Whatever is foreseen in joy / Must be lived out from day to day. / Vision held open in the dark / By our ten thousand days of work. / Harvest will fill the barn; for that / The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled / By work of ours; the field is tilled / And left to grace. That we may reap, / Great work is done while we’re asleep. / When we work well, a Sabbath mood / Rests on our day, and finds it good.
—Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems
Today is the second Sunday in our four-week Advent pilgrimage. Our guide for this journey is Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. Advent is best known as a time for preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, known as the Feast of the Nativity. During Advent we are challenged to wait patiently and with expectant hope to remember with grateful hearts what God has already done through the birth and life of Jesus. But in our warm recollections of the past, in the joyful singing of carols, and in the hanging of decorations, we can sometimes forget that an equally important part of the Advent season concerns the present and future.
At Advent, we are invited, not only to wait for Christmas morning, but also to wait and discern how we can partner with the work God is already doing in our midst to repair, heal, and transform this world. Advent is a time for training ourselves to notice how hope, peace, joy, and love are being birthed in our world each moment if we will slow down enough to notice. And it is in this spirit that our theme of “Original Blessing” is best understood. We are taking time this Advent to consider what Christianity would look like if the focus were “birth, human flourishing, this world,” and this life.
Last week our focus was the Via Positiva, the “Positive Way” of befriending Creation. And we considered the task of befriending Creation from one of the largest possible perspectives given the limitations of our finite human point of view. We asked, “What does it look like to do theology in the context of a 13.7 billion old Universe that includes more than 100 billion galaxies?” This week’s sermon inverses our trajectory. Having expanded our consciousness in an attempt to include the fullness of the universe, we are now invited to walk the path of the Via Negativa: the “Negative Way” of befriending darkness, letting go, and letting be. In Fox’s words, “while the Via Positiva teaches us the cosmic breadth of living, of our holy relationship to stars and atom, to royal persons and to blessed bodiliness, the Via Negativa open us to our divine depths” (130). We need to spend time walking down both paths at different points in our life.
Importantly, the via negativa is not about being negative in the sense of being contrary, pessimistic, defeatist, gloomy, cynical, dismissive, critical, or unenthusiastic — just as the via positiva is not about being unduly positive or overly optimistic. Instead, the via negativa is more the negative way of the simple life, learning to “let go” of what doesn’t really matter, and giving yourself permission not to “sweat the small stuff.” As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) wrote, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (132).*
Of course the Via Positiva claims the polar opposite: that we find God by expanding our consciousness to include and add increasingly more elements including and beyond the whole of Creation. Both perspectives are equally true, and both paths are needed either more or less, depending on the season of life we find ourselves in at the moment.
We talked last week about how the Via Positiva invites us to have the “courage of imperfection,” instead of obsessing about individual moral perfection. We need the courage to embrace imperfection because perfectionism can be narcissistic — always worrying about and cultivating our own perfection turns our focus inward on ourselves and our own behavior. This perspective is also often focused on the past (what we did, didn’t do, or could’ve done better). In contrast, Creation Spirituality invites us to be grateful for the present moment, even with all its imperfections, as a way of working toward a more hopeful and peaceful future, founded in thanksgiving for all of life.
Similarly, a healthy via negativa is not about extreme asceticism. Ascetic practices are exercises or trainings related to abstinence such as chastity, fasting, or other forms of self-mortification. As with perfectionism, these disciplines often ironically “create more self-consciousness instead of less and reveal a greater ego rather than a lesser one” (129). One Christian pastor has said that focusing too much on self-perfection, self-improvement, and self-mortification risks making Christianity into a “sin management” system, which tragically misses the good news of God’s grace, love, and compassion. Thus, Fox invites us to consider that when we are in a season of our life in which walking the path of the via negativa is essential for our spiritual growth, we stymie our development whenever we refuse to slow down, befriend darkness, let go, and let be (159).
Peter Mayer vividly describes the transition to the via negativa — which is often against our will — when he sings:
Still I clung to my rock tightly with conviction in my arms / Never looking at the stream to keep my mind from thoughts of harm / But the river kept on coming, kept on tugging at my legs / Till at last my fingers faltered, and I was swept away / So I’m going with the flow now, these relentless twists and bends / Acclimating to the motion, and a sense of being led / And this river’s like my body now, it carries me along / Through the ever-changing scenes and by the rocks that sing this song God is the river, swimmer / So let go.
Mayer’s song reminds us that there is a reason that the first of Fox’s four paths is the positive way of befriending creation. Clinging to the proverbial rock of our convictions has to come first. To adapt one of Fox’s sayings, “You can’t let go of what you haven’t fallen in love with.”
To offer another contrast, the positive way of befriending creation and embracing a cosmo-centric consciousness teaches us that, “Facts are God’s native tongue.” And the scientific method is one way of listening to what God is saying to us through Creation. The negative way teaches us that equally true claim that, “Silence is God’s first language and that all other languages are poor translations.”
