A technical term within the art realm, chiaroscuro deals with a relationship between light and dark. Shadow, the interplay of light and form, allows the artist to convey depth in a two-dimensional illustration. Analogously, we, as humans, are only able to discursively perceive the divine to what we might think of as a two-dimensional degree. The disciplined integration of the apophatic [dark/negative] and cataphatic [light/positive] dimensions of mystical spirituality allows the pilgrim a three-dimensional journey on to union of the soul in love with G-d, e.g., “perfection”—John Wesley (1703—1791 C.E.).
Light from darkness
Last week we considered Jesus’ mystical way of teaching (here), that is, using the experience of the hearer as source of authority. We’ve been thinking about divine darkness and spirituality that, by negation, deviates from the conventional way of religious affirmation/devotion. This week we’ll consider the other, far more familiar, approach to mysticism, e.g., cataphatic, or positive theology.
Calling love, front and center!
I’ve written previously regarding one of my favorite mystics, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Through Bernard love became the very essence of the spiritual life in Christianity. Bernard’s (Love) mysticism marked the turning point for love within Christian spirituality and set the mystical benchmark of Christianity—a reference point by which we may orient ourselves and humanity. In May I wrote (here):
Wisely, in On Loving God, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090—1153 C.E.) begins his four degrees of love where we all begin, the love of self for one’s own sake. Again, trauma can effect this as we all know of people who do not appear to love themselves. At the very least, Bernard’s developmental schema declares that love of self is the beginning and basis of growth in Love. The first degree is a gift from G-d—otherwise how could we experientially know how generous, faithful, gracious, encouraging, and hopeful ‘Love’ is? Bernard’s first degree of Love identifies a mystical reference point that scripture had previously leveraged, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Leviticus 19:18; Matt 22:37—39]
G-d showed us in our experience what love is and Jesus’ experience (story/life) showed us how to express love: Love one another as I have loved you. [John 13.34]
Light from light
Jan van Ruusbroec (1293—1381 C.E.) was a synthetic mediator of the forms of mysticism widely in play before and during his time. He wrote in positive fashion to present the finest aspects of the Christian spiritual tradition. From the most humble strivings (asceticism) he called “the active life;” through myriad stages of longing for God [“blind stirrings”/”yearnings”—The Cloud of Unknowing/Saint John of the Cross], he collectively called ‘the interior life;” to the highest most intimate state of union with the Divine that he called the contemplative or “God-seeing life.” The Trinity formed what was, for Ruusbroec, the essence of the spiritual life. This (mystical) understanding of Trinity represents a holistic twofold (in||out) movement—that is, inward toward interior darkness, and outward toward incarnation, the generation of the Son by the Father in the breathing out of the Holy Spirit as their bond of love. Trinitarian mysticism is the participation of the spiritual pilgrim in these two movements.
Saint Bernard pointed us to direct experience of G-d’s presence through the gift of the first degree of love (‘love of self for one’s own sake’). Ruusbroec pointed us to direct experience of G-d through holistic engagement of the Divine nature (Trinitarian mysticism).
As a mystical teacher, John Wesley directed us (toward another gift of G-d) to a different immediate experience of G-d’s presence. Just as G-d’s fingerprints are on our natural love for our own self, those same fingerprints cover many life occasions. We all have a built in detector for them. Allow me to try to demonstrate, please watch this brief video:
Did the girl discovering her human connection in nature warm your heart? (Try this)
Of course, these specific videos aren’t capable of producing the desired experience in every person. My hope is that they come close enough to help everyone see what I mean. For John Wesley it wasn’t a video, it was the reading of a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. One evening at a Bible study on Aldersgate Street, John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed.”
Growing in devotion
Intentional practices like discursive prayer and practicing the Presence of God are affirming/devotional means of grace. Even positive/affirmative spiritual disciplines often have a negative, or absence component, like fasting, for example. We can experience G-d and grow spiritually by negating our ordinary experience—e.g., intentionally abstaining from food to grow in empathy/solidarity with the poor.
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?