The mystics witness to this paradox of intimacy and distance – the dark night of the soul comes not to those who do not know God but to those who do.
Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology.
I’ve been interested in apophatic and kataphatic mysticism recently. I knew about mysticism as apophatic but I’d never particularly given much thought to what it might look like in a kataphatic guise. I mean, can mysticism actually be kataphatic? Or is it always the way of unknowing?
Elaine Heath, in The Mystic Way of Evangelism, has brought me a degree of clarity here. She suggests that the kataphatic variety of mysticism is one of affirmation as to who God is. Widely present in the New Testament, it is characterised by dreams and visions, actions and encounters. It emphasises experience, experience of the living God coming close.
Apophatic mysticism, of course, de-emphasises experience. It refers to the via negativa, the way of ‘dark knowing’ which recognises the mystery of the transcendent One. The apophatic focuses on negation, that which is best understood in terms of what is not. It is the way of kenosis, of dark night and of silence.
Whether apophatic or kataphatic, mysticism is essentially a ‘movement of the heart’ by love to pursue surrender to ultimate Reality and union with the Real (Evelyn Underhill). On this definition, Christian mysticism as union with God in Christ is what the Father intends for each of us. Certainly, the New Testament would seem to indicate that believers enjoy that union now. Yet, as with so much in Scripture, this is a now and not yet reality. I do participate in Christ by his Spirit. But my prayer is also that by consciously surrendering my ways to him, by progressively dying to self, I may participate in him more deeply.
This is, I suspect, what Teresa of Avila was trying to get at when she talked about the prayer of union which gives way eventually to the grace of perfect union or spiritual marriage. It’s not that the believer is not in Christ from the moment of faith being given. Rather the journey of dying to self, like the silkworm weaving its cocoon, prepares the soul to receive her King more completely.
Mysticism is the intentional pursuit of that reality: a deeper embrace of our union with the ground of our being, the One who has showed himself to us finally and completely in Christ. On one level, then, all believers are mystics.
Yet, as ever, some run after him that bit harder. Though even that, of course, is gift. That their hearts are so turned to him, their ears tuned for his whisper and their eyes trained on him alone – that is surely gift. And these to whom this has been given, these are the ones for whom mysticism comes easily. These are the ones to whom the apophatic or the kataphatic, or both, is given. These are the ones to whom is given an ability to discern his works in them and in the world around them, even where those works are barely discernible. To them the ability to discern and then to name the unnameable.
Embracing mysticism, however, is hard. There’s some weird stuff done in the name of Christian mysticism, especially the ‘New’ variety – just as there is more than enough weird stuff done in the name of Christ. And for those who pursue their prize doggedly, who are outliers to the status quo, for them there is almost always judgment. So it would be easier to deny the pull of this reality. Easier to declare by faith my union with Christ and stop there. Easier to distance myself from all that is questionable, all that will invite more rejection, more judgment. Easier to deny all knowledge of realities both kataphatic and apophatic.
But I hear a call to run after him that bit harder. To turn my heart to him. To tune my ears for his whisper. To train my eyes on him first and him only. Without bit or bridle but only his eyes upon me, he is asking me to embrace what was always true about me. It’s time to dismantle my defences.