Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent 2020

 Happy Advent to all the readers of this blog. I'm sorry I haven't posted much this year, but events have been so significant—I almost wrote 'monstrous', thinking of various governments—that it has been almost impossible to find an impartial view or know what to say. This silence has been exacerbated by the two books on silence that I published; one might say I have written myself into silence.

Nonetheless, in the interest of keeping this blog alive for a time when words may make their reappearance, I will try to say something useful.

I'm afraid that I am not one of those people who think that, with the Biden presidency to be confirmed tomorrow by the electoral college, all the troubles of the last four years are over. Quite the contrary. Of course I am hugely relieved not only that he won and also that he has survived all the challenges, but I fear Trump has done and is still doing so much damage that this is only the beginning, not to mention his inhuman and shocking last-minute killing spree of prisoners, while pardoning those who are his cronies. And the corona virus gets worse by the day; he is responsible for many of these deaths as well because of his lies and sloth.

Add to that the problems here in the UK, facing a no-deal Brexit on top of the coronavirus epidemic—it's going to be an almost unimaginable maelstrom.

But in spite of all the doom and gloom the light does shine in the darkness and the mystery of the Incarnation is not only with us at this season but in every season; we encounter it most directly in the Eucharist. Recently I was asked to write 10,000 words on the subject of 'My Theology'. Even that request has left me baffled in silence. The only phrase that has come to mind is 'eucharistic entanglement' in its widest sense. Even with ten times the words requested, I don't think I could tease out the theology contained in this phrase, and I'm not sure if it is at the core of 'My Theology'. Besides, what theology can be said to be 'mine' anyway? 'We stand on the shoulders of giants', is the medieval phrase that cathedral builders (theology in stone) and theologians once used. We forget it at our peril.

But maybe 'Peace on earth, good will among peoples' is part of what could be if we recognised that life is eucharistic and everything in creation is entangled with everything else in the love of God, both materially and spiritually—although I wish there were a way to say this that isn't a dichotomy .

Please have a blessed and safe Christmas, and pray for the New Year.


Anonymous Al said...

I stumbled on this Simone Weil's quote from Anthony O'Hear's Transcendence, Creation, Incarnation:

"The proper method of philosophy consists in clearly conceiving the insoluble problems in all their insolubility, and then in simply contemplating them, fixedly and tirelessly, year after year, without any hope, patiently waiting… There is no entry into the transcendent until the human faculties -intelligence, will, human love – have come up against a limit… Genius is the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought."

A joyful Advent.

10:45 pm, December 14, 2020  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am new to discovering Maggie and want to get a message to you just to say, so much,
thank you. Catholic Secular Priest in parish, just loving your tracking of IMPLICATIONS for what is so lightly said about prayer and it is not known how much is not known about the actual living of it. Beholding has lifted me up.
Gratitude and more gratitude and an avalanche of flowers to you in gratitude.
Tony Slingo

12:55 pm, February 02, 2021  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Tony.I am so grateful.
Along this line there is a book coming out on the mysteries of the rosary with icons painted in the lovely Norwegian colours (the artist is Norwegian) of tole decoration. The book is by Addison Hart and will be published by Wipf and Stock later this year. I have rarely read anything on the rosary that was so sane and that moved me so much. Enjoy.

1:57 pm, February 02, 2021  
Blogger Addison said...

I am profoundly gratified that you found the book to your liking. As I'm sure you may have noted in it, your books have been very important for me. Thank you for your gracious words.

Addison Hart

5:11 pm, March 23, 2021  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

The honour is all mine. That someone like you would find my writing useful especially in creating a book of the quality you have written is the most profound reward an author could have. BTW I showed your book to an icon painter friend of mine in Juneau, Alaska, Charles Rorhbacher, and he was very impressed indeed. Blessings.

5:49 pm, March 23, 2021  
Blogger Addison said...

Again, thank you.

10:14 am, March 24, 2021  
Anonymous Schtitt said...

Dear Maggie,

first I want to join my voice with the others who have found this blog and your writings in general to be profoundly impactful.

I do have a question which has become one of my main stumbling blocks in seeking interior silence, which has to do with the relationship between "beholding" and "being completely absorbed in an activity". Sometimes, when doing certain things, I can become very absorbed, but still after the fact wonder whether I 'should' have been doing that thing, instead of just sitting and being and 'beholding'.

