In light of several billionaires buying their way currently into space, we are challenging their priorities with a warning from Thomas Merton: That the far more important journey is to journey inwards to that vast realm inside, a realm that all mystics East and West talk of.  There one finds the true self but also we confront the shadow, what Hildegard calls the “thorns and bristles” that hold us back from our authentic humanity.

Blocking advancement of riot police with meditation. Photo by Spenser on Unsplash.

Can flamboyant journeys to outer space substitute for a flight from our inner selves that so often goes unattended and thus contributes to the many wounds we and Mother Earth are undergoing today in the form of climate change and more?  Without this journey, Merton insists, “all the rest is not only useless but disastrous.”

Merton observed that

Man is the saddest animal….

Now he is putting anxiety

Into space

He flies his worries

All around Venus

But it does him no good….

We are currently considering that inner journey as named by Howard Thurman.  First, the Via Positiva and now the Via Negativa.

Thurman wrestles with the question of asceticism and concludes that “the religion of the inner life at its best is life affirming rather than life denying.” But what about the need to detach ourselves from those life-forces that are fragmenting, divisive, and overly attaching? What about self-denial as a means to the inner life?

Standing in the light and shadow. Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash.

Silence is the answer, Thurman teaches. “Becoming still within.” There “the individual becomes conscious of what is there all the time. ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ is the way the Psalmist puts it.” When one can learn to be still,

strange things happen. It is very difficult to put into words. The initiative slips out of one’s hands and into the hands of God, the other Principal in the religious experience. The self moves toward God. Such movement seems to have the quality of innate and fundamental stirring.

Thurman reminds us that “religious experience in its profoundest dimension is the finding of man by God and the finding of God by Man.”  This explains why the letting go processes of our lives are in the last analysis positive, not negative. “The mystical experience is only in a limited way life denying. It becomes in its most profound sense life affirming.”

Thurman instructs us that when suffering arises, we should first feel our response to it and admit its hold on us and then take it directly to God. No denial, no sugary covering up.  Our “acute hostility cannot be resolved or drained off until the individual faces God with this fact.”

If we refuse to take our anger to God,

we repress our true feelings about the evil with which we wrestle, and meanwhile our God becomes a sleeping ghost among the stark hills of our own barren wasteland… When we take it to God, a kind of ultimate suction takes place which empties us completely.

Emptying and being emptied are important via negativa experiences along our inner journeys.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, “Howard Thurman: A Creation-Centered Mystic.” Creation Spirituality Magazine, March/April 1991, pp 8f. 

And from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 121f., 128.

Banner Image: Scanned: November 17, 2005 Howard Thurman Dean Thurman @ Marsh Chapel March 6, 1959

Queries for Contemplation

When you journey inwards, do you encounter both your true self and your Christ self or Buddha self or Image of God self? And also your shadow, thorns and bristles? It takes courage to journey inwards, doesn’t it? It may be easier to flee to the moon or to mars.

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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10 thoughts on “Howard Thurman on the Via Negativa”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Yes, it takes courage to journey inwards… the courage to be vulnerable, open and honest with yourself and with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit of Divine Love and all that she is, was and ever shall be… whom desires to be in relationship with each one of us all… without pretense. We are not alone in this inward journey and our life long spiritual companions encourage us to not be afraid… to not be afraid of facing all that lies within this inner landscape and what we encounter inwardly. There is no need to hide anything from one another, but rather what is continuously offered is the invitation to simply come… to come just as you are in any given moment. What I have learnt and continue to learn in and through this inward journey with… is what it is to be loved to love… and the unfolding mystery of this reality encountered is indeed transformative in so many unique and diverse ways. Choosing to surrender… to being loved to love… I learn the beauty and goodness of trusting God’s Divine Unconditional Universal Love for all, which is experienced often as mercy… God’s desire to alleviate our inner pain and suffering that we all encounter within the human struggle, in the journey of life, both inwardly and outwardly. Being loved to love… in the fullness of this Great Spirit, this Great Mystery… we experience the unfolding of our becoming Oned With this Divine Love and the infinite expressions of this being nurtured, cultivated and made manifest from within… which then graciously overflows into givenness.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, I like your “Holy Spirit of Divine love whom desires to be in relationship with each of us.” And later you say, “I learn the beauty and goodness of trusting God’s Divine Unconditional Universal Love for all.” So you’ve got the Holy Spirit and God, and I would add the example of Jesus for love and loving. Given these three demonstrations of love in their own ways, are the inner work that can speed up our growth as children of God/dess…

  2. Avatar

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine essence, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Yes Ron, you have got it, and you’ve got it in a richly “deep ecumenistic” way–and by the way… it was Matthew who coined the term “deep ecumenism” to name the interfaith movement of our time. Just as the Ecumenical movement was a movement where different denominations of Christians decided to put aside there doctrinal differences in order to work together for the common good. Deep Ecumenism extends this same spirit to those of all faiths who are willing to do the same–that is, put aside doctrinal differences, and work for the common good.

      1. Avatar

        Religions have many differences, but their mystics have much in common.

        Meister Eckhart, one of the most influential Christian mystics, said:
        “Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.”

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for Merton’s marvelous poem and for Howard Thurman’s magnificent language “…meanwhile our God becomes a sleeping ghost among the stark hills of our own barren wasteland..” Failure to do the hard inner work, of course, results in projecting our darkness with the consequences of scapegoating, “othering”, and the inevitable violence.

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