A Vocabulary Lesson ~ 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.

For Reflection

I think of apophatic as the process of unbuilding, unteaching. I think of it as the art of unsaying, the art of undoing, the art of release. To enter the space between . . . requires that we embrace the apophatic way, and one essential piece of the letting go process is that of deep listening. In fact, I would suggest that deep listening is not possible until we engage the apophatic process. Perhaps the most familiar experience is an interaction with a partner, or child, or parent, who uses a certain phrase or gesture or tone of voice which you interpret against the tapestry of your own experience. This is common enough, and often a very good idea. The question is, what does it cost us to interpret the behavior of another through our particular lens? Can we be certain we’ve interpreted correctly? On the basis of our interpretation, do we tend to stop listening for what lies underneath? The common description of this dynamic is that we tend to see what we expect to see, and hear what we expect to hear. What might we experience if we were able, in the moment, to release our expectation, for the sake of deep listening?

I suggest you take a walk through the woods, or along a stream, or through a meadow, even a city park. Find a tree, with leaves. What do you see? Maybe you can identify it. Maybe it’s just a tree like any other tree, and you walk on. But what if you take these words of the poet Mary Oliver into the woods with you? What is required of you to hear the song held within a single leaf? What must you release?

The leaf has a song in it. Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it and it will never end until all ends.

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