Rooted: The Apophatic City [Daniel Karistai]


10177498_1411690409093367_2113146266_nFrom time to time I enjoy playing “tourist” in my city, New Orleans.

And given that we receive several million tourists every year that’s not a difficult thing to do. If I’m with my wife we will usually find something new to do, but when I’m alone I have a little bit of a ritual. I’ll hit one of my favorite coffee shops behind the cathedral on Royal Street. It’s really quite a place. You walk down a little bit of an alley and you enter into this European style courtyard. Even though you are in the center of the French Quarter you can’t hear a thing. I usually get my coffee to go, enjoy the courtyard for a few minutes and then make my way toward the front of St. Louis Cathedral, the centerpiece of the French Quarter and Jackson Square.

Standing on the front steps with my back to the entrance of the cathedral I overlook what is the quintessential “public square” envisioned by Enlightenment political theorists like Locke and Rousseau. In this little piece of real estate called Jackson Square I would see tarot card readers, street musicians, local artists, restaurants, tourist-trap gift shops, and the historic Café Du Monde. In this square I would not be hard pressed to find a spectrum of diversity. The differences between age, race, gender, socio-economic status doesn’t matter much here for we are all tourists seeking the satisfaction of our desires.

Now, if I turned around and walked into the cathedral for mass or prayer I would be entering into an entirely different reality. It’s quiet, solemn and private. If I weren’t a Catholic or someone who knew what the mass was all about I would make my way in, admire the fantastic architecture and observe the rituals of the religious. I’d make my way back out of the doors, onto the steps again, and I would be once again confronted by all the fanfare of the tourists. I would also be immediately struck by the fact that although the square and the cathedral share the same geographical location they are two separate domains where never the twain shall meet.

In reading this theological landscape of the Quarter there are two basic conclusions I come to: One, the Quarter is the Enlightenment dichotomy between sacred and secular reified. Two, separating the cathedral from the public square by making it a scenic backdrop was intentional. In his book titled The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans Lawrence Powell wrote this in his chapter “Utopian By Design”:

The original city’s layout is almost a textbook example of the Enlightenment mania for balance, order, and clarity.  The men who envisioned and designed New Orleans were fired by utopian ambition… (Powel 2012, 60).

Sometimes I feel like myself and many other Christians that I know are stuck standing on the steps – some sort of middle ground between the domains of the sacred and secular which seem to be colliding into each other. It’s as if the doors to the cathedral have been forced open where in one ear we can hear the congregation praying the Eucharist prayer “Lord I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof. Just say the word and my soul shall be healed,” and in the other the noise and music from outside can be heard with remarkable clarity. I feel that all the balance the architects of this great city tried to create has dramatically shifted. Something has changed.

By way of this introduction I arrive to the problem: We don’t know what that “something” is. We believe we know what it is not by adding the prefix post to terms like modernity, secular, Christian, or Christendom. I prefer the term post-secular because I think we can safely agree that in spite of the Enlightenment’s best efforts the religious haven’t disappeared. Still though, we can only speak of this middle place apophatically. However, there are also really good arguments that say we aren’t post anything. They prefer the prefix hyper but their problem is the same – the vocabulary to name it independently doesn’t exist. We don’t have the language to be able to name it for what it is. I believe those who live in a post-secular culture – a culture that is growing exponentially – one of our tasks is to name this middle place.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him… (John 1:10).

At face value St. John – in both his gospel and his letters – is in many ways a black and white thinker. There’s not much grey area for him.  You’re either walking in the light or in the dark. You’ve either forgiven others or you haven’t. You’re either walking with Jesus or you aren’t. To be honest, much of that is irksome for me. Forgiveness is a process. Righteousness is a process. Our walk with Jesus certainly ebbs and flows. How can St. John be so black and white on this? I think St. John’s point is that the Incarnation illuminates everything for us. Creation cannot know God apart from the Incarnation and therefore we cannot know what “walking in the light” looks like unless we emulate the Incarnation story. Another way to put it, the way to illumination is inhabitation. It was only after God inhabited the world were we able name what was light and what was dark. I’d like to suggest that, in chiasmic fashion, we can only name this middle space if we first inhabit it Incarnationally.

This is more than asking, “What would Jesus do?” in difficult situations – although that very well may be part of it. The Incarnation isn’t just the event that happened in some manger 2000 years ago. The Incarnation is a story rich with rituals (prayer, hospitality/communion and service to the poor/marginalized) as well as symbols (the cross, bread, wine and table). In order to name this space we must inhabit it with these rituals, symbols and make it complex. The Adamic ministry of naming our world that was reborn when Jesus named the poor as rich, the weak as the strong, the bread and wine as his flesh and blood is a daunting task and one that we only hope will be consummated Some Day. I think a good starting point for inhabiting the apophatic city is in combining the posture of kenosis and the ritual of hospitality.

…He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7).

The concept of kenosis is a theological playground that one could spend all day in. It’s a rather majestic concept of God the Son abandoning all the power he was entitled to and taking on the mortal coil. And it’s the vulnerability of mortality that is most remarkable. Jesus became vulnerable and out of obedience to the Father’s will suffered greatly for it, for us. I think a reason why church as institution has a real difficult time surviving in this city is that they do so much work to take out the vulnerability of the task by showing up with strength in numbers and building their own fortress in which they can control who comes in and out. Perhaps what needs to happen is for us to show our weakness and vulnerability to the apophatic city. Perhaps we need to show our neighbors that we are human too.

The most effective vehicle for this sort of demonstration is the same in Jesus’s day as it is in ours, hospitality. Etymologically, “hospitality” literally means “love of the stranger.”  One of my favorite translations has been to “make the strange familiar.” Familiarity can only come through exposure and that is what hospitality ultimately does. It exposes our strength and our weakness. It exposes who we are, what we are about and leaves us open to rejection, scorn or persecution. There is very little safety in the hospitality Jesus has modeled for us but within this sort of “kenotic hospitality” God establishes his kingdom one conversation, one meal at a time until it is accomplished Some Day. Hospitality is a willingness to suffer, if need be, in order to illuminate our neighborhoods and our cities so that we can name it for what they are.

To close I’d like to share a story of what that has looked like in the neighborhood that our intentional community lives in. We’ve lived here for a year now (moved in from a different part of town) and in this past year that have been five shootings in close proximity to us. One of my co-workers (whom I didn’t know very well) was gunned down while walking home just recently. There was a robbery in front of our local grocery store that resulted in gun shots. We’ve had a couple drive by’s 2-3 blocks away and right around the corner from where we live some high school kids got into an altercation at a bus stop which ended in one kid taking several bullets to the chest. He was DOA.

Now, every month our house puts on a neighborhood dinner. We canvass our immediate neighbors with invites, create a Facebook event and have people pass the word on. During one of these dinners a couple months ago I was sitting with our downstairs neighbor on our porch. There were a couple of other people there and the usual conversations were taking place – you know, how the Saints are doing and what we’re doing for Mardi Gras – and in the middle of it all my neighbor says to me, “I’m so glad you guys started to do this thing.” I say something like, “It’s been real fun to see these dinners take off so well,” and then she responded with a rather pointed comment:

No, it’s more than that. Before you guys came in I always locked my doors when I was in my apartment alone because I was afraid of what might happen. Now, since I’ve gotten to know so many people that we live around I’m not longer afraid and I don’t feel like I have to do that anymore.

We claim absolutely no credit for the change happening in my neighbor’s life.

Could it be possible, though, that since we opened up our homes and lives to who once were complete strangers such a work was made possible?

Could this be understood as illumination?


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