From God's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace
Slow Book Group: Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart

Slow Book Group: Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart

Date: 21 October 2021 to 24 March 2022, 3rd/4th Thursday of the month, 7.30-8.30pm
Location: Online via Zoom

The book

Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary who divides her time between Oxford and the USA. She blogs at ravenwilderness.blogspot.com.

Writing the Icon of the Heart is a collection of twelve short essays that cast new light on ancient texts and long-established spiritual practices. It is a book that challenges as well as inspires, and takes us deep into what it truly means to worship, to love, to pray – and to be human, made in the image of God. Archbishop Rowan Williams describes it as “really transformative.”

One reader commented in a review that: “This isn’t easy to get through. It’s… the kind of book where you have to let it wash over you rather than trying to understand.”

…like many of the books I have found to be most helpful! It may be that particular phrases or sentences strike me while reading – I sit with these a while to savour their depths in my soul, before moving on. Over time, as I become more familiar with the writing and perhaps re-read the essays, I find the sentences start to join together and make more sense to my mind as well.

I draw an analogy with travelling around London on the Underground. To start with, much is deep below the surface, and we only know small areas at street level around the stations we use. But over time we grow to understand the overground layout as well and start to recognise the depths as a coherent whole. Then we can travel in both modes: wandering the pathways of spiritual wisdom with our curious minds and poking into nooks and crannies as we study; and letting go in trust, allowing our hearts and souls to be drawn on, into encounter with God in the depths.

Sometimes the surfacings might not become clearer at all. That’s OK too. It’s OK to sit with puzzlement, paradox, and non-resolution. None of us have all the answers. The key is to sit with the text or word that moves you.

Reading Ross might be like reading poetry. It taps into the deeply rational mind, deeper than our linear logical day-to-day mind. We might not understand it logically. It might not fit with our previous experience, or it might seem paradoxical. But it might nevertheless touch us, move us, change us, still lead us somehow to that encounter with God.

Overview

As usual, we notified the preceding group of the next book group a little in advance, and then publicised it to the wider Cathedral community via the monthly news and weekly sheet.

On each of the six months we covered two essays, devoting our time together to reviewing what we had read, sharing insights, seeking answers to questions and reflecting on how the Spirit is calling us to deepen our faith and prayer.

Phil my co-leader and I met briefly in advance of each session to go over the essays and plan the session content. Then I emailed the group members a week ahead with a reminder of the text, some questions to consider while reading, and the Zoom details.

The sessions lasted about an hour. They varied in structure, with discussion in the whole group and break-out groups of 3 or 4. We started each session with a poem or short prayer, and closed with any notices, 3 minutes of silence, another poem or prayer, and the grace.

I encouraged participants to continue to sit with the text for a few more days, allowing what had been shared in the group to sink in, before turning to the next month’s text. Then after one week, I followed up each session with an email reminder of some of what we shared and/or my further thoughts, and information about the next month.

October 2021

Read: the essays “Cranberries” and “Barking at Angels”, and the Introduction

Questions to ponder:

  • What is your understanding of ‘Behold’?
  • Where do you find radiance today?

Structure

We started by introducing the book group, slow reading and the book. We had a series of quick show of hands – Who’s new? Who’s read the book before? Who’s read ahead? Who knows Maggie Ross’ work? – then asked each participant to introduce themselves with one-ish word, perhaps newbie, perplexed, wild swimmer …

The word ‘Behold’ is a key to the book, so we focused on this during the main part of the session.

We first had a go-round of short responses to the question: What is your understanding of ‘Behold’?
Some guidance: While listening to others, try not to think about what you want to say. Instead, behold the other while they are speaking. When it is your turn, you may like to say something about your reactions to / what strikes you in that action of beholding. Share about what it feels like knowing you are beheld.

Then in small groups, we had informal discussions of our different understandings of ‘Behold’, coming back together with one illuminating thing, and one OK-to-remain-unresolved thing.

Finally, we had a short second go-round in the whole group asking: Where do you find radiance today?

