” To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often”

It’s been a while since I posted anything linking to Adam deVille’s blog but I was struck by the title of the book he considers here. I am curious to find out the context of this phrase of the soon-to-be-canonized Newman:

To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often: The Development of John Henry Newman’s Ecclesiological Outlook, 1845–1877 by Ryan J. Marr (Fortress Academic, 2018), 234pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

This study approaches John Henry Newman’s writings on the church from a fresh perspective by examining the development of Newman’s ecclesiological outlook over time. It demonstrates that it can be misleading to refer to Newman’s “Catholic ecclesiology” (singular), because such an approach gives the impression that Newman maintained a stable ecclesiological perspective during his Roman Catholic period. In reality, Newman’s outlook on the church underwent significant developments over the last four decades of his life. As a result of various events in his life, including the Rambler affair and his experience of the First Vatican Council, Newman slowly developed an ecclesiological outlook that counterbalanced the authority of the pope and bishops with a robust account of the role of theologians and the lay faithful in the reception and transmission of church doctrine. Whether consciously or not, Newman left his ecclesiological writings open for further development on the part of theologians who would follow after him.

The always-interesting deVille has a a forthcoming book on the radical (yet also traditional) structural reforms he holds the Catholic Church needs to make to fundamentally address the crisis of sexual abuse and the associated abuse of trust and power. Presumably this book draws on Newman’s thought on these matters.


“silence is open to everyone, literate or illiterate, king or slave, secular or religious, saint or sinner.” from “Silence: A User’s Guide”, Maggie Ross on the work of silence

Having come across her repeatedly in the work of Adam deVille, I am gradually absorbing Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide”

There are all too many extracts I would love to share. I am experiencing a little bit of resistance to the message at times…

‘..the process I call the work of silence. It is the choice to turn away from noise toward an unfiltered reality, to receive its gifts of fulfillment and joy. 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.37

The term work may be slightly misleading, for the only effort involved—and in today’s world, to refocus and relax into letting go paradoxically can require a great effort—is to choose to be still, to allow the noise to fall away, to be receptive, and, as Suso notes in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, to ungrasp so that we may be “grasped” by illumination.38

The descriptive paradox signals this engagement, the breaching of the wall, the restoration of flow between the two different ways of knowing, between self-consciousness and deep mind. This simple work restores balance to our lives; it bestows equilibrium and equanimity.39 Because the fundamental operations of the human mind are universal and have not changed in recorded history, and in spite of centuries of religious and secular propaganda to the contrary, silence is open to everyone, literate or illiterate, king or slave, secular or religious, saint or sinner. It is never too late to seek silence, and one of the most important insights that comes from working with silence is that nothing in our lives is wasted.

The wisdom of silence

Adam de Ville has a particularly good post on Eastern Christian Books on Terry Eagleton’s book on sacrifice. This is an especially rich post covering a range of topics… but I will only quote a brief excerpt which echoed with this post inspired by a phrase of George Steiner’s from “The Portage to San Cristobal of A H”:

In addition to his work on Marx, Eagleton has also read Freud (and Lacan, inter alia) very perceptively, which most people today seem incapable of doing. This allows him to say–without, alas, developing it to the extent I wished–that the silence of the Father faced with His Son on the Cross “may be compared to the silence of the psychoanalyst who refuses the role of Big Other or transcendental guarantor” (41). (One thing it took me a long time on the couch to realize was that such silence was not neglect or lack of interest on the part of the remarkable woman who was my analyst. It was, rather, the very condition of freedom, and a very necessary reminder that the responsibility for the authorship of our lives must not mindlessly be handed over to others, tempting though that often is for many of us–cf. both Fromm and Winnicott on this point–as well as Adam Phillips.)

Adam DeVille on Christopher Bollas’ “Meaning and Melancholia”

From Adam DeVille’s Eastern Christian Books blog:


In this short book, Bollas imitates Freud in some ways insofar as he engages in broad cultural analysis of many themes of our time, especially certain developments in both technology and politics. But this is no mere restating or updating of Freud but instead clearly a book of our time. The impetus for it, he tells us, comes largely from the election of Trump in the US, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, and the Brexit vote and ongoing discontent in the United Kingdom. But this is not a partisan book that discusses policies so much as it looks at the history of the past century to detect certain underlying psychological themes, including, he begins by claiming, unfinished mourning from the Great War, which introduced a massive splitting into the Western psyche from which it has not recovered.

The book spends more time than I wanted on the causes and effects of current American politics, and not enough time on the changes wrought by technology. But what links the two, Bollas says in a number of ways, is a preference for simplicity, homogeneity, and the deliberate destruction of complexity: “in the age of bewilderment, there was peace to be found in ridding the mind of unwanted complexity” (77). Such eliminations are widespread: today’s politics preys on that anti-complexity; today’s globalized capitalism demands it; and even today’s therapists and psychologists go along with it, offering almost instant ready-made courses of action to “fix” one’s life rather than (as a psychoanalyst would) encouraging one to reflect on it at length in all its messiness, perhaps coming later to a new course of action–or perhaps not bothering to do so but instead, as Adam Phillips might say, coming to be content not to know without being thereby frustrated.

When he does focus on technological change–especially what it means to live our life tethered to phones and tablets, and broadcasting bits and pieces of that fragmented, homogenized life on social media–Bollas provides this very apt summary of the problems of social media, as anyone who ever bothers to read the comments on any website about any topic soon realizes: “Aspects of the way we communicate and think in the twenty-first century can be seen as forms of psychic flight from the overwhelming weight of inheriting a world shattered by dumb thoughtlessness.”

“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.

“Fearful of My Joy” – Adam deVille on cooking, feasting and the sacramental

I am running the risk of turning this blog into nothing but reposting of Adam deVille, but I could resist this 2013 post on cooking, feasting, joy, and the sacramental by way of Chesterton, Waugh, Jennifer Patterson, Alexander Schememann, and Babette’s Feast

Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm–not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.

But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that “food can and should be about enjoyment. As for ‘nutrition’–that is all balls.” And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect “Two Fat Ladies” died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999–while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently–I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson–a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: “Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!”)

Some days I am tempted to write a book “Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting” but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that

man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life (11).

I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987, Babette’s Feast. If you’ve not seen it, go and watch it. It’s a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms–opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others–the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the “better part” but there’s a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.)

The movie raised some difficult questions for my students–and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age–not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that–even on a much less grand scale–at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper’s splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what–the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called “reality” TV?