit if it is freely given and mental illness, dependence and coercion—which includes being subject to a changing diocesan—all render obedience illicit. 

We have made everything about the church much too exotic and the solitary life is an extreme example of this. The solitary is saying, "everyone is a solitary; in that inner solitude is the kingdom of heaven; don't be afraid, behold." The American church in particular is suffering from the effects of the appalling decision in the 1950s to follow a business model. The recent debate over the non-bishop of N. Michigan showed that the most fundamental notions of holiness, of shared nature with God, of worship and spiritual life as self-forgetfulness have gone missing and some bishops (including the new one in Seattle and Southern Ohio) even said such a view was heresy. The absence of the word "behold" which occurs over 1400 times in Hebrew and Greek is absent from the NRSV (27 times in the OT/Apocrypha and not at all in the NT) is symptomatic. How are we to understand the end of Matthew, "I am with you until the end of time" if the "behold" is not there? It is in the beholding that he is with us; he's not hanging around like Casper the ghost! 

If I were beginning my solitary vocation in such a climate, I certainly would not make vows into such an institution. And I know many clergy who say the same thing and are taking early retirement. As one very successful (by the world's standards) rector said to me recently, "It's a completely different context." She retires early in September. 

If the church wants to survive then it must take a very hard look at itself and what it is about. The solitaries tend to emerge at such times of crisis. Judging from my work here at Bishop's Ranch, a retreat and conference centre where I have a year's tenure, there is a vast hunger for silence, stillness, simplicity, especially liturgy that has these qualities. We have a Sunday congregation, half of them retired clergy, none of whom would go to church at all if our quiet liturgy did not exist. There are thousands of people who have lapsed from TEC for the same reason. In all the years I was in Alaska I was never able to go to church because of the dreadfulness of the liturgy and the ignorance and patronising, infantilising attitudes of the clergy. The solitaries are only the tip of the iceberg, but I am afraid that TEC's bishops and clergy are going to go far past the point of no return before they will be willing to give up any of their perks and address the real issues. For example, small churches are dying and people are without the Eucharist because the hierarchy is too stubborn to license people locally to celebrate without forcing them to be ordained. 

However that is another topic. By now you are probably relieved that I do not have the time at the moment to go on at further length because of my book deadline but perhaps we can have a Skype meeting as I suggested above. If I sound exasperated it's because I am. And weeping at the waste of it all.

With every good wish and my prayer,


And here is an earlier letter I wrote on the subject:

Our new bishop came back from the House of Bishops with all sorts of  
news - the one item that intrigued me most seemed to confuse almost  
every other person in the room - that they will be looking at the role  
of (and place in the church - and structure for?) "anchorites" and  

And who are they going to consult about this?

On June 12 I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my solemn vows,  
which I made after exacting preparation. As far as we know I was the  
first publicly professed solitary (there were some privately professed  
before me) since the Reformation. The bishop who professed me, Paul  
Moore, was visitor to seven religious communities at the time. He made  
me go public, professing me as a solitary religious for the whole  
church because, he said, he wanted to show the world that there was a  
way to live the religious life without losing your mind. The  
communities were enraged that someone escaped the net. At one point  
they proposed that there should be a "registry" of solitaries-why not  
ask us to wear a yellow star as well? Not one person from the  
religious communities on either side of the Pond (nor one bishop) ever  
approached me about what my preparation had been, how I understood the  
life, or anything about what I was doing, but the slander machine went  
into high gear, all the way to Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of  
Canterbury. John Allen, then Presiding Bishop, was very supportive, as  
were the Canons of Christ Church where I was then living in Oxford,  
Rowan Williams (now my bishop) and others.

And it was the religious communities who subsequently wrote the  
absolutely dreadful legislation that dictates the life of solitaries  
in TEC, making them tame ciphers instead of being able to live the  
role of speaking truth to power set out by the desert fathers and  
mothers. This legislation practically guarantees failure.

The situation has become so dreadful that solitaries are now talking  
about professing other solitaries, bypassing the hierarchy, and it is  
quite possible that this may be the only way forward. Under present  
conditions, the solitary life is reduced to performance art-as is,  
sadly, much of the life of the church.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Every year it is a miracle.

As many times as I have been through it, it is still a miracle.
The restlessness begins in early January, as soon as the changing angle of the sun become perceptible.

