Apophatic

Apophatic refers to the art of stripping away, the art of letting go. I used to teach freshman Writing at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. Each year in September, I would explain to the incoming students that if they wanted to learn to write, then they needed to let go of pretty much all they had learned about writing in High School. Apophatic is the art of unbuilding, a far less common experience than building up, but no less essential.

The way into the space between . . . is the way of release, the apophatic way. In order to enter the space between . . . we have to release the things that have precluded the possibilities of true engagement with one another, human to human and human to non-human. I am referring to such things as doctrines, ideologies, opinions, self-interest, biases, attitudes, practices and habits. The writer David James Duncan refers to it as the art of “unsaying.” In his book God Laughs & Plays, he writes, “one of my aims as a writer of faith is apophatic. It is necessary to define words. It is also at times necessary to undefine them. Of all the words I have heard in my time, ‘God’ is the one most grievously abused by humans; the one most deserving of a careful unsaying.”
Think of apophatic as the art of unsaying. The art of un-doing. The art of release. We might think of it as the negative of a photograph or the experience of an ocean wave crashing over you even as it’s pulling the sand out from under your feet.

I think of it more as an art form, and the analogy that comes to mind is the carving of marble or granite. In my early twenties I had a tremendous urge to carve – chisels, knives, rasps – all of it. I found my way instead to ceramics and poured all my kinesthetic energy into hand-built sculpture. Now, years and years later, I am finding the opportunity to carve marble, and it’s a challenge! I experience a resistance in my brain wiring (I make no claim as to the neuro-science that might support such a statement). My brain simply doesn’t want to – or maybe can’t – rewire itself to the art and practice of taking away material. My brain wants to keep building up.
Western culture is similar, I think. We build up. We layer teachings upon teachings. We build more and more programming into our personal lives. We measure our GNP in terms of economic growth as corporately defined. We protect ourselves with words and ideologies, spinning them around ourselves like cocoons so that we need not consider anything other than what we already have opinions about. It’s my experience that we build and build so insistently, that the building up allows us to lose sight of what we long for. We have lost sight of what is real, and of what is of real value.

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