Apophaticism


This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen that prayer and the life of faith involves our bodies and all of our senses. Yet it also involves words and the Orthodox Church is insistent on the use of the right words. Sometimes people who are interested in Orthodoxy because they see it as “mystical” can get rather disillusioned when they realise how many (often rather long) verbal prayers we have. Yet this is what teaches us to pray. Father Georges Florosky writes:

It has often been suggested, by many authorities and expert masters of spiritual life, that ‘prayer books’, the fixed formularies of worship, are only intended for the beginners. This is undoubtedly true if the statement is properly understood. Fixed formulae are, of course, no more than a means towards something much greater. Yet they are an appropriate means. It is spiritually dangerous to neglect the ‘books’, to dispense with them hastily, and to indulge arbitrarily in extempore improvisations of one’s own composition. It is more than merely a question of discipline. The settled formulae not only help to fix the attention, but also feed the heart and mind of the worshippers, offering topics for meditation and reminding them of the mighty deeds of God. There is no room for psychologism or subjectivism in Christian worship.” *

There is a fundamental relationship between words and silence in our prayer. It has sometimes struck me as interesting that it is precisely those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words (and the right ritual and gesture), and who resist the idea that we should make things up as we go along, that are most aware of the limitation of words. For it is the task of words to lead us to silence, to the place where words break down and we are face to face with the One who is beyond all words. The Orthodox life of prayer uses words extensively, both in its public liturgy and in private prayer. Their use is not arbitrary, there is a lot of repetition, and we certainly don’t make them up as we go along. And yet their purpose is to lead us beyond themselves, for, as Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Speech is the organ of this present age. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.”

This same relationship between words and silence is seen in the use of the Jesus prayer. This short prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – is seen as one of the treasures of Orthodox life although its use also varies. It is often thought of as a mantra but, while it may have external similarities with mantras in other religious traditions, being a short phrase that is repeated, we would see it not as a mantra but as a prayer that sums up the fundamental Christian approach to God. It is addressed to Christ, acknowledges Him as the Son of God, and is a plea for mercy on the part of those who are aware of their own sinfulness. Yet these are no mere words, but, constantly repeated, become the expression of our whole relationship to God.

For, at the centre of any life of prayer is not what we do, but rather what happens to us and what we become. It is how we encounter the reality of the world, including the reality of suffering in the world. For the early Fathers, prayer was about entering into the depths of our hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken open so that the presence of God may purify and heal us and so that we may in turn become a source of healing for others. Father Boris Bobrinskoy writes:

Living the life of Christ, letting oneself be penetrated by His Spirit, by His breath of mercy, constitutes Christianity. According to the Bible, that means acquiring the bowels of compassion and tenderness of the Father. According to the second chapter of Philippians, it presupposes having the same feelings as Jesus Christ, not in the sense of mimicry or external imitation, but a true “transfer” on a plane more important and fundamental than the psychological level. A transfer of presence, of life center, of grace and love must operate in us so that we might live in Christ, and Christ might live in us. Certainly, this transfer operates in a global, constant, and progressive manner, through the sacramental life, love, prayer, and faith. For us Christians, the Church is the place of apprenticeship of this transfer: its entire pedagogy, its sacramental and liturgical transmission, its spiritual methodology, and its ascetic experience of the inner life, what the Fathers call the unseen warfare against the passions. **

To be continued…

* “The Worshipping Church” in The Festal Menaion, 32.

