Thursday, June 21, 2012

Next Post

I will be away for the next 12 days and my access to the internet will be severely limited. Look for the next post around July 4.

X Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

So-called mystical phenomena over which so much ink has been spilt are related in a specific and liminal way to the suspension of self-consciousness and its dynamic, although there is no way to ascertain this claim empirically precisely because the suspension of self-consciousness is most especially subject to the law of the paradox of intention.  These phenomena as they are described in language and even as they may be imaged pre-conceptually are already being interpreted through the filter of the drives and needs of individual incarnate human psyches.  This is the case for the simple reason that language can only be self-conscious, and it is a commonplace that such phenomena are not to be trusted.  This is a lesson many seekers refuse to learn, which refusal is evidence that their unconscious goal, contrary to what they may state, is reflexive, and their desire for phenomena, again because of the paradox of intention, renders any seeking for the Other self-defeating.[i]
But immediately in referring to a core experience we face both another paradox and further problems with language.  First, in ancient languages there are no words equivalent to the phrase ‘the suspension of self-consciousness’,  although Isaac’s snatched mind appears to come fairly close.  Secondly, since language can only be self-conscious, there is no possibility of describing its suspension or what occurs during the time of its suspension.  The complete suspension of self-consciousness can be described only in terms of what the restoration of self-consciouness feels like, and since many theologians are unused to thinking theologically in terms of feeling, they appear to forget that some statements that appear theological may in fact be describing what the restoration of self-consciousness feels like qua the body.[ii]  Thus to attempt self-consciously to describe the suspension of self-consciousness is a contradiction in terms because by definition feeling, too, can only be self-conscious.
Thus it can be seen that the most profound experience of union with God is not experience in the self-conscious sense at all but a relinquishing of experience, of everything by which the self is defined, a complete letting-go of the need for self-regard and self-observation.[iii]  This relinquishing is not to be confused with unconsciousness or self-hatred.  For during the suspension of self-consciousness, the person can be seen to be functioning normally:  the gardener continues to garden, and the monk to stand in prayer.  In addition, remembering that language can only be self-conscious, it follows that accounts of so-called religious experience are already interpretation through the individual psychic filter, just as the traces left on computer screens at the particle accelerator, CERN, under the Swiss Alps, are already mathematical interpretation of the invisible collisons, which cannot be directly observed.
Thus the search for the so-called core religious experience undertaken by analysing the language of personal accounts of phenomena is futile because in terms of everyday speech the core experience is not an experience at all but a relinquishing of any claim to experience.  In the wake of the suspension of self-consciousness, there is also a relinquishing, a disinterest in the phenomena that may attend on the littoral of the complete suspension of self-consciousness, as may be attested by such writers as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.  Much is given in these ineffable moments, but by definition it can never be known what is given, except indirectly as it is effected through incarnate lives, particularly in certain kinds of personality integration and related healing which probably cannot occur any other way.
One reason that concentration on phenomena is self-defeating is not only because that way madness lies, but also because whatever subtle communication might find its way through a wormhole in the continuum of consciouness will go unheeded because attention is fixed on the self-conscious images and language generated by the energy made available in its suspension.  This is not to denigrate what is known loosely as ‘religious experience’:  such experience can reveal much about the needs and desires of the human person, and may enhance awareness of the interplay and mutual enrichment of cataphatic and apophatic, which is one reason that the greatest adept can never afford to abandon simple petition, thanksgiving, scripture and sacrament.[iv]
Phenomena are too often interpreted as direct knowledge of God, and as a sign of the holiness of those who experience them, just as self-consciousness and language are frequently mistaken for identity or the truth of the self, which are always in process.  The divine may be in the experience, but the experience is not the divine.[v] There is a tendency in human beings, perhaps not unrelated to their reluctance to sustain the descriptive rigour of paradoxes, that yearns for the fabulous, in the course of which stereotypical templates attach to ‘religious experience’ and ‘miracles’, creating untenable dualisms and encouraging concentration on phenomena, which is self-defeating (for example, Mt. 11:20 f; 16:2-4; 18:10-11).[vi] 
            There is the additional danger of suggestion:  a person will subliminally create ‘experiences’ to fit the stereotypes, just as analysands will sometimes dream the dreams they feel the analyst wishes them to dream, instead of allowing the necessary dreams to arise.

