Maggie Ross’s Response

Here’s what Maggie Ross posted on her blog, in response to the questions I posed to her yesterday.

First, for those just joining the conversation, here is what I wrote to her:

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.

Carl McColman

And now, her response:

Dear Carl,

Thank you so much for writing. I rather hoped you would, and you raise important questions.

In a way, all translations are “bad” but then, we can’t all learn all the languages (although you could probably read Julian in Glasscoe’s edition, which is modernized spelling and from the best manuscript). As regards the Cloud, I am beginning to think that reading a translation of it is worse than not reading it at all! Underhill might be the exception (available in the Element Books edition, though I won’t vouch for Freeman’s intro; I haven’t read it yet). And we can’t all be alert to the excellence or not of scholars, and even then there are no guarantees. But there are certain common-sense criteria.

For one, I don’t think we need to engage in as much wishful thinking as we do. If it’s too good to be true it probably isn’t true
or at least it’s misrepresented (Julia Bolton Holloway’s remarks on the Norwich ms of Julian on your blog a few months ago comes to mind). Second, we have to remember, always, that the way ancient and medieval authors talk about “nothing/something” is through extravagant metaphor and paradox, and the paradoxes are often implicit. They use this elaborate language in part because who is going to undertake the arduous journey if you just say its “nothing”?

Next, I think we need to be much more alert to this “experience” question in all translations we look at, whether or not we can read the original; we must not take metaphors literally but try to find the common human processes underneath them; and most of all we need to be highly suspicious of anything that makes us feel cozy, because cozy clouds clarity. Yes we can have religious experiences but we need to give thanks for them and leave them behind; yes the threshold and effects of excessus mentis are sometimes perceived and experienced, but only very rarely. Excessus mentis in itself can never be perceived, experienced, etc. because by definition it is the suspension of self-consciousness. Excessus mentis is not an end in itself; it’s something that happens along the way in the cycle of silence and speech by which we are healed. If someone does seek to escape into meditation or excessus mentis they are in danger of becoming schizophrenic. The point of the spiritual life is not our personal private holiness but rather opening our selves so that the life of God can pour out on the community. One of the sure signs of authentic spiritual life is that the person cares less and less about their own interior life and more and more about what is happening to others. In fact, excessus mentis happens to us many times a day; it’s one of the normal means by which the brain processes information and communicates between its superficial self-conscious part, which has a very small capacity and is not much good at making connections, and the deep brain which seems limitless and where the connections are made. But mostly we don’t notice it has happened because, again, our self-consciousness, our “I” construct/observer eye, is absent.

What does happen is that the practice of silence (that includes but is far more than meditation, which is only a minor element) starts with the practitioner’s intention but ends as the practitioner’s animator; it is no longer a matter of repeated intention on the practitioner’s part to return to the word or the breath or whatever, but the very energy that animates. The person is drawing on the wellspring of silence. But there has to be a long, long period both in and out of formal meditation time where there is a conscious effort to turn away (conversion) from the entertainment of our thoughts, to default to the silence. Gradually the thoughts go away or at least become less clamorous and disorienting; gradually we realize obscurely that something is going on out of our sight that we don’t want to interfere with in any way either by the way we live outwardly or the stuff we put in our minds; we don’t want anything that doesn’t speak in some way of this silent truth or truth emerging from silence. This means in practical terms eliminating most of what people these days think of a social life (movies, clubs, being plugged into an iPod, etc. Music has an important place but not as background static). Gradually what is in our thoughts starts occasionally to be much more worth paying attention to, often becoming insight. I am giving a paper in July which addresses the fact that the assumptions with which 20th and 21st century scholars approach ancient and medieval philosophical and theological texts lack this underlying model of the mind which is accessible to anyone who watches their own mind (as Gerson notes) and whose features are in fact spelled out in texts such as Plato, the bible, Proclus, Augustine, Richard of St Victor, the Cloud and Julian. But because people today want experience, a way of control and self-authentication, readers frequently refuse to let the texts say what they say.

