Monday, February 10, 2014

'Mysticism' vs Schizophrenia

While I was in Devon I spoke to several people involved in writing and art and everyone said the same thing: the very low barometric pressure the UK has been experiencing has affected their ability to create. I don't offer this as an excuse for not posting more frequently at this time, but it's somewhat comforting to know that I'm not alone in my struggles.

I'm attending a series of lectures sponsored by TORCH, the Oxford University network that supports interdisciplinary seminars in the humanities. It's an opportunity for interested scholars to get together and compare notes. One of the seminars is on affections and ethics, and the other is on so-called mysticism—and, as you might imagine, the papers so far in this latter seminar have been dire. Fortunately two of my colleagues have been in the audience to back up my observations during the discussion periods.

Mercifully I missed the first one on Richard Rolle, which, my colleagues tell me, really scraped the bottom of the barrel. Last week's wasn't much better: I went directly from the train to the seminar and so missed part of the first paper, but the second paper was shocking in its content. Far from concerning a 'mystical' text it discussed the solipsistic diary of a schizophrenic who started cutting herself at an early age (Zurich ZB, MS. Rh 159). This evolved (or devolved) into conversations with 'god' in which the projected pseudo-divinity told her to abuse her body. It reminded me of a book I read decades ago by a psychiatrist who was trying to communicate to the general public what it was like to live inside the head of a schizophrenic with a similar pathology to the author of the Zurich ms. The malign voice within always greeted the protagonist with the phrase 'Suffer, Victim.' The Zurich ms also reminded me of a 19th century Dominican text in which every twitch of a sister in obvious catatonia was recorded by her grotesquely fascinated sisters as evidence of 'holiness'.

It is the elevation of such texts that give God and the pursuit of holiness a bad name. There was nothing in the Zurich ms of redemption, of mercy, of self-forgetfulness, of peace or joy. It was about suffering for its own sake, the glorification of self-abuse, and submission to a sado-masochistic projection. The erasure marks were of particular interest to the presenter, but it was a text so violently in opposition to transfiguration that one questions why one would want to spend any time with it.

Both the presenters used the word 'transcend' to leave the ordinary behind, which readers of this blog will understand as a false apophaticism, and both presenters made all the usual mistakes in regard to the use of 'experience' and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding as to how to study these texts. They were interested only in the point of view of the authors, and while this point of view is important, there also needs to be discernment about the position of the text in regard to other texts which are both similar and dis-similar, which are closer or farther away from beholding (although it is hard to see how any text could be farther away than the Zurich text). 

In other words, the reader should also act, to a certain extent, as someone who takes on the role of discerner. It is essential to keep texts such as the Zurich manuscript at arm's length from one's own psyche. To put this another way, it is just as important to retain one's critical distance with some texts as it is to allow oneself to be 'read' by other texts (see 'The Apophatic Image'.

This seminar shows how much of an uphill struggle it is going to be to change the way we study these texts, to lay out a reasonable set of ground rules, and to teach people to read texts such as Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs as poetry rather than prose even if they are set out as prose; to read literarily as opposed to literally; and to approach them using the model of the two aspects of knowing seeking unity and integration.

I'm going to a theological conference in early April at Durham on silence and language and will present this methodology under the guise of my findings on Pseudo-Denys (see posts above). I will be very disappointed if it doesn't fire up some discussion! I also hope to see Andrew Louth to discuss PsD further.


Anonymous desertfisher said...

And schizophrenia, which is a post-industrial malady according to McGilChrist is the left hemisphere in control, the debilitating absence of a habitual descent to the open field or 'ocean depth' of the right hemisphere that prayerful reading of texts ("critical distance" or "lowering one's net for a catch") can facilitate.

10:41 am, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous Joel Watson+ said...

"read literarily as opposed to literally," ....what a handy line. Thank you. Most of what Margaret writes, even though prose, I am well aware is poetry, it is the only way she can write it seems, but how I treasure it and can then read it over and over year after year and it always speaks anew.

Any time I hear the word "transcend" or "out-of-body" or "spiritual" in Christian terms, I freak! To me they are all anti-incarnational and so anti-Christian.

Hope you had a good time off! Come visit....stay a while.....

OH!! And thank you a "gillion" times for suggesting to Margaret the Barker Book. It has been a de-Light-FULL life and mind changer for me, as well as a vindication of much I have thought and believed for decades. So, I am not crazy, or at least I am, just like Barker!

