Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Paper

Recently I complained in this blog about a seminar I have been going to. Yesterday I had my chance to try to clarify to the group some of the many problems I feel we are facing. Here is the paper.


How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something
which neither voice nor word can bring?(1)

I follow John the Solitary in the way I regard silence: silence is an infinite interior spaciousness; a way of being in the natural world
At the outset, however, I want to register an objection to the use of the word mystical and its cognates: this word has changed in meaning from something mysterious to being, as William Harmless says, "a catchall for all sorts of religious weirdness." In this paper I will attempt to give a definition of the word but we would be better off without it.
This paper also attempts to put some empirical order into what is often a chaotic subject. Hence the diagram on your handout. Because most scholars approaching religious texts are using a post-Cartesian methodology, their method is at war with the content they are studying. That is to say, their mental model is merely linear and their hierarchies of argument require closure. Many of the texts they study, however, are polysemous: they are based on two ways of knowing and they try to lead the reader or hearer into the infinite spaciousness of silence.
I will first present some fundamental facts about the way the mind works, which can be discerned by anyone who bothers to watch their own mind. These processes have been confirmed—but are not dependent on—the findings of contemporary neuro-psychology. I want to emphasize that I came to this interpretative model through the close reading texts, not through extrapolating from fMRI scans, and that my research and understanding has independently paralleled that of writers such as Iain McGilchrist.(2)
Secondly, I will give some examples of problems that issue from reading without the model of two ways of knowing, and from reading literally instead of literarily. These errors have contributed to the mis-use of the word 'experience', and the loss of the crucial word 'behold' and its cognates. It has also led to the careless use of the words "transform" and "transcend" when "transfigure" is meant. I will discuss the theology surrounding these words. I will also suggest some ways that the texts that concern us could be classified, as the present system is unsatisfactory. Finally, if there is time, I will list some of the tropes involved in reading literarily. Many ancient and medieval texts should be read as poetry, even though they may be set out as prose.
There are two aspects to knowing. Self-conscious knowing is everyday mind; it relies on the information given to it by deep mind, which it then categorizes in a reductionistic way. Ideally it then returns this material to deep mind for further enhancement. The second aspect of knowing I am calling deep mind, or apophatic consciousness. This is the greater part of the mind, what Pseudo-Denys calls the 'hidden mind'(3) and which contains, but encompasses more than, what is called the 'nous',(4) the faculty by which our shared nature with God is realised. This part of the mind has direct perception, processes the more complex aspects of language—though itdoes not speak—and is inclusive, multidimensional, holographic. 
The primary feature of deep mind for our purposes is that it is inaccessible to self-conscious mind except by intention. The permeable membrane between the two aspects of mind is marked by paradox, although it should be noted that paradox is paradoxical only to the self-conscious mind. The role of paradox is to halt the ratiocinating, schematizing activities of the self-conscious mind to give it a moment of quies. In this moment it is open to receive the gifts that deep mind is ready to offer. Because self-conscious mind has no access to deep mind except by intention, there can be no phenomenology of deep mind.
(1) Sebastian Brock, 'John the Solitary, On Prayer', Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 30 (1979), 84-101, 87.
(2) Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (New Haven: Yale, 2008). See Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, 'The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich', The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V (Cambridge, 1992), pp.  53-77; and '"With mekeness aske perseverantly..."': On Reading Julian of Norwich', Mystics Quarterly, 30 (2004), pp. 125-40; and Maggie Ross 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience' in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII, ed. E.A. Jones (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013), 29-50; Writing the Icon of the Heart, (Abingdon: BRF, 2011, and Eugene, OR, 2013); 'Jesus in the Balance', Word and World, Spring, 2009, 152-161; 'The Apophatic Ordinary', Anglican Theological Review, Vol. LXXIV, No. 4, Fall, 1992, 1992, 456-474; Silence: A User's Guide, forthcoming.
(3) Celestial Hierarchy 149C, Luibheid and Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius, 153.
(4) Andrew Louth, Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford, OUP, 2007), xiv–xv.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ah! Bright Wings!