Too often these texts are treated in the abstract; since the Vienna school, everyone seems to need to be a positivist. The worst affected from the point of view of this discussion have been the translations of the bible. Thankfully this positivist model is starting to break down —here’s a good example from Karmen MacKendrick. I quote it (having found it on AM’s blog) without having read the book or knowing anything about her, but even out of context it stresses the direction theology needs to go: “Silence and eternity slip beyond the containment of words in time. We still must use words; we still must draw out the questions that lie within philosophy. It is only that we have learned that we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we lose them together with ourselves.” Substituting the word “spirituality” for “philosophy” makes the point: we must use spirituality against itself. One of my criteria of discernment for this text is that it is about letting go in an uncompromising way and throws the gauntlet down to the establishment. In other words, once again, every true sacred sign effaces itself.

I think we all need to be alert as to how much we want “union” (a word that is on my list of no-no words, one not to use about the spiritual life because it is inherently dualistic), or, better put, beholding, engagement, onying. It is not and never will be an “experience” because it happens out of sight of the observing eye, self-consciousness. It is not confined to exessus mentis; it is a way of life that arises from being receptive to the continual beholding in our core silence, what Richard and the Cloud author call the apex of love, the supreme point of the soul. When the Cloud author talks about feeling, he’s not talking about experience (as Walsh invariably translates it and I think the MED is wrong in using the word “experience” in connection with this word or is using the modern as opposed to medieval sense of it); he’s talking about what might better be translated as an “inkling”—an inkling that something wonderful is going on out of sight and that what we most need to do is keep our hands and attention away from it so it can continue without our interference.

A contemporary person might use the analogy of the oblique recognition that we are in “flow”. If you start paying too much attention to the fact you are in flow the flow will quickly stop! We are much to eager to wrap everything into neat packages (this is partly a consequence of the rise of dialectic and the inheritance of the Counter-Reformation and neo-scholasticism) when what we need is to untie the string and open up the paper. I think we need to be suspect of the way in which we make so-called spiritual writers into demi-gods and celebrities. Far from wanting to dismiss Merton, I think it absolutely essential to point to the ways in which he distorted the tradition and the texts, how he changed the meaning of “experience”, how his use of “true self” and “false self” are highly destructive to the spiritual process, and I think we need to alert people against citing him as an expert on contemplative life. I don’t even think he was a contemplative (see his remark on experience above; contemplation is about relinquishing all claims to experience). I think we need to keep a very vigilant eye on our own drives; I think we need to constantly face and let fall away our anxieties and our greed about religion and the spiritual life. I think we need to look at the criteria by which we evaluate what we think “spiritual life” is. It’s about what leads to self-forgetfulness, though some of the texts in trying to explain may make it sound otherwise.

I have written enough diatribes against spiritual direction in this blog so that I won’t repeat them, but the goal of the spiritual life is self-forgetfulness, and the current model of so-called spiritual direction that is taught and practised defeats this goal, because one is always looking at one’s spiritual life, like picking at a scab. Two of the main rules of meditation (and they’re in the Cloud and Richard and Julian and Marguerete Porete and others) are don’t evaluate and don’t expect. The hardest part of all of this is to let go our expectations, stereotypes—all the things that devotio moderna (Thomas à Kempis and on into the Counter-Reformation and neo-scholasticism)—want us to do, to have the reassurance that we are doing it “correctly”. We have to stop watching our own spiritual lives as if they were movies.

This is one of the most important points the Cloud author makes. The work of grace goes on in what he calls the spiritual part, which is not accessible to the self-conscious mind as noted above. Along with neuro-scientists, I call it the “deep brain” because the notion of the unconscious (if it is useful at all) doesn’t apply and because even the neuro-scientists say (or some of them do anyway) that it will probably never be possible to know how the deep brain gets all its information. For the deep brain to be able to do its work we have to get out of its way. Yes, we can and should read texts and give it information but then we have to leave it alone and do our silent practice and let it surprise us. Behold! In this suddenly! We have made religion and the spiritual life far too exotic, rather like the orientalism of the 20th c, when instead it is about ordinary life. It is very humble, very subtle, and what we are doing, from one point of view, is restoring a balance, the balance of silence and speech. We might think of the consequence of what happened in the Garden as a massive case of attention deficit disorder (Irenaeus’ interpretation), which we can choose to correct through the spiritual life. The current greed for more and more “experiences” just exacerbates the problem. As Walsh notes in his introduction to the Cloud (yes, he gets some of it right), “The wonder of it is that this experience of nothingness paradoxically and gradually effects a radical change in the spiritual character; and this is the reason why it is so difficult to persevere in the exercise: the pain experienced in the gradual movement to total detachment causes many beginners to relinquish the effort” (ch. lxix) [italics mine]. It is not the experiences that effect the transfiguration; it is their absence.

