From God's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace
“The apophatic way: desiring God in the darkness”

“The apophatic way: desiring God in the darkness”

The kataphatic way, or via affirmativa, approaches God through metaphor: God is our rock or shield. But although God’s character has aspects of a rock, God is not a rock. God is like a shield, but God is not a shield. God cares for us as father or mother, but God is not a father or mother. The apophatic way, or the via negativa, starts with this teaching that God is no thing that we can grasp. The likeness of the immanent God is in every thing that God has made, yet God is also utterly transcendent and beyond.

We can study and read and think about God with our linear logical conscious minds. We can use our senses, imaginations, and feelings to approach God. All this is good. But our thoughts about God are not God. They are ultimately finite and constrained. We as finite created beings can never fully comprehend the infinite uncreated Creator.

James Finley of the Center for Action and Contemplation uses a helpful metaphor: if we cannot get the ocean into the thimble [or this subject into a blog post!], we can drop the thimble into the ocean. So in the practice of contemplative prayer we still our conscious minds and reach out into the darkness with the desire of knowing and loving God. We offer the least resistance to being overtaken by God, in humility allowing God the initiative.

Our subconscious might be beyond our awareness, but is also rational. At the times when our thinking mind is still, it provides our eureka moments, answers to crossword clues, words on the tip of our tongue, gut instincts, surprising wisdom in difficult situations, and dreams.

This deep mind is where we encounter God, or God encounters us. Many writers have sought to describe it, variously as a ”great absence / that is like a presence (RS Thomas), or “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), or the Dark Night of the Soul (John of the Cross), or a “deep but dazzling darkness” (Henry Vaughan), or an “incomprehensible certainty” (Gerard Manley Hopkins), or a Cloud of Unknowing (anon). It remains indescribable, but their attempts help us to recognise and persevere in this prayer.

“[T]he darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139). We don’t necessarily have an experience, but over time we might notice an effect, say increased peace, patience, or desire for God.

Most of all, because God is utterly beyond, God “loves beyond our uttermost”, as the hymn to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ puts it. God knows us totally, both our light and our uttermost darkness. And God loves us, totally, completely, utterly, and beyond that. The God we desire is the God that desires us first.


This is one of a series of articles appearing in Exeter Cathedral’s monthly news, complementing the material I contributed to the “Explore Prayer” section of the Cathedral website. I hope you find them helpful.