When The Soul Listens – Chapter 5 – Reflection

This chapter was wonderful, but I felt it only focused on one half of the Christian tradition of contemplative practice.

Our tradition speaks of both the cataphatic (which is the way of knowing) and the apophatic (which is the way of unknowing).

Chapter 5 teaches us about the cataphatic way, but not about the apophatic way. Both ways are Christian. The first way (cataphatic) is more of a Western Christian practice, and the second way is more of an Eastern Christian practice, and yet, both ways are represented in the Western Christian tradition.

The cataphatic way focuses on the godly use of the God-given imagination. This method finds clear expression in Ignatius of Loyola in the Christian West, which Johnson touches on in her “movie method.” We use our imaginations to enter into the story and live in the story, and so it helps us experience our faith in a defined and tangible way, which is good.

The apophatic way focuses on letting go. Instead of approaching God by clinging onto our thoughts about God, we approach God by letting go our thoughts. It is the way of negation in that we want to experience God directly (as opposed to only experiencing our thoughts about God). This second method finds clear expression in The Cloud of Unknowing in the Christian West.

I find too often that people say that Christian contemplation and Eastern meditation are two completely different things. But, this is simply not the case. It would be more accurate to say that Christian cataphatic contemplation is indeed a completely different thing to non-Christian apophatic contemplation, however, Christian apophatic contemplation is similar to non-Christian apophatic contemplation, but for one difference: Jesus (obviously).

This all may come as a shock to you, but we need to read history, tradition, and Scripture properly. Christians have and still do practice (Jesus-centred) apophatic contemplation, but they do it in the context of a relationship with Jesus Christ (and the indwelling Holy Spirit).

In fact, Lectio Divina, which was covered in chapter 4 of Johnson’s book, combines both ways of contemplation – the first three steps (read, reflect, respond) are cataphatic, while the fourth step (rest) is apophatic – we leave our thinking and imaginations behind and just rest in silence, letting go of our thoughts.

Now I know some will say – But that sounds like, ‘emptying your mind‘ which is a non-Christian Eastern practice. Well, I would rather call it kenosis which is a term that comes to us from Philippians 2 where it says that Jesus “emptied himself.” We are letting go/emptying ourselves so that we can embrace God, and be filled with God’s presence.

I found that Johnson, in the first edition of her book (1999), dealt more with this, but in this second edition (2017) she doesn’t. That’s probably because she’s writing for a Protestant audience, and Protestantism is a completely Westernised religion – “I think therefore I am.” And so if we’re not thinking, we’re not. Yet, Scripture tells us that when we’re not thinking, we make ourselves receptive to God (“Be still and know that I am GodPsalm 46:10).

Now, if someone had tried to explain this to me 7 years ago I probably would’ve thought, “heresy!” But having read enough and listened to enough over the past couple of years, it’s actually just plain in Christian writings.

So, I hope that doesn’t unsettle you, but it’s good to know the truth, and it’s also good for me to write a true reflection (i.e. how it sat with me), and not just a manufactured reflection (i.e. how I think you might want to hear how it sat with me).

As always, I’m happy to discuss these things with you.

Every blessing, Pastor Craig.