[i] These attitudes may also be responsible for continuing insistence in some circles on the dualities characterised by ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ , ideas that are particularly suspect when present in an avowedly incarnational religion.  People who seek ‘religious experiences’ are vulnerable to their own projections, which obviates the openness requisite for kenotic reciprocity.
[ii] It would be interesting to re-read Augustine, Pseudo-Denys, Bonaventure and other authors with this in mind.  For example, perhaps the Celestial Hierarchies is an attempt (abandoned because it became too linear) to describe grace moving from the centre to the circumference of the circle (see below);  it is also interesting to conjecture that the paradoxical descriptor in the second chapter of the Divine Names is calling on the corollary between the image of God and God, for the description is that of what happens in the suspension of self-consciousness and also of psychological health:  humans are most completely themselves when they are most self-outpouring i.e., self-forgetful.  This is also the description of divinity in Phil. 2:5-11 (see below).  In a sense, it could be said that these two works set a question to which the Mystical Theology is a response.  This conjecture is echoed in Bonaventure’s Interarium Mentis in Deum in which he scales a ladder movement by painful movement, but towards the end (VII,4), in a sudden disjuncture, shifts into a completely different mode of discourse reminscent of the Mystical Theology.  It is also echoed in Julian of Norwich who deliberately poses Boethian questions, often in syllogistic form, which are answered with paradoxes that elide into the apophatic. [Additional note 2012: it would be useful if someone looked at the Divine Names as an extended gloss on Ephrem's poem on metaphor, and the Mystical Theology as an extended gloss on John the Solitary's hymn of ascent. In translation, at least, there are phrases that seem nearly identical.]
[iii] For a description of the self, see ‘Sexuality and Otherness’, op. cit.  This relinquishing is ‘losing one’s life to gain it’ and those who have done so see the kingdom before they have tasted death.  Giving up the illusory world of self-consciousness is forfeiting what has only passed for life but is not;  giving it up for the sake of Christ is to enter the empty space of the mercy seat and the Virgin’s womb, the empty tomb and paradise regained (see Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise, tr. Sebastian Brock, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990).  It is the mirroring of Christ’s kenotic outpouring, and from this comes new life in transfigured perception that lives the ordinary in the kingdom (Mt.16:24 f.).
[iv] It can also, as Carolyn Bynum has shown so clearly, reveal political agendas.  See her Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Berkeley:  University of California,1987.
[v] See The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Phyllis Hodgson, Exeter: University of Exeter, 1982,  p. 87 and 114-5.
[vi] The same might be said of textual ‘phenomena’ in the form of literalism.  Additionally, in discussions such as this, care needs to be taken that the notions of duality and distinction are not confused.  The indwelling of the divine in the creation and ‘God at the centre’ of the human person overcomes duality in ‘likeness’ but not distinction.  Julian of Norwich is particularly good on this in the Long Text, ch. 25 f.