Let us take playing computer games as an example, both because it's relevant to me but also an example of something that is very absorbing so that I forget myself. Yet, in spite of this, playing computer games is certainly *also* an escape - a retreat into a world where I am more or less in control. And while playing computer games, I get very invested in the illusory world presented to me, again, without being very self-conscious about it. It's as if playing computer games allows self-forgetfulness, but it at the same time there is no sense of God, of beholding, of partaking in the Communion of our shared being, anything like that. I'm just very into the computer game, and coming out of it, it doesn't seem to me like I have grown more into the world of silence.

I feel like there are many activities that share the same dual nature - listening to music (self-forgetful ecstasy but also avoiding the 'horror vacui'), reading (becoming very absorbed in the story, but can still be said to be escapism (unless one reads in the context of silence itself, perhaps)), and even daily work can feel to me to be not 'beholding' per se, but rather just forgetting myself, and not relating this in any way to silence or God etc.

Of course, an obvious answer to these thoughts would be to let them, as well, subsume into silence, which I have, but I still would like to ask if you could share your thoughts about the difference or similarities between 'beholding' and losing oneself in some kind of activity. To me, they seem different although my articulation of this difference is clumsy.

3:16 pm, April 14, 2021  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you for your kind words.

You ask a very important question. I think in general tasks—for example, transplanting seedlings—can be helpful in learning to prepare for self-forgetfulness, I wouldn't put computer games in this category. First, the content matters, for everything you are exposed to goes into the mix in the unconscious. The second is control. When you are transplanting seedlings, the 'control' is more or less absent except for going through the necessary motions, which are almost automatic, or perhaps I should say, autonomic. If one has times of self-forgetfulness, they are a gift. You cannot force them, and doing something to try to make them happen will most certainly be counter-productive. See the book 'The Paradox of Intention'.

Computer games, on the other hand, call for heavy demands on the left brain, linear-mind, which is antithetical to contemplation, as is the violence that is the content of most computer games. So I can't recommend them as learning a way of self-forgetfulness, which is about entirely relinquishing control. But there is something else here: beholding is not something one 'does'. It too is a gift of which self-forgetfulness is the outer courtyard, as it were. One can prepare to receive it, but that's as far as it goes. It is, if you like, a passive activity of opening and receptivity. Ultimately, of course, as one goes further down the road of contemplation, one discovers that beholding is the centre of the soul and is always there. What is given is a retrospective realisation of some 'trace' that for a time one has had a more direct engagement with it out of our own sight. This is true of both self-forgetfulness and beholding, which obviously elide one into the other so as to be indistinguishable. It's better not to analyse but just give thanks and go forward. Otherwise you risk turning it into an 'experience', which is a way of control.

Hope this helps.

3:40 pm, April 14, 2021  
Anonymous Schtitt said...

Dear Maggie,

I would have more kind words indeed were I to ever have the privilege of meeting you, but for now this is what I can do.

And your answer definitely did help and was instructive - and it was also instructive that as I waited for your reply, something similar to what you said about 'control' did dawn on me.

It also makes me wonder about the nature of highly 'left-brained' work, i.e. physical sciences, as I have the privilege and misfortune to be involved in, and whether much of that type of work (perhaps with the exception of theoretical physics and math, as you have touched upon at various points) is simply incompatible with the contemplative life - it is certainly a question that weighs on me these days.

Thank you so much, again!

4:36 pm, April 14, 2021  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Actually, it doesn't really matter that you are in practical sciences. There is a certain amount of contemplation in every discipline, and a number of scientific discoveries have been made through 'Eureka' moments. It's the content that matters. Your unconscious works in concert with your contemplation. That's why you can meditate to become a better killer. It's necessary to be careful about the content put into our minds, consciously and unconsciously. That's why violent video games and pornography are inevitably going to put roadblocks in the way of contemplation that is fruitful in a positive way.

5:21 pm, April 14, 2021  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you Maggie, for your words here and your books. They have been transformative and releasing as I am only fours year in with finding silence and contemplation, after drifting away from my evangelical upbringing. I have encounter so many mentors through so many great books. Yours, Richard Rohr, Merton, John O'D and Bonnie Thurston to name a few. So grateful. Yours, Dawn

3:00 pm, May 16, 2021  
Anonymous Julian Maddock said...