The via negativa invites us to become acquainted with silence, stillness, and slowness. On befriending darkness, Barbara Brown Taylor has written,
Ask any expectant mother if she wants her baby to come early and she will say no, she does not. As badly as her back hurts, as long as it has been since she has seen her toes, she is willing to wait because the baby is not ready yet. The eyelashes are ready, but not the fingernails. The kidneys are ready, but not the lungs. Those wing-shaped sacks are still preparing to make the leap from fluid to air. There is still more time to do in the dusky womb, where the baby is growing like a seed in the dark.
In contrast to this acceptance of the role darkness, patience, and waiting can play in health and healing, Fox also reminds us that we First World citizens of the twenty-first century are profoundly children of the Enlightenment (with an emphasis on the light at the center of the word En-light-enment). We are significantly shaped by the light scientific discoveries have shed on the mysteries of the universe. But inventions such as the light bulb tempt us to avoid the natural rhythms of night’s darkness and the seasonal darkness of winter’s short days. The light of neon signs, televisions, and computer screens similarly draw us out of ourselves, demanding increasingly more of our attention (134). These are all important discoveries, but they can keep us from ever creating the time and the space to explore the other half of both ourselves and our spiritual journey: the inward, ‘negative way’ of simplicity and subtraction, befriending darkness, letting go, and letting be.
Some of you may know the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, and how it relates to the via negativa. As a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, Taylor was well acquainted with the via positiva: the positive, literal, left-brained way of logic, numerical computation, and direct fact retrieval. Then,
On the morning of December 10, 1996, Taylor experienced a massive stroke, when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain (the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side) swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realties: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace; and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized her body was having a stroke, and enabled her to seek help. In her book My Stroke of Insight, she writes that by stepping to the right of our left brains, we can all uncover the feelings of well-being and peace that are so often sidelined by our own brain chatter.
Learning to take that step out of our left-brains is part of what walking the via negativa is all about, and Taylor’s story is a fascinating example of scientific insight into the need for both the positive way and negative way to seek healing, wholeness, and the fullness of the human experience.
Next week, we will explore the path of the Via Creativa, the “Creative Way” of befriending creativity and befriending our divinity, which will invite us to “let go even of our letting go” (172). But for now, I invite you to float with me a little longer down the waters of the Via Negativa.
To do so, I invite you to listen once more to Peter Mayer’s song “God is a River.” As you listen, be open to how God may be inviting you at this time of your life the practice some part of the ‘negative way’ of simplicity and subtraction, of befriending darkness, letting go, and letting be:
In the ever-shifting water of the river of this life / I was swimming, seeking comfort; I was wrestling waves to find / A boulder I could cling to, a stone to hold me fast / Where I might let the fretful water of this river ‘round me pass
And so I found an anchor, a blessed resting place / A trusty rock I called my savior, for there I would be safe / From the river and its dangers, and I proclaimed my rock divine / And I prayed to it “protect me” and the rock replied
God is a river, not just a stone / God is a wild, raging rapids / And a slow, meandering flow / God is a deep and narrow passage / And a peaceful, sandy shoal / God is the river, swimmer / So let go
Still I clung to my rock tightly with conviction in my arms / Never looking at the stream to keep my mind from thoughts of harm / But the river kept on coming, kept on tugging at my legs / Till at last my fingers faltered, and I was swept away
So I’m going with the flow now, these relentless twists and bends / Acclimating to the motion, and a sense of being led / And this river’s like my body now, it carries me along / Through the ever-changing scenes and by the rocks that sing this song
God is the river, swimmer / So let go.
For Further Study
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go: Waking Up To Who You Are.
- Tami Simon, “Dark Retreat: An interview with Reggie Ray,”: “a teacher and scholar in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with four decades of experience with the practice of meditation. Reggie discusses his recent experiences in dark retreat.” (51 minutes). Available at http://www.soundstrue.com/podcast/reginald-ray-dark-retreat/.
- Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion - In many ways the unprogrammed Quakers get the Via Negativa right: “Since its first publication in 1941 this book has been widely embraced as an enduring spiritual classic. Plainspoken and deeply inspirational, it gathers together five compelling essays that urge us to center our lives on God’s presence, to find quiet and stillness within modern life, and to discover the deeply satisfying and lasting peace of the inner spiritual journey. Kelly writes, ‘I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through which so many pantingly and frantically gasp. These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and peace we have been missing can really be found. But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark.’”
- Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight. The free video of her TED talk about her experience is available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html.