Monday, June 18, 2012

IX Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

There is a quality of gift to all silence as revealed in the dialogues with silence that constitute music, speech and thought, and the contexts in which ordinary life is lived.  Silence serves the same function as wilderness, as Czech philosopher Erazim Kohàk has reminded us:  it is capable of receiving pain, integrating it into something larger than itself, and transfiguring it into the self-forgetful silence of contemplation.[i]  Kohàk is making the point that if wilderness is lost there is no where for pain -- or langage -- to find its apotheosis.  In a closed system, pain can only be managed, controlled, or anaesthetised, leaving human beings are trapped in the tortured projections of their own minds.[ii] 
The phrase ‘it’s so beautiful it hurts’ is rarely heard in contemporary discourse.  Wilderness is beautiful precisely because it is not a closed and artificial human construct, and because it is not controllable.  Its beauty, and this is arguably a quality of all beauty, lies in its elusive qualities that elide into silence, moving from the visual to the audial.[iii]   Silence itself is a landscape in which the subject may be freed from human constructs, drawn through metaphors, metaphors themselves being small evocative landscapes.[iv]
Secondly, there are various sorts of silences in texts, but I refer neither to Derrida and the deconstruction debate, nor to so-called arguments from silence.  Rather, I mean the exegesis of silences such as those assumed in the Bible.  For example:  the silence of the desert night;  the silence of the holy of holies;  the silence of an ancient city at night with doors locked and windows shuttered and whole families cowering in one bed;  the silence from which agonized cries for mercy re-echo through the psalms;  the silence and stillness, the emptiness which are pre-requisites for fertility;[v]  the silence in which the Face of God appears and disappears;  the silence of death from which new and transfigured life arises.  This, then, is a second area of the exegesis of silence, that of silences of the presenting world out of which religion -- to take only one example -- emerges.
Thirdly, certain kinds of text subtly evacuate the mind into essential silence through various literary devices, some of which are apophatic images that bestow, however fleetingly, minute tastes of its fulness;  that is to say, these texts are capable of delivering the reader or listener for a nano-second to the threshold of absolute and refulgent silence.[vi]  Most of these ephemeral silences go unnoticed by the reader or hearer for reasons cited below, but silence is often the tantalizing factor in texts, religious or otherwise, that enthralls and fascinates, the factor that compels the feeling that there is something buried in the text that is impossible to discover.
As Marion Glasscoe has noted, ‘...the reader, in ... turn, is absorbed into a process of understanding which leads, not to a final intellectual formulation, but to a point where at least the possibility of a mode of knowing in which the mene of language has no place is glimpsed’.[vii]  Even to acknowledge, much less to enter, this possibility of knowing in unknowing in which the mene of language has no place is already to have begun the recovery of multidimensionality and theological psychology, to have moved forward to the picture that has been regarded from a distance, and to step into it.
There are as many ways into silence as there are people and moments in time.  For purposes of this paper, one-pointed meditation is the model of choice.[viii]  Common to all forms of one-pointed meditation are instructions on how to sit, how to breathe, how to focus the anarchy of the mind, how to follow the lead of what is focused on, which gathers the mind and represses nothing.[ix]  But again, the method can only provide availability to silence, which is dependent on the paradox of intention and is not tied to theistic positing.
The gift of silence is given in meditation, but it is also a gift that can come ‘like a thief in the night’ (Mt 24:43) to take the recipient’s self-consciousness by surprise, for the suspension of self-consciousness is a normal part of human consciousness and occurs many times a day in the ordinary round.  A particularly interesting example of this phenomenon was described in ‘Talk of the Town’ in the New Yorker in 1985:

But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes -- it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....
As I walk by my rather dishevelled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed.  I am called to lunch, and reply that I’ll be there in a minute.  The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands.  A voice rings out from the house, ‘It’s suppertime!’[x]

The 7th century writer, Isaac of Nineveh, describes the same phenomenon in a more conventionally religious context:

So, when there is no prayer, can this ineffable gift be designated by the name of prayer?  The reason, we say, is thus:  it is at the time of prayer that this gift is granted ... and it takes it starting point from prayer....  Therefore it is called by the name of prayer, because the intellect is conducted from prayer towards that blessed state, and because prayer is its starting-point.... And we see also that with many of the saints their histories say that their intellect was snatched while they were standing in prayer.[xi]

Separated by thirteen centuries and by an unimaginable cultural gulf, these two writers, in their respective phrases of time dropping out of mind and the mind being snatched, have described the complete suspension of self-consciousness.  I would like to suggest that it is this phenomenon and its operative dynamic, the paradox of intention, that constitute the paradox of vulnerability and power, which is a collective descriptor of the kenotic reciprocity of the intention of the creature and the outpouring of divine will.  These form the essential foundation for incarnational religion and particularly for Christian theology: it is a union and exchange in Love.   If claims about human beings created in the image of God are taken with any seriousness at all, and if union with God is the highest good whereby the image is onyd with that which it images, then it is possible that these empirical phenomena constitute the incarnate reality of salvation to which many religious texts, however else they may be interpreted, refer and from which eschatology is extrapolated.   It is also possible that they constitute the so-called core experience [today [2012] I would use the word 'engagement' for I have come to understand that in this deep mind there is self-forgetfulness: it perceives directly; whereas all experience, without exception, is self-reflexive interpretation] sought by those researchers examining accounts of  ‘religious experience’. 

