Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Work of Silence

Review of Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process 

Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary in the tradition of St. Julian of Norwich.  Her most recent book, Silence: A User’s Guide, is the first installment of her two-volume magnum opus.  It is the fruit of a lifetime of contemplative prayer and scholarly reflection, and serves as a fine example of the material effects of what she refers to in this book as “the work of silence.”

Ross defines the work of silence as the process of “restoring communion with, and re-centering in, the deep mind within us.” (Ross, p. 23) 

The purpose of the work of silence is to re-establish the flow between self-consciousness, which discriminates, dominates, and distorts our lives, and the clarity and wisdom of the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, but whose activities we can influence. (p. 23)

She argues that this distinction between “self-consciousness” and “deep mind” is correlated with the bicameral brain.  Self-consciousness is correlated with left-brain functioning, which is finite, linear, and self-reflexive.  Deep mind is correlated with right-brain functioning, which is infinite, holographic, and inclusive.  Human beings are naturally equipped with these dual epistemological capacities, and both are necessary for human flourishing.  Ross is careful not to conflate mind with brain, but wants to emphasize that how we use our mind shapes the structure and function of the brain.  We’ve become an almost exclusively, and dangerously, “left brain” culture. (p. 31) 

The problem arises when, as in modern Western culture (including mainstream Christian traditions), human self-consciousness is sundered from the transfiguring power of the deep mind.  Human perception is reduced to a closed system that is solipsistic and merely virtual, confusing representations (however helpful and necessary) for direct encounter with reality, reinforcing prejudices and projections. 

This superficial conceptual mind is not “bad,” but when the flow of exchange with the deep mind is cut off it is a mess.  In its optimal relationship with deep mind, self-consciousness plays a positive role.  It offers the human person awareness of his or her imagination.  Self-consciousness provides essential services by sorting and classifying by means of linear reason the perceptions given to it by deep mind.  It receives, orders, and interprets images and relationships, and the beauties and wonders of the sensory and material worlds.  But the world self-consciousness creates is paradoxical:  by organizing what it receives, it reduces deep mind’s living direct perceptions to lifeless summaries . . . To make its contribution useful instead of destructive, its perspective must be continually yielded back to and trans-figured in the silence of the deep mind; that is to say, it must continually submit its interpretations to the silence so that its habitual patterns, the way it “figures things out,” can be modified more accurately to reflect the deep mind’s direct perception of reality. (pp. 42-43).

The restoration of connection between these two dimensions of mind occurs “primarily by means of intention, paradox and resonance.” (p. 47).  Ross describes the relinquishment of self-consciousness into deep mind in terms of the “paradox of intention.”  This refers to our willingness to re-engage the connection through the work of silence.  By entering into silent contemplation, the contents of consciousness are emptied as the liminal space between self-consciousness and deep mind is approached (including our intention to do so, hence the paradox). 

There are a variety of methods to support this intention, generally focused on cultivating one-pointed attention.  However, these only serve to bring one to the point of liminality, to the possibility of openness to deep mind.  It involves a shift of concentration from the contents of consciousness to a wide-open awareness.

Liminality is as far as self-consciousness can go.  It is the threshold where effects of unseen communication with, and input from, the deep mind become manifest.  The person must wait in liminality, in unknowing, for gratuity, for whatever irrupts – often unawares – from the deep mind.  This is contemplation properly speaking. (p. 47)

Movement across the threshold of liminality into deep mind is what the Christian tradition refers to as excessus mentis: the cessation of self-consciousness in pure awareness beyond the subject-object duality of discursive reason.   It is the encounter with Reality, with God, that trans-figures our perception, the effects of which can be discerned after the fact.  Such an encounter cannot be forced; it is pure gift.  We can simply become willing to surrender self-consciousness at the borderland of deep mind. 

The paradox of intention that opens the door to divine encounter is similarly, albeit more poetically, described by Tilden Edwards.

