Apophatic and cataphatic. You may have never heard those words. They represent a concept that attempts to address the questions that inevitably arise for us regarding our capacity to experientially know God; speak of the God we know; and experience genuine transformation in the context of this relationship of mutual knowledge. It is kind of like combining a question mark and an exclamation point… Sort of… The question is really not one of order but of mystical union. We can get caught up in the chicken and egg thing or we can live the mystery. In light of this, I realized soon after my ordination, that these concepts were fundamental to the Christian life. Among the great saints I have encountered as I sought to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in my own transformation and that of others is St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), of Mount Athos in Greece and later the Archbishop of Thessaloniki. More on that in due course.
Those of you who read this blog or know me well know that one of the most important things a person can do in their growth in Christ is to die to the need to be original. This conviction is based on my experience of the sin of pride (the need to be spectacular and admired) in my own life.
I find, as I read the words of others, an opportunity to confront this passion. Others have so very often (more than I am comfortable admitting – praise God) articulated a concept or approach in a manner that communicates more effectively than I ever could. In that case, I believe, the most helpful thing to do is facilitate the comprehension and application of the truth in the lives of others by providing an environment in which they can access and struggle with the concept using the words of those who have, over the course of history, articulated it most effectively. The ministry of Upward Call is not to fashion new words but communicate to others the original Word of the Holy Spirit as it has been effectively spoken through others, “provid(ing) individuals, congregations, and other Christian organizations with resources, training, and life-to-life ministry opportunities that are reflective of and consistent with the historical faith and practice of the one, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. Upward Call seeks to facilitate a practical connection and application of the faith and practice of the Church ‘once for all’ delivered and administered by the Holy Spirit in the life of the disciple…”
So, in an effort to be true to my calling and resist the temptation to spout a lot of words that might or might not communicate anything helpful about this very important subject, I would like to both point you in the direction of those who can articulate it in a much more sophisticated and effective manner; and actually post some quotes from several sources.
Let’s start by hearing what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say on the subject. He has several very helpful posts on his blog site, “Glory to God for All Things.” Just type in the word “apophatic” in the search bar on the right of the main page. You will be directed to some really wonderful reflections.
Next we hear from Elder Sophrony (1896-1993). He was and is, perhaps, best known as the disciple and biographer of St. Silouan the Athonite. He was also the founder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. On Prayer, is a book containing Elder Sophrony’s writings on prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, which was published after his repose. The following excerpt establishes the truth that our knowledge/experience of God in Christ in and through His death and resurrection is the very means of our own transformation. The way we know and speak of God is also the way we must live in order to truly LIVE… (Very efficient on God’s part don’t you think?!) Sophrony says,
The struggle for prayer is not an easy one. The spirit fluctuates – sometimes prayer flows in us like a might river, sometimes the heart dries up… To pray not infrequently means telling God of our disastrous state: of our weakness and despondency, our doubts and fears, the melancholy, the despair – in brief, everything connected with our condition. To pour it all out, not seeking to express it elegantly or even in logical sequence. Often this method of approach to God turns out to be the beginning of prayer as communion.
Sometimes we shall lie afloat in a sea of Divine love, which in our imagination we interpret one-sidely, as our love for Him… I did not dare think that it was He Himself praying in me… So that we may become acquainted with His gifts, God, after being with us, leaves us for a while. This abandonment by God makes a strange impression… But when God departs, He leaves a sort of blank space in the core of my being, and I do not know whether He will ever come again. He is other – different from me. He has withdrawn and I am left empty; and I feel my emptiness like a death. His coming had brought something splendid and dear to my heart that exceeded my most audacious imagining. And lo, I find myself once more in my old state which used to seem normal and satisfactory but which now appals me. I had been introduced into the house of the great King – I was His kindred – but now again I am no more than a homeless beggar.
These alternating states teach us the difference between our natural gifts and those that we receive from on High… He changes the manner of His coming. Thus I am constantly being enriched by knowledge on the plane of the Spirit: now in suffering, now through joy, but I grow. My ability to remain for longer periods in the previously unknown sphere increases.
Keep your mind firmly fixed on God, and the moment will come when the Immortal Spirit touches the heart. Oh this touch of the Holy of holies! There is naught on earth to compare with it – it sweeps the spirit into the realm of uncreated Being. It pierces the heart with a love unlike that which is generally understood by the word. Its light streams down on all creation, on the whole human world in its millenary manifestation. Though this love is sensed by the physical heart, by its nature it is spiritual…
The life-giving Divine Spirit visits us when we continue humbly open to Him… When we open our heart to Him we have an irresistible feeling that He is our ‘kin’, and the soul melts in worship.
