“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.


“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.


The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.


Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

From James Common’s blog, an extract from a fascinating sounding book whose themes seem to chime with my own interests. I particularly found this passage resonant:

‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.

Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.

But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.

“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.

So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.

James Common

If, like me, you are an avid consumer of natural history based literature, you will surely love the below extract from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace – An ecological pilgrimage. The book is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and round the west coast of Ireland, to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage: the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth, and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence and of fragility.

Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down…

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My Best of Tipperary Stained Glass (a personal selection of ten images)

My Best of Tipperary Stained Glass (a personal selection of ten images)

Since this post from January I have been blogging intermittently picture of stained glass from Churches in Tipperary. As I wrote in that original post:

Recently visiting various churches in Clonmel I was struck by how striking the stained glass windows were. None were particularly celebrated or well-recognised, yet were – quite apart from any religious consideration – beautiful, literally luminous works of art. It struck me that they deserve to be celebrated and recorded. Perhaps there is somewhere, online or in a book, which the stained glass windows of Tipperary are collected, but here is my humble effort in that line.

I have been opportunistically taking pictures of stained glass since. I have strayed beyond just one county. I have also been frequently mortified at my lack of photo skills. It is comforting to find from others that stained glass is tricky to take pictures of.

I tend to take these photos when I get the chance – ie between work, family life and other commitments. Therefore they very much reflect my own locality and routine with a definite South Tipp bias. I also have found that Church of Ireland churches tend to be locked when I have tried to go in. I don’t want to distract from services or people at prayer so I try to avoid the times of services/masses. So these images have all been from Catholic Churches – which was not my intention at all!

Anyhow, the posts on Tipperary stained glass are as follows:

Stained Glass of Augustinian Priory, Fethard

Stained Glass from Church of St John The Baptist, Kilcash, Tipperary

Stained Glass of Holycross Abbey, Holycross, Tipperary

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Grangemockler, Tipperary

Stained Glass from Church of the Visitation, Cloneen, Tipperary 

Stained Glass from Powerstown, Clonmel, Tipperary Part 1

Murphy Devitt Studios Stained Glass in Chapel of St Anthony, Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel

Murphy Devitt Stained Glass from Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel.

“A kind of gospel in glass”: stained glass from the Church of the Holy Trinity, Fethard, Tipperary.

Stained Glass from New Birmingham/Glengoole, Tipperary

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 


A random image from a site already linked to above:

sunlight through stained glass – St Anthony’s Chapel, Franciscan Friary, Clonmel

From the above I have decided to make a personal selection of my ten favourite images gathered on this stained glass adventure. I don’t pretend to be an expert, a good photographer or a systematic researcher. I am learning more and more about stained glass as time goes by but don’t intend to turn this into another arena of excess striving.

Reviewing the pictures I am rather mortified at the out of focus and generally bad images… so I will strive (irony) to improve this (and may prune egregious examples) I have decided to choose, in so far as possible, purely on aesthetic grounds and purely on the images themselves, as opposed to the place or how the window looks in reality, or any other consideration.


Harry Clarke window of Our Lady of Fatima, Augustinian Abbey, Fethard, Co Tipperary
St Anthony’s Chapel, Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel (Murphy Devitt Studios)
From Church of the Visitation, Cloneen

From Church of the Visitation, Cloneen

From St Mary’s Church, Killenaule

From St Mary’s Church, Killenaule
Detail of window of Our Lady of Fatima, Augustinian Abbey, Fethard
From Church of the Holy Trinity, Fethard
From Church of St John the Baptist, Powerstown
From Church of St John the Baptist, Kilcash


Poems on the wind – John Hewitt, Patrick McDonagh, Wallace Stevens

From First Known When Lost:

In the meantime, we have the wind.  And poems about the wind.


White roses shatter, overblown,
by the breath of a little wind undone,
yet the same air passing scarcely stirs
the tall dark green perpetual firs.

John Hewitt, Scissors for a One-Armed Tailor: Marginal Verses 1929-1954 (1974)

“Providence” feels like a haiku:  a report on experience.  (To borrow from Edmund Blunden.)  However, a word such a “providence” would likely be avoided by a haiku poet.  Too subjective.  Of course, I am completely open to the possibility that what the wind does may well be “providence”:  I am not in any way criticizing Hewitt’s use of the word.

Hewitt, like a good haiku poet, tells us exactly what he saw.  The difference is that he gives us a hint.  A haiku poet would leave us to draw our own conclusions.  Or, better yet, would leave us to draw no conclusions at all, but only see the World as it is, or, perhaps more accurately, as the haiku poet saw it in a moment of passing time.

Enough of that.  I do not wish to create the impression that I am quibbling about “Providence”:  I think it is a lovely poem.  As is this, another poem about the wind of Ireland.


This wind that howls about our roof tonight
And tears live branches screaming from great trees
Tomorrow may have scarcely strength to ruffle
The rabbit’s back to silver in the sun.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Of course, poets cannot help but bring humans into their apostrophes about the wind.  Thus, for instance, they say that the wind “sighs” or “moans” or “cries.”  This is to be expected.  All poetry, all art, is an attempt to place ourselves into the World in the hope of making sense of things, however briefly.  It is not surprising that, in doing so, we see ourselves (or come upon ourselves) in the World.

Moreover, we mustn’t forget that the beautiful particulars of the World include human beings.  The wind.  People.

The Wind Shifts

This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

We are the wind and the wind is us.  The wind is us and we are the wind.

World Labyrinth Day 2017 – May 6th, 1 pm

From the Blog My Maze site:

Again you are invited from The Labyrinth Society to celebrate the World Labyrinth Day: Celebrate the eighth annual World Labyrinth Day (WLD) on Saturday, May 6, 2017! The Labyrinth Society invites you to ‘Walk as One at 1″ in the afternoon, joining others around the globe to create a wave of peaceful energy washing across the time […]

No doubt the labyrinth of Mr Price  will get a walking…. (and rebuilding):img_2421

Or perhaps the not terribly distant labyrinth of Glencomeragh:


Or that of the Rock of Cashel:
cashel labyrinth