Such direct knowing involves, first of all, a deep desire to participate in the flow of God’s grace in the living moment.  Put another way, I bring a desire to identify the core of my being with the radiant Love who, according to scripture, shapes each of us into a unique image of itself.  I also bring a desire to live out of that Love in my daily life.  Finally, I bring a trust, or at least a hope, that by suspending attachment to the conditioned concepts and images of my conceptual mind I will be left more vulnerable to the grace at hand that so exceeds what my thinking mind can hold.  I will be more available to the movements of the Holy Spirit that animate what is most vital in the living moment.  The awareness of deep Reality from my deep soul-self will be awakened. (Edwards, p. 13)

Ross describes this surrender of self-consciousness as “free falling into God’s love.”  In Christian terms, it is the process of what she names “en-Christening” or, to use a biblical turn of phrase, “putting on the mind of Christ.” Ross, however, would add two cautions to Edwards’ description.  The first would be to emphasize that deep mind is also “thinking mind.”  It is not irrational.  It simply operates on a different, more expansive epistemological model than the limited, self-conscious mind.   

The second would be to emphasize that the elision of self-consciousness in deep mind, which makes possible the encounter with God, is not an “experience.”  To speak of an “experience of God” requires self-conscious awareness of the subject of the experience, and God can never be spoken of as an object among other objects.  To speak of such an “experience” indicates that one is several degrees of interpretation removed from the direct encounter itself. 

Reconnection with deep mind requires a self-forgetfulness that renounces all claims to experience.  It can only be talked about retrospectively with reference to its affects. (Ross, pp. 78-80) St. John Cassian observed similarly that “Prayer is not perfect when the monk is conscious of himself and of the fact that he is actually praying.” (Conferences, 9:31)

Ross argues that access to the deep mind is necessary in order to think properly at all.  The danger of self-consciousness locked in upon itself is manifest in such absurdities as our belief that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet; that we can destroy our natural environment indefinitely without undermining the bases for human life; that human beings are isolated, autonomous, discreet, and fixed individual selves.  Deep mind opens us to sense of the whole, intuitive insight, and compassionate responsivity that are desperately needed in our world.

Ross pulls no punches when it comes to her understanding of the importance of silence to human flourishing.  Every seminarian learns the well-known first part of a quote from Irenaeus of Lyon: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive” – Ross reminds us of the less well-known second part of the quote: “and to be alive consists in beholding God.”  The loss of silence, which is the necessary condition for this beholding, is to risk the loss of life itself. 

The human race is sleepwalking into extinction.  If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and our selves with it, then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.  If religion is to be a viable catalyst for this way of living, then it must recover the work of silence. (p. 9)

Silence is a mature and challenging corrective to much of what passes for writing about “spirituality.”  Ross’ chapter on “Language About Silence” and her chapters on “Suppressing Silence” greatly help to clarify our conceptual understanding of the work of silence and how it has been marginalized in Western culture.  Her comment that “Silence is our natural habitat, and the work of silence is, as it were, a process of returning to the wild” (p. 13) is a beautiful reminder that contemplative silence is not a flight from the world, but rather a means of engaging with it more deeply. 

This is a perspective that Ross returns to repeatedly, insisting that “The work of silence is not a separate compartment of life called “spirituality”: it is living the ordinary through trans-figured perception.” (p. 33) Indeed, the work of silence itself does not occur in a vacuum, but rather sustains and is sustained by an entire way of life.

In terms of the relationship between self-consciousness and the work of silence with the deep mind, the trajectory looks something like this: a person who has taken the time to observe his or her own mind rediscovers the way to re-center the person, the way that communication between the self-conscious mind and deep mind can be re-established, often expressed through paradoxes (they are paradoxes only to the self-conscious mind) that move the mind through liminality into reciprocity with deep mind.  This way is not confined to mere technique (such as meditation) but requires a context, a value system (whether or not it is recognized or denied), and a re-integration into the natural world.  These are some of the most important elements essential to becoming a mature human being. (p. 143)

Contrary to popular misinterpretations, this vision of maturity humanity was held by the early fathers and mothers of desert monasticism and later Benedictine monasticism, who, rather than fleeing into the hell of the isolated self, lived the truth that “my life is with my neighbor.”  The work of silence is not a flight from the world for the sake of saving one’s self, but rather the willingness to empty one’s self for the sake of the salvation of the world.  It is a way of wisdom that goes back to Jesus, who engaged the work of silence himself and taught the way of metanoia, conversion or expansion of mind, perfectly embodying the emptying of self-consciousness or kenosis that metanoia entails.  

