Exploring the Apophatic Divinity (the Nameless God)

The word Apophatic means without light.  The God of Creation, liberation and redemption is more a Cataphatic or “God with light” Divinity.  But the Apophatic Divinity needs attention today also and is an important antidote to excessive projecting or excessive sureness about Who or What God is (or Who or What one rejects when one calls oneself an “atheist”).  Spending some time with the apophatic Divinity can liberate God from too much human projection and even arrogance in imagining we know exactly who God is.

Consider these teachings from various spiritual traditions:

Dionysios the Areopagite says God is “superessential darkness” and a “darkness beyond light.”

Meister Eckhart says: “The final end is the mystery of the darkness of the eternal Godhead [which] is unknown and never was known and never will be known.”

Eckhart again: God is “without a name and is the denial of all names and has never been given a name—a truly hidden God.”

David Hart: “We see the mystery, are addressed by it…but can approach only when we surrender ourselves to it.”

Thich Naht Hanh.  “We know the Holy Spirit as energy and not as notions and words.”

Thomas Aquinas:  The mind’s “greatest achievement [is] to realize that God is far beyond anything we think.  This is the ultimate in human knowledge: to know that we do not know God…By its immensity the divine essence transcends every form attained by the human intellect.”

Possible birthing place for stars: the darkness of Molecular Cloud Barnard 68
Credit: FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

Estelle Frankel: “Befriend the unknown” and “trade the certainty of the known for the unknown.”

The Zohar: “Thought cannot encompass Your divine essence.”

Frankel again: “You cannot wrap your mind around God.”

Estelle Frankel, who is a psychiatrist as well as a student of Jewish mysticism, draws some practical advice from these meditations on the apophatic divinity when she writes: “Being receptive to the unknown, in all its many facets, allows us to become more open, curious, flexible, and expansive in our personal and professional lives.  This openness is the key to all learning and creativity.  It is the gate that unlocks our wisdom and courage.”

What are the implications of Aquinas saying that the ultimate in human knowledge is to know that we do not know God?  Is this knowledge more important that our knowledge of atoms and energy and galaxies and the size and age of the universe?  Why might that be?  What implications flow from that important knowledge?  Does religion have to begin anew?  And maybe atheism also?

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God…Including the Unnameable God, 126f., 130f.
Banner Image: “Black Star,” photographer unknown. Wallpaperaccess.com

Queries for Contemplation

IF Frankel is correct, that the apophatic practice is “the key to all learning and creativity” and unlocks both “wisdom and courage” this makes the practice of the apophatic divinity very important, doesn’t it?  Do you practice this understanding of the Divine?  Can you do more of it?  Is your learning, creativity, wisdom and courage expanding as a result?

Do you surrender yourself to this mystery as Hart proposes we do?

Take just one of these statements above about the Apophatic Divinity and sit with it for a number of sittings.  What are you/we learning?

Recommended Reading

Too often, notions of God have been used as a means to control and to promote a narrow worldview.  In Naming the Unnameable, renowned theologian and author Matthew Fox ignites our imaginations by offering a colorful range of Divine Names gathered from scientists and poets and mystics past and present, inviting us to always begin where true spirituality begins: from experience.

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13 thoughts on “Exploring the Apophatic Divinity (the Nameless God)”

  1. Avatar

    As I read this wonderful meditation and your final questions, this realization arose: I don’t practice this “understanding of the Divine”. It practices me. Perhaps that is one gift of both widowhood and of the aging process.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Mary,
      Thank you for sharing your experience of the Apophatic Divinity with us. Your losses, both in aging and your husband, create a dark and seemingly empty space, a Via Negativa, for that Apophatic Divinity to “practice you”.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      FOr the Daily Meditations Team

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you, Barbara, for your reminder of the way our trust of the dark and mysterious, the Negativa and the Apophatic, improves our overall health and well being: hearts, bodies, minds, and spirits.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar
    Anne Marie Raftery

    Awesome! Really. I need to sit on this Apophatic imagery/mystery.
    It triggers mind-expansion for sure.
    Thank you.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Anne Marie,
      Thank you for your kind words. The Apophatic imagery is indeed expansive, boundless even, a context which calls you deeper into the mystery of Divinity within yourself and in the surrounding Cosmos.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  3. Avatar
    Michael Moon ~ Dreamtime Poet

