IX Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...
There is a quality of gift to all silence as revealed in the dialogues with silence that constitute music, speech and thought, and the contexts in which ordinary life is lived. Silence serves the same function as wilderness, as Czech philosopher Erazim Kohàk has reminded us: it is capable of receiving pain, integrating it into something larger than itself, and transfiguring it into the self-forgetful silence of contemplation.[i] Kohàk is making the point that if wilderness is lost there is no where for pain -- or langage -- to find its apotheosis. In a closed system, pain can only be managed, controlled, or anaesthetised, leaving human beings are trapped in the tortured projections of their own minds.[ii]
The phrase ‘it’s so beautiful it hurts’ is rarely heard in contemporary discourse. Wilderness is beautiful precisely because it is not a closed and artificial human construct, and because it is not controllable. Its beauty, and this is arguably a quality of all beauty, lies in its elusive qualities that elide into silence, moving from the visual to the audial.[iii] Silence itself is a landscape in which the subject may be freed from human constructs, drawn through metaphors, metaphors themselves being small evocative landscapes.[iv]
Secondly, there are various sorts of silences in texts, but I refer neither to Derrida and the deconstruction debate, nor to so-called arguments from silence. Rather, I mean the exegesis of silences such as those assumed in the Bible. For example: the silence of the desert night; the silence of the holy of holies; the silence of an ancient city at night with doors locked and windows shuttered and whole families cowering in one bed; the silence from which agonized cries for mercy re-echo through the psalms; the silence and stillness, the emptiness which are pre-requisites for fertility;[v] the silence in which the Face of God appears and disappears; the silence of death from which new and transfigured life arises. This, then, is a second area of the exegesis of silence, that of silences of the presenting world out of which religion -- to take only one example -- emerges.
Thirdly, certain kinds of text subtly evacuate the mind into essential silence through various literary devices, some of which are apophatic images that bestow, however fleetingly, minute tastes of its fulness; that is to say, these texts are capable of delivering the reader or listener for a nano-second to the threshold of absolute and refulgent silence.[vi] Most of these ephemeral silences go unnoticed by the reader or hearer for reasons cited below, but silence is often the tantalizing factor in texts, religious or otherwise, that enthralls and fascinates, the factor that compels the feeling that there is something buried in the text that is impossible to discover.
As Marion Glasscoe has noted, ‘...the reader, in ... turn, is absorbed into a process of understanding which leads, not to a final intellectual formulation, but to a point where at least the possibility of a mode of knowing in which the mene of language has no place is glimpsed’.[vii] Even to acknowledge, much less to enter, this possibility of knowing in unknowing in which the mene of language has no place is already to have begun the recovery of multidimensionality and theological psychology, to have moved forward to the picture that has been regarded from a distance, and to step into it.
There are as many ways into silence as there are people and moments in time. For purposes of this paper, one-pointed meditation is the model of choice.[viii] Common to all forms of one-pointed meditation are instructions on how to sit, how to breathe, how to focus the anarchy of the mind, how to follow the lead of what is focused on, which gathers the mind and represses nothing.[ix] But again, the method can only provide availability to silence, which is dependent on the paradox of intention and is not tied to theistic positing.
The gift of silence is given in meditation, but it is also a gift that can come ‘like a thief in the night’ (Mt 24:43) to take the recipient’s self-consciousness by surprise, for the suspension of self-consciousness is a normal part of human consciousness and occurs many times a day in the ordinary round. A particularly interesting example of this phenomenon was described in ‘Talk of the Town’ in the New Yorker in 1985:
But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes -- it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....
As I walk by my rather dishevelled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed. I am called to lunch, and reply that I’ll be there in a minute. The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands. A voice rings out from the house, ‘It’s suppertime!’[x]
The 7th century writer, Isaac of Nineveh, describes the same phenomenon in a more conventionally religious context:
So, when there is no prayer, can this ineffable gift be designated by the name of prayer? The reason, we say, is thus: it is at the time of prayer that this gift is granted ... and it takes it starting point from prayer.... Therefore it is called by the name of prayer, because the intellect is conducted from prayer towards that blessed state, and because prayer is its starting-point.... And we see also that with many of the saints their histories say that their intellect was snatched while they were standing in prayer.[xi]
[i] The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984. See also David B. Morris, The Culture of Pain, Berkeley,: University of California, 1991, whose primary interest is pain relief, and whose arguments are complementary.
[ii] See my ‘The Ecology of Repentance’, Creation, September/October, 1992, p. 29; rewritten for Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, BRF, 2011.
[iii] Julian of Norwich makes the same transition in chapter 26 f of the Long Text. Her true beholding is the relinquishing of sight for the Word (cf., John 9).
[iv] ‘Sexuality ’, op. cit.
[v] And the essential meaning of ‘virginity’ in religious discourse.
[vi] ‘The Apophatic Image’, op. cit.
[vii] In the introduction to her edition of Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love, Exeter: University of Exeter, 1986, p. xvi.
[viii] Elsewhere I have called this ‘still-prayer’, which I prefer as an inclusive descriptor. See note 16.
[ix] See note 14. Some teachers, misrepresenting the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, appear to misunderstand this point about gathering as opposed to repressing. The distinction is crucial. The contents of the mind are not repressed or forgotten, they are -- the word is carefully chosen -- relinquished by discursive self-consciousness. [NB I have altered this footnote 18.6.2012 in light of 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII, ed. E.A. Jones, Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2012 forthcoming. I was deceived by the translations/paraphrases all, of which, without exception, misrepresent this psychologically acute text.]
[x] In the November 11, issue, p. 36.
[xi] Tr. Sebastian Brock in The Fountain and the Furnace, p. 270.