Dear Maggie,

I am, I fear, one of the spiritual directors that you critique. And I am reading one of those translations of The Cloud (Bill Johnston's) that you dislike. Notwithstanding this, I hope you might help me with something that is troubling me.

I was reading Chapter 44 and found myself shocked by what the author says. I am no scholar of English, but I do realise I will not be able to understand what a 14th-century writer means, just like I love Beethoven's Eroica but cannot hear it as if I were living in 1805. I would be grateful for your thoughts.

I was shocked by the idea that "he alone understands the deep universal reason for sorrow who experiences that he is."

It seems to me that being present to/with/in/as God, who is always Present, is (or at least cannot be without) the physicality of bodily presence. Presence is being this body in this little patch of space and time. This is not an idea. It is the physical sensation of being alive. I think this is 'incarnation'. To use a musical metaphor, presence resonates with Presence. To me, this is knowing that I am.

This becomes prayer when, as the author suggests in Chapter 3, I "lift up my heart to God with a gentle stirring of love, desiring God for God's own sake." It becomes about God, not me. But somehow in this, I feel given significance, or perhaps, as +Rowan says in *Being Human* (pp. 72-3), an "authority ... emerges" and I am "empowered" and "emancipated". I think there is a parallel with Peter walking towards Jesus on the water: it is only when he keeps his eyes upon Jesus that he doesn't sink from the anxiety of being out of his depth. To me, this is knowing that I am as a creature utterly dependent upon the Creator.

Please understand, these are fleeting intuitions at best. I know you have read Iain McGilchrist. Everything we try to say about this is an attempt to render in words what cannot be said.

Being present correlates with a kind of relinquishing of and freedom from my own 'story' - the tales I tell myself and others about who I think I am. I might think of this as knowing, physically, that I am without much bother about who or what I am. Then the end of the chapter makes sense to me when the author says, "he rejoices that he is and from the fullness of a grateful heart he gives thanks to God for the gift and goodness of his existence."

Now, I have come to understand Chapter 44 to be talking about how anxious self-concern (as I think of it) is the primary and most recalcitrant barrier between the creature and the Creator. And it makes sense to me that this is the human condition that we all experience and is a cause for sorrow. There are days when I get fed up with myself, with the recurrent ruminations about the past, my faults, if I will ever be good enough, what people think of me, and so on. I suspect this is what the author means by 'sorrow' and 'a foul, stinking lump of himself'.

So, I am confused and, to be honest, dismayed by the phrase "that I am" from Chapter 44. I am hoping that the author means something different from what I mean by this.

I imagine you will have something useful and fierce to say about all this and I would be grateful for your thoughts.

With my thanks for your ministry,


12:22 pm, October 04, 2021  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Julian,

In this chapter the author is talking about the gift of tears, which also includes lacrimae serum, the tears in things. I wrote a book called The Fountain and the Furnace about it. You have to remember that terms like 'foul stinking lump' are the kind of hyperbole that is endemic to the late antique and more especially to the medieval period. And he says specifically at the end of the chapter that the desire not to be is the work of the devil. I'm also pretty sure that he is talking about the role of self-consciousness, which you describe so well as self-concern. However, I'm afraid Johnston has done the translation a disservice (I don't have it so can't check the context) because it seems to be that he has introduced an idea 'that I am' which is more in Buddhism or Hinduism than Christianity. I can't find it in the original Middle English (Hodgson). There is something that echoes it but the context is the gift of tears.'Foul stinking lump' is simply the burden of sin and self-consciousness. But even when our focus is wholly towards God we are still in our being. Don't fall into the 'experience' trap (described in my book Silence: A User's Guide' vol 1. The goal that the Cloud author describes is not an experience because the human consciousness is wholly present to and focused on God. There is no feeling or not feeling because we are not in any way focused on self, but there is no sense of the body or not sense of the body; it's outside the focus but the focus wholly on God is the ultimate presence. As you note, all this is material that points beyond words. I hope I have not misunderstood you. Your question is very deep and I may have completely misinterpreted it.

With every good wish,


1:16 pm, October 04, 2021  
Anonymous Julian Maddock said...

Dear Maggie,

Thank you for replying so quickly. I don't feel misunderstood or misinterpreted. I am challenged by, "there is no sense of the body or not sense of the body ... the focus wholly on God is the ultimate presence." That makes sense to me when God is Other, but not when God is what I am (and you are, and everything is). Again, the inadequacy of language, I suspect. It isn't either/or but something else. I will experiment.

