Archive for the ‘apophatic mysticism’ Category

Transfigured Soul at Dusk

February 4, 2013

Please see:
Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Last Sunday of Epiphany, year C
“ineffable light, dark path”

…with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart. This
guided me more surely than the light of noon… *

detail, Vase of Flowers, Francisco Sierra Perez, c.1690

detail, Vase of Flowers, Francisco Sierra Perez, c.1690

I love white flowers. Most of the time I’d rather arrange an all white bouquet than gather together a diverse palette of vibrant color. When we lived in Highland, NY, I even turned our backyard into a white garden. At dusk, white flowers holding the day’s sunlight, transfigure. Long past darkness, the petals glow from within.

From time to time the soul gathers Tabor light. Then, in distressing times of of life and in dark nights of the spirit, it is a remarkable thing to see your own soul transfigure with this hidden light absorbed unknowingly. You might never know this transfiguration if your journey had not brought you into darkness.


* John of the Cross
  excerpt from The Dark Night

My Deepest Fears

November 26, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Advent 1 (year C), December 2, 2012
“The Portal” 


detail, Russian Icon, Novgorod School

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25

Why does the new year begin with dread, darkness, portents in the sky: the sun darkened, the moon obscured, stars falling, the heavens shaken? Why does the new year begin with the ultimate ending : the end of life, the end of the world, the end of time itself?

A beginner in faith might come to church on the first Sunday in Advent expecting to catch an early glimpse of the baby Jesus. Instead, the sky roils with doom, earthquakes shaking us until our bones rattle. Why begin the liturgical year with the end of everything?

Keep awake! says the Church on the First Sunday of Advent. The very warning cuts to the heart of my deepest, unnamed fear. This fear lurking at the edges of my being arises from my implicit worry about existence itself. If I exist, I can be annihilated. Dread is the twin sister of consciousness. As soon as I realize I am awake, I know that I can die.

Surely I can choose to wake just a little, and stay oblivious to larger questions of the puzzle of existence. Surely I can fill my life with distractions and glittery things and a thousand lesser worries, to keep that one great worry in the shadows behind the lesser ones. But the church asks me right from the first day to enter my dread, my fear of death, my existential anxiety.

On the first Sunday of Advent the church says, Look! Keep awake! Face your profoundest fear, and then, my Love, I have something wonderful to show you!

I was not particularly thrilled when I realized that I was on a Christian path forty years ago. But at least I knew from the beginning that the Church kindly acknowledged my deepest fears.


At the Heart of Apocalypse

November 19, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
The Reign of Christ (year B), November 25, 2012
“Drawn Toward the Kingdom”

detail, The Last Judgment, Giotto, 1306

The Sacred Cycle of the Church year ends with apocalypse in the last Sundays of Pentecost. And the sacred cycle of the Church year begins with apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent. Between apocalypse and apocalypse is the Feast of the Reign of Christ.

To begin and end the year with apocalypse reveals a profound and loving psychology. Face your deepest fears, says the Church. Unless you undertake the journey through your deepest fears, the shadows of the things you depend upon, the questions of existence and annihilation, you won’t approach the Real at the heart of reality.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis), although associated with the sun darkening, the moon not giving its light, the stars falling, earthquakes, and fire and destruction, literally means “unveiling.” The lifting of the veil, opening the curtain. Revealing. Revelation. (Ah, but there are so many veils to cling to!)

At the heart of the apocalyptic season Jesus reigns from a cross. It is the end. It is the beginning. His death is the catastrophic end that begets new life. Jesus is the High Priest of the Temple. A temple not made with human hands but through the spaciousness of his own self-sacrifice. Through the curtain of his flesh, he opened a new and living way. (Hebrews 10:20)

On either side of this revelation of Christ enthroned, not in suffering, not in glory, but in the human heart, every person must undergo great upheaval. The Church helps us practice year by year for the unveiling of the Real at the heart of the heart.


To whom can I go?

August 20, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 16 (year B), August 26, 2012
“to whom can we go?”

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” Elijah asks the crowd on Mount Carmel. Maybe he even hopped around in a circle to illustrate how an uneven loyalty brings you nowhere but back to where you started from.

“If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. I suppose they were waiting for a spectacular outcome. They got one.

But first Jezebel’s 450 prophets of Baal prayed as “they limped around the altar they had made.” At noon Elijah mocked them. “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” One of the sharpest satires on paganism ever penned. He has gone aside is probably a euphemism for attending to natural needs, says the footnote in my Oxford Annotated Bible.

