The Anglican Ascetic (Part 3)

By Matthew Paul Buccheri

A God Beyond Our Understanding

God is good.  God is love.  God is just.  These are all positive statements about God, also known as cataphatic theological statements or via positiva.  The opposite of cataphatic theology is the apophatic way.  Kallistos Ware defines the apophatic approach clearly in his book The Orthodox Way:

            Recognizing that God is incomparably greater than anything we can say or think about him, we find it necessary to refer to him not just through direct statements but through pictures and images.  Our [Eastern Orthodox] theology is to a large extent symbolic.  Yet symbols alone are insufficient to convey the transcendence and the “otherness” of God.  To point at the mysterium tremendum, we need to use negative as well as affirmative statements, saying what God is not rather than what he is.  Without this use of the way of negation, of what is termed the apophatic approach, our talk about God becomes gravely misleading.  All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth.  If we say that he is good or just, we must qualify this immediately by add that his goodness and justice are not to be measured by our human standards.  If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears unique significance.  So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation.  As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect.”[1]

“God can never be in any simple way the ‘object’ of our understanding.  He is not ‘outside’, as objects of knowledge are.”

Similarly, in his book Ways of Imperfection, Simon Tugwell, speaking about the shape of Evagrius of Ponticus’ theology, reminds us why there are elements of God that are outside of our comprehension: “God can never be in any simple way the ‘object’ of our understanding.  He is not ‘outside’, as objects of knowledge are.”[2]  What Ware and Tugwell are attempting to highlight as the “otherness” of God is more simply thought of as the transcendence of God.  In other words, being the creator of all things, God can’t and shouldn’t be confused with what he’s created since he stands over against the created order, the cosmos.  Therefore, we can’t look to observe, define or even know God the same way we can know or get a glimpse of anything else.

According to Andrew Louth, this form of theology is deeply indebted to the likes of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius (Denys the Areopagite) while finding its roots in Philo.[3]  Thus, the apophatic tradition has a longstanding history–a history that has entered, ever so slightly, into the Daily Office of the Prayer Book.

While not filled with apophatic theology, the current Prayer Book certainly hints in an apophatic direction in two ways.  The first hint is the inclusion of Canticle 19, Magna et mirabilia.  This canticle opens up with an apophatic statement about God: “O ruler of the universe, Lord God, great deeds are they that you have done, surpassing human understanding.”[4]  It is easy to miss this epistemological negation, especially if one prays the Office daily.  But in order to understand the apophatic sense of the canticle, it’s important to understand when the Prayer Book suggests its usage.

“O ruler of the universe, Lord God, great deeds are they that you have done, surpassing human understanding.”

            McPherson rightly recognizes that “Saturday is, despite the confusion in some Christian circles, the Sabbath day, when God rests and beholds creation in its goodness and perfection.”[5]  McPherson goes on to say that the second canticle suggested for Saturday “stresses God’s transcendence” and “[t]heologicially it is apophatic as opposed to a kataphatic song, emphasizing that God ‘surpasses human understanding.’”[6]  It could be argued that the reason the Prayer Book suggests the canticle for Saturday (remembering that Saturday is the Sabbath, the day God rested to behold the beauty of the newly created universe) is because we should be equally in awe of what God has done in the act of creation.  The accomplishment of creation is such an extraordinary process, and as such, we should be left astonished at who God is and even be left dumbfounded.

As Ware sums up for us, “the apophatic way of ‘unknowing’ brings us not to emptiness but to fullness. Our negations are in reality super-affirmations.”[7]  Or as Fagerberg agrees while considering John of the Cross’ The Ascent of Mount Carmel, “Emptying the plate of sand may appear to be negative, but it is for the positive purpose of filling the plate with bread.”[8]  Then quoting Bruno Barnhart, Fagerberg continues, “Whatever ‘negative’ aspect of there is to asceticism is only because ‘[a]sceticism is an apophatic aspect of presence, witnessing to the sufficiency of God and the fullness of the Center.’”[9]

Silence is Golden

If there’s one thing the modern world has forced upon all those whom inhabit it, that one thing may be noise.  Most of us know nothing of a time without the sound of machinery; a time without the excessive honking of automobile traffic; in short, we know little of a quieter age.  Keeping silence, however, is a human art form that goes far beyond speechlessness.  Keeping silence is, in fact, a desire for a deep stillness¾a stillness with a deep desire to listen, or better yet, because one has already heard.

