Reading and Recognition

The Silent Cry

The Silent Cry

The Greek word for “reading” means to have renewed cognition, to re-cognize. To read texts of mysticism is to have renewed cognition of one’s self, of a being that is buried under rubble. Thus, the discovery of the mystical tradition also sets free one’s own forgotten experience.

— Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance

In The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault describes Jesus “as a recognition event.” In Jesus we recognize ourselves, but we also recognize God. Recognition and remembering are core elements of the spiritual life, along with repentance (metanoia, changing one’s consciousness). To remember is to bring something to mind again, to recognize is to identify that which is already known, if only within our deep unconscious. Each of these “re-” words seem to suggest that the secrets of our spiritual transformation in Christ are already encoded within us, “written on our hearts.” Mysticism: the revelation of that which is hidden. Not only is God hidden from us, but our own potential deification is hidden, buried deep within us, a potential simply waiting to be recognized, to be embodied, to be launched.

Yesterday I spoke with a monastic guest — a man on a long-term residency at the monastery — who posed me this question: if the heart of contemplative practice entails embracing silence, and letting go of discursive thought in order to attend to God’s silence, then — once we have recognized this — what is the point of any further reading? It’s a great question, and ironically I was rearranging the Christian mysticism books in the store as he asked it. I waved my hands at the books, and said, “Simplest answer: I keep reading because I love this beautiful tradition.” But beyond that, I read because the mystics — at least the best ones, like Ruysbroeck and Julian and The Cloud and Meister Eckhart, or even living authors like Maggie Ross and Martin Laird — all use language to subvert itself, they tell stories and weave kataphatic imagery but all, eventually, in the service of letting go of such very things in order to embrace the silence where we encounter Mystery and open ourselves to transfiguration.

But what about Soelle and the setting free of forgotten experience? I’m not sure that experience is the best word here, especially when seen through the eyes of America’s entertainment culture, but I don’t read German so I’m not sure how Soelle originally put it. I would speculate that she’s pointing us not so much to remembering what we’ve experienced, but to remembering who we are. That’s what mystical writing tries to do, and what reading it  can trigger within us. We remember who we are by stripping away all that we are not. And the playfulness, paradoxes, and Zen-koan-like literary devices of much Christian mysticism can help us do just that.

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Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
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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.

  • roger p. martin

    I read Sölle in Dutch:in this translation it is clear she means”remembering who we are”

    I notice you admireJan van Ruysbroeck(whose abbey in the Ter Kameren wood is not far from my home and whose name was used by a Brussels Lodge of the Regular Grand Lodge of Belgium) Sölle mentions him in relation with his theories of the way-out of banishment and the four religious types of people(cfr Happold I979 p.5I) What is your opinion in relation with these approaches?

    • Carl McColman

      In general, any effort to systematically describe the spiritual life strikes me as having a limited usefulness. Ruysbroeck’s four types reminds me a bit of Bernard of Clairvaux’s four degrees of love. By no means a precise correspondence, but both mystics seem to be trying to chart the evolution from self-oriented love to disinterested (God-centered) love. From eros to agape, perhaps. I think we all are called to scale the mountain, but there may be different paths to follow on our way up.

  • Susan

    Thank you Carl for your wondrous insight into the un-nature of mystical writing and reading and unknowing.

  • Bob Holmes

    Carl, As a practitioner rather than a scholar, I find your scholarship spot on. Absolutely Refreshing!

    Deep Peace and Grace,