“Not Knowing” as the Path of Apophatic Wisdom

QuestionsI wanted to share a word or thought about engaging others with a “not knowing” approach, a curiosity about their lives which I think can help us be there for others in ways that helps us become witnesses to that of Christ in them, and also helps them become aware of Christ’s presence in their lives.

I was just talking someone about the importance of this work of being a witness to the Christ within them.   As many of my readers know, about a year ago I went through a horrible wrenching loss.   Without warning to me, the woman I had been married to for a dozen years died in her sleep of a condition she had been battling and, to us, seemed to be fairing well with, in her sleep.   I told her how waking up to find someone by my side really shook me and for a long time, I had trouble believing others would be there for me and not disappear too.  It was hard, having prayed for three years for her health to improve, to see the answer come in such a resounding and shocking way as “no”.  It became hard for me to feel with my heart that God was there for me, that God was for me.  Ultimately, it was because of people who were there in the way I am talking about, not trying to give me advice, but simply be present with me as a witness together with me of my life, who could see Christ’s presence that I began to regain my sense that Christ was with, in, and under all of my life.  Their bearing witness to this in my life helped me regain trust that God and others had not abandoned me and would not abandon me.

This shows the importance of such approaches in the lives of those around us.

Thinking about using the not-knowing stance in relationships to help us engage people in recognizing that of Christ in themselves I am reminded of a theological framework from Christian mysticism.  Mysticism is a fancy theological term that simply is the way of relating to God and the world in which you open yourself up to a deep connection with God and a sense of how all people & all of life are interconnected.  Usually mystical Christians (and mystics of all faith traditions and spiritual paths) engage in practices like meditation, breath prayer, mindfulness meditation, contemplative prayer, as ways to lay aside the fear, anxiety, worry, self-centered clinging attitudes, which cause us to have difficulty in our hearts to truly open to God and others.

meditation+dogs+do+it+too_99a07b_3753826For mystics there are two kinds of mystical approaches – katophatic and apophatic.  Katophatic practices focus on knowing approaches to spirituality.  One focuses in on paths of prayer, meditation, mindfulness, spiritual reading, and other techniques which emphasize what we know about God already through our faith’s tradition of spirituality.  For instance, when my church has a Stations of the Cross service on Good Friday we are inviting people into a katophatic practice.   We focus on the known and well-reflected experience of Jesus & the disciples in the days and hours leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  We imagine ourselves as different people on the journey to the cross.  This is a truly life-giving practice for people, for it puts their life and choices in the light of the wider story at the heart of the Christian faith – how God has embodied God’s dream for the world which Jesus called the “kingdom of God” in the particular life & story of Jesus.  Finding how our stories fits into that story is heart and core to what it means to see ourselves as part of our new life in Christ.

The apophatic path is intstead a focus on what is not known and cannot be known.   One medieval mystic expressed it well when he wrote that he prayed that God might get rid of God for him so that he might know God.   That riddle of a prayer expressed the apophatic side of spirituality: recognizing that everything we think of about God, every story about God’s working, and every image we have for God – even our image of God as Jesus – ultimately falls short of the true reality of God.   To truly encounter God as God is we need to be willing to shed our preconceived ideas, preconceived notions, our preconceived expectations.  We need to simply come to God open to who God is, curious, willing to be shocked and surprised.

The not knowing approach to others when we find ourselves with others who are opening us up to their experience of faith and life is the same approach applied to our relationships with others.  Ultimately if we push others into our boxes of expectations, our preconceived ideas of how they or others will work, we can lose sight of the depth of who they are.

So to take a not-knowing approach with another, or with an aspect of God’s world, is to live in our own relationships with others the same apophatic way of surrender and openness which is one aspect of a deeper connection with God.

This gives me a lot of hope in relationships.  I have to be honest this is not a hard approach for me in working as a chaplain, with people for whom I have very little history, baggage, or expectations.  I can lay aside assumptions and be present.  But with people closer to me – family, friends, my girlfriend, co-workers, neighbors – boy howdy, how I bring my baggage to play!   I find myself pushing fears, expectations, past experiences onto the lens through which I view the relationships.   If I have been let down in such a relationship before, I expect it no matter how hard I try not to.  If  have had people say one thing and mean another with me, I find myself expecting the very same thing again.   I find this a universal tendency that is worse in me in times of anxiety and stress.  It is also one that plays havoc when it happens for building good solid relationships.

multi colored threadHere is where the hope comes into play.  If you get a chance to read on the lives of the mystics in the various spiritual traditions, one common thread connects them.   At the end of the journey of mystical connection, which does include some katophatic practice of immersing one’s self in the known but always includes some apophatic laying aside of expectations, almost always the end result is a deeper realization of God, self, others, and the world.   It is a vision of oneness, love, and unity that points the path toward the reconciliation of all things and the healing of creation.

So sister Julian experiences the vision of all of life in the palm of the Christ like a tiny seed, and Christ promising all is held, carried, sustained, and birthed by him and his love.  He lets her know that all shall be well, all manner of things be well, and though alienation from God, self, and others is inevitable there is a way to healing and reunion.   All shall be well.

This gives me hope as I struggle and falter to use this apophatic approach in personal relationships.  Laying aside my expectations and clinging to outcome or notions of how things will work out with others opens me up to a deeper connection with whomever I am reaching out to or connecting.   Laying aside these expectations, though painful at times, opens me up to see them for the fullness of who they are and how they are connected.

In this process many of the failings to communicate and relate well on my part and the part of whomever I am in connection with can be laid aside.   A deeper relationships and paths for healing the breaches for me and them can be revealed organically through the relationship itself.

This is scary to me in the relationships that really count, for it means laying aside a sense of control.  It also is something I see every day to be true in my work as a chaplain and spiritual counselor.

I wonder, how have any of you experienced such unfolding in your relationships whether with ones you worked with a supportive role or ones that you are in important and intimate relationships?



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