For a long time, before I ever experienced contemplation as St. John of the Cross really meant it — as a “loving attentiveness to God” — I had heard contemplation described that way and never really understood it. It seemed strange to me. What did it mean to “just be” before God? What did it mean to put ourselves before God without any thought or image at all?
Truthfully, it sounded odd.
And then when I learned of the two Greek words used to describe two diverging ways to experience God in prayer — kataphatic and apophatic — the type of contemplation described by St. John of the Cross seemed even more foreign to me.
Kataphatic prayer makes use of words and images.
The kind of imaginative prayer described by St. Ignatius of Loyola that I mentioned in a previous post is this kind of prayer. In this kind of prayer, we hold images in our minds and experience ongoing conversations with God. We’re conscious of our thoughts in prayer, and we’re able to “hear” God’s words in response to us interiorly.
Apophatic prayer, in contrast, is wordless and formless.
It’s an experience of prayer in which the soul acknowledges that God cannot ever be fully held in the mind and actually transcends all images — and therefore the soul lets go of any impulse to relate to God in these ways. This kind of prayer is often connected to relating to God in “a cloud of unknowing” or “darkness” or “nakedness of being.”
The first time I heard these two terms used to describe the two major categories of prayer, I had an immediate aversion to the description of apophatic prayer. I had been living in a long season of consolation where the imaginative life of prayer had become my regular means of connecting to God, and especially Jesus. My prayer life, experienced in this way, was very active and incredibly dear to me. And this way of prayer had born much fruit in my life. Love for Jesus had erupted in me, and I was irrevocably changed.
Why would I ever want to give that up?
Weren’t the experiences I had with Jesus in prayer more beloved and preferable — even to God — than an experience of darkness and nothingness?
Who would want to experience that?
(I mean, really.)
So I continued on my merry way, relishing the images and word-filled conversations I had with Jesus on a regular basis, continuing to fall more and more in love with God.
Until a little over three years ago.
One day I sat at my desk, opened the Scriptures before me, and couldn’t taste words. They didn’t seem enough. They couldn’t hold God.
I went to pray and felt an immediate aversion to the images I’d been holding in my life of prayer with God. God was so much more than any image. God was.
On that first day, I sat at my desk with my eyes closed and just let myself be in the presence of God. God was this massive greatness, creating everything and upholding everything, far beyond what I could imagine or understand … and I was grateful for that.
I just wanted to be with God without having to understand God.
And so each day in that season, I came and sat with the “cloud of unknowing” that was God beyond my concepts of God. And it was truly enough — more than enough, really.