Divine love, which is the intrinsic essence of eternity, in this world cannot avoid suffering. Mellowed through ascetic striving and the visitation of grace, the heart is allowed to behold – obscurely perhaps – Christ’s love embracing the whole of creation in infinite compassion for all that exists. Now I am God’s, Christ’s prisoner. I recognize that I have been called out of nothing – by his nature man is nothingness. Yet is spite of this we expect compassion and respect from God. And suddenly the Almighty reveals Himself in His indescribable humility. This vision moves the soul, astonishes the mind. Involuntarily we bow before Him. And however much we try to become like Him in humility, we do not attain to Him…
Any vision of God places man before the necessity of self-determination in relation to Him. In essence our every action inevitably either approaches us to God or, on the contrary, distances us from Him… The heart grieves, wearied and oppressed to see herself so destitute. We do not understand immediately that this very phenomenon signals the start of an advance towards God… When the opposition of the Christian spirit to the spirit of this world reaches it peak, life for the follower of Christ becomes a crucifixion, however invisible the cross. It is a terrible and at the same time salutary period: through inner suffering, often linked with physical or material distress, the passions are conquered. The power of this world over us, even death itself, is defeated. We start to become like Christ crucified. (pg. 12-19)
God Who is humble ‘resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.’ (1 Peter 5.5) Grace is God’s life and He gives His life to them who strive for likeness to Him. ‘He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ (Matthew 23.12) Because of this, belittling oneself to the infinitesimal is the principle of our form of asceticism, not any pretentious straining for self-aggrandizement. Our way is the way of apophatic effort through self-emptying – kenotic love – after the example of Christ Who ‘humbled himself, and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ (cf. Philippians 2.5-9) The more thoroughly we ‘make ourselves of no reputation,’ the more radically shall we be cleansed from the consequences of the prideful fall of our forefather Adam. And when our heart becomes ‘pure,’ (Matthew 5.8) then the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit come to dwell in us, and we are led into the ‘kingdom which cannot be moved’ (Hebrews 12.28) where infinite majesty merges with infinite humility and meekness. (pg. 24-25)
…the Father’s gift has to be acquired at the cost of much labour, much suffering. This is an extraordinarily profound theme – who is capable of explaining it to people of varying levels of knowledge and understanding?… (pg.26)
Yes, the longing to resemble Christ is natural to the Christian. But ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto [this divine] life. (Matthew 7.14) To discard the skin that it no longer needs, the snake wriggles through narrow crevices. So the man who would be saved must go through very ‘straitgates’ in order to rid himself of the ‘coats of skins’ with which he was clothed after the Fall. (cf. Genesis 3.21) (pg. 29)
Rob Des Cotes of Imago Dei Ministries, offers us yet another way of getting a handle on the transformative character of the apophatic and kataphatic dimensions of our knowledge of God. In a reflection dated September 18, 2008, he says,
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Col. 3:5-9
As we give our lives more and more over to God’s initiative, we eventually come to the classic “to be or not to be” question. How much do I do, and how much does God do? In spiritual theology this represents the distinction between the kataphatic and apophatic aspects of the spiritual life. Kataphatic refers to those initiatives of our spiritual life that depend on us—our actions, reason, understanding, memory and will—whereas apophatic refers to that which depends solely on God. Paul’s exhortation here is clearly of the former kind: to “put away whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” And, to the extent that we are called to participate in this work of “ridding ourselves of all such things,” it is important to be able to assess our effectiveness.
In seeking to rid ourselves of sinful aspects of our lives we are in the good company of many saints, notably Ignatius of Loyola for whom purity of soul was paramount. Ignatius’ teachings regarding spiritual growth are very kataphaticas they enlist our reason, our understanding and our will for the task. In his “Daily Particular Examination of Conscience,” for instance, Ignatius stresses the importance of carefully monitoring our progress as we seek transformation in our inordinate behaviours. We are to grow in attentiveness to the changes we seek in ourselves by taking time each day to review and document how we are doing.
Ignatius suggests that we choose only one need at a time, and put all the focus of our day towards the transformation we seek in that area. “In the morning, immediately on rising, one should resolve to guard carefully against the particular sin or defect with regard to which he seeks to correct or improve himself. (S.E 24)”
We then ask God to help us recall, hour by hour, how often we fall into that particular sin. Each time we note it, we are to pray again for help in overcoming this behaviour. By focusing on one area at a time, we have opportunity to morespecifically examine ourselves and to more accurately monitor our progress. Ignatius recommends thatwe keep a written record, a mark or check, each time we commit this particular sin. He also suggests a physical mnemonic as a way of acknowledging our errant behaviour. He writes, “Every time one falls into the particular sin or fault, let him place his hand upon his breast and express his sorrow for having fallen again. (S.E. 27.1)”
Physical gestures are helpful as they give concrete expression to the strategy rather than it being merely a mental exercise.
Another physical mnemonic that some have adopted is that of using a bracelet as an aid in heightening their awareness of a fault they are trying to correct. In order to encourage change in a particular aspect of life, a person wears a bracelet on their wrist to represent this behaviour. During the day, each time you catch yourself in that infraction, you switch the bracelet to your other wrist. It is a way of growing in attentiveness to the behaviour you wish to see changed. As you monitor the recurrences of your infraction each day, the goal is to end up having to move the bracelet less and less. As with the “daily examen of conscience” this represents a kataphatic approach to spirituality—what St. John of the Cross calls our “active work of purification.”
