Anonymous asked: When you are silent, do you only become enlightened about your own situation in these moments, or do you feel like they help you sort out other stuff about life, the world and the like? Hayden.
This question from Hayden was asked of me on Facebook but I thought I would answer here as the feel of Facebook doesn’t lend itself to decent answers.
I need to make it clear that such self revelation is not my desire for my time of silence, but has been a natural outcome thus far as I reflect on what has happened as I have tried to engage silence. That outcome is an uncomfortable one. I am not seeking to have anything revealed or to be enlightened about anything. I don’t see it as a place for questions or answers.
The easiest way to explain the point, is to talk of the two ways of approaching God that all of Christian tradition fits into; apophatic and cataphatic.
Cataphatic theology is about what we can say of God - what we know of Him. In language it finds ways of expressing our knowledge of God through what He is. The ultimate cataphatic expression is Jesus - God revealed and known in human form. Most of western Christianity focuses on the cataphatic.
Apophatic theology is the opposite, it is about recognizing that God is beyond human comprehension. In language it approaches God through describing what he is not as we understand that the language we use to describe Him ultimately falls short and is muddied by our constructions around words. Even reflecting on Jesus and pondering Jesus will lead many into an apophatic space.
In terms of spirituality, cataphatic expressions look for the presence of God and seek a knowing of God through finding what God is and where he is present. In my life that comes through my theological studies and the work that I do. In my daily prayer rhythm it comes in the form of practicing the daily prayer of examen. It’s about encountering God in the space that is – if that makes sense. This comes for me quite naturally.
With silence I am exploring an apophatic way of being. Such a way of being demands the pursuit of kenosis – an emptying of one’s self in order to be totally receptive to the divine in a way that is beyond knowing. This is not something I can adequately explain except to say that if cataphatic spirituality is about encountering God in the space that is, then apophatic spirituality is about encountering God in the space that is not… that empty expanse. But there the language falls short, as it’s not about encountering God where the word ‘encounter’ denotes some kind of tangible experience.
To give it some sense of decent explanation, I like these words from another blog:
God is so big that we can’t get our heads round the divine nature because there’s more of God than we can fit in our heads. God is so other than none of the words we have can be used to describe the thing that God is because they all come from the names for things that God is not. All of our language is creaturely, and God is not a creature. All of our language is finite, and God is not finite. And so, language fails: hence, apophatic theology, which is really about arriving at the point of theological silence. And the paradox here is that it’s only then, when we’re standing in the ruins of all our beautiful words, that we really see God, in what Dionysius the Areopagite calls ‘the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.’
Using this to describe where I’m at with the apophatic I would say that I’m going through the process of everything being ruined – all those beautiful words and things I have constructed being brought down around me and it is very unsettling, but at the same time it feels right. Rather than working against or in contrast with the cataphatic spirituality in my life, it will compliment it. This is where Christian spirituality and the Christian mystic traditions differ from things such as Buddhism. Where the latter seeks an emptiness that ultimately discards reality or moves one beyond it, both the apophatic and cataphatic traditions recognize that there is an ultimate seat for reality, God, and that God is known through the person of Jesus but also helps define reality by being beyond it and therefore He is also unknowable. The two, apophatic and cataphatic spirituality, help us enter both.
With all this in mind and to finally come back to the answer – in my practice of apophatic silence I do not seek or want to be enlightened about myself, life or the world. I do not desire a sense of achievement; I don’t have measurable goals for it or ways to define success. If that is to take place anywhere, it happens in my cataphatic practices. I’m not after answers to anything in the silence. In the silence I just want to be exactly that – silent and still. I want to be nothing before an almighty God beyond my comprehension. I want to be a grain of sand that gets placed within the desert that is Him – immeasurable, impossible to navigate, going on forever and ever. It sounds blissful, but the process towards becoming truly still is hard work. Right now I am finding a sense of assurance in that what I am experiencing seems to be part of the journey of the contemplative life. The Cloud of Unknowing would describe my current experience of self realization as the path of imperfect humility, which could be considered a door to something else.
And I realize as I write this that it is impossible to explain my morning times. None of the above explanation properly gets there… hopefully it gives a glimpse though. At some point I may explain what acted as a catalyst for getting to this place.