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Center for Action and Contemplation

Gestures in the Right Direction

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Anglican priest Janet P. Williams describes a renewed sense of the importance of apophatic spirituality:  

We tend to encounter God’s reputation before we (knowingly) encounter God. We gather all sorts of bits and pieces of information about God, some of it good and useful, some of it wildly off-centre and frankly harmful to us and others. . . .

If we are to speak of God as [God] is, then, we need to check what we say as often as possible against the touchstone of our experience of living towards holy encounter. And acknowledging that both our individual experiences and accounts of the common experience of the Church can be bent out of shape by prejudice, stereotype and idiosyncrasy, we need always to hold what we say and hear with a certain provisionality. Though this worries many people, there is no contradiction between this and faith. . . . As is often said, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty [emphasis added].

From many directions, from the Bible and from philosophy and from the Church’s practical experience of prayer as understood down the ages and wrangled into shape by theologians, there is agreement: God, who reaches out to us in love and mercy, through the life of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who meets us in worship and sacrament and prayer and in moments of grace in the natural world and in human relationships, is at the same time far beyond our reach. The words we use to describe God are more like gestures to point our attention in the right direction than they are like a scientific description or dictionary definition. . . .

In the Bible, this is the point made in the last chapters of the book of Job, with their cut-us-down-to-size questions:

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

Or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together

And all the [children] of God shouted for joy?’ (38:4–7). . . .

Williams encourages us to trust that God meets us when we acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge of God:

We know too that our words and ideas tend to become wobbly and unreliable when we point them at the divine. . . .

What if it was exactly at the point at which the words go wobbly, at which they start to slip through our fingers, that we might find ourselves able to take an unobstructed glimpse into holy truth? What if it was exactly at the point at which we consent to set aside what we’ve heard about God that we are best equipped to see clearly the character of the God we encounter? What if the setting-aside turned out to be . . . the single most important thing we need to do?

J. P. Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), xiii, xiv, xvi, xvii.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Separating from my husband, after 17 years of abuse, I felt lost. I was isolated and had lost all sense of who I am. Although, I had had glimpses of God and the divine throughout my life. Reading Fr. Richard’s meditations every day, and several of his books, lead me back to knowing who I am in God, and accepting the mystery of unknowing. I am grateful for all my experiences now, because I know how to pause, look with new eyes, and love my enemy as well as my friends. I know how to trust God, even when I stumble.
—Marilyn G.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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