Carl, I know your website serves a lot of people and far be it from me to tell you how to run it. You have to do your own discernment. But you also have to decide what your function is as moderator: what is it most that you want to convey/provide? All of us practitioners of spirituality so-called, whatever the level of education (and as Gerson notes, even “women and idiots” can reach the highest levels of contemplation) or practice are in a very dangerous place with all of this stuff: I have just returned from seven months in the USA working at a retreat center and while I met with hundreds of wonderful deeply searching people, I was appalled at what I found happening to American culture, almost to the point of despair, because for them it was like trying to swim against a tidal wave. And I have the same feeling about what is happening these days among the Cistercians with whom I have more than thirty-five years of history. I don’t know the way forward, but I do know that on this blog I am to the best of my ability going to offer what correctives seem to need to be made, no matter how unpopular or discouraging they may be to some, and even if they sometimes fly in the face of the last 80 years of scholarship, which, in my view, has been badly warped by positivism on the one hand, and, more recently, sentimentality and narcissism on the other. If there weren’t some scholarly credence to what I am doing I rather doubt I would have been asked to do the paper in July. But in the end it isn’t scholarship that gives us the criteria of discernment: it’s a ruthless honesty and willingness to observe that anyone, literate or illiterate, can develop if only they will.

Every blog has a different purpose; mine is, in part, “to consult, to encourage and to warn” and it seems as though these days it’s mostly the latter two: encouraging people to swim upstream, which is becoming increasingly more difficult (almost impossible in the USA in my view) and, sadly, more and more to warn that humans are in danger of evolving away from what makes them human.

Bless you, and thank you for responding


Pentecost and Ecstasy
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Simon Whitney


    Good for you for writing to Maggie and for publishing her response. Not many would do that. There is so much meat in what she says.

    For example: Merton’s “use of “true self” and “false self” are highly destructive to the spiritual process, and I think we need to alert people against citing him as an expert on contemplative life.” The terms “true self” and “false self” are used continuously by practitioners of Centering Prayer and I agree with her that they are “highly destructive”. I know that you are reviewing your use of CP and I hope that this might be part of that process of discernment.

    I think also that we do need to acknowledge that there is a strong correlation between the life of prayer/contemplation and holiness. If someone is not growing in holiness then it is unlikely that they are growing in their spiritual life. We are all frail and fall but there is a tendency in our modern culture to dismiss (or downgrade) sin too easily.

    There are some fascinating phrases: “a dangerous place”, “arduous journey”, “cozy clouds clarity” which we could all reflect on as a corrective against much modern spirituality. And without “picking at scabs”.

    Please keep doing what you do. It enables those of us on the foothills to learn from past masters and present masters and to voice our own thoughts in a controlled atmosphere. And there is as much to learn from philosophers as there is from “idiots and women”.

  • Ali

    I hadn’t been following along too closely with this exchange, but this morning I sat down and read through the back-and-forth…. I admit, though I can respect Maggie Ross as a scholar and I can appreciate her sincerity, I’m not seeing much in her response to you that goes beyond what you have already written about in this blog many times, and which I know you and I have discussed in conversation. (For instance, I seem to recall you once saying that, if you had the guts, you’d love to write a book of blank pages…)

