I am honored, although also humbled, to have been mentioned in the blog of Anglican solitary Maggie Ross, author of a truly wonderful book on the spirituality of priesthood, Pillars of Flame. Ross is taking me to task for recommending Carmen Butcher’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. Although she is gracious in the tone of her criticism, her overall message is that anyone who seeks to learn from the great contemplatives of the past must be careful in his or her scholarship, or else the wisdom of the contemplatives could too easily be misconstrued. She says,
Carl McColman is very well-intentioned but there is a difference between feeling good and scholarship and/or the work of the spirit. Just because someone has a feel-good message does not mean either that they understand the work of silence or the classic texts that describe it. There is a lot of wishful thinking going on.
Ouch. Of course, she also has this to say about Thomas Merton: “we tend to forget that Merton was diagnosed by Dr Gregory Zilboorg as a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and that he was probably an alcoholic and certainly at times a sexual predator.” So I suppose if I’m merely guilty of peddling feel-good spirituality, I should be thankful!
Normally I would just dismiss this kind of criticism, but coming from someone I admire as much as Maggie Ross, I felt it deserved consideration — and a response. Here is what I’ve written to her; hopefully she will be kind enough to respond.
Dear Maggie Ross,
First of all, I’m honored even to be mentioned in your blog. I read Pillars of Flame years ago and was impressed by its eloquence, the force of its argument, and its spiritual depth. I still consult both appendices regularly.
Now, as to my unlikely appearance in your blog: I’m humbled by your words. As someone who freely admits I am not a scholar, and who because of family commitments probably will never be one, I find your perspective frankly rather discouraging. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that reading bad translations of historic contemplative texts is worse than not reading such works at all. Without the scholarly credentials (on my part or on the part of my spiritual director, who is a Trappist monk) to guide the way, I am left wondering if, in some way or another, all translations are “bad.” And even if I were to immerse myself in the study of Middle English to the point that I could profitably read the Cloud, Julian, and Hilton in the original, the same problem reasserts itself when I seek to read Ruusbroec, or Eckhart, or the Spanish Carmelites. Must I surrender my thirst for the wisdom of my ancestors on the altar of my own lack of academic training?
I understand your criticism of Merton, and, working as I do alongside Trappists many of whom knew him, none of what you say surprises me. Still, in a culture that worships the likes of Miley Cyrus and Sarah Palin, can we really afford simply to dismiss Merton for his flaws? And if so, then what hope is there for those of us who lack your erudition — or even access to competent guides with a similar level of scholarship?
And frankly, I could care less about Merton’s narcissism, but I am bothered by his modernist assumptions concerning experience. But how many other errors are there in Merton’s work? In mine? In yours?
I ask these questions not to challenge you, but to share with you my dilemma as someone keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, and at a loss as how to rectify that (or even if such correction is possible at this stage of my life). I hope and pray that my work conveys something more than just a “feel good” message, although your comments give me pause. As I writer, I have long been aware that my words always seem to be misunderstood, no matter how carefully I craft them. If, at the end of the day, writing an admittedly un-scholarly blog to encourage the exploration of silent prayer actually harms the contemplative life, then I would be the first to delete my blog. But here I must trust the grace of God to carry my readers beyond my many mistakes.