APOPHATIC 
 

and

  
KATAPHATIC
 

THEOLOGY

POETIC illustrations of the meaning of these terms are found in the works of the seventeenth-century British “metaphysical” poets (R. Crenshaw, J. Donne, G. Herbert, T. Traherne, and H. Vaughan), who often drew on two complementary strands of Christian mysticism.

   THE kataphatic tradition (the “way of affirmation”) emphasizes beauty that is revealed and apparent, while the apophatic tradition (the “way of negation”) dwells on glory that remains concealed, hidden from view.  Word-portraits of these contrasting approaches are found in two different poems by Henry Vaughan, the seventeenth-century British metaphysical poet.  The first poem, The World, is kataphatic, portraying God and creation in images of light and brightness:

 

I SAW eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,

                        All calm, as it was bright,

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world

                        And all her train were hurl’d:

                                  The World (Henry Vaughan 1621-1695)

 

THUS in the Christian kataphatic mystical tradition God is seen through the prism of “the many”: words, color, song, complexity, multiplicity of images and ideas all intertwine, mutually illuminating one another while celebrating the richness of beauty experienced in diversity.

IN the apophatic strand of Christian mysticism, on the other hand, God is understood as “the One” - beyond words and images, transcending every category in a radical simplicity beyond all human thought and idea.  God’s uniqueness and grandeur so ovewhelm our senses and minds that God is described as solitary, radically simple; even as hidden, invisible, or “dark”.  Thus Vaughan’s poem The Night:


         THERE
is in God (some say)

A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

          See not all clear

O for that night! where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.
 


IT is possible to characterize different Christian spiritual practices according to their tendency to emphasize one end of this spectrum or the other:

THE KATAPHATIC TRADITION

(The Way of Affirmation)

[COMPLEX VARIETY; MULTIPLE IMAGES; LIGHT; LITERATURE; POETRY; HYMNODY]

 

PUBLIC WORSHIP

Sacramental & Scriptural Focus

Vernacular Psalmody

    Liturgy of the Hours

Ritual Chant

   Taizé, Gregor.Chant

 

PRIVATE DEVOTION

Icon-Meditation; Litanies

Stations of the Cross; The Rosary

 

DISCURSIVE MEDITATION

Ignatian Sulpician, Salesian

 

DISCERNMENT RETREAT

Ignatian Spirituality

 

THE APOPHATIC TRADITION

(The Way of Negation)

[SIMPLICITY, ABSENCE of IMAGES; DARKNESS; WORDLESS INTUITION; HUMILITY]

 

MONOLOGISTIC (Private-) PRAYER

 

The Jesus Prayer (Hesychasm)
  
Eastern Christian
      (Byzantine, Orthodox)

 

The prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing

 

“Centering Prayer”
     (Basil Pennington
       Thomas Keating)

 

“Christian Mantra”
(John Main,
   Lawrence Freeman)

 

“Christian Zen”

ABANDONMENT to
 
  DIVINE PROVIDENCE

          (? Mindfulness ?)

 

 

LECTIO DIVINA

(Contemplative praying of the Scriptures)

 

BOTH the kataphatic and apophatic traditions are expressed in the writings of the sixth-century mystic (pseudo-) Dionysius the Aereopagite, who in turn drew upon the earlier writings of Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Gregory of Nyssa.  His very brief book, The Mystical Theology, has been of incalculable importance in both the Christian East and West.



HE who binds to himself a Joy

     Doth the winged life destroy

But he who kisses the Joy as it flies

     Lives in Eternity’s sunrise


Eternity, William Blake,



This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1997....x....  .