Follow-up

One thing I noticed was how Ross was unfolding the meanings of Behold using word-play:
Be-holding as a reciprocal holding in being – God is beholding us as we behold God
Be held firm noting the quotation from St Augustine “Amor meus, pondus meum” which could mean my love is my gravity/weight/destiny/anchor/ballast
Be held still in a stillness by virtue of divine indwelling
Be heralds! as we call to others Behold! Look! Lo!
Be a holder like Mary Theotokos – be a God bearer
Be healed as we encounter God
Be held open in simplicity, peace, wonder, joy

Ross writes of Brian Keenan and his response to an orange that he describes in An Evil Cradling. Here is a longer excerpt, beginning “But wait. My eyes are almost burned by what I see…”

I included the following in a piece on Explore Prayer for the Cathedral monthly news: “In the group, we discussed how it is so easy to lose the sense of wonder we have as children, but how it is still possible to regain and practise it. Prayer can be as simple as stopping to wonder at the face of God as seen in ordinary things: the way a parent bends over their child, or a rainbow, or an ivy leaf rimmed with frost, or a moment of care given in a hospital, or the shining contours on a conker, or a smile. And then to give thanks and to hold that thread as you go through the rest of your day. Behold.”

And finally, an excerpt from the introduction to Writing the Icon of the Heart, as we hold the climate and COP26 negotiations in our prayer:

Silence and beholding are our natural state. As Irenaeus puts it, ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the glory of the human being is the beholding of God’: the two clauses are interdependent. The story of the garden of Eden tells us of the primordial distraction from beholding, the descent into noise and the bewilderment caused by the projections we call ‘experience’. All our ills come from the loss of silence and beholding, our failure to listen and our insistence on our flawed and limited interpretations. It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have (mis)managed it. As the pace of contemporary life accelerates and the rising tide of noise degrades the biosphere, the need to recover and, more especially, to practise silence and seek into the beholding becomes ever more critical.

Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart

November

Read: the essays “Whatever Happened to Discretion?” and “The Space of Prayer”

Questions to ponder:

  • What does discretion mean for you in your different contexts? Home, work, church, etc
  • What is your understanding of the relationship between intercessory prayer and beholding?
  • Tears do not just arise from sorrow. What else moves or prompts you to tears?

Structure

After a period of sharing responses to this month’s readings, we took the three questions in turn, the first two in the larger group, and the final question in small groups.

Follow-up

A few suggestions and quotes that arose from the reflections…

That which is essential never imposes itself. That which is inessential is constantly imposing itself.

Jim Finley, the Center for Action and Contemplation

On the verge of Thanksgiving in the US, it seems a good time to suggest a practice of gratitude, something that helps me. I try and notice things during the day, however small, and give thanks for them at the time. Then last thing at night, I look back over the day, and try and remember and write things down. The end-of-day discipline helps me notice more during the day, and occasionally less reactive and more positive.

Isaac [the Syrian] calls pure prayer a kind of wandering with the divine.

Maggie Ross

Two BBC series:

  • “The Monastery” 2005 – a group of men living alongside the Benedictine community at Worth Abbey for a number of weeks
  • “The Convent” 2006 – a group of women living alongside the Poor Clares at Arundel

A book suggestion: David Runcorn, The Language of Tears

December

Read: the essays “The Walrus of the Living God” and “Liturgy in Truth”

Questions and things to ponder:

  • How do you see the connection between a contemplative life and making a difference in the world?
  • How do you bring your self to liturgy? What are your expectations, your duties and your joys?

Structure

We kept the discussion in the larger group, dividing it roughly half-and-half between the two essays. The discussion covered a general response to the essay, then turned to reflections on the question relating to it. We opened each discussion with a short prayer, using the collect by Janet Morley below and Psalm 134.

Follow-up

O unfamiliar God, we seek you in the places you have already left and fail to see you even when you stand before us. Grant us so to recognise your strangeness that we need not cling to our familiar grief, but may be freed to proclaim resurrection in the name of Christ. Amen.

Janet Morley, All Desires Known

Ann Lewin’s poem “Disclosure”, beginning “Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.”

January 2022

Read: the essays “Remembering to Forget” and “Writing the Icon of the Heart”

A couple of suggestions to ponder, while you continue reflecting on the overarching theme and practice of Beholding:

  • How is Ross mining her memories as a way of reflecting on Christmas and Incarnation in the present?
  • By way of illustration of a visual chapter, sit with each of these two representations of the Baptism for a few minutes: an icon from the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, c1497; the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, c1475. As you sit, let each sink in. Let any words or phrases that wish, rise up from the depths of your consciousness, and sit with them a while. How do the images help you grasp what Ross is trying to convey of the difference between beholding and seeing?