And now in a gesture of prophetic showmanship Elijah pours so much water on his bull and altar that it runs into the trenches around the sacrifice. Yahweh zaps the soaked offering. And the 450 prophets of Baal who eat at the table of Jezebel must die.

detail from Scenes rom the Life of the Prophet Elijah, Jorg Ratgeb, 1517

Jezebel’s soldiers chase Elijah into the desert where, alone, he complains to God that “I, even I only, am left” to help the people turn their hearts again to God. And gives up.

I love this story. I love Elijah, the dejected, lonely prophet curling up under a broom shrub to die of despair. I love the practical angel who brings him a pancake and a jar of water and says without a hint of condescension, “You have to eat for the journey to the mountain of God.” I love that Elijah gets up and continues his journey forty days and nights to Horeb and squeezes himself into the very cleft of the rock where, in midrashic tradition, Moses saw the backside of God. (Exodus 33:17-23).

And I love that Elijah did not hear God in the wind breaking the rocks in pieces, nor in the earthquake and fire. But Elijah perceived the Divine Presence in a silence so profound it was like gauze touched by the most gentle breeze.

I love that God is revealed in silence. Silence has carried me these 39 years of my desert journey. Silence. The beginning, the ending, the middle, the center, the perimeter and beyond the perimeter – silence within, silence without when I rise, when I sleep. Deeper and deeper silence. Deeper and deeper love in darkness. Where can I go then from your Presence? (Psalm 139).

To whom else can I go?

Swooning on the Sea of Galilee

July 23, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 12 (year B), July 29, 2012
“we become what we consume”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  -John 6:16-21

Whatever the 21st century equivalent of swooning is, I do it over passages from a book on John’s Gospel by Bruno Barnhart’s (OSB Cam.) The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center. (Paulist Press, 1993.)  No matter how small your personal spiritual and Biblical library is, this book belongs there.

The Good Wine contains a most extraordinary commentary upon the Crossing of the Sea. These ten pages are hard to describe because Bruno presents his points in imagery that begins one way and then loops back from another direction, leaving more depth as it weaves back, like thread on a loom. Not only that, but the overall pattern is a mandala, so that you must see the whole of the book to appreciate the parts. His writing is gorgeous. My poor, much-loved beat-up volume!

Bruno argues that the story of Jesus walking on the sea centers the whole of John’s Gospel, which lays out in a chiastic way. Thus, the crossing of the sea becomes the primary image around which all the other images in John’s Gospel radiate in concentric circles.

detail, Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500

Within the darkness and chaos of creation, the “I AM” does not part the sea but walks upon it and subdues it.  This new exodus inaugurates a new creation.  As on the first day of creation the immanent presence of Jesus evokes the “Let there be light” of Genesis 1 and the “In the beginning” of John’s prologue.  The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The “I Am” is spoken in the manifestation upon the sea of Galilee, by the creative Word that was in the beginning, according to the prologue, and that now appears in Jesus, striding over these dark waters which recall the primeval chaos of Genesis 1:1. (p.67)

All beginnings are born together in this place where, in darkness, the light shines over the waters. Here the world originates from nothingness; here the Word is generated from the invisible fullness of the Father, then shines in the night of the creation. Here, again, begins the new creation within the divine darkness and within the darkness of created being.

This meeting place of sea and land, of air and water, of light and darkness, becomes the boundary of boundaries.
… (p.70)

Within these ten pages, Bruno also references Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, contemporary psychology, liturgy and baptism. What a feast!

And somehow your own soul engages and belongs within this cosmic event:

Here upon the dark waters, at this boundary, is the place of awakening, of compunction and metanoia, the place of silent meditation and of creative inspiration. Here in this darkness is the womb of creative life. It is the place of poverty and expectancy, the place of all potential. Here we are all fishers. And here in our poverty we are in touch with the dark depths of God, from which the light is born into our world. (p.70)


I can not resist one more quote:

For a long time, without understanding why, I had found a particular fascination in these gospel stories of Jesus and his disciples upon the sea. While the context and details vary, in each of these stories one feels the surging forth of a majesty, a gravitational force, from Jesus, which silently reorders the cosmos around him. Suddenly in the midst of a churning universe, this man appears, a diminutive light in the immense darkness, and everything comes into harmony around him, all the tumult subsides into a wondering hush where he stands. We find ourselves in the presence of one who seems to have stepped out of John’s prologue into the midst of the world’s dark disorder, and swallowed it up in his peace. A sovereign center, gently emanating this mysterious power to which all being must respond, is revealed here in Jesus.  p.64-5

Ascension: My Last Words to the Risen Jesus

May 14, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Easter 7 (year B) May 20, 2012
“do not leave us comfortless”
My Last Words:

Little children, yet a little while I am with you. John 13:33a

Are you going away? Again?

