Thursday, May 17, 2012

And don't forget...

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

[Sorry for the small type: here is what the review says with typos corrected:]

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 NRSV 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".


"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of 'experience'. A really transformative book." —jacket comment by The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.


"This book is intended for everyone who has had enough of 'spiritual writing' and is looking for something that will make sense of normal human experience and integrate it into the knowledge of God through Christ." —from the Foreword by The Rev'd Professor John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford.


Review by The Revd Dr Johnny Douglas, Free Presbyterian Church, Antrim, N. Ireland

If obedience is deep listening to God, then Maggie Ross's new book is a powerful, effective and understated guiding to faith and soul-truthfulness. There is a rarity, freshness in her writing. Insight, scripture, wisdom and prayer swirl around here in this challenging earthy write. You will see God clearly and more honestly than in most other places.
The sense of having wrestled with the wilderness, wanderings and wideness of humanity are striking. Repentance, tears and fire rarely get such a wise and moving exploration. Reality permeates this wonderful new BRF title. Faith and experience will be enriched should you invest in the reading of this fine book!


Review by Carl McColman,

Almost twenty years ago I read Maggie Ross’s wonderful book on the theology of priesthood, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity. Not only was it a valuable book in helping me to affirm my ministry as a lay Christian, but it also struck me as one of the most lyrical and eloquent statements of Christian spirituality in general that I had ever read. Yes, that is high praise. But the book deserved it. Ross, an Anglican solitary, clearly understood how tainted Christian theology had become by imperial, Greco-Roman, concepts of God-as-controlling-political-authority — and how such a domineering image of God had corrupted not only Christian spirituality in general, but particularly Christian thinking about priesthood. Only by regaining an understanding of God-as-kenotic-love, as evidenced by the witness of Christ and the New Testament authors, could we ever hope to re-vision priesthood as the radical servant/ministry that Christ intended it to be.

So when one of the brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit sent me an enthusiastic email insisting that Writing the Icon of the Heart, Ross’s newest offering, was by far one of the most important books on spirituality that he had read in a long time, I took him at his word. And now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to commend it to you as well. The book is a collection of essays Ross had written over a twenty year period, most of which had been published in journals like Weavings or Sobornost. But they have all been revised/rewritten for this collection, and she requests that the essays be read in the order presented here. So what emerges feels less like a hodgepodge anthology and more like a thematic introduction to her singular perspective on what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, from considering the missing element in so many discussions of contemplation (“beholding”), to a frank but sober assessment of how a spiritual awakening might be our only hope as we consider the breadth and depth of environmental degradation that characterizes today’s world. Ross divides her time between Oxford and Alaska, and so her writing is infused with an appreciation of wilderness, not only for its own sake but also as a key element in an authentically kenotic spirituality.

Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day. While I am not willing to be quite as damning in my critique of experience as she is — I see the turn toward experience as a necessary corrective to the overly intellectualized propositional theology that has bedeviled so much Christianity, particularly in its Protestant form, over the past few generations — I broadly agree with her assertion that the quest for experience has become a religious cul-de-sac, reducing Christianity from its splendor as a threshold to the mysteries to a mere consumer spirituality, trading transformational kenosis for mental-emotional entertainment. The Christian mystery takes us far beyond what we can think or feel — to the place of “beholding,” a splendid word that Ross notes has been all but erased from modern translations of the Bible (not to mention most modern translations of the writings of Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing, which helps to explain why Ross is so critical of reading those texts in translated editions).

Unlike consumer spirituality where a warm cosy experience of God’s love can be engineered by the right music and a carefully crafted sermon, true contemplative beholding ushers us into radical encounter with the terrifying living God, a place beyond our puny attempts to control and our feeble insistence on good feelings as the arbiter of sanctity. True beholding, therefore, is transfigurative rather than merely experiential — echoing Teresa of Avila’s insistence that the only sure way of assessing progress in the spiritual life is by considering one’s growth in holiness, which is to say, growth in love and humble service of others.