[i]  The Embers and the Stars:  A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, Chicago: University  of Chicago, 1984.  See also David B. Morris, The Culture of Pain, Berkeley,: University of California, 1991, whose primary interest is pain relief, and whose arguments are complementary. 
[ii] See my ‘The Ecology of Repentance’, Creation, September/October, 1992, p. 29; rewritten for Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, BRF, 2011.
[iii] Julian of Norwich makes the same transition in chapter 26 f of the Long Text.  Her true beholding is the relinquishing of sight for the Word (cf., John 9).
[iv] ‘Sexuality ’, op. cit.
[v] And the essential meaning of ‘virginity’ in religious discourse.
[vi] ‘The Apophatic Image’, op. cit.
[vii] In the introduction to her edition of Julian of Norwich:  A Revelation of Love, Exeter:  University of Exeter, 1986, p. xvi.
[viii] Elsewhere I have called this ‘still-prayer’, which I prefer as an inclusive descriptor.  See note 16.
[ix] See note 14.  Some teachers, misrepresenting the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, appear to misunderstand this point about gathering as opposed to repressing.  The distinction is crucial.  The contents of the mind are not repressed or forgotten, they are -- the word is carefully chosen -- relinquished by discursive self-consciousness. [NB I have altered this footnote 18.6.2012 in light of 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII, ed. E.A. Jones, Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2012 forthcoming. I was deceived by the translations/paraphrases all, of which, without exception, misrepresent this psychologically acute text.]
[x] In the November 11, issue, p. 36.
[xi] Tr. Sebastian Brock in The Fountain and the Furnace, p. 270.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

VIII Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model .....

The Exegesis of Silence

It is no accident that the flattening of theology has taken place in direct proportion to the growth and intensity of environmental noise, not only audible sounds but disturbances of the atmosphere such as microwaves and electricity.  Silence is now commonly thought of as the relative absence of perceptible noise.  To be sure, there is still some gesturing towards silence as a context for apophasis or as the synapse of communication, and the Swanwick Declaration of 1987, perhaps with some unconscious exasperation, states that it is only in silence that strangers become pilgrims together.  But even this understanding  of silence is vulnerable to the inchoate reverberations of ‘poor little talkative Christianity’ echoing through sealed ecclesiastical structures, evoking the terror of a Mrs. Moore in the Marabar cave.[i]
There is also ‘the post-structuralist commonplace that language constructs the reality it seems merely to refer to;  therefore all texts are fictions (some more useful than others), whether they acknowledge it or not.’[ii]  But the complete silence of a suspended self-consciousness is the one reality that language cannot construct,[iii] and while there are important parallels between deconstructive theory and negative theology, deconstructionist notions of God are notoriously unsophisticated and self-conscious.[iv]   Silence as mere anti-noise cannot provide multidimensionality.
A similar paradox occurs in painting.  When the art of perspective was rediscovered in the 14th century, multidimensionality of representation was lost, and religious art, like the doctrine that was its cultural context, ceased to have the transparency and multivalence of icons, and took on the opacity of image that arises from the illusion of control over three dimensions.  This paradox is startlingly revealed to the visitor to rooms 54 and 55 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, or by any collection of medieval art that is exhibited chronologically. 
That is to say, the experience of infinite dimensionality associated with the contemplation of icons that draws the viewer into the picture was sacrificed for an illusion of dimensionality that is merely visual and situated in time, and keeps the viewer at a distance.  There is a sense with these paintings that whatever landscape is out of sight will be just as cluttered as that at which the viewer is looking.  To put this another way:  the icon is a catalyst for the suspension of self-consciousness, and icon painters attest to the need for purification of self-consciousness as a prerequisite for their task, while the paintings that rediscover perspective are reflexive, seeming all too often to advertise the cleverness of their creators.[v]
There are exceptions, of course: ‘The Magdalene Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden is one, and there are some profoundly contemplative portraits with non-figurative or apophatic backgrounds such as the ‘Portrait of a Lady’ attributed to his school, and, later, much of Rembrandt’s work, particularly his ‘Portrait of an Old Woman Reading’, or the 19th century portrait by Ingres of Louis-François Bertin.  But in general, what seems to emerge in painting is not so much naturalism as stereotype and caricature, and this same statement might be made about much theology after Thomas Gallus.[vi]   By contrast, the writings of Julian of Norwich recall the importance of multidimensional perspective precisely as it relates to the transfiguration of perception, and her theologizing confutes the trends of her day in art and theology alike.
But to return to silence:  what is needed to restore multidimensionality to Christian theology is not recognition of the restful qualities of anti-noise, but rather an exegesis of silence.  Space precludes more than gesturing in the direction of some of the areas that need exploration.
There are at least as many kinds of silence as there are human beings living in time.  Along with this infinite diversity of silence, some of which is subject to human manipulation, there is a complete silence common to all humanity, a gift that language can neither create nor intrude upon.  This silence, the complete suspension of self-consciousness, cannot be achieved in any sense or grasped by any means.  To use the words ‘achieve’ or ‘grasp’ in regard to this sort of silence is a contradiction, for the methodology for becoming available to silence and its completeness is ungrasping,[vii] and its bestowal is entirely gratuitous.   
An example of a good theological exposition of this point that is flawed by language disconnected from the insights of praxis -- the word ‘grasp’ in this context -- is Ross Thompson's:
'...metaphysical versions of transcendence that are not rooted in the experience of immanence belittle God. They open up an ontological space that is vulnerable to all-too-human projections and wish-fulfillment. The tyrant God, the punishing and rewarding super-daddy in the sky, Blake's "old nobodaddy aloft", readily steps in to occupy this "transcendence" as his mighty throne. But the feminists are right to unmask him as the phallus writ large. For the next step in the argument that God is beyond you and high above your working out, is always that this transcendent God has revealed himself through his Scripture, his Church, his preacher: you must abdicate your reason and submit to Authority.
'By contrast, ontological immanence and the (mainly) epistemological transcendence that it implies, plunge us into the dark night of unknowing, and purge us of such all-too-human nightmares and dreams;  and plunge and purge Scripture, Church and preacher along with us....' [viii]

