Apophatic – Katophatic

“There is a saying in the Jewish tradition that scripture is “black fire written on white fire.” Weight is given to the words but just as weighty are the spaces between. It is also the case that musicians talk about music not only in terms of the notes, but also in terms of the rests… Black fire without white fire is just an ink spill. Music without silence is just noise. Knowing without negation is pride.” This short and neat explanation of kataphatic and apophatic spiritualities was written by Jason Valendy.

Ascent spirituality is “kataphatic”. This means that we understand “God” by the positive associations that we attribute to Her. (If you have trouble with referring to the Divine as “She” and “Her” it is because of kataphatic conditioning.) We use images such as: Shepherd, Creator, Baby in a Manger, conquering General (think of the crusades!) Mother, Father, friend and so on. At it’s best this spirituality is very, very good.

Descent spirituality is apophatic; it is about entering the space and silence of the unknown. Our images and concepts of god are always incomplete, and can be harmful. “God” is always bigger and more expansive than all the images and adjectives that are projected on Her/Him/It. The inevitable result of only a kataphatic relationship with “God” is that we project ourselves onto the Infinite and in fact, make gods in our own images. We can see the results of this thinking in all the “isms” by which we exclude and denigrate others. 

Apophatic prayer is letting go of thoughts, a practice of silence. Teresa of Avila compared katophatic prayer, (with images/thoughts/names for God) to apophatic prayer. In her experience katophatic prayer was like trying to water a garden with a leaky hose, whereas apophatic prayer, (prayer of silence and emptiness) is like your garden being watered because it is sitting on a water aquifer. In katophatic prayer it is through our own efforts that we are trying to connect with the Divine. In apophatic prayer we are just present to the Divine who is already present within us.

In katophatic prayer we are attempting to know the Divine through our intellect, and the Divine is too big to be knowable that way. In apophatic prayer we know the Divine through love. Even though Teresa highly valued apophatic prayer she also continued to use katophatic prayer when she meditated with images that continued to invite her into something bigger. (Specifically, she said there was always value in meditating on the passion of Christ.)

Another source that explains kataphotic and apophatic spiritualities:

Related glossary posts: Descent spirituality, Ascent Spirituality.