You are ever in our thoughts and prayers.....

10:56 pm, February 10, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Joel, and you and Margaret are in mine!

11:03 pm, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

Re-reading John 211:25, these images come striking:

"they caught nothing..."

“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”

"he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work..." ("naked" in KJV - in the middle of the night?)

Then the eucharist with Jesus followed.

Likewise, Simon Peter's life would be a eucharistic one.

5:36 am, February 11, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

Reading a hard copy of Rev. Rowan Williams's book Christ on Trial while riding the bus (i haven't had the time yet to watch his lecture but the book has a lot on authority and power),so much resonance between Maggie's work on silence, McGilchrist insights on the human brain and Rowan's theological depth often are enthralling enough to stop reading and simply savor the joy of the moment. Rowan wrote:

"The parables Matthew records are about seeing the whole picture (the context of silence for Maggie, the right hemisphere as context for McGilchrist) How tempting it is to look at short-term results, to grab (Maggie's "grasping" and McGilchrist's left hemisphere's objectifying/manipulative power)at quick solutions that fail to grasp how time itself reveals the truth."

On Christ's trial:

"The truth is that we do not know in advance how we might react, which in turn suggests that we are never in a position to identify those 'others' who are responsible for the killing of Christ so as to point a condemning finger. Matthew's narrative does not allow the believer - in particular the articulate and educated believer, the teacher, the expert - any fixed answer to the question of how I might know that I am still with Jesus (Maggie's 'no-geometry before God) rather than with Caiaphas. As soon as there seems to be an answer to such a question, it becomes part of just that system of religious words and religious fluency that helps to make possible the exclusion of Jesus. In the presence of Jesus at his trial, faith unavoidably takes on something of a catch-22 dimension. What matters is to hold still (in italic) before the question."

On language and faith:

It is not that words are mistaken, or that they are - in the glib modern sense - irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in the speakers. There is not enough depth in us for the words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. If the point of traditional doctrinal forms is to hold us still, it is also, we could say, to create a depth in us, a space for radical change in how we think of ourselves and how we act."

These are indeed interesting times, at least for me...

9:31 am, February 13, 2014  
Anonymous Abigail Ting said...

I've enjoyed the blog & commentary. My thoughts are these: Any coupling of mysticism with schizophrenia screams of a not-so-hidden agenda i.e. I guess we're all crazy. Much of what you (all) write is beyond my understanding, alas. However, it struck me how the cutting behaviors of these victims would be a counterfeit to the stripes of Christ. Could we then make the jump to schizophrenia being the counterfeit of mysticism? Also, yes, our (mankind's) differences are profound, but, dare I say, delightful?! Can we help each other w/o requiring our own duplication?

1:49 pm, February 15, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Hi Abigail,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, every 'spiritual' process has a counterfeit. Cutting or self-injury is almost always counterfeit.

However, the discernment between madness and the road to beholding is not always easy to make. Some people go through a stage that mimics 'madness' or is certainly contrary to society's norms. But then, most of the values of contemplation is contrary to society's norms. This is not, however, an invitation to license and/or scandal, although maintaining one's integrity may cause scandal to those who want to contol! Generally the rule of thumb is biblical: by the fruits you shall know them. Is the person growing into joy and peace? Do they spread harmony around them? Are they self-aggrandizing or self-forgetful? Are they showing off or struggling to maintain a hidden life? Obviously we all have both authentic and counterfeit parts to our selves. The growth never ends. Each person has to risk. The discernment is never absolute.

Thanks for writing


1:59 pm, February 15, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

In my understanding using this blog's perspective, schizophrenia, though an initial aspiration for depth and healing, is the stubborn-ness and fear not to freefall into the geometry-less mercy of the Holy where one's wounds are transfigured. No self-destructive personal counterfeit or wounds is beyond transfiguration in the open, honest field of seeking and beholding.

This is the kind of hope i am learning from this blog. And as regards to helping one another, a person in this habit of seeking and beholding is more than enough help for the culture around him/her. But then the paradox this blog teaches is - there is measuring using human metrics, or worse, popular cultural standards.

3:23 am, February 16, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... struggling to maintain a hidden life ..."

Like this phrase. Anything you might think of which would expand on this would be most interesting and appreciated. Thanks.


12:15 am, February 25, 2014  

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