In our journey back to God, we all start with the things He has revealed to us. We learn about the actions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in history, scripture, the Church, and the lives of the saints. Meditating on God’s actions in our own lives, we fall in love with Him. Our path back to God starts with a concept of Him in our intellects, which is hopefully an image that contains more truth than falsity, and we love that concept, that mental construction of Him.
While this is a wonderful and praiseworthy approach to communion with God, the Church’s contemplative tradition teaches us that our relationship with God must move beyond concept and image. Why? Because God in Himself is infinitely beyond any concept or image that we can conjure up in our minds. Stretching out to this “God” that has been cobbled together in our ideas, we necessarily are stretching towards something that is less than Him. The cataphatic approach, loving God in our thoughts and imaginings, must necessarily give way to the apophatic approach – the way of unknowing and naked faith – if union with He-Who-Is is to be reached.
“The mystery that is beyond God himself,
that gives its name to everything,
is complete affirmation, complete negation,
beyond all affirmation and all negation”
— Dionysus the Areopagite, Divine Names
The cataphatic approach is a path that all must tread, for faith first comes by hearing – therefore it is blessed by God and a grace-filled journey. But it does have a potential dark side (as does every part of the spiritual life for us fallen creatures). It’s possible to become so attached to our idea of God that it becomes an idol for us, and this blocks us from recognizing how God may draw near to those who are not like us. Becoming convinced that our approach to God is the only way, we risk becoming pharisaical. We might begin to cut others off, accuse them of heresy, or even tell them they are going to hell.
This demonstrates another potential dark side: there is always the risk that whatever we think we understand, we think we can control. If we have a set idea of who God is, without also understanding that God in himself is infinitely beyond our understanding, we may start trying to bend God to our will—consciously or unconsciously. We might begin to see God according to our way of seeing the world, rather than try to conform ourselves to Goodness Itself. This is obviously a bad idea.
In order to knock us off the cataphatic path when it is time to do so, God will sometimes mercifully plunge us into crisis. He will shake up our comfortable habits of prayer and knowledge, so that we are forced to stand before him in naked faith, unable to form coherent ideas or images in our meditations. When we finally surrender, when we let go and trust, that is when a light blooms in the darkness. We will awaken to a new way of living in God, of knowing him not through ideas but by “tasting and seeing the goodness of God.” Finding the treasure in the field, we take our tentative steps in the Kingdom of God.
This is a rather long preamble to the main thesis of this article – that we need a contemplative vision in order to live our lives in awe and in harmony with creation around us. A key passage of Laudato Si’ stands out to me, where Pope Francis quotes the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan:
“To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope” – Laudato Si’, 85
What sort of life is needed to hear each creature “singing the hymn of its existence”? And hearing this hymn, how could we ever dare to treat creation as our plaything, to treat it merely as grist for the insatiable mill of our material desires? The life we must live so that we may hear the hymn of creation is, in my view, the life of a contemplative.
Sitting in silence before the world
That the apophatic path is a necessity on the way to union with God teaches us that the human’s conceptual mind, while a gift of enormous value, is not sufficient to experience God as he is. We cannot reason our way to union with God. Likewise, if we wish to experience God in creation, to hear the hymn of his creatures, it will not be sufficient to reason about the world, breaking it into abstract ideas and components. Recall the dark side of conceptualization – whatever we think we understand, we are tempted to control it. Isn’t that what drives our destruction of the environment? We believe that because we can understand the world and manipulate it, we can also freely put it to our use.
“The German bishops have taught that, where other creatures are concerned, ‘we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful’” – Laudato Si’ 69
We have all had experiences of nature’s beauty causing us to pause. Perhaps we’ve even let out a gasp or contented sigh. In that moment, there is no rumination about the interaction between the sun’s light and our atmosphere that causes the sunset to look so gloriously orange and red. No, we are simply there – in some way one with the sunset. In that moment our thoughts drop away and so does our disconnection from creation – we “hear” the hymn of creation and recognize the priceless value of it.
Our thoughts and concepts are what can make us feel separate from the world around us. But when we become more comfortable experiencing the world in a contemplative fashion, without the presence of intervening concepts that insert themselves as an interpretive apparatus, it is difficult to tell where “we” end and the “outside” world begins. In those moments we are united to creation and see God who shines in all things. Any mere “use” of creation for frivolous and destructive reasons seems like blasphemy.
A lurking Gnosticism
Living a life of quiet union with God and his creation, which becomes possible when attachments to conceptual control and manipulation of the world are dropped, we can also avoid a kind of subtle Gnosticism. This Gnosticism emphasizes, to a damaging degree, the life of the soul over and above our material existence. In this view, the most important thing is getting to heaven, and whatever happens here on earth pales in comparison to my “personal salvation project,” as Thomas Merton called it. Yes, of course, we should want to go to heaven and be with God after our death, but we should also be aware that we can already dwell in the Kingdom of God now with our bodies, and we can commune with God through his people and creation. Perhaps some forget that the final state for human beings is in a glorified, resurrected universe – where heaven comes down to elevate the material cosmos, not to eradicate it.
There is a certain flippancy in some Catholic circles regarding the care of creation, and they criticize a focus on it because all we should busy ourselves with is the “salvation of souls.” But wouldn’t that be, in a way, denying the importance of our material bodies – for are we not, as well, a part of material creation? The accelerating extinction of species, or the destruction of natural environments, does not seem to concern them, perhaps because they see themselves as ultimately separate from material creation.
This is also an affront to charity – to both the poor of this world—who suffer disproportionally from any environmental damage—and the future generations who will have to suffer from the effects of our negligence. An attitude that focuses only on personal salvation projects ignores the plight of our human brothers and sisters also, who we fail to “see” because of our narcissistic preoccupation with ourselves.
However, if we can adopt a contemplative vision and listen to the hymn of the universe— free from a tyranny of limiting and separating concepts and ideas—we will not find ourselves artificially distant from creation, but we will understand ourselves as a part of it, yet still yearning for its transfiguration on the last day. This is the way to naturally find God in all creation, and to understand why we are called to care for our common home.
Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ from Pixabay