Chapter 11
The Valley of Baca

The answer to the question at the end of the previous chapter is that, like most people, when the vision fades, I turn on the television set, do the crossword, have a drink, read a book, think of something else or immerse myself in work; and all these ways of coping with my predicament work fairly well for a time with the possible exception of self-immersion in a flurry of narcotic activism. Of course, this, too, works splendidly as an opiate for a certain length of time but, like other drugs, if long continued it can become a habit and a substitute for both vision and faith; and then the work produced becomes more and more sterile.

St Paul with his usual irritating habit of being right knew all about the dangers inherent in a frantic attempt to prove something to God by trying to make good works do duty for faith; for such a course of action is essentially self-justificatory and eventually tends to turn those who indulge in it into that least attractive of human types, the do-gooder. In my less charitable moments I sometimes wonder whether the activism of today's Church, committed to everything except quietness, may not be a symptom of a hidden lack of certainty, unacknowledged and deeply buried under a feverish programme of evangelical missions and campaigns and ready-wrapped in brassy certitude: a programme which does duty for faith, but which is very different from that advocated by Isaiah, who told his contemporaries that 'in returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength'.

Be that as it may, I doubt whether activism has ever proved to be a satisfactory way of filling the gap left when God appears to go missing for a time, which he does much more often than we care to admit; indeed, periods of time when he goes absent without leave from us are probably the norm and always have been so historically. 'Behold I go forward,' Job told his pious comforters with embarrassing honesty, ' but he is not there; and backward but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand, but I cannot see him.' Similarly, the great deutero-Isaiah of the captivity in Babylon remarked upon the divine reticence. 'Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself,' he said; while in the first book of Samuel it is recorded of that prophet's time, the period round about 1100 BC, that 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision'.

These are isolated instances, but reference in biblical history to 'the wilderness' and in subsequent religious experiences to 'the dark night of the soul' are legion, and in both cases they are terms symbolic of the withdrawal or the apparent absence of God: the wilderness, a place of temptation, where men get lost and go astray like sheep and God seems to have deserted them; the dark night of the soul, a state of mind, black with mourning for the loss of God and bereft of all hope. But passage through the wilderness has not been the monopoly of the Jobs, the Isaiahs and the Samuels of this world any more than the soul's dark night has been the lodging place only of St John of the Cross and his like; artists, poets and musicians, Milton in his blindness, Beethoven in his deafness, Van Gogh in his dereliction and a host of others have known all about the wilderness and the darkness of its nights. Indeed, I sometimes think that they have explored its depths with greater courage and honesty than most other people, give or take a few contemplative saints. It was a poet, after all, who plumbed the depth of the paradox that, even though the wilderness is the locus classicus of no-vision, again and again it has also proved to be the birthplace of vision; 'Blessed is the man....who going through the value of misery use it for a well, and the pools are filled with water,' he cried, while another realized that, though the wilderness may be God-forsaken, one of God's paradoxical habits is that 'He makes the wilderness a standing water, and water-springs of a dry ground.'

Knowing this, monks and hermits of all religions have flocked to the world's wildernesses in the hope that, with time and devotion, they may learn what it means to use the vale of misery as a well, while the dry pools of their bankruptcy are filled with water. The Egyptian desert was at one time so full of men and women in search of God's water-springs in its dry ground that it was known as the desert of the saints, while others have created mini-wildernesses of their own wherever they have settled and built themselves a house in which to explore the empty places inside themselves; for, as H.A. Williams insisted, that is the true wilderness. It has sometimes been suggested that the concrete jungle of the modern city is today's symbolic equivalent of the old biblical wilderness; that we need seek no further for a readily available symbol of the value of misery than the streets of London or New York or any other city. But it is not true, for the city is a place of noise, distraction, crowds and perpetual activity; it is a wilderness of our own making to which we resort precisely in order to fill our days and nights with noise and to ignore the dereliction and emptiness inside ourselves. There is sufficient distraction in the city to make it splendidly difficult for us to find time off from trivia to go down into the little private deserts and solitary places inside ourselves even for a weekend's camping every now and again, let alone for long enough to find our way about there; but to pay such visits is the only way to come to terms with the inner dereliction which leaves us hyper-active and as jolly as prostitutes as we put on an act to cover our nakedness - 'Look how friendly, loving and Christian I am!' - but as dead behind the eyes as Archie Rice in John Osborne's play, The Entertainer . Of course, mere entry into our inner wilderness - the place
of dereliction within us - does not transform it ipso facto into an oasis of faith, for faith and vision, as I have already said, are gifts which cannot be ordered over the counter like groceries. Instead, we have to wait upon their donor, and waiting can take two forms, waiting in solitude and waiting together with others; that is to say, the way of the hermit and the way of the monk. However, in the world in which most of us live they are by no means mutually exclusive, and both are usually combined with much jolly prostitution.

