Negative Capability — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Negative Capability

Incarnation: Week 1

Negative Capability
Monday, January 11, 2016

The genius of the biblical revelation is that we will come to God through “the actual,” the here and now, or quite simply what is. As Paula D’Arcy says, “God comes to us disguised as our life.” But for most “religious” people this is actually a disappointment! They seemingly would rather have church services than ordinary life. The Bible moves us from sacred place (why the temple had to go) or sacred action (why the law had to be relativized) or mental belief systems (why Jesus had no prerequisites in this regard) to time itself as sacred time. “I am with you always, yes, to the very end of time” is the last verse of Matthew’s Gospel (28:20). And space itself is sacred space, “the whole world is filled with his glory” (Psalm 72:19).

Life is not about becoming spiritual beings nearly as much as about becoming human beings, following the lead of Jesus in his incarnation. We already are spiritual beings, inherently so; but as is evident from the daily newspaper, we have a very hard time being basically human. We just don’t know, honor, or recognize that we are from the beginning “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible tries to let you in on the secret, by slowly revealing God in the most ordinary. That’s why so much of the text seems so mundane, practical, specific and, frankly, unspiritual! Don’t you get tired of the wars, adulteries, rapes, murders, and the machinations of kings in the Bible? Yet this very pull back can create a “negative capability” that thrusts you toward a positive answer, as you search for resolution and presence.

Speaking of mundane or ordinary, let me give you what might seem like a silly example from my own life. Several years ago I was standing in the cleaning supplies aisle at a local supermarket, staring at boxes of laundry detergent. Something came over me and all of a sudden everything was wonderful. For a moment, the veil parted and I knew, “This is it! It doesn’t get any better than this.” I must have stood there for five minutes, smiling at the Tide boxes. Fortunately, no one else was in that aisle. Who of us would think a sacred experience like this could happen in an American supermarket? But it can. The division between secular and sacred breaks down when you learn how to see. It’s all good. It’s all okay. And the life oozes and shines through everything. For just a moment, I tasted the real. In a box of Tide!

Let me state it clearly: a central breakthrough in the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, and can even be revealed through the sinful and the evil. This is quite different than you might assume, that God is only offering us the pure, the spiritual, the right idea, or the ideal anything. This is why Jesus stands religion on its head! We Catholics used to speak of “actual grace” in this light. That is why I say it is our experiences that transform us—if we are willing to experience our experiences all the way through, even and most especially the hard and wounding ones. They create a “negative capability” by increasing both our endless need and our desperate desire.

Gateway to Silence:
God is not “out there.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2010), 15-17; and True Self/False Self (Franciscan Media: 2003), disc 4.

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