The Via Negativa in Work & Mystics Contextualizing Our Work

We ended yesterday’s DM speaking of the inner work that feeds our outer work which is what we leave behind when we depart this world. 

Hildegard of Bingen, “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree,” Scivias.

Humans work.  All beings have their work to do, their contribution to make to the whole, to the cosmos, to “making the wheel of the cosmos go around” as Hildegard of Bingen put it and painted it

Work is a holy activity and it need not be a curse as one story in the Bible puts it; it can be a blessing, a return of blessing for blessing.

Yes, there’s sweat and toil and frustration and so much more in our work—the via negativa is often very well represented.  As Studs Terkel puts it:

Work, by its very nature, [is] about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.  It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fist-fights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us. 

“Company culture” is one of the biggest trends in corporate management – but is it really “company cult?” How Money Works explains.

Economist E.F. Schumacher reminds us that we have insurance that pays when your body is harmed at work, but if your soul is injured, you are on your own.  

Thus, many resort to addictions of alcohol or drugs or television or sex or work itself in often vain efforts to escape those wounds. 

Inner work is needed.  Emptying is needed.  As Eckhart puts it:

 People must be so empty of all things and all works, whether inward or outward, that they can become a proper home for God wherein God may operate.

An exploration of the teachings of Carl Jung on finding the meaning of life. Freedom in Thought

The mystics offer the bigger picture about work, and it begins with inner work which then comes to bear on our outer work. 

Eckhart teaches that the outward work can never be small if the inward one is great, and the outward work can never be great or good if the inward is small or of little worth.  The inward work always includes in itself all size, all breadth and all length.   Our inner work and outer work are meant to marry.  Psyche and cosmos unite in our work.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Times, pp. 25-27, 58.

And Fox, “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree” in Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, pp. 66-70.

Also see Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time.

Banner Image: Germany’s Krupp weapons machining workshop, 1900. Wikimedia Commons.


Queries for Contemplation

Do you sense a cosmic dimension to your work such as Eckhart talks about in the final paragraph of this DM?  Is the via negativa experience of being “emptied of all things and all works” part of your inner practice and work that many call meditation?


Recommended Reading

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen

An introduction to the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen, Illuminations reveals the life and teachings of one of the greatest female artists and intellectuals of the Western Mystical Tradition.  At the age of 42, she began to have visions; these were captured as 36 illuminations–24 of which are recorded in this book along with her commentaries on them.
“If one person deserves credit for the great Hildegard renaissance in our time, it is Matthew Fox.”  – Dr Mary Ford-Grabowsky, author of Sacred Voices.

Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time

While Matthew Fox recognizes that Meister Eckhart has influenced thinkers throughout history, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
“Matthew Fox is perhaps the greatest writer on Meister Eckhart that has ever existed. (He) has successfully bridged a gap between Eckhart as a shamanistic personality and Eckhart as a post-modern mentor to the Inter-faith movement, to reveal just how cosmic Eckhart really is, and how remarkably relevant to today’s religious crisis! ” — Steven Herrmann, Author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward


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4 thoughts on “The Via Negativa in Work & Mystics Contextualizing Our Work”

  1. Avatar

    We have to be “emptied of all things and all works” in order to make room for the new. We don’t ‘plough the field’ and make a straight row if we turn to look at what is behind us. — BB.

  2. Avatar

    Yes! Yes! The inner work and the outer work are intimately related on my spiritual journey. Of course this is not easily or consciously realized for most of us. It requires a deep Faith in a Higher Power/our LOVING Source~Co-Creator intimately/personally guiding and interconnecting our unique human daily lives with others (including All spiritual beings), with Beautiful Sacred Mother Nature, and with Our Sacred multidimensional-multiverse LOVING Evolving Creating COSMOS… For me this means consciously integrating our unique human natures and daily lives (including the spiritual discipline of meditation) with Our Divine Nature, a Divine Flow of LOVING Diverse ONENESS in the Sacred Process of the ETERNAL PRESENT MOMENT… COSMIC CHRIST CONSCIOUSNESS….

  3. Avatar

    The Re-Invention of Work has been, for me, one of the most seminal of your works, second only to your commitment ot mysticism. It has been the North Star of my later years. And Jung’s notion that work is something greater than your own existence, something you’d be willing to sacrifice your life for, is part of its brilliance. Thank you for a life courageously sacrificed to your own calling.

  4. Avatar

    “Via negativa” is a terminology that traditionally refers to “apophatic theology and practice.” It’s a complex subject which tries to reflect the nuances of mystics’ texts. Unfortunately, the term is also a grab bag of confusion and conjecture. It should be considered more of an artistic/poetic impression of mysticism.

    My mysticism/mystical Revelation, the one reflected in Eckhart and the Gospel of John, is “Neoplatonic,” It expresses the specific, distinctive mystical experience that inspired the label “negativa.” But the experience is actually much more complex than that label reflects. I’ve tried to show many nuances of this mysticism in my postings, but because of text length limits, I can often only hint at important ideas. People must go read the mystics to learn more.

    But one crucial point must be made: the Neoplatonic Theology/Path is NOT the same as “Zen”. They incorporate a few similar practices, and Buddhism might have originated as a direct challenge/ alternative to a Neoplatonic-inspired religion (via an ancient Hindu interpretation), but “apophatic” Neoplatonism is not a reflection of Zen meditation. Instead, it is the Revelation of a specific, complex, radically nondualistic One, and its Path expresses its monotheism.

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