Neither way is fashionable. However, waiting is less esteemed today than doing, and the only silence one is likely to encounter, nowadays in church is that occasioned by the congregation
being struck dumb with dismay at some new liturgical gimmick, as I witnessed recently when a number of rather earnest young women in body stockings for no apparent reason performed a 'liturgical dance' on the chancel steps in the middle of a service. But solitary waiting upon God is even less fashionable than corporate worship, which combines a measure of doing with
waiting: indeed, a fundamental and unique kind of doing-with-waiting in the form of a genuine religious dance, in which our waiting upon God is acted out in a symbolic and ceremonial re-enactment of the drama of our redemption. Put like that, it all sounds slightly mad, and the corpse of my atheism begins to revolve in its rationalist grave; but the days of my atheism are long gone, and so are the days when it was fashionable to weigh symbolic rituals and ceremonials on a pair of rationalist scales and find them wanting. The universality and primitive roots of symbolic actions and dramas have been so well established by zoologists, ethologists and anthropologists in the last fifty years or so that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that a whole new dimension of animal behaviours has been discovered which throws as much light upon human actions as it does on those of other animals. For if fish defend their territory by mimed aggression against potential intruders and indulge in elaborate courtship rituals while birds do much the same - the whooping crane in amorous mood each spring indulges in a love dance which would add lustre to any performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, while great crested grebes are no less worthy of commendation as symbolic dancers - it is not surprising that those later products of the evolutionary process, the mammals including humans, should have inherited similar habits.

In fact, our social behaviour is, I believe, regulated and governed far more thoroughly by an intricate and largely unconscious set of evolved symbolic gestures and actions than we realize.
We lower our eyes and do not stare at someone we do not know, we bare our teeth in a smile as we are introduced, keep our distance from the patch of territory occupied by someone else on the platform as we wait for a train, give the girl we are courting a box of chocolates in much the same way as a male robin feeds the female he is courting with worms, challenge each other on the football field in ritual contests for dominance, and indulge in bouts of group aggression on the football terraces with even greater ferocity than our gentler evolutionary ancestors. At cocktail parties, board meetings, military parades, royal garden parties, executions, wedding nights, and on almost every other occasion of humans meeting with other humans, our behaviour is regulated by well-understood but unstated symbolic rituals and informed by significant ceremonial gestures. We realize, express, impart to others and receive from them such fundamental messages as 'I love you' or 'Danger! Keep out!' by means of symbolic actions, expressions and gestures more frequently, more forcibly, more profoundly, more immediately and more intelligibly than in any other way; they govern the course of our ordinary social relationships long before we open our mouths to speak, and so do symbolic rituals and ceremonials govern our relationship with God, as we act out our waiting upon his advent in the great sacramental rites of the Church.

For such a purpose we come together, usually not not always, in a place set apart and filled with symbolic reminders of the interaction of those incompatibles, God and the world, spirit and stuff, time and eternity, in an architectural style specifically associated with sacredness; there we act out in mime and rite both the descent of God upon those who wait, ask, knock and trust and the taking up of the singing, praying, kneeling assembly into God by way of praise, music and incense, while at the heart of the action we eat and drink the God and go out into the world as God-bearers. That all this brings about in reality of spirit that which is mimed in symbol and gesture has to be said, for it is both true and the common experience of generations of men and women, though they may seldom be consciously aware of it; but I realize well how nonsensical it all sounds, for I used to think it so. Indeed, I still do from time to time, though happily not very often and decreasingly. It is strange, certainly, but it is no
more strange than the commonly experienced miracle of a loving union of spirit brought about by a basic act of copulation repeated regularly, or, more prosaically but no less really or commonly, the friendship cemented by the symbolic sharing of a meal and a drink; 'Cheers!', 'Lovely to see you! Do have a little more.' 'Such a super evening.....You must come to us next time.' Shared actions and symbolic social rites bring about something: they are not vacuous, Konrad Lorenz in his book On Aggression (1966) had this to say of them:

The austere iconoclast regards the pomp of the ritual as an unessential superficiality which diverts the mind from a deeper absorption in the spirit of the thing symbolized. I believe that he is entirely wrong....Our fidelity to the symbol implies fidelity to everything it signifies....The independent existence of any culture, the creation of a super-individual society which outlives
the single being, in other words all that represents true humanity is based on this autonomy of the rite making it an independent motive of human action.