Structure

Again, we spent roughly half of the session on each essay.

In the first half, we discussed the first question above, and the related question: In this season of Epiphany and Candlemas, replete with signs of God’s presence, how might memories help or affect your approach to beholding?

In the second half, I shared my screen juxtaposing a second icon and painting, this time of Mary and Jesus: the icon Our Lady of Vladimir, C12th; Raphael’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Book, c1502. We sat with them for a time before returning to the group to share our responses and thoughts.

Follow-up

Right now I’m looking at Ross’s paragraph about weeping for “our lost humanity… our lost religion… the vanished vision of the divine shining through the icon of the human.” What might seem to be certainty in some of her writing is I think a deep yearning that the whole of humanity join her in seeking God, striving towards divinisation. I’m going to sit for a while with her injunction almost at the end of the essay: “Sit with the limitless perspective of the icon, the transparent liturgy of eternity in time in which we behold our likeness to the humble God who writes us in awe, reverence and joy.”

I do not have copyright permission to share the images, but you can find them online, eg in:

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022 on the theme of ‘We Saw His Star in the East’

All the words of “It came upon the midnight clear”

And finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

February

Read: the essays “The Ecology of Repentance” and “Practical Adoration”

A couple of suggestions to ponder, while continuing to reflect on the overarching theme and practice of Beholding:

  • Reflect on the paragraphs beginning “Suffering and the gift… As the dissociation… The pain that gives us…” (pp83-85 or pp79-80 depending on edition) in the light of your own experience.
  • What can you glean from the paragraph beginning “Sometimes adoration is a gift…” (p90 or p87) that might help you in your own practice?

Structure

We spent the session together in the large group, first discussing the themes of ‘gift’ and ‘pain’ Ross addresses, in the context of creation and our relationship with God.

We then turned to a slow reading of a sentence from “Practical Adoration”, asking three questions of it:

We need to make the outpouring of adoration in the context of silence the pole star of our lives, and if we bear the name of Christ, it is our vocation.

  1. How have I or how am I experiencing this?
  2. If I were to say it, how would I say this?
  3. What is this asking of me?

And we finished by sharing more about our practices of prayer.

Follow-up

During the session I read a poem by Emily Dickinson: XVII (“I never saw a moor”) and the second verse of this song by Robin Mark.

And here are some words from Thomas Merton:

Reading gives God more glory when we get more out of it, when it is a more deeply vital act not only of our intelligence but of our whole personality, absorbed and refreshed in thought, meditation, prayer, or even in the contemplation of God.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

March

Read: the essays “Heaven Can’t Wait” and “Tears and Fire”

A couple of questions to ponder, while continuing to reflect on the overarching theme and practice of Beholding:

  • What is your sense of heaven?
  • What does this idea of “holy tears” mean to you?

Structure

We started with a general discussion of the two essays, prompted by the two questions and any personal responses. We then spent some time in smaller groups, and finished up by discussing ‘what next’.

In the small group discussion, we asked the participants to consider how their understanding and practice of Beholding may have changed; and their response to the book. We suggested some possible angles of approach to the latter:

  • If you were to write a letter to Maggie Ross, what would you say?
  • If Maggie were to join your small group, what would you say to her, or what questions would you ask?
  • What would you put in a book review?

Follow-up

It wasn’t a conscious plan, but we began and ended most months with poetry. It possibly reflected my overall approach to the book – as poetry that could speak to the mind and heart, that I didn’t need to grasp and certainly not on the first reading, and that could open out in may different ways according to my need at any one time.

So two links to finish with:

-oOo-

The Contemplative (or Slow) Book Group at Exeter Cathedral was started by Bishop Martin Shaw during the first Coronavirus lockdown. After the first book the group wanted to continue. But Martin had other commitments, so I took it on with the help of Phil Wales, the permanent Deacon at the Cathedral. We have kept going, with an evolving membership, reflecting on books broadly on the theme of prayer and the spiritual journey.

When I was first mulling over whether to take on the group, I said that I hoped this would evolve into a rotating leadership. This hasn’t happened! So it’s important to add that it isn’t a question of being an expert and providing teaching, but holding a space for others to reflect and share. We also take care to have a break for at least a couple of months between books.