Apophatic for You

By Walter Balk


In her recent blogpost Jen gave a good thumbnail sketch of apophatic theology and how it is different from cataphatic theology. My interest in apophatic theology is not academic; it has grown from the context of my life. It confirms my understanding that all theology is in some shape or form autobiographical. My longings and my joys, that which breaks my heart and that which breaks my heart open, all these things works their way into my body and soul and shape how I approach God.


A formative experience for me was that I was raised as an immigrant in different countries. As an immigrant you learn to observe, diagnose and put into words what’s happening in the environment around you so that you can try to stay safe by predicting what will happen. Being able to name and understand can mean the difference between being ridiculed or accepted, between being roughed-up or staying safe. Understanding, naming and predicting, in short being cataphatic, was a means of survival for me.


The cataphatic path of being in the world impacted my understanding of God: The more I thought I knew about God and how God relates to the world, the safer and more predictable life felt for me. Most of us do not give up this path by choice, we give it up in crisis. That crisis for me was a fluke of nature that threw my life out of balance.  In my late forties, out of the blue, a bone spur started growing into my spinal cord, and over the course of forty-eight hours I went from running thirty miles a week to not being able to walk. When I lost the ability to walk I also lost much of what I had believed on a primal level and affirmed about the world; that if I ate well and took care of my body I would stay healthy. Also, if I was a good person, then---this is embarrassing-- I would be blessed with a good life.


To learn to take the apophatic path and recognize that my images of God are only images, to un-know my assumptions about the way of the world and the divine economy was, and still is, not always easy for me. Giving up my concepts and images of others, whether another person or God, means to give up control in my life, even when that control is illusionary involves discomfort and pain. I can get so attached to my ideas of God, of how the world should work and who my who family is (you should ask Jill and our children!). Yet giving up these concepts and images also feels liberating and enlivening. To ask myself about friends, family and God  “Who are you?” opens up my relationship for a more authentic encounter in which the other can be their living wild self rather than my image of them. Swiss novelist Max Frisch identifies this process of giving up our concepts and images as love:   “And that precisely is the nature of love, and what is wonderful about love, that it keeps us in suspense of what is alive, willing to follow a person as they grow and develop. Love liberates us from images, which are limiting.  That is what is exhilarating, adventurous, and exciting, that we are never done learning about the person we love…” But when we become too exhausted to encounter the other as mystery  “we turn them into an image. That is not love. That is betrayal.”


This does not mean that the cataphatic approach is useless. Contemplatives such as Symeon the New Theologian and Catherine of Siena do not denigrate conceptual knowledge. They only say that knowing about God is different from knowing God. Knowing about God can point you in the direction of the Divine. However, to truly know God and others we have to move beyond our concepts of them and take the apophatic path. This requires epistemic humility (how about that for a mouthful!) which means owning up to the limitations of what we can know. To have a living encounter we need to allow ourselves to be emptied of our images and ideas. For me this is a constant process where, I at least never “arrive”. It can feel strenuous and frustrating to me because images and fixations keep cropping up.

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In order to become aware of, and dissolve those images the contemplative theologians recommend the practice of contemplative prayer. It is a good reminder to me that contemplative prayer and the apophatic path are first and foremost about entering into a living relationship. True confession: I often engage this practice so that I can calm myself and feel better. I am curious whether and how Jen engages in practices of the apophatic path and how she experiences them.