    Dearest Beloved Friend Matthew,
    Some three to four decades ago, the wise women in Western Australia, in the small esoteric gatherings,
    the Circle Dance, Neil’s Douglas-Klotz’s Universal Dances of Peace, our Andrew Harvey Lovers,
    The Beshara, the Ibn Arabi kernel, our Beloved fellow Saint, Dom Bede Griffiths,
    our Rumi’s and HRH the Dali Lama’s faithful and so on,
    Instructed me, (in Great Excitement and Enthusiasm), to Listen to You,
    Dear Mathew Fox, with your Original Blessing.
    So this soul wandered inside all of these amazing universes,
    to finally deeply listen to you Now (in the last few weeks.)
    Eternal Gratitude Is my simple message.
    Gratius for revealing the Black God, in western sol-literature upon our table.

    So Matthew, this soul, dedicates and boomerangs, the following passage to Your Self.

    Beloved Friends
    Be Brave,
    Tide the River of All Nights
    Leave the Known Safety
    of the Great Fountain
    the Eternal Waterfall

    Go Inside Your Empty Mirror
    Beyond the Gateless Gate
    at the Edge of Infinity

    There One may Begin to Uncover
    the Ineffable Sacred Apophatic
    Embracing Entwining Miraging
    the Awesome Cataphatic

    (Dedicated to Matthew Fox
    Looming Midnight New Moon, September 2019)

    Michael Moon ~ Dreamtime Poet

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Michael Moon – Dreamtime Poet,
      We are glad that you finally listened to Andrew, Bede, Rumi, the Dali Lama, the Beshara, and others to discover the work and wisdom of Matthew Fox. Welcome to these Daily Meditations. Your poem is an artful expression of the inexpressible. I love how you brought the Cataphatic in at the end – gives us something to hold onto.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  4. Avatar

    Like all life we expand and contract, like a womb, like our breathe, like the mind, like the universe, this is the natural process of life to be one with. I am leaning on my breathe today as a silent reminder we are one with that first breathe of God.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Esther,
      Thank you for adding in the image of breathing, and the universe, expanding and contracting, to today’s comments about Matt’s meditation on Exploring the Apophatic Divinity. In this season of his meditations, Matt is presenting the relationship between the Four Paths, and the natures of God. The Apophatic nature of the Divine, the unknown and unknowable, is counterbalanced by the Cataphatic nature, what we know and praise. Of course, exploring either of them requires moving forward, then stepping back, one side then the other – like breath, like the expanding and contracting of the universe.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  5. Avatar

    Thich Naht Hanh. “We know the Holy Spirit as energy and not as notions and words.”
    We are never going to think our way to God (Holy Spirit.) God will not be comprehended as a thought nor an idea nor a theory. But “God’ surrounds us as divine love/energy, and through Kundalini we can allow that energy to enter our physical, psychic and subtle bodies and feel the reality of that divine love. I call this awareness union with the Beloved Within. At times this energy comes to us as bliss, as time as total ecstasy. Surrender is indeed the key. We must embrace it when it comes, reverence our knowledge of it as possibility when it is not (seemingly) present. It cannot be taught. We cannot make it happen, but we can prepare ourselves to be penetrated by it when it arrives. Yeats said, “Man (sic) can embody truth, but never know it.” We do indeed live in mystery and the mystery embraces us through feelings, not notions. In such states, we affirm our divine origin and nature and know that we are indeed part of the vast immensity for which there is no name.
    See ‘Some Kiss We Want:Poems Selected and New”; “The Kundalini Poems.” These contain many poems to the nameless, faceless, bodiless god who is yet a powerful presence in our lives.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Dorothy,
      Thank you for adding in the perspective of Thich Naht Hanh and your own Kundalini experiences to this exploration of the Apophatic Divinity, or as you call it, the vast immensity for which there is no name. Even as we try to talk about our experiences of the unknown Divinity, no words are completely adequate,. But as we consider those who try to name the nameless and describe the indescribable, we can often sense what the other experienced non-verbally.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

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