[i] E.M. Forster, A Passage to India, (London, Penguin, 1989), p. 161.
[ii] David Lodge in his review of Lawrence in Love by John Worthen, in The New York Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, 13 February, 1992, p. 27.
[iii] I include non-verbal signs in this use of ‘language’.  In the Oliver Sacks article cited above, there are some interesting conjectures about the role of language and interior silence.
[iv] We are equally reminded by Marius Buning that ‘Given Derida’s axiomatic position on “différence” (or undecidability) as the infinite interplay between presence and absence, and on the “trace” as the sign that ‘erases itself in presenting itself’, his point [that he is not a negative theologian] is well taken, although one may wonder whether Meister Eckhart’s bold “theology of negation”, and in particular his notion of detachment, is not closer to the praxis of deconstuction than Professor Derrida seems willing to admit.’ From his review of Languages of the Unsayable:  The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory  ed. S. Budick and W. Iser, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 in the Journal of Literature and Theology, Vol. 5, No. 4, December, 1991 p. 408.
[v] Robert Lentz’s ‘icons’ are not icons at all but paintings that echo iconic conventions. Their provocative subjectmatter and presentation are necessarily reflexive.
[vi] For an account of the roots of linearity, see “Visions of the Self in Late Medieval Christianity:  Some Cross-Disciplinary Reflections” by Sarah Coakley, in Philosophy, Religion and the Spiritual Life -- Papers of the Royal Institute of Philsophy Conference, Liverpool, 1991, ed. M. McGhee, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992).
[vii] See, for example, Gregory of Nyssa’s Sixth Homily on the Song of Songs; see Martin Laird, OSA, ‘The Epektasis  of Man and the Presence of God in Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum, Oratio VI,’ unpublished S.T.L. thesis, Rome, Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum.
[viii] ‘Immanence Unknown’, p. 23.

