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.
And now, her response:
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