    Coming now from outside the Christian tradition, and meaning no disrespect, it is precisely this kind of pedantry (particularly about the past) that I feel bogs down the contemplative life. Mind you, I am about as far from an anti-intellectual as a person can get, and I understand the value of accurate scholarship and translations that hold true to (what we can determine as best we can to be) the original spirit of a text – but I see little difference in the celebrity cult-status of more contemporary figures like Merton, and the kind of intellectual/academic cult-status Ross gives instead to the “original” contemplatives of medieval times. Though I would readily agree with her that modern American culture is sick and distorted in many ways, I see no reason to assume that our ancestors living a thousand years ago were somehow uniquely free of their own cultural contexts and its flaws, or that the insights of those contemplatives and mystics for some reason constitutes the best and most shining example of what contemplative life has to offer. I don’t know much about Merton, honestly, though his Seeds of Contemplation and When the Trees Say Nothing both helped to spark my own spiritual wanderings when I read them as a teen and young adult. But I do know of plenty of narcissists and megalomaniacs whose disorders led them to cruelty and abuse – if the worst Merton did was write an autobiography and inspire a new generation to reinvest in the spiritual life, then I have to believe that something about his spiritual life could redeem even a dirty old man like him. If, as Ross suggests, the “excessus mentis” is not experiential but something that goes on “out of sight” even during our daily lives, then can we really judge whether another person’s contemplative life is authentic or fruitful based solely on the writings and work shaped largely by his conscious mind? It seems to me that this kind of nit-picking arises from the general Christian tendency to imagine a single archetype of the spiritual life to which we must all aspire, seeking to squeeze ourselves in as best we can to that particular conception of what the authentic contemplative life will look like.

    And yet, though your approaches are certainly different, you and Ross appear to reach very similar conclusions about the real purpose of the contemplative life: “The point of the spiritual life is not our personal private holiness but rather opening our selves so that the life of God can pour out on the community.” Ross speaks against picking over our spiritual lives like a scab, constantly reevaluating, and yet it seems her approach to philosophy and spirituality demands just that: “[quoting Karmen MacKendrick:] ‘…we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we lose them together with ourselves.’ Substituting the word ‘spirituality’ for ‘philosophy’ makes the point: we must use spirituality against itself.” On the other hand, I have often seen you write and speak about the role of joy and laughter in opening us up, leading to a self-forgetfulness and selflessness that makes us available to both Spirit and to the community of others with whom we share our lives and this world (and I would include not just human beings here, but the plants, animals, landscapes, ecosystems and myriad other beings). This does not seem to me to be about “feel-good” spirituality, but a recognition that it is not only longing, absence, silence and arduous philosophical sleight-of-hand that can break us open. There are many ways that Spirit enters our lives.

    And perhaps most importantly, modern American culture with its noise and greed and flashing lights can deaden or destroy real joy just as easily as it can stamp out authentic silence and rigorous thought. I agree completely with Ross’s assessment of our culture, and even to some degree her despair over it. But the solution, I think, is not to then have us constantly worrying every time we catch ourselves feeling good, or wondering if by helping others feel good by way of spiritual contemplation if we are therefore leading them astray or damaging them. That seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, frankly. Instead, we would do well – I think – to encourage the many paths that people find towards deeper engagement, receptivity, attention and attending. For some, this will be through the unraveling acrobatics of analytical thought that spin in on themselves (and out of themselves) like Zen koans; for others, this will be the silence of the mind left alone and undefended in the wilderness of solitude; for still others, this will be the joy and good humor of authentic community entrenched deeply in an imperfect, noisy, messy world. And there may be countless more ways. Understanding this, it will be easier for us to keep our own approaches in perspective, to appreciate their flaws and failures as well as their fruits, while also learning to be gentler with ourselves, and others, as we all stumble along, doing the best we can.

  • George

    I looked at her website yesterday and read her response in advance of your posting it here. While I am no scholar myself (and I suppose because I am not), I did not know how to receive it. On the one hand, we have conservative critics of all things contemplative/mystical railing at something that they do not care to understand. Now we have this point of view from an academic who will support contemplative practice, rightly understood. But the lines drawn by this friend seem too narrow for the common layman to be able to choose a contemporary guide.
    I suppose the rule of thumb is to take all advice with a grain of salt, and trust the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all truth as promised.

