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Knowing and Not Knowing

A Hidden Wholeness

Sunday, January 26th, 2020

Knowing and Not Knowing

A Hidden Wholeness

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and honest “knowing that I do not know.” That’s why the classic schools of prayer spoke of both  kataphatic  knowing—through images and words—and  apophatic knowing—through silence and symbols.  Apophatic knowing allows God to fill in all the gaps in an “unspeakable” way, beyond words and within the empty spaces between them. The apophatic way of knowing was largely lost to Western Christianity during the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, and we have suffered because of it. As the churches wanted to match the new rationalism of the Enlightenment with what felt like solid knowing, they took on the secular mind instead of what Paul calls “knowing spiritual things in a spiritual way” (1 Corinthians 2:13). We dismissed the unique, interior access point of the mystics, poets, artists, and saints.

Strangely enough, this unknowing offers us a new kind of understanding, though we have an old word for it: faith. Faith is a kind of knowing that doesn’t need to know for certain and yet doesn’t dismiss knowledge either. With faith, we don’t need to obtain or hold all knowledge because we know that we are being held inside a Much Larger Frame and Perspective. As Paul puts it, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known myself” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is a knowing by participation with—instead of an observation of  from a position of separation. It is knowing subject to subject instead of subject to object.

It took me years to understand this, even though it is straight from the Franciscan school of philosophy. Love must always precede knowledge. The mind alone cannot get us there, which is the great arrogance of most Western religion. Prayer in my later years has become letting myself be nakedly known, exactly as I am, in all my ordinariness and shadow, face to face, without any masks or religious makeup. Such nakedness is a falling into the unified field underneath reality, what Thomas Merton (1915–1968) called “a hidden wholeness,” [1] where we know in a different way and from a different source.

This is the contemplative’s unique access point: knowing by union with a thing, where we can enjoy an intuitive grasp of wholeness, a truth beyond words, beyond any need or capacity to prove anything right or wrong. This is the contemplative mind which Christianity should have directly taught, but which it largely lost with tragic results for history and religion.

References:

[1] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia: Dawn,” In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005), 65.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 15-16.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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