I've pored over seed catalogues since the garden went dormant. The order goes in, gritting my teeth at the expense; anxiety sets in until the seeds arrive.

February: time to start tomatoes. I stand in the icy wind putting compost in pots, gently bedding the tiny, almost transparent seeds, covering them with vermiculite. I put them in plastic bags on a tray and take them to my attic room where they bask under a skylight.

Then the anxiety becomes acute. What if none of them germinate? Just because it's me, they might not.... it all becomes quite ridiculous. Such a small seed to become such an enormous fruiting plant—impossible! Of course it takes time...

The second week passes. I begin to sweat. I plant a second series of pots with my most favourite varieties. No sooner have I done this, of course, than a day or two later there is a fragile sprout. I take off the plastic bag. Then another sprout and another until all my pots are full of fast-growing small green tomato plants. O me of little faith!

The pots are transferred to the conservatory. I am impatient to make the first transplants to bigger pots; I probably do it a mite too soon, but the infants are tough and survive the handling.

Some weeks later, I have rapidly growing plants in the conservatory—far more than I need even after giving more than half of them away. I'm now impatient to get them in the ground or in their outside pots. This morning a rogue weather forecaster suggests May will plunge us back into winter. I start biting my fingers. While pumpkins and squash are already germinating, I haven't yet had time to start sunflowers and basil. Where will I put everything?

People laugh when you suggest that plants communicate. They do. They convey their needs, somehow. It's like fishing; in Alaska people laughed when I replied to their question, 'You have to listen to the fish', but I caught more than most people.

Plants become your children. I can't bear to throw away plant material or damage even a leaf, much less break a stem, as sometimes happens; I began these life cycles, now I'm responsible for them.

Gardening is zen-like: every year is different; every year you are a beginner. Some people may see gardening as 'scientific'; and certainly there are techniques that help. But me, while I'm grateful for and use them, I listen more with the other ear, for what the plants, the air, the sun, the soil will tell me. 

Spring: ephemeral, full of false promises, giver of life, however brief. But for the two or three weeks in summer when everything is blooming and the vegetables are fruiting—all the work is worth it. More than worth it. We learn silence in the garden; we learn to listen; we learn obedience to what we cannot know; we rejoice in beauty; we grieve out our mortality.

I am so grateful for the small patch I am allowed to care for, which, soon, will be crammed full to bursting...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Richard Holloway

During Easter Week I read Richard Holloway's new book, Leaving Alexandria. His exposure of what has gone wrong with Christianity is relentless, although he is perhaps too hard on himself. His unconscious assumptions, such as the unqualified and somewhat patronising remark that the Church's purpose is to look after people —true, perhaps, of the down-and-outs in his life, but not of the rest of us who resent the clerical attitude that the non-ordained are idiots—are just as revelatory as revelatory as what he knowingly dissects. Here are a few excerpts:

p. 150 There was a subversive tradition in Xty that claimed it was sinners who got Jesus, people who couldn't mind their Ps and Qs, not the righteous. It was the hopeless prodigal who understood, not his upright and disciplined big brother. Where to start trying to explain all that? But the dissonance went even deeper. It may have been fear of being found out myself, but I actually felt a strong revulsion against the morality-policing aspect of religion that was such a strong element in the Scottish tradition. I was attracted to the prophetic voice of faith that spoke against structural or [p. 151] institutional sin and the way the powerful ordered the world to suit themselves. I hated the prurient kind of religion that pried into personal weaknesses and took pleasure in exposing them. Yet, to the eyes of many, the ordained ministry was freighted with this reputation, which was why people felt they had to guard their reactions when they were around me. No wonder clergy sometimes fell into the trap of overcompensating for this misunderstanding by embarrassing demonstrations of their worldliness and humanity. The whole business was so tainted with false expectations that only the saintly seemed impervious to the treacherous currents that pulled me along. And I was no saint.

