Via Negativa

I wrote a paper recently for my four day excursion into Eastern Orthodoxy.

It was a rather academic experience, this paper.

The last paper I wrote on Orthodoxy was more like art. I spoke of the scent in the room, the spice of incense and the watering of my eyes in the smoke as the Father blessed the image of God in all the parishioners. I wrote of the chanting, the calls back and forth and the sweet sound of confessions being whispered nearby. I spun stories of the children that kissed icons as they mimicked venerable grandparents, the toddler who had her hand kissed by a grandmother and pressed against the face of a saint that wavered in flickering candlelight. I sang praises for the liturgy, the long hours that we stood, the moments that flew past while we thought we stood in company with all the saints who have gone before. It was ancient to stand in that church. It was holy.

The paper this time, was not so beautiful.

But in its own way it was beautiful. I wrote about theology and I wrote what could  be one of my best academic papers thus far. For the Orthodox, there is a huge emphasis on the diversity within God. While most Protestants and Catholics focus on the unity, the single-ness of the Godhead, the Orthodox take a different approach as they find incredibly deep meaning in the community of the Trinity.

To me, this is beautiful. The idea of God as the pure essence of community is a great invitation to be joined to that community. The mystics were drawn to this. Their lives were caught up in the pursuit of being one with this God who is Love and Truth and Beauty. Protestants always say that as we grow to know more about God, we realize how much we don’t know about God. It’s true. But the mystics had a different way of explaining this.

Most begin believing that we can know of God through everything. All the world speaks of God’s glory, his majesty, his love, his creativity, his entire being is expressed in the world around us. The mystics knew God in this way. Everything spoke to them and revealed God to them.

Yet, as they progressed in their visions, their experiences, their dark nights within the depths of their souls and the brilliant glory of illumination, as they moved through the spiral of mysticism towards greater experiences with God, almost every single mystic would end with the belief that nothing could speak to them of God. He was too great, too immense to be known and described by such a thing as the finite created world which will soon be passing away. So they came to what we call apophatic knowledge or the via negativa. God could only be known by what he was not. He is only infinite because he is not finite. He is just because he cannot be unjust, etc.

This intrigues me, this idea that we can know and experience God primarily by knowing what he isn’t. How does that play into the concept that we can experience the divine nature and participate in the divine community? How can you participate and know something or someone that you can’t really know?

The mystery of the Eastern Orthodox confuses me but it enthralls me. I love the way the church so earnestly desires to be one with God, to know him and participate in the divine nature. Everything speaks to us of God, even the architecture in the church is designed to point us heavenward to contemplation of the divine. And yet, the Orthodox give God space to be infinite, transcendent and beyond our total comprehension. This is what I wrote of in the 12 and 1/2 pages that came together slowly but surely last week. The chance to know God as an immanent lover, while keeping him respectfully at arms length to enjoy his otherness. The scent of the incense, the encircling of the Triadic community, the sound of the chants, they were all there; simply buried deep in lines full of multisyllabic words and a cumbersome thesis. It was beautiful, even if the words themselves did not evoke the image of the liturgy but rather described the beautiful thoughts behind it.

somedays, I think I was born for Academia.


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