The Craft of Contemplation
Contemplative practice acts as a preparation for thought, and thought, in turn, acts as a preparation for contemplative experience.
I originally presented this essay at Villanova University in October of 2020 (presented virtually, anyhow, owing to the pandemic). In it, I wanted to explore how philosophy and contemplation share a common kinship or root in their commitment to formative ascetic practice (askēsis). Modern minds often uphold a divide between intellectual work and spiritual exercise, but if, as I contend in the essay, contemplative practice acts as a preparation for thought, and thought, in turn, can act as a preparation for contemplative experience, then this is a great mistake, as the divided view fails to see the affinity between the two modes of practice. The exercises I’m concerned with here deal in the via negativa tradition (or “way of negation”). Roughly, these are practices concerned with the epistemic limits and constraints on our ability to know, placed as they are as a hedge against our overidentification with certain thoughts, feelings, or images—the central overidentification being, perhaps, with the “self” that initiates the practice—but they also open out into another kind of relation, that between loving and knowing, a theme I pick up at the end of the essay.
Unknowing and Via Negativa
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (a sixth century Christian Neoplatonist) and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (a Middle English guide to contemplative practice from the 14th century) have much to offer a conversation on thought and contemplation, that is, on the relation between intellectual and spiritual exercise. In both cases, contemplation is positioned as a craft that can be taught—like woodworking or writing—and that the work of this craft is a practice of unknowing, a leaving behind of the senses, reasons, and thoughts of the body and intellect. (Indeed, The Cloud Author draws on the Areopagite’s earlier insights and instructions). And yet, in this via negativa tradition the practitioner is instructed in contemplative prayer, a method of using words and phrases to guide the development of the practitioner’s skill. The practitioner is instructed to choose a sacred word—something simple, such as God or Love—that stands as the symbol of intent for accepting divine presence within the contemplative’s awareness.
Once the word is offered, the instruction is to sit simply and silently until distracting feelings, thoughts, or images arise, at which point the practitioner is advised to call attention once again back to the prayer word. The aim is to use the word as invitation to interior divine action and as a method of retrieving attention by calling oneself back to silent presence. I quote here the Cloud Author’s own instructions:
Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens, it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting, so that if any thought should press upon you and ask you what you would have, answer it with no other word but this one.
There is, then, a relation between thought and contemplation, where the virtue of contemplative practice acts as a preparation for thought and where thought, in turn, acts a preparation for contemplative experience. Today I want to offer an account of the epistemological significance of this relation through a discussion of the principal (consciousness, reason, and will) and secondary (imagination, sense perception) faculties of perception discussed in The Cloud Author’s text.
But I want to start by noting an apparent contradiction in the method of via negativa practices. The method in question here is of course apophasis (etymologically, “away from speaking”), and more specifically forms of apophatic prayer that deal in the denial or negation of forms, words, concepts, phrases, images, or characteristics attributable to God or the Divine. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks in this context of a knowledge that exceeds understanding but also of embracing truth in a manner that surpasses regular speech and knowledge through a union that outstrips discursive and intuitive reason alike. Along these lines, he speaks figuratively of a land beyond words. Indeed, as he says, the aim of contemplative practice is “that which is beyond all perception and understanding (for this emptying of our faculties is true sight and knowledge)” and that “in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation, thou leave the senses and the activities of the intellect and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive.”
The apophatic in this sense is a path towards emptying the self and its reasons into the darkness that transcends the senses and the intellect, but it is not emptiness alone; since, through this emptying, Pseudo-Dionysius says, we shape a “latent image” that reveals a “hidden statute.” On this account, the physical perception of the senses and the conceptual apparatus of the intellect are alike in being unable to grasp the divine, and this method of revealing the inadequacy of both types of knowing through their negation is what apophasis points to.
Askēsis and Self-Overcoming
So, in what, then, does a mode of theological practice consist if the tools used to deliver its ends—the words and phrases of prayer, in this case—are also among the discursive elements of thought that are to be abandoned through the course of its practice. Before addressing this question, I want to suggest that this contradiction is not unique to apophatic practices only, but is instead a key element and paradox present within ascetic practice as such. What I mean by this is that ascetic practices have as one of their primary goals the overcoming of the self by means of the self. This is the image of ascetic practice, or askēsis, that we find in the work of Pierre Hadot. Askēsis is on this view the vehicle through which the deliverances of philosophy, spirituality, and religion alike are achieved, not as embellishments or additions to an already-existing subject, but as acts of overcoming given through transformations in our being. I believe the Cloud Author points to this kind of askēsis when he writes:
To put it more exactly, let that thing [the contemplative practice] do with you whatever it pleases and lead you wherever it pleases. Let it do the working, and you be the material it works upon; just watch it, and let it be. Do not interfere with it, as if to help, for fear you should spoil everything. You simply be the wood, and let it be the carpenter; you simply be the house, and let it be the master who lives there.
The apophatic, as a species of the ascetic, exhibits this same relation of a self to itself initiated in order to overcome itself. It is telling that both the Cloud Author and Pseudo-Dionysius wrote anonymously and pseudonymously, exhibiting this very quality of de-emphasizing the role of personal identity in favor of letting the practices themselves speak. In other words, the identity of the authors in both cases repeats in the medium of authorship the message of apophaticism and negative theology—namely, that the named and the nameable do not exhaust that to which they refer.