Back home from the West Country. It was very much an avian Easter. I had no sooner arrived in Devon than—incredibly, because they are not often found in Devon—a nightingale began to sing. It sang all through Easter weekend and beyond. Our trip to Cornwall was cancelled because of a dead car battery, but once it was replaced, we headed to Exmoor and hiked to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in Exmoor topped by a Bonze Age barrow. Along the way we heard a cuckoo calling, and there were skylarks everywhere. All three of these birds are rapidly vanishing from the English countryside, so we felt very privileged. After we returned to the car we drove to a small wooded area on the other side of the beacon where we heard another cuckoo. We were very lucky with the weather: it was a gorgeous day, with wide views and towering cumulo-nimbus clouds making their stately way across the pale blue sky. When I returned to Oxford I discovered that there had been rain for four days; I fear that I have lost my tomatoes, alas. While they have good drainage they can't take the constant wet without developing stem rot.

Our Easter fire was enhanced by the presence of a couple who are friends of my hostess. They brought an 18th century family bible to read from. We had the fire in a small paddock above the house, away from the dogs (who last year shouted in objection at being locked inside while we sang), but high enough to give us a view over the surrounding countryside. Again we were lucky with the weather: the sky was clear, the evening still—though blustery winds had been forecast. The midnight stars bent low over us while we cast incense on the fire, lit the paschal candle, sang the Exsultet, read the lessons and said the prayers. Then we informally processed to the house to share bread and wine with the paschal candle in the lead. It was difficult to talk at first, but we wanted to emphasise that what we were doing was ordinary life as it should be, saturated with mystery.

It was a most blessed Easter. I hope, Gentle Readers, that yours was as well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Holy Week

Tomorrow Holy Week begins and as every year, I am filled with a mixture of dread, longing and a sense of loss: dread for the inexpressible magnitude of the events we will celebrate; a sense of loss for the liturgy that hardly anyone bothers with any longer—the monastery spoiled me forever in this regard; and finally longing . . . for what cannot and should not be spoken.

It may seem paradoxical for someone who is as "ruthlessly realistic" as one friend recently called me in a positive, not a negative way, to want to be so immersed in liturgy and myth. But then, the life of silence seems to the one who does not live it  paradoxical. For the one who "seeks to the beholding" silence cannot help but immerse one in the single movement that is both realistic and mythical. For those who seek there is no distinction, no paradox.

I'm entering this Holy Week already exhausted. The first volume of my book, Silence: A User's Guide, has gone to the publisher; with any luck it will be out in November. This book has been gestating for so many decades that it's almost a let-down that it is now well on its way.

Another reason for exhaustion is that I broke my usual pattern of not going to conferences and went to one in Durham. As conferences go, it had the best papers and discussions of any I have ever been to. It was well worth it. And it was wonderful to be in my favourite of all cathedrals—at least, early in the morning. After 9 AM it was filled with far too many officious "guides" and swarming tourists. Just to put the icing on the cake, they were having "messy cathedral" so the place was often filled with shrieking children. My last day the little chapel where the noon Eucharist was celebrated was so crammed with people intent on not giving anyone an inch of room that I had to leave. At that point I decided to bail. I had to pay double for a rail ticket home (I had come up in a car) but given that I collapsed as soon as I walked in the door, as it were, it was money well spent.

Now I'm transplanting tomatoes and doing other garden chores preparatory to leaving for Devon and Cornwall for ten days. The West Country is always restorative, and our fire on Easter Eve will go a long way towards resurrecting this tired old body.

May all of you, gentle readers, have a most blessed Holy Week and Eastertide.

Last night did Christ the Sun rise from the Dark,
Thy mystic harvest of the fields of God.
And now the little wandering tribes of bees
Are brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.
The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long
Darkling the nightingale her descant told,
And now inside church doors the happy folk
The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.
O father of thy folk, be thine by right
The Easter joy the threshold of the light.