...The inner disconnect between the Church's official theology and my own version of Xty was one I did not fully comprehend at first...I had been propelled into religion in search of a great love to which I could give myself away. I was in pursuit of an object ever flying from desire, but I had stumbled into a complex institutional reality whose on relationship with that object was highly ambivalent. The ambivalence lay in the difference between modes of pursuit and possession. The romantic is always in pursuit, while the realist wants to possess. All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them. They segue from the ardour and [p. 152] uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. they shift from poetry to packaging, which is what people want. They don't want to spend years wandering in the wilderness of doubt. They want the promised land of certainty, and religious realists are quick to provide it for them. The erection of infallible systems of belief is a well-understood device to still humanity's fear of being lost in life's dark wood without a compass. 'Supreme conviction is a self-cure for infestation of doubts.' That is why David Hume noted that, while errors in philosophy were only ridiculous, errors in religion were dangerous. They were dangerous because when supreme conviction is threatened it turns nasty...

... In the liberal tradition..., the church was essentially a paternal unit, a way of looking after people. However, there was a hidden tension, which was how you gathered the people in the first place in order to look after them. Liberals were better at the looking-after bit than at the gathering, which is why they tended to rely on congregations that had been collected by previous generations. It was Evangelicals who were the great gatherers. The trouble is, to be an effective gatherer you had to be excessive in your beliefs. It takes excessive certainty to convince others and override their doubts. Though liberal Catholics like me were no good at landing converts, we were quite good at keeping them on board once they'd been landed, because we were always living with our own doubts and were therefore reassuring to other doubters.... Something cared...

p. 155 The journey, from a movement that tried to follow the example of Jesus to an institution that hardened round a particular interpretation of his meaning, took hundreds of years to complete...

p. 156 .... Wrong words have to be punished because they threaten to erode the citadel of belief into which we have escaped from the cold winds of an empty universe...

p. 157 ... For this school, the Resurrection was a psychic event in the lives of the followers of Jesus that was later given mythic power...

[2nd view] ... suddenly, [Peter[ is overwhelmed that Jesus' death was not a defeat, but the release into the world of his message of forgiveness and love. That turnaround was the Resurrection...

p. 156 [3rd] ...consistent story... if God can create a universe out of nothing, why can't he raise Jesus from the nothingness of death into a new kind of being?

[4th] ...Believing the Resurrection becomes a way of living, not of speaking...

p. 159 ... Strictly speaking, agnosticism should not be described as a hypothesis, because it is not so much positing an answer to the question as learning to live without one. It encourages us to live gratefully within uncertainty and give thanks to we-know-not-what for the gift of being. The risk run by this position is that it can lead to intellectual smugness at the expense of those who refuse or are incapable of, living with such uncertainty ...

p. 161 Terry Eagleton...'God,...if he does turn out to exist has absolutely no reason for doing so. He is his own reason for being.' The existence of such a being is a possible solution to the riddle of the universe, so let me buy this ticket and start the God-game...

p. 162 [But]... you cannot have a relationship with a hypothesis ...

p. 164...It was alive [light over ambry] and suggested a presence; but it was a presence that also suggested an absence because of what was not there ....

...The sacramental system, for all its beauty and potency, is based upon the presence of an absence ...

p. 185 ... Faith, by definition, always implies doubt. There can be something desirable, something worth doing, in the decision to believe—but it never gives us certainty! And here's the catch. Revealed religions tend to blow a smokescreen round the living reality of the faith-doubt experience and out of the smoke emerges—doctrinal certainty! Behind a great clatter of mirrors and a great fog of smoke thy move from faith to certainty. Believers are not encouraged to take the plunge of faith, they are invited to sear to the certainty of a series of historic claims that come in proposition form. That is why religious history is so full of disputes over competing interpretations of the certainties contained in the faith package. I have already mentioned the diary of Edward VI who noted the execution of Joan Bocher, precisely because she refused to accept on of these claims—the Virgin Birth—as a historical fact. Once we get to this stage in the evolution of religious institutions, we are no longer playing the ancient game of faith. We are no longer saying, let us suppose that God exists and Jesus is his revealed meaning and live in faith as though it were true. We cannot know any of this for certain, but there is beauty in the choice and it will give our lives a purpose, and maybe pay the universe a compliment it does not [p. 186] deserve. Care to join the experiment? Care to do the [unreadable] and lovely thing? That bracing approach disappears, and is replaced with or sworn upon the [check copy] the truth package of absolute religion...

