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Center for Action and Contemplation

The God Beyond What We Know

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Author Lisa Colón DeLay offers insight into the origins of contemplative prayer, which include the experience of God beyond what we know:

The desert elders would sink deeply and continually into what they called the “prayer of quiet.” This type of prayer is called apophatic prayer. It does not employ words. Apophatic prayer involves a mindful and relinquishing disposition in the process of communing with God. This contemplative method of praying does not use images, requests, intercessions, and rituals. It involves the quieting of one’s spirit and the settling into the essence of being, which allows one to be found in the presence of God.

Many of us in Western context and cultures are accustomed to only word-based praying. We understand God mainly through an acquisition of knowledge that affirms what and who God is. This is the kataphatic way of knowing God. This is the first way we begin to know God (or anything, for that matter): with definitions, descriptions, concepts, categories, images, and words. After some development, we understand more fully that God is transcendent, uncontainable. We may notice that God shatters any box of mental understanding we have been misusing. Then we may come to a place that points beyond conceptions so that we may start to discover what God is not and allow room for what we can hardly conceive—God is no thing.

Sometimes other names can help disrupt our hardened and limited concepts of God: Divine Love, Mystery, Source. Apophatic theology, seen most fully within Eastern Orthodox Christianity, invites the spiritually devoted beyond limitations and known categories to ways that make room for what we don’t know and cannot comprehend about the Divine. The prayer of quiet draws us ever deeper into the Mystery that is worth growing familiar with but is ultimately unknowable in its totality. There is a boundlessness of the One who we, in English, sometimes call God, and apophatic prayer may lead us into that unknowing to experience the divine beyond what we know. [1]

Father Richard stresses the importance of not-knowing to the authentic life of faith:

To presume we know is always dangerous. There is an arrogance that comes from knowing and thinking that we normally have the right answer. That’s why great spiritual traditions balance the kataphatic way (knowing God through words and ideas) with the apophatic way (knowing God through silence and unknowing). We see it very clearly in the desert fathers and mothers, and it lasts pretty much through the first thousand years of Christianity. [2] The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) ended his classic text The Soul’s Journey into God with this instruction, which represents the apophatic tradition of unknowing:

If you wish to know how these things come about,

ask [for] grace, not instruction,

desire not understanding,

the groaning of prayer not diligent reading,

the Spouse not the teacher,

God not man,

darkness not clarity,

not light but the fire

that totally inflames and carries us into God . . . . [3]

[1] Lisa Colón DeLay, The Wild Land Within: Cultivating Wholeness through Spiritual Practice (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021), 102–103.

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Beginner’s Mind (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2002). Available as CD and MP3 download.

[3] Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, 7.6, in The Soul’s Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 115.

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:

I spent the night of January 30th [2021] alone with my 87-year old Mom, who had been released to hospice care 24 hours earlier following major palliative surgery. I was sleeping in the same room on the couch – more accurately, not sleeping, as she mumbled aloud all night. . . When I greeted her shortly after midnight to give medication, she didn’t recognize me and her fear was evident. It was a stunning, all-too-quick transition that heralded the brevity of the precious life before me. . . Around 6 a.m. I opened the CAC Daily Meditation: “Unknowing: The Inadequacy of Words”; how kind of you to offer that entire reflection just for me in that little living room. This particularly hushed my racing mind: “Mystery,” “mystical,” and “to mutter” all come from the Greek verb muein, which means “to hush or close the lips”.”
—Terri B.

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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