  • Jacquelyn Judd

    In my (Anglocatholic/episcopalian) church, we had a time of silence before the sermon on Sundays. I used that time for reciting as a mantra a rather narcistic phrase: “Open my eyes that I may see the needs of others, open my ears that I may hear Thee, open my heart that I may love.” One Sunday, as I repeated this phrase for the second time, when I reached the part “Open my ears that I may hear Thee,” I heard a distinct voice say, “Then shut up and listen!” I almost laughed out loud. Actually I attribute that voice as coming from a cosmic consciousness sainthood rather than from God, who I believe does not speak with a voice.

    I believe that prayer can LEAD us into contemplation/mysticism IF we shut up and listen, whether or not we are scholars. The perceived enlightenments are given to us, whether or not we are scholars. I am 64 years old, and I worked with scholars all of my worklife as an editor of, over time, three scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. I can tell you this: Being a scholar makes one draw skewed conclusions based on one’s personal agenda, and those conclusions are expressed in the most “scholarly” terms possible, as if to exclude anyone but scholars as readers–and in many cases even the scholars couldn’t have made heads or tails of the text. Although these journals were in fact published as a tool for research-oriented scholars, they were also used as texts for undergraduates in their particular fields. As their editor, I maintained the scholarly tone but also sought to make them readable! I say in conclusion, I would much rather read readable ideas–on any subject, but maybe especially on this subject, where I hope to be guided along my spiritual pathway. Please carry on the way you are!!

  • David

    I must say, the woman sounds rather arrogant and judgmental to me. Thomas Merton a sexual predator? Not by any standard I’ve ever had. That sounds ridiculous to me.

  • Simon Whitney


    I wonder if Maggie’s comments about the sort of blog you are leading might not be closer to the mark than I had at first thought.

    We have the longest contribution to this discussion from Ali whose own blog is about Druidism and magic. She is disdainful about an intellectual approach and yet is quite happy to offer us her “theological ponderings” on Jesus.

    We have George who is only content to accept his own advice – a most dangerous path and one eschewed by every mystic I have ever read. What is really needed is discernment – which is very different from dismissing all advice. It is the ability to distinguish between good and bad advice. As the Desert Fathers said: discernment is the chief of the virtues because it guards all the rest.

    We have Jacqueline who distinguishes between a “cosmic consciousness sainthood” and God. God does speak with a voice at times – they are called “locutions” in the language of Christian mysticism. (Although, I agree that “locutions” do not necessarily have to be in audible words). Is it not also a little odd that God cannot speak and yet this “cosmic consciousness sainthood” has the power of speech?

    And we have David who touches on a very good point. Although my question to him would be “Is this arrogance or someone speaking with authority?” If we like what is being said we call it “speaking with authority” if we don’t like what is said we call it “arrogance”.

    I am sorry to be so blunt – probably beyond an acceptable level of rudeness but I do find that this whole attitude is questionable. We have in Maggie someone who has been there and done that – and yet we cannot even engage in a discussion with her. She has to be dismissed because she clearly challenges our own little cosiness.

    I am not asking for unquestioning adherence to what she says. For example, I would like to discuss with her her dismissal of the word “union” as being “inherently dualistic”. I would ask “Is not the concept of ‘onying’ indicative of a pre-existing duality? If there is no pre-existing duality what is it that needs to be ‘oned’?” It may be that the way some people use it nowadays is not the way it was used in the past – and there is a growing understanding that the way some concepts were used by such people as Ruusbroek and Eckhart is different from the way we use such concepts now. We do need to be aware of these differences otherwise people end up talking past each other.

    We should be cognisant of the fact that Maggie has experience and has thought deeply about the matter that is purportedly the purpose of this blog. And yet it seems that she can be dismissed out of hand by the pack – even if the leader of the pack is content to have a dialogue. There is something inherently wrong in that.

