- Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding by Maggie Ross
Maggie Ross is so delightfully Maggie Ross in Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, her offering to a world in need of spiritual deepening, maturity. Steep with the volume a bit and you’ll understand the strident circularity of that opening claim, though a certain irony accompanies it too: the name Maggie Ross is a pseudonym for Martha Reeves, not of popular-music acclaim. This collection of essays brings refreshing perspective, invitation, and challenge into the liturgical, theological, pastoral, and practical dimensions of a vibrant spiritual life. Fans of Ross’s work will receive echoes of her previous works—The Fire of Your Life (Seabury, 2007), Pillars of Flame (Seabury, 2007), and The Fountain and the Furnace (Paulist, 1987). Those who have not encountered her writings will receive intimations of work yet to come—a forthcoming volume on silence as practice necessary for the church/world today. She writes within her ecclesial calling as a “professed Anglican solitary responsible to the [now retired] Archbishop of Canterbury,” Rowan Williams, though she offers this work, resourced and held within Oxford, England communities of scholarship. One of the most responsive, Internet-connected solitaries I’ve met (admittedly very few), she blogs at www.ravenwilderness.blogspot.com.
The Introduction orients the reader in a didactic way to the volume’s twelve essays, “best read in the order in which they appear.” Ross being Ross, directing even from the Table of Contents page. “Silence is context and end, beholding the means,” she begins. “In the final analysis, this is all we need to know” (xvii). She sets up an independence for both terms—neither religious nor unreligious, consciously crafted nor unconsciously entered—distinguishing silence as “the vast interior landscape that invites us to stillness” (xvii), silence and beholding as “our natural state” (xx). She roots all that is to come within scripture’s authority: “the imperative form of the word behold has more than thirteen hundred occurrences in Hebrew and Greek.” A twist arises, however, when she argues multiple misinterpretations of this word in holy-translation, conceived by minds not practiced in silence-beholding at all. Sometimes the imperative is omitted entirely. Other times, it is translated as “remember” (Mt. 28:20), which Ross describes as one-sided and dualistic, with nothing of a “covenant of engagement or self-emptying” occurring in beholding. Repeatedly, this sense arises that she’s inviting her reader into a world known but not, scriptural but non-translatable. That she brings the hefty reality of covenant as frame for in silence beholding makes this text a powerful theological statement, with implications and claims beyond spirituality-disciplinary interests. “After God has blessed the newly created humans,” she observes, “the first word he speaks to them directly is ‘Behold . . .’ (Gen. 1:29). This is the first covenant, and the only one necessary; the later covenants are concessions to those who will not behold” (xviii, italics mine). The implications of this claim—which is all it is right now—are stunning, suggestive, and alluring in a pluralistic, polarizing world. Her motivation for writing—“attempt to make more accessible the assumptions about silence and beholding that underlie the often arcane language of the interior life” (xx)—paled for me as she offered this glimpse of what she’s been given to say. [End Page 128]
Each essay has too much to summarize easily, so I will encourage complete reading in Ross’s fashion by beginning my commentary in reverse order. “Tears and Fire” brings nuggets of The Fountain and the Furnace into immediate relief, weaving Christian-Syrian tradition’s Ephrem and Isaac and untranslated words into a reconception of the gift of tears: its alignment with God’s kenotic love, its utter embodiment and descriptions of what she calls “the crisis of rebirth” known in multiple (distinct) waves of tears. “In the way of tears, we become prayer; we no longer labor under the illusion of prayer as technology. . . . we are prayed” (122...