Monday, June 11, 2012

VII Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

The appeal to a static and undifferentiated tradition, whether in the transmission of religion or the conduct of academic theology, is a last-ditch appeal, an admission of poor stewardship, as opposed to the creative teaching and accurate transmission that turn on apophatic praxis.  Such an appeal is, in addition, an implicit admission that issues of power have superseded even the desire for recovery and re-amplification of the dying religion’s multidimensionality, as ecumenical quarrels both within and among various Christian denominations attest.
The unwillingness to know, the refusal to pass through the pain of reality purged of self-consciousness for the sake of accurate transmission is the reductio ad absurdum of apostasy and is surely culpable.  Recovery of  multidimensionality requires re-entry through paradox.  Paradox entails that status and power pursued in the service of the simulacrum, the idolatrous projection of a linear hierarchy, would have to give way to multidimensional relationality.[i] 
Multidimensionality is the difference between looking at a picture or being able to step into it.   For theologians to attempt theology without praxis is merely to look and to argue, confined to the echoing gallery, deprived of the criteria that would be available to them if they stepped forward to enter and explore the landscape within the picture at which they are gazing.
Religions and the theology and philosophy that issue from them vary in their ability to preserve their multidimensionality over time.  While, strictly speaking, Buddhism cannot be called a religion, it has preserved its foundational philosophical psychology better than some others, particularly in its Tibetan form.  And this philosophical psychology finds its most profound integration in a cluster with symbol, ritual and cultic worship, ranging from tanka meditation to dance, pilgrimage and the ten year retreat walled up in a cave.  It is unthinkable that any one of these elements might be discussed in isolation without the resonances of the common internal concordance that is generated from intimate knowledge of the others.
The same Tibetan monastic who debates using ritual dance to establish his claim to the floor and to press the point home, also meditates using iconography of increasing complexity and dimensionality.  In addition, the same person will spend time in cultic worship, as well as engaging with and learning from people ‘in the world’, laypeople who may, on the one hand have high knowledge from their own praxis or, on the other, who practise their Buddhism at the simplest cultic level.  Ideally in any religion, cult in the best sense manipulates the worshipper in ways that open mind and heart to new universes of perception and distinction (as opposed to duality), and conversely, its philosophical aspects are symbolized in ways that make them accessible in some form to the most ordinary believer.
Christianity has not been as fortunate as Buddhism.  Theology, for example, seems to have lost an awareness that every theological statement implies psychospiritual and sociological consequences.  Beyond the internecine warfare of religious parties, academic theology looks with mild contempt at pastoral theology;  pastoral theology’s vision is distorted by the lens of clericalism;  clericalism determines doctrine that scorns empirical experience;  spirituality so-called is regarded as not worthy of serious consideration at one end of the spectrum, and at the other is the latest consumer fashion to be discussed at vicarage tea-parties.  And philosophy of religion talks only to itself.  It is blind both to the futility of attempting to ‘prove’ multidimensional, non-objective ineffability with linear syllogisms, and to the regressive nature of the god which it seeks to prove.  Philosophy of religion commits the same methodological errors as its cousin that seeks to find the core of so-called religious experience by examining the language of accounts of such experience.  This is not to say that we do not need rigorous thinking in our discussions of either theology or experience, but rigour in method is confined neither to syllogism nor to linearity.

[i] This is not to advocate the total abolition of all hierarchies.  Symbolic figures are needed in human religious society, but these figures need to take care what there words and actions communicate in fact, which can often be radically different from what they intend.  See the Conclusion below.  The so-called sacrifice of cultic figures is to take on this burden of self-consciousness and at the same time to efface themselves by creating effective ritual that enables people to deepen apophatic union. The same applies in the secular political realm, seeVáclav Havel, ‘Paradise Lost’, The New York Review , Vol XXXIX, No. 7, April 9, 1992, p. 6-8.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

VI Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

In consequence, language common to linear discourse is often discarded because to use it in light of transfigured perception would be a category mistake.  Examples of this are dualities such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’,[i] or the question ‘does God exist?’  The word ‘God’ itself becomes problematic and irrelevant, as do the notions of theism and atheism.[ii]  Because of the multivalence of thought that emerges from apophatic prayer, there is no possible argument that might convince someone who has not engaged in one-pointed meditation that this is the case, any more than it can be argued that calculus is true to someone who does not know simple algebra.[iii]
From this brief account of the subversion of self-consciousness by the paradox of intention, it is possible to see that paradoxes such as the paradox of intention or the vulnerability/power paradox are descriptors.  They are not premises or hypotheses;  to dismantle them would be to render them into something other than they are.  The absence of this insight can cause insurmountable difficulties in discussions that take place between those who sustain the tradition of apophatic praxis, whose theology proceeds from the observable laws common to everyone that are encountered in this praxis, and those who do not engage in this praxis, even if they share the same point of view and language.  One is discussing from a multidimensional context, and the other from a linear context.


Multidimensionality is necessary to any discipline, as noted above in the example of the teaching of arithmetic.  Computer graphics are able to mimic multidimensionality, and to show how three dimensions impinge in two.  What is three dimensional will appear piecemeal and distorted in two dimensions, but the parts are recognizable enough, as they drift through the two dimensional plane, for the observer to extrapolate the whole -- if the observer is able to understand that this is what is happening.  That is to say, these glimpses provide enough clues for a creature living in two dimensions to surmise what the intruding figure might look like in its full dimensionality.[iv]
When multidimensional resonances in the theology-religion-psychology-apophasis cluster are lost because of fragmentation of the cluster and dismantling of paradoxical descriptors;  and when they are deprived of their source and clear amplification in the apophatic, they become cacophonous.  A religion’s richness and the full range even of academic theology can be integrated and effectively transmitted only when they proceed from the dialogue with silence, which requires interior praxis over many years.  Without this integration, the refulgence of cherished symbols, phrases and texts becomes lost.  Furthermore, apophatic praxis both generates and proves academic theological hypotheses in the same metaphorical sense that a particle accelerator both generates and proves hypotheses in physics.
Gnomic texts in the New Testament provide but one example.  ‘Who loses life shall gain it’, and ‘who is poor possesses the kingdom of heaven’, however else they may be interpreted, and without stretching these texts in any way, describe the specific processes of presenting reality in apophatic praxis.  But the liberating multidimensionality of these texts elides into mere linearity when they are transmitted without insight into the dynamics of this praxis, and consequently become reduced to slogans and clichés that can be appropriated by the powerful to justify oppressing those who are spiritually or materially deprived.  The more dimensionality is lost, the more strident the appeal to a static ‘tradition’, as noted by the apocryphal saying attributed to Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Religion is the living tradition of a dead people, and tradition is the dead religion of a living people.’