  • AM

    Somewhere, on the side of discernment, the Spirit is moving, disturbing us in our comfort zones. The problem is what is often dismissed in intellectual discussion is liturgy and there can be no transformative liturgy without self-forgetful silence. We know what real silence is when even the desire to be self-forgetful has been let go. This i believe is the summative, scholarly point of Maggie Ross. For those who do not know where she is coming from, her whole blog, and not only her response here, is the key. But then, there’s no idol-carving here (the way we carve an idol in Merton) otherwise one could easily miss her points by not doing the work of silence, by not venturing into the Unknown that Silence beckons the human spirit into. I hope this is not hard to understand. I am not a scholar myself but i got no problem understanding her sense of paradox of self-effacing signs, including theological discourse, that i have to deal with in my spiritual journey. It’s the call to self-forgetful silence, emerging and speaking out from this silence, that i understand to be Maggie Ross’ source of authority. Precisely, a lot of people would like to hold captive this Silence by naming it as “experience.” Nothing could be more arrogant and narrow-minded than putting Eternal Silence in a bottle. The risk that Maggie Ross has ventured into is to free it by freefalling (as a lifestyle) and by being willing to “grope in the dark.” This is spiritual authority to me.

  • Ali

    Just wanted to hop back on here for a moment to point out to Simon that I am not “disdainful of the intellectual approach” (as I specifically point out at least twice in my previous reply), and also to note that I have a degree in comparative religious studies from one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country (where I graduated valedictorian with distinguished honors… not that anyone’s bragging). In addition, I was born and raised Catholic and spent my college career studying the theology and mysticism of the Catholic tradition, so while I no longer consider myself a Christian and while I may not have formally studied Christian mysticism for as long as Carl (or Ross) has, I certainly feel qualified enough to speak about my own views of theology – which, I should point out, are not limited to Christian theology but include my own perspective as a practitioner of Druidry. (If you do read my blog, you will notice that I spend very little time talking about “magic” in the Harry Potter sense, and a great deal of time talking about ecological responsibility, aesthetics and storytelling, anthropology, sociology, meditation and prayer, etc. For anyone else interested, please do come by – I always welcome diverse opinions and perspectives.)

    I admit, it annoys me more than a little to have my views dismissed simply because I come from outside the Christian tradition, in a comment meant to chastise the rest of us for dismissing someone else too easily. Ross has, I’m sure, a great deal of experience and expertise in the matter. I affirmed this and applauded her for it several times in my comment. But I also think that her response to Carl includes not a few internal contradictions, some of which I pointed out, and most importantly, that her opinion of Carl’s blog and writing does not seem to be based on a very careful reading of his work. If anything, I think the two of them agree on a great deal more than she seems to realize. The fact that this appears to escape her notice is something that I think should give us pause… but not necessarily lead us to dismiss her perspective entirely.

    All in all, I only wished she’d spent more time answering Carl’s original question about how to handle a lack of academic expertise. Considering this exchange began as a disagreement about translation, I was disappointed that much of her response was spent reiterating her opinions about why certain translations were inadequate, without delving very deeply at all into how individuals without an academic background can compensate or choose more carefully.

  • David

    And I will jump in again to say that the judgmental aspect of her remarks bothered me more than anything else. Really, dismissing Thomas Merton–a writer who has inspired thousands of people–because he was a sexual predator, of all things, seems ridiculous to me. I don’t know his biography particularly well, but my impression is that he may have fallen in love a time or two, may have wanted to have sex with a woman or two, may have done so (I don’t really know the details). That qualifies as a sexual predator? Good grief.

    I too grew up in the Christian tradition and have great respect for it–my wife is a Catholic, and I sometimes attend Mass with her–but now practice Zen, and I must say we don’t deal in all these fine distinctions. Just sit in stillness and silence, and don’t try to achieve anything. And don’t talk about it so much.

  • fs

    I’ve been reading this post and the ensuing comments with a mixture of keen interest, simple curiosity, confusion, alarm, sadness, frustration, hope, and even a touch of humor. (How’s that for inner silence?) I discovered Maggie’s blog a few months ago and immediately recognized a singular soul who is, for me, rather foreign in some respects but very, very kindred in others. Her erudition is refined and real and at times beyond my grasp, but reading her blog and, now, one of her books, has been immensely helpful in lighting the path in front of me — a path that had become tangled, even discouraging, from encounters with organized religion. I am so grateful to receive this help and give thanks to God for it.

