Is it possible to be quiet and silent on the flight to Egypt? I ask because I notice so many people are having trouble with these things merely on the way to the Inauguration.
I stopped for a few seconds by the newspaper stand wondering whether to buy the two evening papers here, the two biggest publications. Reading them was like emptying a bag of trash over your head.
― Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle, Book 2: A Man in Love
If I’m to believe McGilchrist’s Master and His Emissary then there’s nothing unusual about my predicament. It’s something that’s been trending, oh, for only about 500 years. There’s comfort in knowing one’s not alone in predicaments (communion peccatorum):
We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves. In general, the ‘bits’ of anything, the parts into which it could be disassembled, would come to seem more important, more likely to lead to knowledge and understanding, than the whole, which would come to be seen as no more than the sum of the parts. Ever more narrowly focussed attention would lead to an increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge. This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, would seem more ‘real’ than what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped. One would expect the left hemisphere to keep doing refining experiments on detail, at which it is exceedingly proficient, but to be correspondingly blind to what is not clear or certain, or cannot be brought into focus right in the middle of the visual field. In fact one would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside of its limited focus, because the right hemisphere’s take on the whole picture would simply not be available to it.
For more on the left and right brain distinction he mentions take a look at Your Brain, You Didn’t Read the Instructions (suffice it to say that McGilchrist’s bicameral theory is more adequate than the one used in Westworld–one day I’ll deliver a post on this).
But why is it modernity settles for fragments when the whole would seem to be so much more satisfying? The reason for it is simple. The whole is tied to both silence and suffering. If my diagnosis from yesterday is correct, then recoiling from these is, if not a basic human, then a basic modern reflex. If it is correct I should also stop writing.
Martin Laird lays gives the basic outlines of this reflex in his Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation:
The doorway into the silent land is a wound. Silence lays bare this wound. We do not journey far along the spiritual path before we get some sense of the wound of the human condition, and this is precisely why not a few abandon a contemplative practice like meditation as soon as it begins to expose this wound; they move on instead to some spiritual entertainment that will maintain distraction. Perhaps this is why the weak and wounded, who know very well the vulnerability of the human condition, often have an aptitude for discovering silence and can sense the wholeness and healing that ground this wound.
This passage makes sense of the meek inheriting the Earth better than almost anything I’ve come across. Yet, we must admit, kenosis (truly following Jesus) is tempting too. Just ask any reader of Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain whether they ever felt the temptation to run off to a monastery while reading the book. The answer is almost invariably yes, but few are the ones who gave into it.
Into the Silent Land continues by explaining why we so seldom give into this temptation to suffer into the Kingdom:
There is something seductive about the contemplative path. “I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:14), says Yahweh to Israel. It is tempting to think it is a superior path. More often, however, the seduction is to think we can use our practice of contemplation as a way to avoid facing our woundedness: if we can just go deeply enough into contemplation, we won’t struggle any longer. It is common enough to find people taking a cosmetic view of contemplation, and then, after considerable time and dedication to contemplative practice, discover that they still have the same old warts and struggles they hoped contemplation would remove or hide. They think that somewhere they must have gone wrong.
Certainly there is deep conversion, healing, and unspeakable wholeness to be discovered along the contemplative path. The paradox, however, is that this healing is revealed when we discover that our wound and the wound of God are one wound.
Johannes Hoff, author of The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, goes further into the details of how spirituality can virtually save us from insanity. It’s not often you see a theologian giving a TEDx talk, so don’t miss this one:
If you need more temptation into silence then click to the Seeking Silence interview with an expert.
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