** The Compassion of the Father, 87.

Central to the vision of the Greek Fathers is their sense of the paradox of God’s distance and his closeness, his majesty and his nearness. On the one hand, God is utterly beyond anything we can know or imagine: he is transcendently unknowable – they would have applauded the opinion of the pagan Greek philosopher, Damascius, who said, ‘we do not even know whether he is unknowable.’ On the other hand, God, as the source of all being, as the source of our being, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

But for the Greek Fathers this is more than just an intellectual paradox about transcendence and immanence. For in Christ the transcendent God has become a human being just like us: the intellectual paradoxes of the infinitely distant and infinitely close are historically true of the of the one the gospels call Jesus of Nazareth, the one born in a stable, the one who died on a cross. The paradoxes intensify as the source of life comes into being in the womb of Mary, the ‘Bearer of God’, and life succumbs to death on the cross, only to be manifest as life triumphant over death in the resurrection. ‘Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the tombs given life!’ – as Greek Christians, Orthodox Christians, sing, with inexhaustible joy, as they celebrate the resurrection at Easter.

But the paradoxes do not end there either. For the Greek Fathers ‘theology’ is not an intellectual exercise, whether practised on matters philosophical or historical: it is an experience, realized in prayer, made possible through responding to God’s self-emptying love in the incarnation by our own attempts at ascetic struggle and self-denying love. The experience is transforming, transfiguring: its fruits are the virtues of faith, humility, serenity (or ‘dispassion’), but what we become in our transfigured state is God himself. So to the paradox of incarnation – God became a man – there corresponds the paradox of deification – the human person transfigured by, and into, God. And all this is celebrated in the services of the church, the liturgy, preeminently the Eucharistic Liturgy, in which the whole material creation – bread and wine, water and oil, smells and colours, music and shape, the beauty of creation and the art of human creativity – is drawn into the celebration of God’s transfiguring love for the whole of his creation.

Father Andrew Louth, “Introduction” to The Wisdom of the Greek Fathers(Lion Publishing, 1997), 6-8.

I’m normally a little hesitant about these sort of anthologies designed for the “spirituality” market! But considering the combination of Father Andrew Louth, the Greek Fathers, my looking for accessible things to provide a slightly different view of Christianity to that which most of my family and friends see as the norm, and my search for suitable quotes for making little books, and I thought this would be worth looking at. And reading Father Andrew’s introduction, I thought that it was defintely worth posting.

Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s points about spirituality in my second last post highlight a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.

This was highlighted for me by a recent interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio. He is (or was) a leading South African theologian, a Methodist, who has worked in a liberationist mode and is now arguing for the importance of “spirituality.” He states:

For me, spirituality has to do with having an openness towards life and towards truth. It means wanting to move beyond any closed ideological, dogmatic system. It also means a willingness—and, in fact, a desire—to discover what lies beyond the material. I’ve often said to myself that the question of God and the question of the divine are more important than the answers. It’s a very, very arrogant thing to begin to describe who God is or what the divine is. Yet these questions range from the relationship between religion and the sciences to ethical inquiry, and certainly to political justice, reconciliation, and coexistence. In that sense I regard myself as a very spiritual person. But I find myself resisting institutional forms of religion that try to impose upon me and everyone else a definition of the divine. It’s openness that I think is really important.

I am highlighting this not to attack Villa-Vicencio or to engage in polemics about liberal Protestantism or liberation theology – and conservative Catholics and Orthodox finding common ground in demonizing such people is another one of the things that I find quite distasteful about some online interactions. I have never met Villa-Vicencio, but I do know several people with a similar background to his who would espouse similar sentiments. These are well meaning, good people who sincerely believe in what they are doing and who often display real Christian concerns, often at great personal cost. In fact, his comments in this interview struck me precisely because they made concrete the sort of attitudes that I often encounter and which I nevertheless find it difficult to pin down so that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

There are of course a cluster of ideas associated with such developments which I suspect have deeper roots in the development of western theology. Thus we find a reaction to “institutional religion” which points to a total loss of consciousness of the Mystery of the Church which is reduced to simply being an institution. (In fairness to Protestants, I have also found this attitude among Catholics and suspect that it is rooted in the transformation of western understandings of the Church in the second millennium). And, allied to this, we find a rejection of dogma in favour of “openness” and a refusal to draw boundaries (something that I hope to return to again). At which point I suppose that one does have to start asking whether this whole phenomenon can really be considered Christian.