    A related and welcome discovery has been a growing awareness of so many deeply spiritual individuals communicating over the Internet — including this blog and its commenters. One truth that emerges from the current situation is that no one is perfect, and no one (except Jesus, for me) has absolute authority. Sometimes a person with rare gifts can be difficult to comprehend (e.g., many, if not most, philosophers and theologians) or neglects to observe one or another of the social conventions. Paying too much attention to these differences can sidetrack us, as we’re all making this journey together, side by side, and each has something to give, something that can help the rest of us, if we are open to receive it. A familiar Rumi poem comes to mind:

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
    and rightdoing there is a field.
    I’ll meet you there.
    When the soul lies down in that grass
    the world is too full to talk about.

    Ali, your blog is delightful. I think you and Maggie may share a profound kinship with nature. She writes of it occasionally in her blog. Some recent examples are Foxfire and Evening Walk. She’s also written a couple of books on her wilderness experiences which I look forward to reading in the future.

  • brazenbird

    Wow. I’m with @fs above, who experienced a multitude of reactions to the correspondence and resulting comments. I am, as usual, a bit overwhelmed. And I’m saddened at the critique of comments here, based on a faulty comprehension in the first place.

    It’s interesting, as I pulled myself out of my head for the last few weeks, I was reminded in a few rather humiliating moments, that my overarching lesson is to learn to trust; trust God, trust people, trust myself. And then I thought, how does a person learn to trust? It’s more a habit, an experience, isn’t it? It, like the contemplative life, isn’t something that can be learned from a book or a website or from another person. The books, websites, and people can be guides and certainly these guides can provide much-needed discernment (just as they can also provide a lot of confusion and wrong-turns), but I must agree with @George: that at the end of all things, when we shut out all the noise, who else do we turn to for Truth and final discernment, but the Spirit of Truth Itself? I am troubled that when George suggested relying on the Spirit, Simon took that to mean that George would ultimately rely on himself, because that’s not simply not what he said.

    Furthermore, when all else is stripped away, what else is there? What is your final knowing, Simon? From where does it come if not from God? (This is a real question, not snark.) I ask because it seems to me that there is not one piece of evidence that suggests that anything touched by human hands/thought/experience can remain undiluted Truth, therefore, all things, all experiences, all books, all things shared in the human experience must be brought to some ultimate, undiluted place for discernment. Any human-created thing (idea, thing, belief, experience, emotion, etc) has been attached to this reality and all that entails and therefore, is no longer completely undiluted which means we have no choice but for each of us, in our moments of being prostrate before the Spirit, in whatever way we each have been called to be prostrate before the Spirit, to bring the diluted to Spirit for discernment. In this respect, I can understand why Ross dislikes the idea of a spiritual director. To me, it’s yet another voice for which I need to seek discernment, adding to the already overwhelming pile (if one is attending church, reading the Bible, reading the mystics, attending seminars, reading blogs and engaging in community) about which to bring to Spirit for discernment. (Though I also see the potential – not always guaranteed and indeed, rare – benefit of having a spiritual director and hope to hit the jackpot in November when I meet with a SD for the first time. For me, the jackpot Spiritual Director will be willing to (and please excuse the language here) call me out on my BS. And so, perhaps in that way, get me away from my busy mind and intoxication with the self? I remain ever hopeful and maybe naive?)

    I’m also troubled by the idea that because someone currently writes about and practices Druidism that she should refrain from engaging in this discussion. It’s assumptive and dismissive. And once again, there were attacks made based on a faulty reading and comprehension of @Ali’s comment.

    There’s so much to say here. There is so, so much to consider in this rich exchange and I am simply not experienced enough, wise enough, or scholastic enough to really comment more without further embarrassing myself (the same reasoning can be said for why I took down my own blog – banging cymbals, clanging gongs and all of that.) I do appreciate you sharing this with us, Carl.

    I look forward to next weekend in PDX.