Some Relevant Lessons from a Dead Language

There are some things I was struggling with tonight.

My first instinct was to get up and past it.  This is a fine thing to do.  In me, this instinct takes the shape of finding words to describe my struggles and prescribe a solution.  This is the way of well-lit paths, the way of finding the paths that had been taken before.  This is all connected to this tradition in spirituality called kataphatic.

But I checked this first instinct.  

And I decided that I might embrace the fact that the reality of my situation, just like every situation, is wider, weirder, and more nuanced than any of the words that I might use to describe it.  Rather than navigating a straight line through my struggles, so that I might efficiently head to the outside, I decided that I might spend some time in this place.

This tradition is called the apophatic.  

At the most basic, this distinction is about words.  Will we pray using words?  Will we describe God using them?  Will we find them worthy signposts of all the things going on?  If the answer is yes, then we are planting ourselves in the kataphatic tradition.  

The modern church is pretty good, I think, in this area.  America is rather Kataphatic.  I think maybe this is all our inheritance from the enlightenment.  If my experience is reliable snapshot of the big picture, then it’s probably a little too good.  

My journey into contemplative practices has been about an embrace of apophatic practices.  Before, I would have given lip service to the idea that God is bigger than our words and categories.  Now, I try to live this truth by recognizing that even smaller, finite things are not so easily catalouged, named, and explained.  

As I live this reality, embracing the full complexity of things, I come to reject the simple prescriptions and the suggested remedies to things.   I want transformation more than solutions for myself, and I value solidarity over answers from those that I love.

There is an ancient practice that I think straddles the divide between the kataphatic and the apophatic.  This practice is called Lectio Divina.  (That’s the last Latin today.  I promise.)

A perhaps oversimplified way to approach Lectio:

  1. Spend some time clearing your mind.  Watch your breath.  Make use of a mantra if that’s your thing.  Maybe ask God to ready you and speak to you.
  2. Read a chapter of the bible slowly.  Luxuriate in it.   Take it slowly.
  3. Read the chapter again.  This time, look for something that seems relevant to where you are; words that God wants to speak to you.   I find that a passage of ten syllables or less is ideal.
  4. Draw your attention to that phrase, now.  Let that verse/sentence/etc. Be your mantra, as you continue your breathing practice.
  5. Put the verse away in your mind.  Return to something like the practice you used in step 1, clearing your mind and looking after a deeper-than-words union with God.


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You know what would be even more awesome?  A comment.  Leave one below, will you?  A check in, a reaction, a thought, disagreement…   Let me know what you’re thinking about.