the gateway to God

Grove books

This book is written for those who, like me, do not find silence easy but know they need it. It is not a book about how to feel less stressed or more peaceful. It is not about feelings at all. If our assumption is that 'real' silence is about having calming experiences of God and prayer, then we will often feel like a failure thinking 'I must be doing something wrong'.

So here are some reflections on the gifts and challenges of silence in the midst of ordinary life, lived as a follower of Christ, in the gift of the Spirit and the love of God.

This extract is from the section called ....

'The silence beyond words'

A speaker at a conference was leading a bible study. In the discussion that followed someone quoted the verse 'in him all the fullness of God was please to dwell' (Col 1.19). 'What does it mean?' he was asked. This usually eloquent speaker fell silent. He made several fumbling attempts to speak before stopping altogether saying, 'I don't know', and beginning to weep. No one knew how to react. But far from being a failure of theology or bible knowledge his stumbling and tears felt like the most eloquent moment of his exposition. We were taken beyond words into holy mystery.

When it comes to the task of speaking of God we must hold two things in tension. They are traditionally expressed by two Greek words: 'kataphatic' and 'apophatic'. Kataphatic means 'according to image'. This is the work of making something clear, understandable and knowable to others. 'Apophatic' means 'beyond image'. This is the point that all our most faithful efforts at kataphatic speaking and eloquence for God must arrive at. Our best-crafted metaphors, similes and images must simply run out before what is gloriously inexpressible, unimaginable and beyond what the human mind alone can grasp. Apophatic, in this sense, is a greater revelation not less, a deepening of faith not loss of it.

When we cease to live in the creative tension between these two words our faith and message loses depth.

We live in a kataphatic culture that has made a technology of information gathering, is promiscuous for sight and knowledge and presumes our right to it. Jean-Jacques Suurmond comments, 'It is not surprising in a technological culture like ours that God has often been reduced to a useful predictable idol, or is experienced as absent'.8 But the temptation for a church struggling to make an impact in such a culture is to compete for its attention on kataphatic terms.

So what are the gifts of the apophatic way in a kataphatic age and church?

The apophatic way guards the church against presumption, idolatry and attempts at control and manipulation. It reminds us that all our ways of knowing, thinking and speaking about ourselves and God – our language and our strategies for God - need redeeming and sanctifying.

The apophatic honours God's own hiddenness and God's own freedom. God is covenanted in love to his church, not under contract.

The apophatic way guards a faith under severe pressure for results from speaking carelessly or presumptuously about God. It reminds us sternly of God's unutterable mystery. It warns against over-simplifying and the bid for 'certainties' that lead to idolatry. It reminds us there are times when faith must enter a cloud of unknowing where words and thoughts have no means of claiming control.

The apophatic tradition is a saving contradiction in an age like ours. The pressure to know, to be in control, to have answers, is in the end unbearable. Nor is our true vocation found here. 'Perhaps the apophatic way is due for a new (if quiet) revival,' writes Bishop John Pritchard.

In her book The mystic way of evangelism Elaine Heath insists that Apophatic faith must be found at the heart of a missionary church. For her, as for the early church theologian/ evangelists she loves to quote, the greatest challenge in any age is not our strategies and programs - it is always God. And that leads her to a startling conviction.

'A dark night is descending on the church … a divinely initiated process of loss so that the accretions of the world, the flesh and the devil may be recognised and released … a process of purgation and de-selfing … it holds the possibilities of new beginnings. Liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding. The church will persevere not because of church programs, but because God's love has kept it.'

I was once the vicar of an exciting, resourceful but quite driven Christian community. We began an experiment in our church meetings. Half way through the meeting, no matter where the business had got to, we stopped, lit a candle and were silent for ten minutes. It cut across all common sense, good process and decision-making. But we began to notice how subtly different our meeting was when we resumed business. The atmosphere changed. It was often gentler, possibly humbler. By being silent we had, at some deeper level, surrendered control of the meeting.

A church held and guided in the apophatic way, is one that knows when to fall silent before what it does not know.

I shared this story on a leadership and management course. To my knowledge I was the only Christian there. I was caught out by how many spoke with real excitement about wanting to take the idea into their management meetings. Something within them recognised the importance and gift of 'apophatic' knowledge.

For Reflection

·     What place has not knowing in your faith?

·     Are there times you struggle to find words?

·     How do you recognise and nurture apophatic faith within you?