For Maggie Ross, the “others” we are called to love and humbly serve are not merely our fellow Christians or even the larger human family. Rather, she eloquently speaks of the entire sweep of creation as our brothers and sisters in the Divine economy. From cranberries to walruses to a hair-raising near-encounter with a grizzly bear, her essays are vibrant with the beauty and splendor of God’s good earth. She also pulls no punches in considering how much damage our consumer economy has caused. Only by abandoning consumerism and accepting the call of kenosis — of self-emptying love — is there any hope for our fragile and distressed biosphere. And only by beholding God in silence and self-forgetful abandonment can we hope to discern, and accept, that uncompromising call.

In the end, Maggie Ross writes eloquently of the experience of tears — not as some sort of emotional manipulation, as so much religious spectacle seems to promote — but rather as an authentic embracing of sorrow, of loss, of repentance, of grief, of letting-go — that ushers us in to that place, where, in our letting go (kenosis) we encounter the kenotic God. This is the place of transfiguration, beyond any “technology” or “experience,” whether religious or otherwise. May we all be carried by our tears to such a graced encounter.


Book Review: Writing the Icon of the Heart by Maggie Ross   BRF £6.99  ISBN 978 1 84101 878 2 The Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen, New Directions, January 2012

There are so many good, rich insights in this book:

All our ills come from the loss of silence and beholding, our failure to listen and our insistence on our flawed and limited interpretation...,

The public rhetoric of religion employs such words as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ even while it is taking away our sense of wonder...

The tragic search for security in exterior validation makes us hostage to what other people think...

The book blazes with originality. Maggie Ross is an anchorite, a solitary – a role which she manages to combine with that of a professor of theology who spends her winters teaching in Oxford. She is a mystic, a contemplative, a strong supporter of negative theology and the apophatic way...

There is no mistaking the spiritual depth in her book. Anyone who reads it will come away with a transformed view of prayer and the spiritual life. Maggie Ross offers no anodynes and she is brave enough to insist:

Most worrying of all is our unwillingness to accept pain as part of the ordinary tissue of life, and the waste and suffering that are the consequence of efforts to avoid it at all costs.

... [There is profit in] this fervent and faithful book. Nowhere more movingly than when Maggie Ross answers her aged mother’s fears about death in these words:

My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love.


Blogger prayer request said...


12:47 am, May 22, 2012  
Blogger prayer request said...

"Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day."

I am so glad we are in the same ship. What do you think of the word "spiritual" today? Was Jesus "spiritual?" And the word is so very seldom seen in the NT, at least in the Greek and when it does it means contextually "in the [person of the] Holy Spirit," not just some "spiritual" thingy it seems to me. What do you think? I don't think of you as "spiritual," if you know, see, what I am trying to say...

p.s., you don't have to publish this comment, but I wouldn't mind an email. I'd really like to know your thoughts after all these years.

12:55 am, May 22, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Cloud-Hidden,

I'd be happy to send you an email but I don't have your email address! If you will send it in a comment headed DO NOT PUBLISH that would help!

I have come to LOATHE the word 'spiritual' almost as much as I abhor the word 'mystic'. To give you an example: I was recently invited to participate in a kind of spirituality fun-fair that is being held at Cuddesdon, our local theological college.

'Hur-ry. hur-ry, hurry! Step right up ladies and gents; try being a Carmelite. You'll never believe what you are about not to see. Here, Lady, maybe you'd like to flirt with Ignatian spirituality instead? Some of the fantasies will surpass your most lurid dreams. And you, sir, perhaps you'd like to be fitted on the procrustean bed of a so-called spiritual director?' Or maybe you'd like to walk our little labyrinth that leads to the beer stand....'

9:26 am, May 22, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

PS I am very honoured that you don't think of me as 'spiritual'. I don't think Eckhart or Pseudo-Denys would have like the word, and Jesus would have cast it out with his shoe.

Yes to 'in the person of the Holy Spirit' or how about 'manifesting the Holy Spirit'? or 'in the presence of the Holy Spirit' (which is one of the reasons all the debates about who can celebrate the Eucharist are absurd as anyone can be in that presence if they open themselves and a lot of the ordained most certainly are not open!).

9:31 am, May 22, 2012  

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