Moreover, if either religious experience or experience of the arts is anything to go by, there is no such thing as 'a mere symbol' any more than there is such a thing as 'a bare fact'. In religious symbols, images and rites - and in works of art - fact and significance come together into the fullness of reality as we know it, and any attempt to analyse them into their constituent parts or to divorce one part from the other both diminishes and distorts the whole, and also results in paradox.

The other form of corporate waiting on God is both more sophisticated and more monastic in the sense that it has been more highly developed by monks and nuns than by other people, though it is not practised only in monasteries; it consists of the shared office at regular intervals throughout the day and sometimes during the night too, during which there are readings, psalms are sung or recited, and prayers are said.

It all sounds rather boring, pointless and dreary, and indeed it can be very dreary at times and exceedingly boring, but it is by no means always so, and it is never pointless; for even when practised only once e or perhaps twice a day on a not very regular or disciplined basis, over the years it can hardly fail to have a lasting and deep effect; if only by dint of repetition. If you are forced - or perhaps choose - to say: I love America.....or the Pope.....or Aston Villa, often and long enough, you will almost certainly come to do so; for the images received into a person's head eventually shape and form that head for good or ill in much the same way as the content of a computer is shaped and formed when it is programmed; hence the danger of such influences as the gutter press and video nasties, and hence, too, the enormous power of advertising, political censorship and techniques of indoctrination and brain washing.

Plainly, therefore, it is important to choose with care the images which you invite into the sanctuary of our head, let alone to preserve that fundamental freedom of choice, even if your freedom to do so is strictly limited and only becomes available to you when your head has already been stocked with a mass of ready-made furniture inherited from other people. The value of the monastic offices is concentrated in the immensely rich store of images which they contain, many of them, like Jung's archetypes, of perennial power and relevance; the sea and
the womb, blood and life, darkness and light, spring-time and harvest, death and rebirth, the vine and a corn of wheat. They have been forged over the ages in the crucible of the pains and prayers, fears and hopes, griefs and joys, visions and dreams of men and women whose lives have been invaded by God - or so they have believed - and whose consequent understanding of themselves and the world has been expressed in a great treasury of myth, poetry, psalmody and symbolism; and the hope of those who explore it from time to time is that something of the depth of that understanding and its richness may become their own.

Personally, I have found that most of the time the words of the prayers and the psalms and readings fall on the dry ground of my inattention, where they may lie forgotten in the dust for years until, watered one day perhaps by tears of grief or joy, they germinate and come alive; but there are other times, too, when a familiar phrase, a passage which I have read a hundred times or a neglected images lodges in the forefront of my mind, and for no apparent reason puts down roots at once, grows and blossoms. Over the years, this process of slow germination and occasional summer flowering has changed and enriched out of all recognition the mental landscape in which I live. In comparison with the more fundamental power of the primitive sacramentalism of the great participatory symbolic rites of the Church, it is probably true to say that the power of the offices to influence us is limited to the intellect, but that need hardly be held against them; if my own is anything to judge by, the unfertilized intellect can be a very sterile thing and in need of just what the offices have it in their poetic, symbolic and evocative power to bestow; though whether the language of the reformed rites will have the same evocative power as that of the old, only time will show.

The most fundamental form of prayer, however, underpinning all the rest, is solitary: waiting on God alone, often in darkness and always in silence. It is essentially a way of eschewing words and embracing quietness, and as a result it is difficult to describe in words, though paradoxically there is a massive literature devoted to the subject, which I have no intention of trying to emulate or summarize. But there are certain things which not only can but should be said about it, and the first of them is that it is not the private preserve of the hermit, the contemplative, the mystic and the crackpot; there is a place for specialization and professionalism in almost all human activities, including this way of waiting on God, but that does not mean that only those who devote a lifetime to it may practise it. On the contrary, everyone should do so, if only because at its most basic it is an exploration of the latent possibilities, untrodden areas and unplumbed depths of the human mind, and it would be both impoverishing and a pity to die without learning something of their nature and function, let alone of their existence. It is a kind of mental pot-holing, during the course of which an attempt is made to descend as deeply as possible in a voyage of discovery into the darkness below the well-lit surface of the mind with its perpetual buzz of internal conversation. In order to do this, the flurry of words in the conscious mind has to be stilled or regulated, and there are ways of doing this: techniques of prayer - the Rosary and the Russian 'Jesus Prayer' are examples - which are not in themselves prayer at all but ways of clearing the mind's decks for the real action, which is about the begin.

