Writing the Icon of the Heart

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.

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  • http://alisonleighlilly.com/ Ali Lilly

    Lovely, sounds like a fascinating read! I think I’m inclined to agree with you about the emphasis on experience as a corrective to the overly analytical/intellectual bent of Christianity in recent centuries, especially since the role of reason has asserted itself so forcefully in modern science (and so, in modern society as a whole) as the primary locus of truth and meaning. I understand why Ross might sense a danger in chasing “mere experience” rather than transformative love, but at the same time, a transformative love that doesn’t change our experience seems like a fairly limp kind of love to me, at least one that hasn’t been fully integrated into our being as embodied creatures living in a physical world. You have to wonder what “growing in holiness” looks like if it doesn’t change us at every level of our being, including our experiences of the world. And as an artist, I think that engaging with physical and emotional experience – if done with attention and devotion – can indeed be a powerful path towards that same transformative love. It’s hard for me to imagine that an approach that doesn’t appreciate the sacred power of embodied experience will be successful in, f’ex, resisting environmental exploitation. On the other hand, it sounds from your description that she might just have a somewhat narrow definition of “mere experience,” which rests on this idea of shallow sentimentalism and stimulation but doesn’t include the visceral experiences of sorrow, grief and loss that can shake us up and break us open to kenotic love. Maybe sentimentality or sensationalism might be a better term than “experience” in that case?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      As usual, you are astute in your observation. Ross’s last chapter looks at the role of tears in the spiritual life — not the sentimental tears of some sort of manufactured/manipulated conversion experience, but the real, from-the-gut tears of sorrow (or joy). So she is hardly opposed to embodied, visceral “experience,” just the “experience” that amounts to little more than engineered spiritual emotionalism (sensationalism, as you put it).

  • Ray Hardwick, s.f.o.

    Carl, have you read Joseph Nangle’s “Engaged Spirituality?” and what if so any comments you might have.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Sorry, Ray, I haven’t read that one yet. Is it a title you recommend?

  • Ray Hardwick, s.f.o.

    Yes, very much so as it’s subtitle suggests, “Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire” it proposes ways that we can live out the gospel in our daily lives in America and challenges the clergy to preach the social aspects of the readings we hear at Mass each Sunday. Two of the chapters are entitled “Political Reading of the Scriptures” in the sense of it’s Latin root “polis” or life of the people. The other chapter “Prayer and Contemplation” in which he deals with a different approach to prayer and contemplation. Thought you might be interested in reading this one as it is written with a passion for the truth of our faith.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Thanks, Ray. I’ll add it to the ever-expanding list! :-)

  • Mark

    Carl: Do you have this book at the monastery? Amazon, Powell’s, and Barnes & Noble are out of stock.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      We have it on order, but since it is only published in the UK we have to import it — and my shipment has not yet arrived. Do you want me to hold a copy for you?

      • Mark

        I think I’d like to thumb through the book first before committing to purchase it.

  • BR

    Mark, many of the essays in the book are in shorter, slightly different versions on her blog at http://ravenwilderness.blogspot.com. The navigation’s a little hard going, but it is essential reading.

    An exemplary piece from the book is “Practical Adoration,” in four parts:

    Some are scholarship, others more personal, like “Heaven Can’t Wait,” a long essay on the death of her mother. The whole book is excellent; the introduction, describing “beholding” and setting the stage for her forthcoming book on the work of silence, is essential.