Sedulius Scottus translated by Helen Waddell

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Difference Between Then and Now

Mike asked me to unpack what I meant by the shift I described in the last post. It happens that another correspondent, Frazer, sent me two quotations from Doris Grumbach. She describes how I used to feel:

From Doris Grumbach's The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany (1998)

I hope you will understand and excuse my absence.  My respect and affection for you as my rector is very great.  My sympathy for you is even greater: a charismatic, loving man whose spiritual life must be severely tried, almost consumed by your duties as a church CEO, a leader, somewhat like a stage manager, responsible for the determination of the liturgy for an ever growing congregation, responsible for fidelity to the rubrics.  Perforce, you are a sincere believer in the often onerous role you have been trained for and ordained to. (p. 7)

And further on:

... due to my advancing age and crotchety disposition, I found myself unduly distracted by the programmed motion during the service.  The stirrings of the congregation, the riffling of pages and booklets and hymnals, the sounds of kneeling, standing and sitting, the perambulations ofthe assistants and the celebrants on the altar and the offering-collectors up and down the aisles, the progress of well-intentioned but unskilled lectors to and from the podium, the ushered parade to the altar to receive communion--I had not been able to find a way to blot out the constant bustle.  True, it was all in obedience to official rules of conduct, but for me it left no place to pray in silence, or listen, or wait for a sense of God.  "Be still, then, and know that I am God' is the familiar injunction in Psalm 46:11, but in church there was no stillness, no time in which to know Him.

A minor matter: most disturbing to me were the built-in interruptions to the liturgy itself.  Priests and Rectors most often prefer to make all their announcements of coming events--dinners and meetings, lectures and committee gatherings, parish suppers, and much else--in the middle of the service.  Having broken into the rhythm of the liturgy for these practical matters, some community-spirited pastors then inquire if anyone in the congregation has an announcement to make. Once, I recall, a full ten minutes at the center of the rite was occupied by items of social action and plans for the winter rummage sale.
. . .
So, the flow of prayer is usually halted in order to inform the congregations of the potluck supper next Tuesday.  God, if he has been summoned in the first moments of the liturgy, is put on hold.
I used to notice all these things too, as you, Gentle Readers, all know from past posts on this blog. But the insight that I had last Sunday was that I no longer am involved enough, or care enough, even to complain. Instead, going to church has become almost dystopian, as I describe in my new book. Even though the architecture of the cathedral is far more agreeable than a fast-food shop, and even though the music is glorious, the experience is the same:

"Recall the experience of eating in a fast-food joint. The interior is made of molded plastic in nursery colors. It is designed to make you feel as if you had entered a badly made television cartoon. (Life no longer imitates art: it imitates cartoons.) The lines on the floor guide customers like cattle, gently toward the slaughter. As you shuffle along, your steps unconsciously take up the rhythm of the background thump and hiss of the broadcast noise. There is a rising sense of isolation, unease, claustrophobia, incipient panic, and wild weeping. The only possible way to alleviate this extreme anxiety is to consume. You reach the counter: "A triple Vacuity, a medium Frozen Scream, and a large order of Lies, please." You are then provided with a blasphemous parody of what a meal should be. The hard plastic stall provided as a place to sit and eat mimics special chairs for children such as potty chairs; it pretends to offer a haven while in reality it assaults, removing all possibility of dignity, silence, thought, reflection, or genuine exchange with any other person unfortunate enough to have entered this dystopian nightmare. The only option is to shut down, to go through the prescribed motions: order, pay, munch (huddled and hunched) as quickly as possible, and depart.

"Fast food means not only fast delivery of imitation edibles into the hand of the corralled consumer; it also encourages fast, mindless eating. There is no time for consideration; if there were, we might discover how disgusting are the items saturated with fat, sugar, and salt that pervade the malign, addictive combination of substances that we are shoving into our mouths. The atmosphere renders impossible the time-honored value of meals as gatherings for appreciation of healthful, lovingly prepared food to be shared with conversation and the renewal of relationships."