[i] When people become dewy-eyed about ‘mysticism’ it is self-evident that they seek a different goal from the one they claim.  An ordinary life lived through transfigured perception, as attested by many writers, does not draw attention to itself by the need to be extraordinary in its own eyes because there is no ordinary or extraordinary, and the reflexive gaze is minimal.  The famous cartoon of two Zen monks sitting in empty space is illustrative here:  the elder is saying to the puzzled novice, “Nothing happens next.  This is it.”
[ii] Thus, for example, media misinterpretation of statements by David Jenkins and J.A.T. Robinson.
[iii]  The paradox of intention and the suspension of self-consciousness also point towards reasons for the inconclusive results of efforts to examine meditation or so-called religious experience or psi phenomena in the lab.   It is virtually impossible for a person in an experimental situation to become free of self-consciousness, and the suspension of self-consciousness is not, in fact, an ‘experience’ as that word is commonly understood as will be seen below.  Further, a lab situation tends to reduce what is multidimensional and predominantly pre-conscious to limiting variables and discursive consciousness.
[iv] The ontological immanence of three dimensions in two point to an epistemological transcendence, as Ross Thompson might have put it in his recent article, ‘Immanence Unknown’ in Theology, Vol. XCV No. 763, pp. 18-26.  But it should be noted that this transcendence is not disjunctive as we have come to think of transcendence, and that what Thompson describes is very like the Lurian notion of tsimtsum, the notion that God is so completely everywhere that it is necessary for God to stop breathing in order to make room for the creation.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

V Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...

The paradox of intention, especially as it is operative in meditation, turns on the vulnerability/power paradox.  Whereas one-pointed meditation as it is commonly taught in the Christian West is relatively fail-safe, without an aspiration that entails the rigorous moral criteria inherent in this paradox, without reverence for the emergence of the truth of the self in each individual, and in the hands of the wrong people, the subversion of self-consciousness can render the meditator prey to a counterfeit silence, a ‘false peace’ or false apophatic and to manipulation by the unscrupulous.[i]   The commonplace that the way becomes ever narrower as the seeker proceeds along it can prove frighteningly true for those who are serious about apophasis, and revelatory about the growth of hierarchical power in institutional religion and the origins of Christian doctrines such as ‘mortal sin’.[ii]
When meditation is practiced in a religious context where teachers have integrity and know what they are doing -- a rare contemporary  coincidence -- worship, scriptures, and community appropriately reinforce integrity of praxis.  In Christianity the ‘flavour’ of meditation and its context is love, although the ‘flavour’ of this love changes as the practitioner matures, and in the interplay of presence and absence, cataphatic and apophatic.[iii]   
The insistence in Christian tradition that the greatest adept must continue to practice the simple prayer of a child -- simple petition, simple thanksgiving -- and to receive sacraments is intended to ensure that the person is earthed and non-reflexive, and that appropriate ardour is sustained, for it is obvious that in an incarnational religion, forays into romantic illusion and the fabulous are self-defeating.  This discussion thus far may seem coldly clinical, but in a seriously incarnational religion, ‘mysticism’ constitutes living the ordinary through transfigured perception.
‘Living the ordinary’ means participation in the daily round of the most mundane human tasks, the vast majority of which in one way or another have to do with taking care of and creating contentment for the body, and therefore for the mind, soul and spirit, which are inextricably interdependent.  The seriousness with which this definition insists on incarnation precludes platonising, angelism, the illusion of a life lived in an ‘altered state’ of consciousness, or the catatonia of Bernini’s bizarre statue of St Teresa in ecstasy.
The word ‘transfigured’ as opposed to ‘transformed’ or ‘transcending’ is also crucial for sustaining the incarnational paradox.  The word ‘transfiguration’ creates different resonances than ‘transformation’, which implies one thing becoming something quite different and has echoes of magic and destruction of the body;  or from ‘transcending’, which implies escape from the body, something surpassed and left behind, a duality. 
Apophasis entered by means of one-pointed meditation requires a gently ruthless pursuit of the point of focus, and a gently ruthless honesty in evaluating any material that irrupts from the  consciousness that is being gathered and integrated.  In consequence, what emerges from apophasis is both specific and continuing transfiguration of perception.  Transfigured perception has the clarity and fertility of an imagination purged of self-consciousness.[iv]  Transfigured perception eventuates in true self-effacement, the clear discernment of disinterested action or nonaction.  Thus humility and humiliation are antonyms.  This is not stoicism, ‘quietism’, or the ennui of fatalism, but a highly subversive point of view. [v]  