How does such hard an punishing certainty emerge from the existential gamble of faith? Paradoxically it is lack of faith and fear of doubt that prompt it. What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt that is co-active with faith? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction...

p. 285 Conservative Evangelicals, I discovered, did not negotiate. They asserted what had come to them from [p. 286] above, from Outside. It was written, so the matter was closed. If human history could be at least partly conducted as a journey into new knowledge, then to go on that journey convinced you already know everything there was to know about human relations foreclosed the future entirely. There could be no stranger waiting around the next bend offering you a new annunciation...

Monday, April 02, 2012

Holy Week

Holy Week is a difficult time for a lot of people, not least because of the atonement theology that developed after Paschasius changed the eucharistic liturgy from a celebration of the communion of heaven and earth in a new creation to a focus on the material things of the altar, replacing what he probably mis-perceived as Saxon runic magic with a 'Christian' magic that led to questions of worth, judgement, guilt, power and alienation. To put this another way, Paschasius discarded a liturgy that awakened the resonances of direct perception of the deep mind, and replaced it with one that confined its participants to the lifeless, linear re-presentations of the self-conscious mind. One cannot help but surmise that Eriugena translated Pseudo-Dionysius as a direct riposte to Paschasius.

Although it took 200 years for Paschasius' incantations to take hold, once the institution realised the advantages of controlling people through fear and guilt, the Paschasian takeover was relentless. Of course history is far more complex than this: Paschasius' changes conjoined with other momentous currents developing in society at this time. But there is little question that his refocusing of attention in the liturgy changed forever the psychology of Western Christianity. And today we are stuck with the consequences—institutional religion at a dead end and a Christianity that is more or less opposite to the fundamental teachings of the New Testament; a religion preoccupied with death instead of celebration of the reuniting of heaven and earth in a new creation.

In the early Syriac tradition of Christianity death was not mentioned in the baptismal rite. It was rather about putting on the life of God.

Margaret Barker in Temple Mysticism points to texts that suggest that Jesus' resurrection at his baptism explain the earliest Christian baptismal practice. 'In the old Syrian rite the newly baptised Christian emerged from the water as a "son of God" and "a son of light", and the font was called the womb. The resurrection state began with baptism, and the question is: Was this rite drawn from Jesus' own [p. 109] experience of sonship and resurrection at his baptism? The Gospel of Philip has a saying that makes best sense in this context:

"Those who say that the Lord died first and then rose up are in error, for he rose up first and then died. If one does not first attain the resurrection, will he not die? As God lives, he would be already [dead]."'

And Isaac of Nineveh notes that

'The whole purpose of our Lord's death was not to deliver (or redeem) us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for creation. Had all this astounding affair taken place solely for the purpose of forgiveness of sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us by some other means [ . . . ] . What wisdom is God's! And how filled with life!'

In Holy Week we explore the darkest places where we find that the love of God is never absent and ever preceding us (or 'preventing' us, as it says in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer collect). This perception is foundational to Christian Wiman's writing [articles cited in the links in the previous post]. He hides from nothing, he is painfully clear in his particularity, but everything he writes about himself—his illness, his family, the pain he has suffered and is suffering—is presented in the context of amazement at the context of the love of God '..that ...wrappith us, [halseth] us and all beclosyth us for tender love, that hee may never leave us, being to us althing that is gode...' (Julian, LT, chapter 5).

Wiman's beholding is a far cry from the manufactured sentimentality that far too often replaces genuine emotion; his vision of the holy is an infinite distance from the whipped up frenzies and devotional extravaganzas that some people think necessary to 'prove' their love of God, especially during Holy Week. God requires no such proof: he would rather we be stupefied in beholding than wallow in the sort of narcissistic breast-beating of, for example, the Prayer of Humble Access—which, incidentally, short-circuits the moment of beholding at the Fraction to which the liturgy has brought us, dragging us from the beholding of God to the 'miserable sinner' language which—let us be honest—some of us enjoy far too much.

By contrast, Wiman's restraint deepens us to silence, and silence, even at the end of our best and most beautiful liturgical efforts, is the only appropriate response in Holy Week, the one that opens to us the way of gladness of Easter Day.

My dear Readers, my Friends, may this holy season fill you with the joy of new life in the renewed creation.


NB I am going on retreat for ten days or so; no access to internet or technology (hooray!). Look for the next post around the First Sunday after Easter, April 15.