Tag Archives: cataphatic

3rd Email in the Lent Apophatic/Cataphatic Exploration

If you would like to receive these Lenten explorations into the apophatic and cataphatic, please email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com  You will receive each email going forward.  You can find the past ones here.

I imagine there are 3 types of people participating in this email exploration:
The first is someone just interested in exploring a wide range of contemplative practices.
The second knew something about the cataphatic (light, joyous, explicable, word-dependent) and apophatic (dark, word-transcendent) and was interested in exploring this distinction further.
The third might have wanted to pursue this distinction through the lens of Jesus, Lent, and Easter.
Whoever you are and whatever your motives, I am glad to have you along.  I hope you will leave a comment on the website and share some more about why you are with us and what you are hoping to accomplish on these 40-ish days.
Today’s practice is the first real dipping of our toe into apophatic waters.  It is apophatic because it does not rely on words.  However, it is neutral on the question of how much we can know and on the values of the darkness.  For this reason, it is just a first step.
Several practices — including this one– are ones that we will return to: when we come back at them there will be subtle tweaks which alter where they fall on the apophatic/cataphatic spectrum.

Background: The novel ‘Illusions: Adventures of the Reluctant Messiah’ has a pretty amazing scene.  The protagonist is told to use the power of his mind to eliminate a group of clouds on the horizon.  He spends the afternoon turning the whole of his will to the task.  And he is thoroughly unsuccessful.

The man’s mentor explains that the main character is entirely to emotionally wrapped up in the task to have ever been able to eliminate him.  He would have done far better to withdraw his energies from the clouds than to invest himself.

This is a useful story.  Sometimes, as we try to overcome our thoughts and feelings we develop such an intensity that we will never be free from them.  Imagining that we are at a riverside, and seeing them all float by is a useful way to release these, to overcome our attachment to these distractions.

Spiritual Exercise

1.  Breathe.  

2.  Imagine that you are sitting by the side of a river.  Picture the temperature and the sounds and the smells.  Smell the air.  Furnish a picture in your mind of what it looks like.  

3.  As best you can, clear your mind.  Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.

4.  Thoughts, feelings, and memories will arise.  When they do, place them gently on the river.  Perhaps on a leaf that is floating by.   Allow them to be carried away by the current.

5.  Return to your breath.

Sometimes, I engage in my spiritual practices and I leave a window with social media open.  Or I have my phone on vibrate so I know if a text comes in.  I tell myself I do this accidentally.  I partially believe myself.
I am increasingly convinced that this is not real meditation.  This is just finding a way to pass the time while I am waiting for somebody to respond to my latest facebook status update.  I am working really hard at holding myself accountable around really creating a sacred space for myself, set apart from the rest of my life.  I encourage you to do the same.

Due to an oversight by me, there was no way to make any comments even if you followed the link provided.  I hope that this won’t squash your desire to connect with the other folks receiving these emails.  I think we really can spur each other on toward real growth.  Just knowing that there are other real, live human beings with some of the same struggles and victories is a really important thing.  Right here is a link to the overview page for this email exploration.  Though you can’t comment on this page, there are links to each days.  Each day other than the first does have a comment section.  After you engage in this practice, I really want to encourage you to head over, click on the link for the 3rd email, and introduce yourself.  Tell us how these practices are going.  And …. introduce yourself by sharing a guilty pleasure.  I will go first.  So if you head over there now, you will find out something mildly juicy about me.

Big Picture Consideration: the Apophatic & the Cataphatic

A somewhat trite folk song and an amazing section of the bible say it well:

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

Maybe this points to a really important distinction, one that sometimes feels as though it were a hidden, a thing that modern Christianity sometimes seems to want to treat like a dirty little secret.

On the one hand are the things we can speak of.  This side of the spectrum is characterized by understanding and light.  It is built on the assumption that the world is knowable.  It is associated with happiness and explanations.  This has been called the Cataphatic.

On the other hand, there is the truth that words only get us so far.  This side of the specrum is characterized by the not-knowing and darkness.  It is built on the understanding that there are some (many?) things that we can not comprehend.  It is associated with a lack of joy and a reluctance to explain.  This has been called the Apophatic.

To whatever extent these things are true about reality in general, they are doubly true about The Ground of All Being/God/Spirit/ Jesus/Truth/Allah….

The Cataphatic is easier for most people today.  I don’t know if it is a sign of modernity.  Or the evangelical church.  Or one of the inheritances of the age of “Enlightenment.”  Or simple and universal human nature…  Probably a bit of each.

Much of what we do in modern faith context is built around words (sermons, singing words, small group discussions) and happiness (upbeat melodies to worship music, cherry picking the happy parts of psalms)   There are lots of powerful spiritual exercises to explore this side of the spectrum.  But it seems to me they are a little less necessary than apophatic spiritual exercises.

Because we don’t spend much time in the apophatic.   We don’t have too many options open to us.  We have lost the art of lamenting.  We are so tempted to view agnosticism as a sign of weakness and ambiguity as a sign of the weak.  I think these are all the signs of a mature spirituality.  Perhaps we could enter into them earlier if we had more avenues for it.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it requires some life experience, some humiliation, some dying in order to be able to recognize that this all can not be out prayed, out sang, and out worshipped.

Regardless, this is where it is.  Give a try to an apophatic meditation today.