Prayer of this kind is practised by people of other religions, but the Christian charter for it is the command, 'Watch and pray.....for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!' If that is the charter, the object of the exercise is to ensure that you are at home when the master of the house arrives, in the hope that you will then discover what St Paul was talking about when he said
that 'the Spirit of God dwelleth in you' and what he meant when he told his correspondents in Rome that although 'we know not how to pray as we ought...the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered'. This kind of prayer, even more than any other kind, has little or nothing to do with human striving to ascend to God, but is entirely to do with the descent of God upon those who wait and watch; the initiative is God's, the experience of his coming ours. But if you say, 'Describe it!', it is extraordinarily difficult to do so; the traditional ways of speaking of it as the experience of 'interior illumination' or the 'vision of the divine' resulting in 'ineffable joy' means very little. All that can be said of it - and probably it will not help very much - is that it is the experience of the image coming together with that which it images, of the taking-up of the microcosm by the macrocosm, when 'One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes: all thy waves and storms are gone over me.'

The earthquake in the soul
Splits the security of explanation.
My other self, my self, my other,
And love between, the correspondent fire;
The image made beyond outside the self,
The print of otherness
With unexpected action of its own
And all initiative:
So rapt the feeling, some will feel it so,
I come like passionate lover to the soul
And rape the mystic on his bed of pain.

John Bowker

Somewhere near the place which T.S. Eliot called 'the still point of the turning world', which is in everyone, the evidence for such things happening is overwhelming, though most of us will probably never experience them so intensely or so unmistakably as described in that poem by John Bowker, from whose theological works I have already quoted. However, I suspect that this is our fault; we dare not let go, try again, trust the little rustling of the leaves as the wind of God passes by.

The moments of illumination come and go, the sudden encounters with something other than ourselves take us by surprise, prayer blossoms like a flower in the darkness and fades as quickly as it opened, and like the sensible creatures we are, we pull ourselves together and cling on to a little healthy scepticism like drowning people holding to a lifeline; we do not like to boast, are too modest to believe that anything like that could happen to us, are afraid of the otherness and of going dotty - or just of being thought a bit dotty - so we let the moment slip, write off Uccello as stiff and quaint, Cezanne's petite sensation in the face of the natural world as the product of the artistic temperament, Otto Loewi's dream as 'probably psychological' (whatever that may mean), and Teresa of Avila as an hysteric, which she probably was, and therefore as someone whom a well-brought-up God would not dream of meeting socially. So we leave this kind of prayer to monks and nuns and lunatics, and the depths of our humanity remain unexplored, until one day, battered by despair or grief, we are driven down into the darkness inside ourselves and arrive there as strangers; frightened and ill at ease like aliens in a strange country, we do not know our way about and cannot speak the language. Yet here all our fresh springs rise into the mountain of God, and if only we knew where they were and how to drink of them, we could return refreshed and renewed to the corporate worship of the Church, let alone to the bus queues, the arguments, the death of old Aunt Mildred, and the life of that depressingly familiar and irremovable lodge in my skin - myself.

People who try to practise this kind of solitary prayer are sometimes accused of escapism and selfishness; Christianity, they are told, is about loving your neighbour, not withdrawing from him or her into introspective isolation and useless self-hypnotic exercises which cannot possibly profit anyone. Yet I believe this judgement to be completely mistaken, for love that does not put its roots down into the love of God is not what the world is dying for, and if it is important for us as individuals to learn to watch and pray and in the watching to learn something of that love, it may actually be still more important for us as a species to relearn something about our relatedness to God at depth; and if individuals do not shown the way, how can anyone else follow? William Barrett, the American philosopher, from whose works I have already quoted, has made the same point; speaking of the fate of Dionysus Zagreus, who was torn to pieces by the Titans in an ancient Cretan myth, he has said this:

He who would descend into the lower regions runs the risk of succumbing to what the primitives call 'the perils of the soul' - the unknown Titans that lie within, below the surface of ourselves. To ascend again from the darkness of Avernus is, as the Latin poet tells us, the difficult thing, and he who would make the descent had better secure his lines of communication with the surface. Communication means community, and the adventurer into the depths would do well to have roots in a human community.....He who descends must keep in touch with the surface, but on the other hand modern man may also be torn apart by the titanic forces within himself if he does not attempt the descent into Avernus. It is no mere matter of psychological curiosity but a question of life and death for man in our time to place himself again in contact with the archaic life of his unconscious. Without such contact he may become the Titan who slays himself. man, this most dangerous of animals, as Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the power to blow himself and his planet to bits.

To ignore that warning would be foolish. If anyone does not know how to heed it, let him take a guide; Dante took Virgil, many today follow Jung, and some travel East to find a guru; but the sovereign guide is Christ, and if the world wants to survive into the twenty-first century, it could do much worse than listen to the command he gave to his sleeping disciples when he himself prepared for his last battle and descent into hell. 'Could ye not watch with me one hour?' he said to them as they dozed the world's crisis away in a half-life of faithlessness and fear. 'Watch and pray.'

Antony Cyprian Bridge