However, what has sometimes struck me in such discussions is the appeal that some make to apophatic theology that is reflected in Villa-Vicencio’s comment about theological arrogance. I remember being in a WCC meeting where Protestant theologians responded to Orthodox concerns about their use of gender-inclusive language for God on the basis that “we cannot know what God is.” At a superficial level apophaticism can simply lead to a speculative nihilism or to an “anything goes” approach, and Villa-Vicencio is certainly not the first whom I have heard invoking it in such a way as to lead to outright relativism. But such an appeal to “the apophatic tradition” is all-too-often unaware of the dogmatic rootedness of this “tradition.”

I was struck by this while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to the Selected Writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. For Maximus, as I dare say for other Fathers, our supreme ignorance of God is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of Him which is made possible through the Incarnation of Christ.

“Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And he answered his own question: “This only faith understands, adoring the Logos in silence.” It was, then, a genuine understanding, but one that appropriately expressed itself “in silence” rather than in words. Not even the words of the orthodox dogma, for which Maximus contended and suffered all his life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. “Theological mystagogy” transcended the dogmas formulated by the councils of the Church. A spirituality shaped by Orthodox apophaticism, therefore, was one that gratefully acknowledged those dogmas and was ready to defend them to the death against those who sought to distort them, but that, at the same time, willingly – in fact, worshipfully – acknowledged the limitations that had been placed on all knowledge and all affirmation, be it human or angelic. (9)

In Orthodox theology, apophaticism cannot be separated either from dogma or from worship which are so closely intertwined as to form one whole. I once commented on the irony that it is those traditions, whether liturgical, iconographic or theological, that pay most attention to correct detail, that are best  able to lead us beyond the limitations of human expression.

Indeed, it is the uniting of the polarity between knowing and unknowing that is the heart of faith, and those who insist on the limitation of human language to speak of God, are the first to lay down their lives to defend its expressions. For faith has a name, and a concrete history. It is the revelation of God in Christ and His continued presence in His Body the Church.

A Christian should humbly recognise that God is a mystery beyond anything which might be attributed to him. A person who attempts to comprehend God’s essence is, according to Gregory [the Theologian], like someone who runs after his own shadow: the faster he runs, the faster the shadow moves. The way towards God can never end with the comprehension of God’s essence: its end is silent amazement before the mystery. In this state all discursive knowledge falls silent.

The heroine of the Song of Songs seeks her lover but cannot find him, pursues him and cannot reach him. The image of the pursuit has been interpreted in the Christian tradition, for example by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, to mean the soul’s pursuit of God, who eternally flees from her. The soul seeks God, but no sooner does she find him than she loses him again. She attempts to comprehend him, but fails to do so, endeavours to embrace him, but cannot. He moves with great speed and always transcends the soul’s capabilities. To find God and to catch up with him would mean that we had become divine ourselves. The laws of physics dictate that if the material body were to travel at the speed of light it would turn into light. So it is with the soul: the closer she is to God, the more she is filled with light and becomes a bearer of light.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) 24.

. . . the apophatic theology of this period [of Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor] by no means implies a theological agnosticism, if carefully studied in its essential aims. The principal object of this theology is to remove the question of truth and knowledge from the domain of Greek theories of ontology in order to situate it within that of love and communion. That apophatic theology founds itself on love is something so evident as to be the necessary key to its understanding and assessment. The perspectives offered by an approach to being through love, as arrived at by the mystical and ascetic theologians of the period, led by another route to the same conclusion that the eucharistic and trinitarian approaches of the previous period reached: it is only through an identification with communion that truth can be reconciled with ontology.

John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004) 92.

I intended to write about this at the end of the previous post but ran out of time then.

