Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding
By Maggie Ross
Abingdon, UK: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2011
Almost twenty years ago I read Maggie Ross’s wonderful book on the theology of priesthood, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity. Not only was it a valuable book in helping me to affirm my ministry as a lay Christian, but it also struck me as one of the most lyrical and eloquent statements of Christian spirituality in general that I had ever read. Yes, that is high praise. But the book deserved it. Ross, an Anglican solitary, clearly understood how tainted Christian theology had become by imperial, Greco-Roman, concepts of God-as-controlling-political-authority — and how such a domineering image of God had corrupted not only Christian spirituality in general, but particularly Christian thinking about priesthood. Only by regaining an understanding of God-as-kenotic-love, as evidenced by the witness of Christ and the New Testament authors, could we ever hope to re-vision priesthood as the radical servant/ministry that Christ intended it to be.
So when one of the brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit sent me an enthusiastic email insisting that Writing the Icon of the Heart, Ross’s newest offering, was by far one of the most important books on spirituality that he had read in a long time, I took him at his word. And now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to commend it to you as well. The book is a collection of essays Ross had written over a twenty year period, most of which had been published in journals like Weavings or Sobornost. But they have all been revised/rewritten for this collection, and she requests that the essays be read in the order presented here. So what emerges feels less like a hodgepodge anthology and more like a thematic introduction to her singular perspective on what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, from considering the missing element in so many discussions of contemplation (“beholding”), to a frank but sober assessment of how a spiritual awakening might be our only hope as we consider the breadth and depth of environmental degradation that characterizes today’s world. Ross divides her time between Oxford and Alaska, and so her writing is infused with an appreciation of wilderness, not only for its own sake but also as a key element in an authentically kenotic spirituality.
Ross warns in the introduction of the book against the facile use of the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and indeed, one of her most consistent targets is the idolatry of experience that characterizes so much spiritual thinking and activity in our day. While I am not willing to be quite as damning in my critique of experience as she is — I see the turn toward experience as a necessary corrective to the overly intellectualized propositional theology that has bedeviled so much Christianity, particularly in its Protestant form, over the past few generations — I broadly agree with her assertion that the quest for experience has become a religious cul-de-sac, reducing Christianity from its splendor as a threshold to the mysteries to a mere consumer spirituality, trading transformational kenosis for mental-emotional entertainment. The Christian mystery takes us far beyond what we can think or feel — to the place of “beholding,” a splendid word that Ross notes has been all but erased from modern translations of the Bible (not to mention most modern translations of the writings of Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing, which helps to explain why Ross is so critical of reading those texts in translated editions).
Unlike consumer spirituality where a warm cozy experience of God’s love can be engineered by the right music and a carefully crafted sermon, true contemplative beholding ushers us into radical encounter with the terrifying living God, a place beyond our puny attempts to control and our feeble insistence on good feelings as the arbiter of sanctity. True beholding, therefore, is transfigurative rather than merely experiential — echoing Teresa of Avila’s insistence that the only sure way of assessing progress in the spiritual life is by considering one’s growth in holiness, which is to say, growth in love and humble service of others.
For Maggie Ross, the “others” we are called to love and humbly serve are not merely our fellow Christians or even the larger human family. Rather, she eloquently speaks of the entire sweep of creation as our brothers and sisters in the Divine economy. From cranberries to walruses to a hair-raising near-encounter with a grizzly bear, her essays are vibrant with the beauty and splendor of God’s good earth. She also pulls no punches in considering how much damage our consumer economy has caused. Only by abandoning consumerism and accepting the call of kenosis — of self-emptying love — is there any hope for our fragile and distressed biosphere. And only by beholding God in silence and self-forgetful abandonment can we hope to discern, and accept, that uncompromising call.
In the end, Maggie Ross writes eloquently of the experience of tears — not as some sort of emotional manipulation, as so much religious spectacle seems to promote — but rather as an authentic embracing of sorrow, of loss, of repentance, of grief, of letting-go — that ushers us in to that place, where, in our letting go (kenosis) we encounter the kenotic God. This is the place of transfiguration, beyond any “technology” or “experience,” whether religious or otherwise. May we all be carried by our tears to such a graced encounter.