You will seek me. (vs.33b)

I sought you. And I found you!

‘Where I am going you cannot come.‘ (vs.33c)

Why would you come back from the dead only to go away again?
And why can’t I come also?

I go to prepare a place for you…And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2b,3)

But I don’t know that! I lost you and now you are here and you say you are going away! Don’t leave us, don’t leave me alone again! I love you! Don’t you know I love you?

If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. (vs.28bc)

That’s bitter consolation. And I do not understand.

Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:19)

Riddles! You say you are going away. I have no idea what it means that you “go to the Father.” Sitting limply on a far away celestial rock like Zeus? In the clouds, scanning a panorama of tops of mountain ranges? Maybe even traveling to other planets, enchanted by realms outside earth? Nothing sounds farther away than going “to the Father.”

I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. (John 14:18)

You will go away and come back?

I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. (vs. 16-17) The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, … will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (vs. 26)

I know the Holy Spirit? I dwell in the Father? It is better if you stay where we can see you.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go. I will send him to you. (John 16:7) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (vs. 13a)

I have vowed to love what you love.

I will let the Spirit of truth – whatever that is – guide me into truth. You’ve guided me through the dark before. Why should this abandonment seem more severe than the other abandonments? You’ve given me the treasures of darkness (Isaiah 45:3) before. Why should I not expect the treasures of darkness now?

Go, then. And breathe on me, Breath of God.

April 2, 2012

see Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Sunday of Resurrection (1,2,3) posts

Empty Tomb

Peter and John
See the open tomb.
The grave cloths lie crumpled,
the headbands rolled up in a separate heap.
An unformed thought nudges at John.
But there’s nothing to be done.
So the men leave.

Mary is left alone.

The grave stone cast aside carelessly,
as if it were not heavy,
The ransacked sepulcher screaming violation,
The empty grave cloths shouting nakedness,
Silence, as loud as storm waves crashing upon a sea wall,
Emptiness, as pressing as crowds rioting in a market square,
Sheer nothingness
Bellows through the chasm of loss.

Mary stays to confront
the thunderous absence of Jesus.



from Dark Love: Meeting the Beloved at the Empty Tomb (retreat)

More Spacious than the Heavens

December 12, 2011
see Post for Advent 4 (year B)
December 18, 2011
“find in us a mansion”This is a poem/prayer I wrote a few years ago while meditating on the icon The Virgin of the Sign, or Panagia, as it is also known.  The “sign” refers to Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.  This type of icon is also called Platytera ton aouranon, or, “more spacious than the heavens.”

Platytera ton ouranon, Kiev School c. 1114, Our Lady of the Sign

She looks upon you,

She looks beyond you

She looks through your soul

and into the eternity

behind your soul.

But suddenly, she is a mirror

For you are looking at yourself



in your own

fragile flesh.

Portents in the Sky

November 21, 2011

See Advent 1, (Year B)
“watching and longing”

Angel unfolds the world to reveal the golden New Jerusalem, Giotto, The Last Judgement, 1306, detail

At the turn of the new year the church offers scenes of chaos: portents and signs in the heavens, roiling clouds, floods, hail, fire. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,  And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:24-26)

The Church gives these apocalyptic warnings as a gift, to shake away complacency, to shock into second sight, to awake to the immediacy of salvation wrapped in breathtaking clouds of doom.  Watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.  And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13:35-7)

The soul’s journey begins in apocalypse. Cataclysm dims the safe filters of ordinary sight to heighten the view of Reality.  Shock, fear, grief, courage, and then, perhaps, curiosity, opens the door to the mystical life. Once you pass through the threshold of doom, ultimately, you’ll awake to and recognize the beauty of holiness.


stumbling on the cornerstone

September 26, 2011

see Proper 22 (year A)
“wicked tenants”

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.  Psalm 118:22-23

How often it is
while straining to see an answer
upon the distant horizon

I stub my toe
against the solution
at my feet.