There are many ways to go about changing behaviour but they all depend on our ability to stay focussed on the task. The effectiveness of one particular method over another might be different from person to person. But, if they help us in any way to be more aware of the “idols” that would otherwise persist by escaping our notice, they are certainly worth exploring.
The Patristic Vigil Readings from the Two Year Lectionary for Ordinary Time, Weeks 18-34: Year 2, gives us the opportunity to hear from Denys the Areopagite (late 5th and early 6th century) on the subject. In his work, “The Divine Names,” he says,
We must ask how we can know God, since he cannot be understood by our minds or perceived by our senses, and belongs in no way to the category of existent things. Perhaps it is true to say, then, that we do not know God from his own nature (for this is unknown and surpasses all our powers of thought and perception); but from the regulation of all existent things, since this emanates from himself and contains images and likenesses of the patterns of his own divine reality. Thus step by step to the best of our ability we rise to what surpasses all in the negation of all things and the supremacy over all things, and by the cause of all things.
Therefore God is known both in everything and apart from everything; and God is known through knowledge and through ignorance, and although there is thought and speech of him, and there is knowledge, contact, sense, opinion, imagination, naming and all the rest, he is also neither thought nor spoken of or named; nor is he anything existent, or known in anything existent; but he is all in all, and nothing in nothing, and known by all things to all people, and by nothing to no one; for indeed we say this rightly about God, and he is praised because of all existent things and the resemblance of all to their creator.
And again the most divine knowledge of God is that which is known through ignorance, by a union which transcends the mind, when the mind withdraws from all existent things and then lets go even of itself, and is made one with rays of transcendent light, where it is illuminated in the unfathomable depth of wisdom.
Yet, as I said, wisdom must also be known from all things; for according to Scripture wisdom is productive of all things and constantly joining all, and is the cause of the indestructible union and order of all things, and eternally uniting the ends of earlier things to the beginnings of later, and making a single beautiful concord and harmony of the whole.
And finally, I offer this reflection of St. Hilary (c.315-367), Bishop of Poitiers, from On the Trinity, 12, 52-53, with reference to the text, “’Is he not the carpenter’s son?’… And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” (Matthew 13.54-58)
So long as I enjoy that breath of life granted to me by you, Holy Father, Almighty God, I will proclaim you as God eternal, but also as Father eternal. Never will I set myself up as judge of your almighty power and mysteries; never will I set my limited understanding before the true appreciation of your infinity; never will I claim you to have existed beforehand without your Wisdom, Power and Word, God the Only-Begotten, my Lord Jesus Christ. For even though human language is weak and imperfect when it speaks of you, this will not inhibit my mind to the point of reducing my faith to silence for lack of words able to express the mystery of your being…
Already, among the realities of nature, there are many things of whose cause we have no knowledge without, nevertheless, being ignorant of their effects. And when, where our nature is concerned, we have no idea what to say about them, our faith is embued with adoration. If I behold the movement of the stars…, the ebb and flow of the sea…, the life-force hidden in the tiniest seed…, my ignorance helps me to contemplate you. For if I do not understand the nature placed at my service, I discern your goodness from the mere fact that it is there to serve me. I perceive that I do not even understand myself, but I wonder at you all the more… You have given me intellect, life and human feeling, the source of so many joys, yet I do not begin to understand how I began to be…
So it is through failing to understand what surrounds me that I grasp what you are, and it is through perceiving what you are that I come to adore you. That is why, in what concerns your mysteries, my incomprehension lessens not a bit my faith in your omnipotence… Your eternal Son’s birth exceeds even the idea of eternity; it is prior to the times everlasting. Before any other thing that exists, he was Son proceeding from you, O God and Father. He is true God… You have never existed without him… Before ever time was, you are the eternal Father of your Sole Begotten One.
Now, we circle back around to St. Gregory Palamas. Henry Karlson says, in an article dated March 7, 2009, on the “Vox Nova” website,
One of the foundations of (St Gregory) Palamas’ thought is apophatic: the vast difference between humanity and God shows us why the human mind cannot comprehend God. That is to say, God is not bound by human understanding, and God’s nature cannot be discerned by human reason alone. When left by itself, human reason can guess at God’s characteristics, but it will find itself at an impasse in knowing whether or not those guesses are correct. We could know that God is, but we would not know who God is, unless God reveals himself to us. This is the fundamental theme of Eastern mystical theology, especially as it is presented by Pseudo-Dionysius, who says our knowledge of God is an unknowing, “Since the unknowing of what is beyond being it something above and beyond human speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of the sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures.” (Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 49.)
I close with two things. First a reiteration. Apophatic and cataphatic is not a mathematics problem. It is an invitation, promise, and challenge. “The question is really not one of order but of mystical union. We can get caught up in the chicken and egg thing or we can live the mystery.” And second, the quote that Fr. Stephen used in a couple of his blogposts on this subject by Fr. Thomas Hopko. He says, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.”