[i] The opposite can also be true, as Oliver Sacks notes in his moving, “The Last Hippie,” New York Review, Vol XXXIX, No. 6, 26 March, 1992, p. 51-60.  ‘Greg’ became a Krishna follower, and his dedication to its ideals suvived even a massive pituitary tumor and its consequent blindness, amnesia and near total disability.  There is also the case of Helen Waddell, recounted in her biography by Dame Felicias Corrigan, (London, Gollancz, 1986), p. 356.
[ii] I have in mind a particular case in which a meditating person nearly died because of the linkage of anger/hatred with someone who, unknown to the meditator, had committed suicide just prior to the time of meditation.  The almost universal directives about purity of heart in prayer have their foundation in the perils of the presenting reality of apophatic praxis.
[iii] See ‘The Apophatic Image’, op. cit.  The dialogue with Buddhism and other religions is too often undertaken without awareness of the psycho-dynamics common to human beings, or as if the occurences of  the subversion of self-consciousness were mechanical and consistent, when, as noted above, consciousness, both discursive and hidden, is a continuum, flavoured by many hidden factors including time.   The same is true as regards the complete suspension of self-consciousness, the entry into complete silence to the fullest extent possible for humans.  Each occurrence is unique, as are the effects.
     On the Buddhist Christian dialogue, see for example, Raimundo Panikkar, tr. R. Barr, The Silence of God, (Maryknoll,  Orbis, 1989), and Donald W. Mitchell,  Spirituality and Emptiness, (Mahwah, Paulist, 1991).  The tradition of God as Silence emerges from the primordial origins of religion;  see the discussion of the exegesis of silence below and especially the writings of John the Solitary, Ephrem the Syrian and Isaac of Nineveh.
[iv] Thus necessitating both poverty and peace with which it is synonymous. Outward praxis of voluntary poverty and similar monastic exercises make no sense without this single-hearted focus, the emptiness requisite for fecundity. See The Way of Silent Love, op. cit.
[v] Archbishop Desmond Tutu repeatedly reminds his audiences that ‘Contemplative prayer is so subversive that if governments understood what it is they would ban it.’  Those who have entered the process of transfigured perception invariably become controversial, for it is not possible to co-opt them into the service of one power-group or another by employing the usual coercive tactics of flattery or fear, envy or desire.  Such people will thus be free to make true and considered political choices that can and usually do go against the grain of mass opinion.  These choices are usually costly because they expose lies, deceptions and hypocrisy, although this may not be their intention.
By contrast, it seems no accident that so-called Ignatian spirituality arose during the counter-reformation and is enjoying its current revivial under the present pontiff.  The power that its practitioners allot to ‘spiritual directors’ e.g., Lavinia Byrne’s definition of this relationship as a ‘master-slave’ relationship’ (in Sharing the Vision, London, SPCK, 1989, p. 21) seems a gross misrepresentation of the desert tradition.  By contrast, see, for example, the self-effacement of direction in Walter Hilton and the Cloud author.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Thank You....

Many thanks to readers of this blog who showed up at Manchester Cathedral last night. I was delighted to meet you and deeply humbled by your response. It is such a privilege to know some of you face-to-face and to hear of the important work you are doing. A thousand blessings on you!

As requested, last night's paper will be posted after the posting of 'Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model' has come to an end. You can then compare how these thoughts have developed (or not!) over twenty years... evidence, perhaps, of the old cliché that every author—or at least this author—has only one subject....


PS The new book of essays by poets I recommended is A God in the House, ed. Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, North Adams, MA, Tupelo Press, 2012. Also relevant is Jane Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Harper Perennial, 1997.