- Ken Wilber, et al, “3-2-1 Shadow Process,” in, Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening, 41-66. A description of this three-step process, adapted from the book: The term “shadow” refers to the “dark side” of the psyche, those aspects of ourselves that we’ve split off, rejected, denied, hidden from ourselves, projected onto others, or otherwise disowned. In the language of psychotherapy, the shadow is referred to as the “repressed unconscious,” repressed because we’ve pushed or “pressed” it out of our awareness, and unconscious because we’re not aware of it! Two common signals of your shadow manifesting are when someone or something makes you respond in one of the following two ways: (1) negatively hypersensitive, easily triggered, reactive, irritated, angry, hurt, upset – or an emotional tone or mood that pervades you life or (2) positively hypersensitive, easily infatuated, possessive, overly attracted – or an ongoing idealization that structures your motivations or mood. The purpose of shadow work is to undo this repression and reintegrate the shadow in order to improve our psychological health and clarity. One of the greatest benefits of shadow work is that it frees up energy that would otherwise be spent shadowboxing within ourselves. Maintaining our shadow is hard work, even though it is unconscious.
- Adyashanti, Falling into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering: “In the same way that we fall into the arms of a loved one or drop our heads on the pillow before sleep, we can let go into the beauty and truth of who and what we really are. How to take ‘the backward step’ into the pure potential of the present moment, giving up the control we only think we have. The essential invitation of spirituality: wake up from the dream to embrace what is. When we realize that there is grace in every moment, our minds will open, our hearts will expand, and we’ll be able to express the peace and the love that all beings aspire to.”
- Carl Gregg, “Living the (Hardest) Questions: What If God Is Not ‘Fully and Unambiguously Good?’: A Process Theology Sermon” (November 8, 2011). Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/living-the-hardest-questions-what-if-god-is-not-%E2%80%9Cfully-and-unambiguously-good%E2%80%9D-a-process-theology-sermon/.
Previous Sermons in this Series on Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing
- Theology in a 13.7 Billion-Year-Old Universe: Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, and Creation Spirituality.
*The parenthetical references are to Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing.
1 The Feast of the Nativity — Christmas is not called the “Feast of the Incarnation,” because that event is traditionally associated with Jesus’ conception, which is celebrated nine months prior to Christmas Day with the angel’s Annunciation to Mary.
2 For more on last year’s Advent theme, see my blog on “Progressive Christian Reflections on Advent.” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/progressive-christian-reflections-on-advent/.
3 For last week’s sermon on the via positiva, see “Theology in a 13.7 Billion-Year-Old Universe: Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, and Creation Spirituality.” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/embracing-christianity-and-evolution-matthew-fox-original-blessing-and-creation-spirituality/.
4 Other technical names for the via positiva and the via negativa are kataphatic and apophatic. The difference is between spiritual practices that use words and images (kataphatic) and silent practices that do not use words or images (apophatic). The prefix kata- means “with” and apo- means “away from” (as in “apostate”); the suffix -phatic means “image” (similar to the English word “photo”). For an introduction to both styles of prayer practices, see Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer.
5 “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (132) — Meister Eckhart.
6 On perfection and imperfection, Fox writes: “for people who have truly learned to trust creation one of the first lessons is how beauty and imperfection go together. Every tree is beautiful; but if you approach it closely enough you will see that every tree is imperfect. The same is true of the human body: every human body is beautiful, but every human body is imperfect. In nature, in creation, imperfection is not a sign of the absence of God. It is a sign that the ongoing creation is no easy thing…. A perfection-oriented spirituality of holiness is intrinsically-privatizing and does not lead to a spirituality for [all] the people…. One has to ask how much of the quest for perfection is a look back, a nostalgic quest for a time that never was. Certain myths about creation teach that humanity was created in a ‘state of perfection’ and that original sin disrupted that ‘perfect’ state. Fall/redemption theologians like Augustine teach this. Thus the quest for holiness as perfection is a quest for a past event…. [A] world view that ignores what we know of evolutionary history, that flees from nature, and that makes too big a thing of the past. The fullness we seek and the ripening into fuller, compassionate people that we desire draws us into the future much more than into a past that most probably never existed” (110-111). By embracing the this-worldly imperfectionism of everything that we can experience with our senses, Fox is rejecting the abstract, theoretical Platonic notion of perfect, other-worldly “forms” as the ideal.
7 “Sin management” — see Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God.
8 For more on the transition between the via positiva and the via negativa, see Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
9 “Facts are God’s native tongue.” — see Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, 14.
10 “Silence is God’s first language.” — Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 55.
11 “As any expectant mother…” — Barbara Brown Taylor, “Redeeming Darkness” (Nov 28, 2011). Available at http://christiancentury.org/article/2011-11/redeeming-darkness.
12 Thomas Green develops the metaphor of “floating” as one goal of the Christian life in his wise and practical books When the Well Runs Dry: Prayers Beyond the Beginnings and Drinking From A Dry Well.
13 Peter Mayer’s beautiful song “God Is a River” is from his excellent album Midwinter.
The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).