I forgot to post yesterday. I will do penance of three posts today and ask forgiveness. Here's my recent paper for Spirituality for Ministry, I got an A.
Kataphatic and apophatic prayer are the two categories into which all prayer falls. Kataphatic prayer uses words, music, images, tactile sensations, smell, and taste. If creation, whether natural or artistic, is being used for the prayer, then it is kataphatic. Kataphatic prayer is the via affirmativa; it uses creation to say something about God. In kataphatic prayer, the one who prays describes, petitions, and speaks to God; every prayer that has ever been written or uttered is kataphatic. The history of the western church, its theology and liturgy, is almost exclusively kataphatic. The theological basis for kataphatic prayer is the incarnation. Since the incarnation, all matter is sanctified and suffused with the Holy Spirit, as Paul says this is how we are able to pray at all: in the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus gave the model for kataphatic prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, the apostles encouraged the newly baptized to “continue in the teachings and the prayers.” The whole of the church is replete with examples of how kataphatic prayer is practiced: the daily office, the Eucharist, lectio divina, the rosary, and so on.
Apophatic prayer, in contrast to kataphatic prayer, is prayer that is wordless and imageless. Apophatic prayer recognizes that there are limits to human intellect and language. Whereas kataphatic prayer conveys attributes to God, apophatic prayer moves beyond attributes, beyond all constructed ideas about God. Apophatic prayer is characterized as the via negativa. It is associated with darkness because one is left with darkness when one has moved beyond all concepts. The theological basis for apophatic prayer can be found in the Scriptures. God, for the Hebrews, was unnameable. While the Hebrews applied many attributes to God, they understood that God was ultimately unknowable. Paul, when he writes that “we see but through a glass darkly,” understood the limits of human intellect and experience. He knew that more about God lies beyond our language and experience than within it. Far from being anti-intellectual, the apophatic approach to prayer simply recognizes the bounds of human understanding. Other theological writings on apophatic prayer are by Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, who wrote the classic called The Mystical Theology, and the anonymous medieval English writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. These texts lay the theological and practical groundwork for apophatic prayer: God is beyond what we can say about him, but beyond concepts of God there is a ground upon which to rest that is accessible to all Christians. Many methods of apophatic prayer have been developed, but apophatic prayer is quite simple--not easy, but simple.
The practice that I have found to be most fruitful is the one advocated by Anthony DiMello and Anthony Bloom. Essentially, one focuses one’s intention God-ward and watches. When a concept, thought, or feeling arises, one must be sure not to engage it. Apophatic prayer is a process of subtraction. Even ideas and feelings of God’s graces should be laid aside. Apophatic prayer is a new experience for many; therefore, it is advisable to follow the exhortation of the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing that those who engage in this kind of prayer should also be fully engaged in the life of the church and under the care of a spiritual director.
It must be noted, regarding apophatic and kataphatic prayer, that one kind of prayer is not superior to another. In fact, they feed each other; each enlivens the spirit of the other. Having a sense of the kataphatic helps to sustain and form the one who prays apophatically, and vice versa. It is important to remember that the two forms of prayer are both valid, and they need not be separated into hard-and-fast categories.