In the second volume of Silence, Ross will include a re-reading of Hebrew and Christian scriptures from the perspective of the work of silence.  It should be anticipated eagerly, if the first volume is any indication of its importance and value. 

Works Cited

Cassian, John, Conferences (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1985).

Edwards, Tilden, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living
 (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 2010).

Ross, Maggie, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process (London: Darton, Longman, and
            Todd, 2014).

Monday, September 5, 2016


St. Robert of Molesme, Abbey of Cîteaux
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend mass at the Abbey of Cîteaux, the “mother house” of the Cistercian Order.  Cistercians are a branch of the Benedictine family, founded in 1098 by St. Robert of Molesme.  The Cistercians were a reform movement that sought to return to a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, in reaction to the wealth and perceived laxity of Benedictine monasteries founded by the Abbey of Cluny. 

The Cistercian Order grew under the leadership of St. Robert and his two successor Abbots, St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding.  It was Abbot Stephen who welcomed Bernard of Fontaine to Cîteaux in 1113.  He would become known as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great theologian and preacher, who spread the Cistercian reform throughout Europe.  At the height of its influence, some 500 Cistercian monasteries and 900 convents flourished.

The Reformation and subsequent Wars of Religion took a toll on Cîteaux and the Order, as did inevitable institutional decline.  During the 17th Century, the Cistercian Order underwent another revival calling for stricter observance of the Rule.  Associated with the reforms initiated in la Trappe by the abbot de Rancé, those who kept the strict observance became known as “Trappists.”

The Enlightenment and French Revolution were hard on religious orders in Europe.  In 1789, Cîteaux was confiscated by the State and sold as stone quarry (as was the great Abbey of Cluny).  Monastic communities were disbanded, and the Trappists sought refuge in Switzerland and as far away as Russia.  One hundred years later, Trappist monks purchased and resettled the Abbey of Cîteaux. 

Abbey Church
The Abbey church today is a very plain, modern concrete structure.  Although the setting was simple, the liturgy was celebrated with great reverence and beauty.  Most of the buildings that remain are from the 17th and 18th Century.  Currently, 35 monks are resident in Cîteaux, though recently 4 of them left to create a new foundation in Norway. 

I’ve long admired the Trappists because of the writings of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Visiting Cîteaux reminded me of the great commitment monastic life requires.  The daily schedule alone is daunting, including the daily office ( seven services with psalms, scripture readings, and prayers):
Abbey Church

3:45 a.m.         Rise
4:00 a.m.         Vigils
7:00 a.m.         Lauds & mass
9:30 a.m.         Terce
12:30 p.m.       Sext
2:30 p.m.         None
6:00 p.m.         Vespers
8:00 p.m.         Compline
8:30 p.m.         Bedtime
In between, the brothers have time for work (earning their living from a dairy operation), lectio divina (contemplative reading of sacred texts), a period of study/rest in the afternoon, and two common meals.  Imagine following this same schedule every day, in the same place, with largely the same group of people, until the day you die.  It is a profound witness to placing intimacy with God as the highest priority in one’s life.

While few are called to monastic life, we can all learn from the monks’ commitment to stability in community, simplicity, and balance.  Seven times each day, monks drop whatever they may be doing and turn to prayer, paying attention to God’s presence in their life with praise and thanksgiving.  What a gift it would be if each of us, if only for a moment, paused with such frequency throughout our day and turned our attention to God with gratitude. 
Abbey grounds

Tilden Edwards, a priest and teacher at the Shalem Institute, often reminds us that no matter where we are or what time it is, we can always “lean back into the Presence.”  

I’m grateful for the monks of Cîteaux, and all the people in my life, who witness to the importance of “learning to lean.”