But these two ways of describing the mystery of God—the way of darkness and the way of light, the ambiguity of silence and the transparency of articulation—can never be separated. There is danger in posing a sharp dichotomy between apophatic and kataphatic approaches, as if one were superior to the other, as if the higher and purer silence of apophatic mysticism properly took precedence over the concrete concerns of community and speech. These two ways of delineating the image of God must be mutually interconnecting. They require each other. Lane, p.137
Several people have said to me recently that they think they ought to be able to sit quietly in silent prayer, empty their mind of thoughts, and find God, but that they don’t want to or can’t settle or are no good at prayer.
The idea that ‘proper’ prayer involves clearing the mind of thoughts and sitting in blank silence flies in the face of the monastic / Benedictine and (by extension) Anglican tradition of spiritual reading a.k.a. lectio divina.
Christian prayer has traditionally involved a four-step pattern, moving back and forth from a dependence upon language to an abandonment of words altogether. Prayer begins with lectio, the practice of spiritual reading in the scriptures and classic Christian texts. From there one turns to meditatio (the ruminative reflection on what has been read) and oratio (an expression of praise and intercession growing from that reflection). These, in turn, lead to a fourth form of prayer, contemplatio, in which one passes beyond all words and images of the earlier stages to embrace a deep silence in the presence of God. This is where apophatic prayer begins, but not where it ends. Never becoming a goal in itself, apophatic prayer serves ultimately to recycle the process, moving back through the earlier stages in a dynamic rediscovery of the word. Lane, p.66
It is not ‘lesser’ prayer to read scripture, to gaze at a tree, to let one’s heart go out to a person or a landscape, to be moved by music, to be astonished (Lane, p.62). One does not grow out of kataphatic prayer. All those saints and mystics didn’t stop reading and looking and wondering at God all around them in the world.
When you pray, do not muster words and then shoot them off at God, like a written request you send to a functionary, as if God were elsewhere. Read or speak from the heart, as if to One who is present.
As in so much of what I want to say, speaking from the heart is a movement of physical sensation that can be practised.
- You know what it feels like when a person or a situation touches your heart.
- Remember that sensation.
- Practise it: bring it to awareness at other times, including prayer.
- Then speak words to God as if you wish to convey the meaning of the words to one you love dearly.
This slows down the reading (or gazing) until one is captivated by a word or image. On occasion you will be led into stillness and silence.
Church worship and books of prayer can overload with words. These days I rarely get through the whole of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. I let myself be captivated by certain words and phrases so that they lead me further in prayer. The point is, this is a completely natural process. You do not have to push the river of God’s grace. Just start by reading slowly, or gazing softly, with heart, and the rest will follow in time.
Apophatic or negative theology is that which recognises the utter poverty of all language about God. (Lane, p.65)
Kataphatic or affirmative theology is that which makes generous use of metaphor and analogy in describing the mystery of God. (Lane, p.64)