"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, February 26, 2018

On Fasting from Noise or Against Asceticism and Spirituality (II)

When we were last met to discuss Maggie Ross's wonderfully cool diagnosis of much that ails us, Silence: A User's Guide, I sketched out some of the background influences and concerns to this book, and to my reading of it. I also noted one or two places in the first part of the book where we get some hints of what is to come as we move now into the third chapter, "The Language of Silence," where Ross really lets fly, inveighing against many common, but even more commonly misunderstood and misapplied terms, concepts, and practices.

This entire third chapter, as I commented previously, really could bear the title "Glossary of Nonsense Terms Fatuously Flung About by Careless Christians." In the book it functions very much as an excursus between the background she lays out in chs.1-2, and the objections to silence in the rest of the book. I will only give you a taste, but the entire chapter is very much worth your time.

One of the biggest misunderstandings--as I have long thought myself--comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of "experience," which Ross says is "perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list." Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today's usage, running totally contrary to "ancient, patristic, and medieval" wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word--and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed--because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

Mystical/Mystic/Mysticism: All these terms "have become useless and misleading" and function to justify "weirdness," "exoticism," "voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography" (90). See below for more on the problems with "mysticism."

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called "spirituality" exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as "spiritual directors" everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted "spiritual directors" lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross's denunciation of "spiritual direction, so-called" as having "little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control." As she continues, "modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the 'directee' become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined 'spiritual life' instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other."

After this swamp-clearing excursus, the rest of the book is a more extended critical analysis of how to practice silence and of the obstacles towards doing so. She begins chapter 4 by briefly surveying how few modern thinkers are interested in silence because they operate under a Cartesian method. Of the few who, she says, escape this influence to some extent, she cites the Canadians Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan; and the Greek Orthodox scholar John Panteleimon Manoussakis, whom I interviewed here.

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross's critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty "cures" approved by modern "therapists" and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over "unknowing" that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word "experience and other anachronisms" the effect of which is to "have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears." Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we "experience" (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.

Later on she also decries the elimination of "behold" and cognates from modern biblical translations. This term, she says, is "arguably the most important word in the Bible..., which occurs more than 1300 times in the Hebrew and Greek" (179).

Lots of churchmen, she says, have been quite content to eliminate ideas of beholding and the silence which it requires, in part because both are suspect and hard to control. Of those very few not guilty of this, Ross cites some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, including our old friend Evagrius, whom I have often cited on here and whom I taught to my students last semester. According to Ross, the writings of Evagrius "speak to human beings in every age....His advice is just as applicable today in an urban culture."

In the final part of the book Ross presents something of an apologia for the fruits of silence, noting that there is a reciprocal relationship: the more one enters into the silence of the deep mind, the more mind is released from tightly held ideas and hostile emotions, especially avarice, anger, and judgment. Instead of these, one emerges more compassionate, detached, and willing to forgive. At the same time, she notes, one's powers of discernment are heightened as silence encourages a ruthless honesty.

For those worried about the "political" implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed "me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell" Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are "green" in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of "custody of the ears." Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User's Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.


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