In the two-thousand-year treasury of spiritual literature, we find two main streams that point us to different yet complementary ways of knowing and loving God. The first is cataphatic or the way of affirmation of what we can see and know of God through our senses and reason, aided by faith. This is the via positiva represented by a saint like Francis of Assisi, who celebrates the Creator in every manifestation of creation. So familiar is Francis with the sun and the stars, with the wind and the water, that he calls them his brother and his sister.
The second way is apophatic or the way of unknowing. It reminds us that however much we know about God, who God is in his essence still remains incomprehensible to us. This is the via negativa, which appreciates the attributes of God while not identifying God with any of them. A saint like John of the Cross prefers this way of being present to the hidden mystery of God. He warns us not to be attached to anything, however beautiful it may be, because compared to the Infinite Beauty of God it will always be wanting.
The unknowable depth of God’s essential being accounts for our endless desire for unity with him in what the anonymous fourteenth-century English mystic calls the “cloud of unknowing.” In the normal course of life, with or without our being aware of it, we veer from one stream to the other. Walking through our favorite park on a sunny afternoon, we might praise God for the beauty of this lovely place where God’s glory dwells. As daylight turns to dusk, we may be at a loss for words to describe the awe we feel for the Creator of such wondrous gifts. Sense perception is powerless to penetrate how all that is came to be.
The cataphatic stream flows through liturgy, word, and sacrament. Vestments, readings, the elements of bread and wine—everything we see is like a little epiphany unveiling a mystery that simultaneously reveals and conceals itself. Presence to the created becomes our way of gaining access to the uncreated mystery and majesty of God.
The apophatic stream evokes adoration, reverence, and wonder. Our hands stretch heavenward in a gesture empty of arrogance and open in awe to God’s initiative through gifts of grace beyond our ability to comprehend.
If the cataphatic way calls attention to the Divine Presence embracing people, events, and things, then the apophatic way leads us to higher realms of wonder and wordless worship. Both streams grant us a clearer sense of the living God. Thought knocks on the mystery’s door, but only love enters. As St. John of the Cross reminds us, the two wings of truth are reason and faith, which is the only proximate means to union with God.
Mature discipleship, fed by these two streams of knowing and of knowing in unknowing, invites us to free ourselves from countless distractions. It readies us at one and the same time for cataphatic encounters with God in the world and for apophatic upsweeps of love that are not of this world.
While our senses offer us hints of the Infinite, we realize we must go beyond them if we want to come to a realm of knowing and loving God for God’s own sake.
This love is not a product of sensual data or mere reasoning processes; it leads us, by God’s freely given grace, to the gift of understanding while accepting in humility what we will never comprehend fully. God is and remains a mystery to us.
True discipleship leaves behind the foothills of lower reason to scale the heights of love and faith beyond where human understanding alone can take us. Awe purifies our heart of arrogant, egocentric modes of mastery. The higher we climb in the darkness of not knowing toward the “holy place” (Ps 24:3) of God, the fewer words we find to describe our experience.
God becomes like us in his Son Jesus Christ, who was fully human without loss of his essential incomprehensibility as fully divine. Christ is both cataphatic (human) and apophatic (divine). He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the hidden God, who makes darkness his secret place (Ps 32:7).
God is both transcendent and immanent, beyond anything we can imagine and yet our blessed companion: the Word made flesh, who dwells among us.
God does not want to be seen as a distant, uncaring, impersonal force, but as a friend and healer, who makes of our body a “temple” (1 Cor 6:19) but whose mystery will always elude us: “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).