I wonder if it matters in the end? I have come to think that what matters is the opening of the heart. One of my favourite sentences is by Benedicta Ward:

> What God is waiting for is not a right conclusion about a matter but for our suppleness in falling into his hands for him to work in us.

I don't think the phrase, "that I am," is a Johnston addition, though it would be surprising if his experience of Buddhism has not seeped into his rendition. Here is where the phrase is in other editions to which I have access. It is in the second or third paragraph depending on the version.

> For he may make sorow ernestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. (Gallacher, lines 1556-7)

> For he may make sorrow earnestly, that wotteth and feeleth not only what he is, but that he is. (Underhill)

> ... if you're fortunate enough to feel not merely who you are but that you are, you understand more than others do why sorrow is universal and inescapable. (Butcher)

There's no need to reply. I'm grateful for your thoughts on this.


5:38 pm, October 04, 2021  
Anonymous Julian Maddock said...

Dear Maggie,

"Every man has plenty of cause for sorrow but he alone understands the deep universal reason for sorrow who experiences that he is."

I hope you don't mind me writing again.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting, praying, talking, eating, and laughing with a small group of friends and conspirators for 3 days. We know each other well and I posed to them the same quandary. They were mystified and gave me to see that I have been reversing the meaning of the author. It is not the awareness "that I am" that is the cause for sorrow. Rather, as I am aware "that I am," I see the sheer extent of my anxious self-concern, which is the radical obstacle between me and God. This is the cause of deep sorrow, which I realise is both my personal and the universal human condition.

So, it comes down to this, for me. My ‘work’ is to be as present as I can to God, who is always Present. Presence is incarnational, being this body. When I am present I “feel and know *that I am*”. I see clearly how caught up I am in my own story and drama and anxious self-concern, which is the cause of sorrow. This is to be consigned to the cloud of forgetting, coming back, time and time again, to a plain, bodily presence and the lifting of the heart to God with a gentle stirring of love, desiring God and not gifts.


7:02 pm, October 26, 2021  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
May I ask how does one take communion when physically or spiritually feeling alone?

3:46 pm, October 20, 2023  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Anonymous,

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that if you are feeling alone that is one of the most appropriate ways of asking for help from God. The Eucharist is for the sick, the emptied out, the humble. The very fact that you are asking this question means that your heart is open and humble. By all means, receive Communion at the first opportunity!



4:06 pm, October 20, 2023  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maggie, I am really struggling with the ritual. I have not participated in twenty years, although I remain connected to a church community. I’ve read your books and taken your silence course. Wondering if there is a way forward when communion so often does not resemble what you beautifully describe above.

1:09 pm, October 22, 2023  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Anonymous ,

Your instincts are right on. The contemporary rituals are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. And while I don't usually counsel despair, I don't see any prospect of institutional change for the better. So what to do? Don't waste any more time fretting about it. My solution is to make my peace with the situation. I go to the Eucharist but tune out the words, in fact everything but the consecration and the act of receiving Communion; I am helped by the fact that while the acoustic in my church is great for singing, it is terrible for the spoken word.

In a sense, the Eucharist is what you make it. The idea is, in part, that YOU are the Eucharist, broken and offered in union with Christ. No one, and no awful, prolix, banal, infantilising etc.etc.etc. pathetic excuse for liturgy can change that fact. It's good that you've got contact with the church community, and outreach is, of course, eucharistic too. So deepen your eucharistic awareness in your interior silence, and realise that it doesn't depend on the current manifestation of the rite.

2:01 pm, October 22, 2023  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In continued gratitude to you Maggie. You cannot know what profound gratitude I have for you and this ‘voice in the wilderness’. The words do indeed hurt my ears. I will continue to take this up in prayer and do the work.
Thank you, thank you, thank you

3:16 pm, October 22, 2023  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I continue to be challenged by your books Maggie. As one who has felt a profound sense of call to serve as an ordained priest in my parish I continue to experience great internal sense of conflict about the word filled nature of anglican liturgy and also the way stipended priesthood is expected to be lived out. Your work has helped me to stay true to a sense of internal vocation in Christ and to with Rilke words live the questions at this season of profound change in the life of the faith. Gregory+

11:47 pm, December 21, 2023  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Gregory, for your kind and insightful words.

12:39 am, December 22, 2023  

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