Related to the apophatic way is this deep inner silence, a stillness, an awe and wonder that causes a person to be so overwhelmed with the reality of God’s presence, that they are left, as previously mentioned, dumbfounded.  This is not simply a time for silent reflection; it is a time of silence caused by entering the presence of God.  “Like silences in music, the silences after the readings and at other points are not a cessation of activity, but part of the mode and meaning.”[10]

…silence is the neg­a­tive space cre­ated by the absence of words.

The relationship of silence to apophatic theology should be obvious to us: silence is the negative space created by the absence of words.  But again, it’s not merely a pause, but, again, being overwhelmed by God’s goodness to the point of being at a loss for words.  A good image to explain what this means would be: when we come face-to-face with the Lord of the universe, we should experience a jaw-dropping silence![11]  As Louth explains, “apophatic theology is concerned with our understanding of God, when, in the presence of God, speech and thought fail us and we are reduced to silence.”[12]  According to Louth, a great difficultly may (should?) arise within us when we meet God: in prayer, in the liturgy, in the sacraments, while reading or listening to the scriptures read.  And it’s in a number of these areas that Louth mentions where the Prayer Book makes an allowance for silence.

In his commentary, Mitchell reminds us where the current Prayer Book suggests silence: “In several places throughout the Office silence is permitted: before the confession, after the readings, after the Psalm in An Order for Evening, and after the collect at Compline.”[13]  He goes onto agree that “[b]eing still before the presence of God reminds us that we really do have nothing to say.”[14]  What Mitchell is reminding us of in his statement is none other than the apophatic reality of silence¾being affected to the point of having a deep inability to say even a word.  But what causes this silence?  Where do we come into God’s presence in our liturgical prayer?

We undeniably come into God’s presence in the four areas Mitchell reminds us of: when we pause before confession and take a personal inventory of our sin before God, we should be overwhelmed by the creator-creature distinction, similar to the mood created by Ash Wednesday, which reminds us that we are dust; after each reading, we should be moved to silence after hearing the Word of God, a form of Emmanuel, God with us; similarly after a Psalm, but in a more emotive sense since the Psalms seep with human emotions; and finally, after prayer, or the Collect, since to pray is to enter the very throne-room of God.  In other words, these silences are not forced or insisted upon, but instead, the result of sensing God’s presence¾the place where only angels and all the hosts of heaven have regular access.

All of these opportunities to be deeply affected to the point of having an inability to speak should be taken advantage of when we pray the Daily Office.  As Fagerberg so poignantly sums up for us, “[t]his is the quiet–the hesychasm–that permits the ascetic to hear creation’s hierphonic declaration, the theological Word of God himself drawing near and presenting himself to the liturgical theologian.”[15]

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 14.

[2] Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality, (Springfield: Templegate, 1985), 30.

[3] Andrew Louth, The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, (New York: Oxford, 2007.

[4] BCP, 94.  My italics.

[5] McPherson, Grace at this Time, 40.

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Ware, 15.

[8] Fagerberg, 69.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] McPherson, 35.

[11] For more on this “jaw-dropping” silence, see St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses or for a brief overview see Andrew Louth’s chapter on the Cappadocian’s in The Study of Spirituality, eds. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, SJ, (London: SPCK, 1986), 161–168.

[12] Louth, 160.

[13] Mitchell, 65.

[14] Ibid., 65.

[15] Fagerberg, 107.  By “liturgical theologian” Fagerberg means all baptized members of the Church who engage God through any form of liturgy.