Through the Night

I hear smart, holy people talking about the desert fathers and mothers.  They were some of the original Christ-following contemplatives.  And our situation today is a strange echo of the reality they lived.

My understanding is that when Christianity became the religion of the empire, some people didn’t like what they saw happening to it.  They left the empire, and continued to live out their faith.

I suspect that this isn’t too different than the state we find ourselves in now.  Christianity has become the faith of our American empire.  And so we have watered things down and shifted the focus.

I believe that following Jesus is as an act that is subversive.  It comes up from powerlessness and erupts suddenly.  I don’t actually know what it would look like, for an authentic Christianity to be enmeshed with the majority, with the powerful.

But I digress.  The desert fathers:

Despite the fact that I hear all this stuff about them, I don’t have much experience with them directly.    There is a work called ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.’  It is a collection of brief anecdotes about these folks.  It is sometimes like reading the bible itself; equal parts strange and familiar, surprising and expected.  There are parts that make me want to cheer, and parts that make me want to weep.  I suspect that some of the spiritual work in reading and applying this stuff is balancing being discerning with not just skimming for the things I want it to say.

And so, I proceed with a little bit of caution.  But I am going to proceed.  I am going to share the sayings that strike me as relevant, and ponder a bit about the meaning of all this.

Here is the saying I am thinking about today:

“It was also said of him (Abba Arsenius) that on Saturday evenings, preparing
for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his
hands in prayer  towards the  heavens, till once   again the sun shone on  his
face. Then he would sit down.”

There is, of course, a literal meaning to that little paragraph.  But I was struck by a symbolic one.

It is easy to want to bask in the sunlight.  People have actually worshipped the sun for as long as they have worshipped anything.  The idea that you might turn your back on the sun seems like rejecting the easy and false sources of happiness we can find in life.  Stretching out the hands to heavens, instead, is I think, an act of faith and courage.  It is a recognition that the home of God is not in this earthly place, it is far away from us.

If he kept going until the sun shone on his face, he literally prayed through the night.  I love the idea of symbolically praying through the night…  Doing it with out stopping, doing it with out reassurances.

That’s my prayer for us today: May we all pray through the darknesses that face us, and may we sit, with satisfaction, when the sun rises on a glorious Sunday.




Negating the Negation

We live in this world of light.

This is true on a very literal level.  When I have been camping (especially those times I have been ill-prepared!)  I learn this new appreciation for our modern conveniences.  But also, I think we have lost something.

Because we also live in this world of darkness.  And I would suggest that how easy it is to flip a switch and bathe a room with exactly as much light as you want– this has lead to us living in denial of that truth– we also live in darkness.

Last post I played around with two great words.  In some sense, they boil down to claims about the way the world is.  The Cataphatic claims that we live in a world of light.  The apophatic claims that we live in a world of darkness.  

Both of these statements are true.

One of the ways that this plays is out with our words.  The Cataphatic states that there are many things which are well-defined by words.  The apophatic reminds us that there are other things that are simplified, limited, and even strangled when we attempt to put them into words.  This is never more true than when it comes to describing God.

It seems like our age is one where we live near the cataphatic extreme.   Western Philosophy lead to a powerful science that leverages words, definitions, and rationality to do things that past generations never would have imagined.  Many modern churches have been impacted by this, and useful and powerful ideas have resulted.

The apophatic tradition has been fittingly, or ironically, left out in the dark.  There are three ways we ought to welcome the apophatic back, to bring balance to what we are doing.

We ought to bring the apophatic back into our traditions.  We ought to look into our past for traditions that have been marginalized. For example, the desert fathers and mothers left “mainstream” Christianity when it became the religion of the empire, and they developed some extraordinary practices which lead to an appreciation of silence and darkness.

We ought to find the folks who tend toward the apophatic among us.  Perhaps they know the word.  Perhaps it is just a feeling in them.  Either way, those who resist the tendency to make an idol of words and orthodoxy have so much to offer us.

Finally, we ought to embrace our own inner apophatic.  We have a part of ourselves that dwells in the darkness, that resists definitions, that wants to drink in the fullness of experience not altered and muted with words.

Whether in the past or the present, whether outside or inside, the apophatic has so much to teach us about the places we don’t like to go.  The handling of our pain, hurt, and sorrow has been so Cataphatic for so many of us that we are only half-healed.

There is an apophatic practice that helps us to confront the limitations of words.  This form of meditation is not one that connects with everyone.  But the people who can make it work report this to be incredibly powerful.  Here’s how it goes:

Consider very brief descriptions of God.    (Perhaps words like ‘father, strong, love, wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, warrior, lover, healer, creator…)

Begin with an affirmation:

For example, God is father.

Meditate on this truth for a minute or two.

Then, speak the negation: God is not father.

You might recognize that there are aspects of the father-image which don’t fit.  For example, God’s role as creator might be more identified with mother-figures, who bare life.  Further, all fathers are limited and flawed.  When many of us say the word ‘father’ the limitations of our own come to my mind and color our view of God.  Further, we are saying these words in English.  They are translations of ancient words from dead language.  Even when the word we use is an accurate translation, the difference in culture change the meaning.  A person today affirming God’s fatherhood would mean something quite different than a first century Jew affirming God’s fatherhood.

As you did with that first statement, sit with this reality for a minute or two.


Finally, negate the negation: God is not not-father.

This is the hard part.

In the study of logic, to say something is not-not X is to say that it is X.  But this misses so much.  When we say that God is not not-father we are agnowlodgint that our last claim: God is not father is just as mistaken as our first claim: God is father.  Because God is the definition of father and when we claim otherwise, we are missing something, we are losing something.

I have found that this requires the longest period.  If you sat with the first two affirmations for two minutes, perhaps this one will take four.

Then, new statements can be introduced: God is not strong/God is not strong/ God is not not strong.  (Strength has limits, Strength does not imply wisdom or love, it can be only physical, it can be associated with stubborness)

God is love, God is not love, God is not not love.  (Love is a force, feeling, or emotion, it does not usually have personhood, we sometimes see love as doing what is nice, not what is necessary, our love is usually conditional)

I think it will be good for you to work out the meaning and the limits of those other statements, or better yet, furnish your own to plug into the format God is _____, God is not _______ god is not not ________________.

You might find something like the insight app is useful for this meditation.  If you set the timer for the sounds to recurr every minute, you can track how long you have been engaged in the various parts.  Or perhaps you’d like to dedicate a single session to one affirmation, negation, and negation of the negation.