And so, as I mentioned earlier, if it is the case that the contemplative practice described in The Cloud of Unknowing is a craft that can be taught, like writing or woodworking, we should now add that this is only part of the story, since the type of craft the Cloud Author describes is also one wherein the craftworker is taken up as the object of the craft itself in an ambiguous circle of initiation and transformation. Gavin Flood in his work on asceticism notes a similar ambiguity, an ambiguity that suggests an oscillation between the explicit and cataphatic methods of textual and discursive thought—which often form the basis or rungs of a ladder through which the self initiates a process of its own dissolution—and the subsequent apophatic rejection of those very forms of thinking. I quote Flood:
There is a deep ambiguity here. On the one hand, asceticism entails the assertion of the individual will, a kind of purified intentionality, yet on the other it wishes to wholly form itself in the shape of tradition and in terms of the tradition’s goals. . . . The eradication of subjectivity in ascetic pursuit entails the assertion of subjectivity in voluntary acts of will. Asceticism, then, is the performance of this ambiguity, an ambiguity that is absolutely central to subjectivity.
The ambiguity is this: It is the self who through an act of will initiates the ascetic transformation but in so doing works to overcome the very self that initiated the act. I want to note here a connection between asceticism in general and apophatic practice in particular. Both exhibit a similar tension between a self-initiated will that is ultimately overcome and abandoned. Here apophaticism sheds light on asceticism. If asceticism in Flood’s sense means taking on the shape of tradition in one’s own life—in his words, in reforming the narrative of the individual’s life within the narrative of tradition—then I can reframe my original inquiry as follows, What is the shape of apophatic tradition? And is there a way to answer this question within the conditions set by apophasis?
It’s clear already that the answer lies in the direction of ambiguity and contradiction. The will of the self is involved in practice insofar as the practitioner acts to move towards an end that cannot be grasped intellectually, conceptually, or imagistically but can nevertheless be embraced. But how? The epistemological argument latent here—and it applies in theological and philosophical contexts alike, I think—is that while words, ideas, concepts, and images can open out the practitioner’s view into new understandings and configurations of thinking, feeling, and perceiving, they also serve as constraints that bind practice to certain limited and self-referential modes of thinking and being that reduce that which is the focus of our attention to our own capacity to attend, to our very particular ability to conceptualize the object of theology within a set of anthropocentric epistemic categories. This trap is mirrored philosophically in critical philosophy and in subjective and transcendental idealism. We cannot stop at self-reference.
Willing, Knowing, and Loving
If we take seriously the account we gain from Pseudo-Dionysius, there is an alternative account, a ratcheting of the self up through a putatively Neoplatonic hierarchy of initiation. This ascent is aided by the use of prayer words, but also through the use of liturgical symbols, rituals, architectural spaces, as well as any number of choreographed colors, sounds, shapes, and smells at the level of aesthetics, in addition to the words, phrases, and ideas used at the level of texts and discourse. Whatever the medium, the dynamic is the same: A vehicle is deployed to initiate a change but is then left behind. There is, then, not only a link between the mystical and the discursive, but also between the mystical, the aesthetic, and the ritual wherein the one acts in the service of the others—the explicit words, phrases, and practices acting as preparations for, or even invitations of, modes of mystical comportment, and where moments of mystical comportment can offer deeper truths about the reality of symbol, word, and image.
The role of the will, in this epistemic picture, is to let go of these constraints, even as they may help, initially, to point the practitioner in the direction of the goal of practice—into the darkness of The Cloud of Unknowing where silence and shapelessness take precedence over the linguistic tools that brought about this experience. Indeed, the use of various aesthetic, liturgical, and discursive implements mirror and imply the Cloud Author’s own understanding of human spiritual faculties. One can see how aesthetics, rituals, and ideas, for example, correspond to the principal (consciousness, reason, and will) and secondary (imagination, sense perception) faculties discussed in The Cloud Author’s text. However, true to form for the via negativa mode of practice, neither object nor word nor movement can adequately capture the God beyond being that the apophatic tradition gestures towards.
In this, says the Cloud Author, we need not only will and practice, but also, and principally, love. Such willing love is the key epistemological force within the whole movement of contemplative prayer. Where the intellectual faculty of knowledge fails, the faculty of love succeeds. I quote the Cloud Author, “By love he can not be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.” It is this willing lovingness that supersedes the other symbolic and discursive implements used in the via negativa tradition, and it is this activity above all others that guides the craftwork of contemplation through its ascension beyond conceptual knowledge and beyond aesthetic appreciation, turning back upon itself to overcome the very self that initiated its own activity. The relation of thought to contemplation, in the final analysis, is then best described not as one of increasing spheres of intellectual understanding, but as framed within love as a faculty of knowing, as a love that sees, grasps, and recognizes a divinity that exceeds all possibility of representation, not as a sentimental act alone, but as a transfigurative activity that permits an encounter, given through grace, with a mystical unity beyond expression.