In the Christian mystical tradition there is an ancient way of understanding God by means of negation. This is often called apophatic theology. The most famous of the Christian mystics who teach this path of unknowing is Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This way of understanding God and contemplative prayer came into the Western Christian tradition through John Scotus Eriugena, who was inspired by Dionysius and translated his writing into Latin for the Western Church to read and enjoy. It was thanks to Eriugena that Western mystics like Meister Eckhart and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing were able to read Dionysius and give us such beautiful teachings.
The essence of the apophatic way of looking at God and contemplation is that nothing we can say about God is completely true because God transcends everything created, and that includes us and our doctrines and teachings. Apophatic, or negative theology, is the partner of cataphatic, or positive theology. Both paths are good and needed and we are wise to keep them in a healthy balance. In positive theology we say things about God like God is good and beautiful or God is love. In negative theology we move rather towards silence and stillness. Instead of categorizing God and defining God we approach the divine in a more humble and simple way. We say nothing about God at all. In fact, Eriugena bravely said that God is nothing because God is no-thing. No thing which can be described could truly be said to be God. This is perhaps best described by the name of God which Moses received. The scene in Exodus 3 goes like this,
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
The truth of God is unnamable. The name “I am who I am” is another way of saying, “you can’t name me because I am beyond naming.” While it is helpful to say things about God, and the things we say can be true in their own limited ways, what God truly is cannot be named. For this reason many mystics and contemplatives seek union with God through silence. They try to still the discursive voice in their mind in order to become more like God. This is the essence and the ancient root of the modern practice of centering prayer.
David Cole and I have put together a virtual retreat exploring the apophatic tradition and its application to modern life and contemplative prayer. It looks at Dionysius, Eriugena, Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing. It has a series of talks from David and I and also a series of guided meditation videos set to the Celtic harp and beautiful nature scenery. There are a few videos available for free preview if you want to get a taste for what it’s all about. Click the button below to learn more.