Seasons of the Soul
Giving Up a Too-Small God
In some ways I am, at least in the way that Christian mystic Simone Weil speaks about it. She tells us that "there are two atheisms of which one is a purification of the notion of God." This is the call of the desert elders: to let go, let go, let go, and let go some more, on every level of our lives, to everything we cling to, including, or especially our ideas about God. As soon as our human minds begin to fashion categories, we risk making idols of them.
The apophatic way isn't the only way we should approach the spiritual journey. As creatures who understand the world through our senses, we do need images to make sense of the world. I am someone who loves the arts for what they reveal about my inner symbolic life. Without images at all, we could border on a kind of nihilism.
The complement to the apophatic way, is the kataphatic, or way of images. Both of these paths—the way of images and the way of unknowing—are necessary for each other. When we become tempted to speak with too much assurance of how God works in the world, the apophatic way calls us back to a radical kind of humility. When we seek to engage in debate about the ways of God, the way of unknowing reminds us of the grace of silence, of questions over answers.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian mystic living in Germany, describes the practice of "gelassenheit," or non-attachment. Most contemplative traditions have a version of this concept and cultivate holding life and ideas with an open palm. This is a Buddhist precept as well. In yoga philosophy, aparigraha means non-grasping. We let go of how we would have life be, and welcome in the way things actually are, which includes acknowledging how little we know. Just like John of the Cross, Eckhart described God as "no-thing," meaning that God is not an object we can possess, but a reality that is far greater than our human comprehension.
We let go of who we are certain of God to be and cultivate an openness to the One who is far beyond the horizons of our imagining. In the Book of Job, God challenges Job's desire for understanding and asks "where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" God is never a set of concepts to be understood and grasped, but a relationship to encounter and engage. In this way, the spiritual life is always a journey and in process. We do not let go once and for all, but move through the layers of clinging in our lives until we are living more from our hearts than our minds. We do not arrive, but travel toward the horizon, realizing that it is always receding from our view.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.