Two days ago Joris van Ael, the Flemish iconographer whose work I mentioned in a previous post, gave a talk to our community in which he highlighted the common roots of eastern and western religious imagery. (Well, he was actually here to give an intensive workshop to two of us, but that is another story). Something that he said struck me as worth noting, as it intersects with themes that keep recurring for me. Having emphasised the wide variety of iconographic expression, and the creativity of differing traditions, he addressed the question of what the common factor was in all these traditions. What is it that makes something an icon, as opposed to, say, other forms of western religious imagery? This is a question that I have often been asked, and I have always found my answers inadequate. Yes, one can speak of a particular style, of working within a tradition, even of working within a canon, but that remains at a surface level. And, yes, one can also speak of the icon’s theological and liturgical role, but that can be understood as implying a sort of didactic role which, while not untrue, only touches the surface.

Joris’ answer was that the icon has both an element of resemblance and similarity, but also of dissimilarity and elusiveness. There is the contrast between light and darkness, between proclamation and silence. The icon leads us to a point that goes beyond our thought processes and leads us to the Mystery that is beyond all expression. In the icon the Unnameable appears.

Now this is of course rather paradoxical, for iconography pays great attention to the details being correct and, indeed, to persons and events being properly named. Yet such detail is there precisely to lead us to something greater. And the same thing applies to liturgy and theology. It has sometimes struck me as rather ironic, but perhaps also instructive, that those liturgical traditions that are most insistent on careful adherence to the rites are precisely the traditions that are most able to lead us beyond themselves. And, likewise, apophatic theology is not to be found in the traditions (if one may call them that) that have become rather vague on what they believe, but precisely in those traditions that place great emphasis on correct belief, but which are aware of the limitations of our human expression.

Some food for further reflection!

I came across this paper on Theology, Liturgy and Silence by the Ecumenical Patriarch quite by chance. It was presented on 6 March at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. I found it particularly worthwhile not only because he roots theology in the doxological experience of the Church, but also because he emphasises the apophatic underpinning of theology and liturgy, an “ascetic silence of apophaticism” that should lead to humility.

Of course, classical philosophy and most religions adopt a fundamentally negative approach, inasmuch as they are aware of the awesome transcendence of God. Nevertheless, in Patristic thought, apophaticism is not merely an intellectual method of approaching the mystery of God. It is not simply a more effective way of knowing God through scholastic research. The Fathers continually confess the inadequacy of the human intellect and human language to express the fullness of truth. In the words of St. Basil the Great:

We know our God through His energies, whereas we do not presume to approach His essence. The energies of God come down to us, while His essence always remains inaccessible.

This distinction between divine essence and divine energies – so eloquently articulated by St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century – communicates the conviction that divine truth is not discovered through the intellect alone; instead, it is disclosed in the human heart, through the Eucharistic community, to the entire world. Ultimately, the awareness of God’s transcendence leads to personal encounter with the One who is Unknown. It is the knowledge beyond all knowledge, experienced as divine “ignorance”. Thus, theology transcends all formulations and definitions, being identified rather with a persona! and loving relationship with God in the communion of prayer. As Evagrius of Pontus affirms: “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, then you are a theologian.”

In the final analysis, the Church Fathers are not philosophers of abstract concepts, but heralds of a mystical theology. For them, the silence of apophatic theology signifies knowledge as communion at its deepest, its most intimate, and its most intense. In the seventh century, St. John Climacus experienced the same truth through asceticism:

Stillness of body is the understanding of habits and emotions. And silence of the soul is the knowledge of one’s thoughts and an inviolable mind … A wise hesychast has no need of words, being enlightened by deeds rather than by words. Such stillness is unceasing worship and waiting upon God.

His Holiness ends up by exhorting his listeners:

to serve the theological word by breathing the air of theology and kneeling humbly before the living Creator. Implore God for the renewal of your hearts and minds; invoke His grace for the salvation of every human person, even – and especially – the least of our brothers and sisters (Mt 25:45); and pray fervently for the transfiguration of the whole world, to the last speck of dust.