Friday, January 06, 2012


Apophatic / Kataphatic are two terms that are widely used and equally misunderstood. Apophatic means describing something by negation, e.g., 'it is not this or that' and then negating even the negation. Kataphatic is the other side of this coin, referring to description by positives, e.g., 'it is wet, it is good, it is invisible'. These terms are also used loosely to describe ways of thought that are without images (apophatic) or that use images (kataphatic). The two modes are dependent one on another, and mutually enriching. In terms of the diagram, the term kataphatic reflects the way the self-conscious mind operates, and apophatic the primary way of engaging the deep mind. The apophatic way is not 'elitist': it is simply a question of being willing to do the work of silence, to commit to it. It does not exclude the kataphatic, but balances and informs it. Each factor in the work of silence has its darkness, its counterfeit. For example, the counterfeit of the apophatic way is nihilism; that of the kataphatic, idolatry.

Having said this, the apophatic—especially in our day—is somewhat privileged for the following reasons:

— In order to restore our minds to their optimal balance, we need to co-operate with how the brain in fact works, not fight it ('grace builds on nature'). As Iain McGilchrist describes, the right hemisphere perceives through apophasis:

"This negating or apophatic mode of creation of whatever-it-is reflected in our experience that what we know about things as they truly are, starting with Being itself, is apophatic in nature: we can know only what they are not. Its particular significance is that it describes the path taken to truth by the right hemisphere, which sees things whole, and if asked to describe them has to remain 'silent'. It has no way of coming at what this thing is other than by pointing to it, or by unconcealing it, allowing the thing to reveal itself as much as possible (by not saying 'no' to it but by saying 'no' to whatever lies around and obscures it), as a sculptor chisels away the stone to reveal the form inside. Further, because what the left hemisphere has available to it is only what it does not say 'no' to of what 'presences' to the right hemisphere, it has parts of the whole only, fragments which, if it tries to see the whole, it has wilfully to put together again. It has to try to arrive at understanding by putting together the bits and pieces, positively constructing it from the inside, as though the statue were 'put together'. By such a process, a human person becomes like a Frankenstein's monster, rather than a living being—not for nothing one of the originating metaphors of Romanticism." The Master and His Emissary, pp. 197-198)

— We live in a time where increasing environmental noise and excessive information threaten to overwhelm us. [See Pico Iyar's article, "The Joy of Quiet" in The New York Times, Sunday, January 1, 2012] It is a commonplace that noise is damaging to health at every level. For this reason alone we need to privilege the work of silence. Furthermore, if we are to adapt in the best sense of maintaining balance in the face of this onslaught, we need to learn the art of interior silence, of apophatic listening. We need also to feed that silence with carefully selected information, and learn to block out the words and images that create interior static.

— As noted in the McGilchrist quotation above, we need to privilege the part of our minds that will root us in reality and help us to see the virtual world of self-consciousness—necessary and useful though it may be—for the artificial world that it is.

— It is through apophasis that we open our wounds to be trans-figured, though first they must be articulated in a kataphatic way. Medieval historian Rachel Fulton points to 'Elaine Scarry [who] says something very provocative (and wise) in her The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1986) about how pain destroys language, reduces us to animal cries. "Ah, ah, ah!" But as soon as we break into speech ("Woe is me!"), we take the first small step back into rationality and humanity. We begin to imagine things being other than they are, other than simply pain, and we start to articulate ways in which the world might be otherwise so that we are no longer in pain. Language is a tool for alleviating pain'. (, 19 November, 2011). The next step in healing is to yield the acknowledged and articulated pain to silence so that the newly acquired perspective may be refined and enlarged, and in this way each part of the mind supports and supplements the other towards healing.

— The apophatic movement is described in Philippians 2:5-11, arguably the central text for Christianity.

—The apophatic way frees us from the fear of death at every level (Heb. 2:15), whether it is of mortality itself, or the investment we have made in self-image, or ideas of how the world works or should work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sometimes wish I could grasp just a small portion of what you're saying. :) I am intrigued by your last line regarding slavery to 'ideas of how the world does or should work.' Didn't Jesus talk about kingdom living here on earth? Isn't it easy to bend toward nihilism when you consider what has been gained collectively in the 2000 years since His lessons? I need the slow-learner's 'how to' manual to move from my place of immobility.

5:49 am, January 12, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you for writing.

Yes, the language about this stuff can get complicated (and tomorrow I head off to a conference of professional theologians so my head is full of jargon) but it's very simple in the end: sit in your cell (the physical cell or the cell of the heart) and seek to the beholding. That's all you have to do.

Jesus said, 'Behold, the kingdom of heaven is within you.' So if each of us gives up our pet ideas to open to that 'within' to receive what the kingdom has to tell us, we can live in hope. Each person who commits to receiving the love of God through working with the silence changes the world around him or her. The energy that silence gives can overflow into action, too.

If you open to the silence, it will animate you to 'do' or to deepen your contemplation ... in the end, they are the same ...

A thousand blessings on you

6:33 am, January 12, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your help. You are always so generous.

I feel like the work of silence (and living open) have brought me to this place where I feel stuck and fixated on suffering large and small in the world. Is that possible or have I taken a detour some where along the way? If the answer is more contemplation, I can do that. It leaves me asking ... why the transformation if it doesn't lead to a greater good?

Safe travels. I hope you enjoy your professional collaboration. Thanks for all you do.

8:12 pm, January 12, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It doesn't sound as if you've taken a detour, quite the contrary. You are growing in compassion. Bearing that pain is part of the vocation of contemplation.

Now you have to let go any expectation or looking for 'result'. That's God's business. Just go on with the contemplative task; trust that this alone makes a difference—it does, for without knowing (don't try to know, you can't, you will spoil it) the ripples spread out in ever-widening circles affecting others' lives.

A thousand blessings on you.

9:12 pm, January 12, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder about ripples and I wonder about God's business but I guess that is why I wrote in the first place.

I hear what you're saying about wonderment/expectations. I will also say trust is a fragile concept for me and has been for some time. And yet, I keep soldiering on. I suppose there is some hope in that.

Thank you for being a life line.

11:40 pm, January 12, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again, Maggie,

Could I trouble you to say a little more about blocking out the static and exercising care about what we expose our minds to and what we put into them that feeds the static.

I wish you well for the conference.


12:02 pm, January 13, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Theo, give me a day or two to recover from the conference and I'll respond. Blessings

9:21 pm, January 14, 2012  
Blogger Ralph said...

Thanks for your interest and discussion regarding Apophatic/Kataphatic ways of contemplating God (I found this site searching on those terms). Seems like there are some similarities to hegelian dialectics or Jesus' "the first shall be last and last first" saying. It also seems that the practice of thinking in such terms is also a practice of dying to oneself and leads to a general experience of freedom (free indeed!) and rest. but thinking about apophatics intellectually (that is, kataphatically or straightforwardly) leads to much circular reasoning (at least tale chasing) and confusion.

I know this comment is a year out from your original post, but this seems like a productive and useful line of thought. Thanks for your vocation.


5:56 am, January 17, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, 'intellectualizing' or trying to subject apophasis to linear ratiocination is futile. Apophasis leads to stillness and openness so that the deep mind has a chance to give what it has to offer from its holographic thinking, which takes place out of our sight but is the source of insight

8:48 am, January 17, 2013  

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