Names for things

I continue to be haunted by the question of language and tradition. There are untold depths within any religious tradition, and within each there is a contemplative core, often unrecognised by most followers of a religion, and all too often opposed by its hierarchy.

There are great practical similarities between practices like Centering Prayer, Sōtō Zen meditation, vipassana and others, but they are set within very different traditions. For those of us in the West in the 21st century it is often very difficult to read even modern texts in English whose conceptual bases are as different as 14th century English monasticism (Centering Prayer draws much of its inspiration from The Cloud of Unknowing), 13th century Japan, or the Pali of the 3rd century BCE. Christian mysticism as a whole is rooted in the Bible, mostly in the New Testament Greek of 1st century Palestine and the surrounding territories.

Within each tradition there are living communities of contemplative practice, and many who have felt the call to a life of prayer and contemplation have left their homes, and sometimes their countries in search of this continuity. At times they have learned another language or languages, and taken on an entire culture different to the one in which they were born. But is such an upheaval necessary, or even advisable?

If nothing else, the current pandemic has show to many of us that our inner lives are far more independent of a physical community of faith than we had thought, and for those of us who are part of a religious tradition involving a regular physical rite such as the Eucharist, even to some degree independent of the priestly administration of such a rite. But a spirituality stripped of all tradition and history can seem barren and artificial, just as assuming the mantle of a tradition rooted in another culture can seem alien and uncomfortable.

Certainty is of course a poor fit for the contemplative life, and it may be that there is still a long way to go before a comfortable home is found for contemplative practice in these days; in any case, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is still in the very recent past.

To change people’s consciousness, we have to find a way to reach their unconscious. That’s where our hearts and our real agendas lie, where our mother wounds, father wounds, and cultural wounds reside. The unconscious is where it all lies stored, and this determines a great deal of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. While it took modern therapy and psychology for us to recognize how true this was, through apocalyptic literature, the Scripture writers were already there. We can’t get to the unconscious logically, literally, or mechanically. We have to fall into it, I’m sorry to say, and usually by suffering, paradox and the effective use of symbols.

Richard Rohr, from In the Footsteps of St. Paul (audiobook)

Rohr might have mentioned that the unconscious cannot be hurried, either! This is why, awkward and counterintuitive though they so often are, and burdened with at times unsought resonances and prejudices from other cultures, there is still so much power in the linguistic formulations and texts of the past. Our minds have roots: we cut them, often, at our peril.

2 thoughts on “Names for things

  1. Timothy Pitt-Payne

    Mike, possibly related is something I have just written about how we can navigate differences in religious language. It’s specifically arising from the divergence about “God language” in Quakerism.


    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Yes, Tim, I see what you mean. Weil’s wall can act as a protection as well as a barrier and a medium of communication. (I almost said “social medium”!) But it, the wall, can also be used by each of the prisoners to write their own stories, their own journalings. If they later dismantle the wall carefully enough, they may share them one with another. That is possibly what I was getting at in my own post about the unconscious resonance of language, that we hastily discard at our peril.



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