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"The Via Negativa: Finding God in Darkness," 

A Religious Discourse

Delivered at the

First Congregational Church of Prescott, Arizona

On the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020

 

Overview: The Via Negativa is a term coined by thirteen-century

Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, possibly the most significant

mystic-prophet of the Western World. Theologian and writer

Matthew Fox re-introduces the term to us as one of 4 paths

for awakening and sustaining our connection to God—the others paths being the Via Positiva, the Via Creativa, and the Via Tranformativa. This advent, we are focusing on the Via Negativa.

 

The Via Negativa is experienced in two states. One is voluntary and one not so much. 

 

The voluntary way is through darkness, silence, and meditation—a practice engaged in by many early Christians, as well as in Buddhism, Hopi and Navajo spiritualities, and many other spiritual traditions. Meister Eckhart, said that “Nothing in all creation is more like God than silence.” Through silence we seek and find the God that isinstead of the God that isn’t. In silence, we enter a place where we can set aside misguided notions of God and let God reveal Godself anew to us. 

 

Thomas Merton says, “If there is no silence beyond and within the words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious ideology. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the ultimate truth in silence. . . . only in ‘non-actions’ does the spirit truly awake from the dream of a … confused existence.”**

 

Meditation and contemplation require deep silence; and advent, falling during winter, is a perfect time to experience silence. Not just bears, but so much else has gone to sleep; and if we are lucky enough to get snow, a hush falls over the land.

 

Last winter I was staying upstairs at my partner David’s house so that I could bring him meals while he did a silent, meditative retreat downstairs. One morning I awoke to find that Prescott had had a snowfall so deep and rich that it broke tree limbs and downed trees all over town. The house being on a hill above Prescott, I was able to see the snowfall in all its power and beauty. I’d never seen a snowfall that deep anywhere, and I stood watching in silence and awe. That awe spiraled me back to the Via Positiva, that state of gratitude, joy, and awe that also brings us closer to God.

 

But there’s another kind of Via Negativa, and it is not one we choose the way we do meditation. The involuntary state of the Via Negativa is brokenness or grief. We don’t plan that, but as many of us have experienced, it is a powerful pathway to God. St. John of the Cross wrote about this experience, so has St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and many people following other spiritual traditions. John of the Cross calls the involuntary state of the Via Negativa, “the dark night of the soul” which he experienced when he was imprisoned for months as a heretic in a tiny, windowless cell. People who have lost everything during this pandemic—loss of their livelihood, their time alone, loss of a mother, father a child, or a best friend—know the Via Negativa well. Ask a single mother with small children what it’s like to work at home while home-schooling a couple of kids. Ask health care professionals what it’s like to work 18 hour shifts or zip up another body bag and then hear people complain about having to wear a mask. This is the Via Negativa, a time of loss. 

 

Meister Eckhart tells us that, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” Always? No. And often not at first. 

 

Seven years ago, I was dealing with heart-rending loneliness and an unnerving illness at the same time. Like most white Christians I would come to church dressed nicely, listen to the sermon, look “normal.” But often, some part of the service—maybe a song—would leave me awash in tears—once to the point where my shoulders were shaking. That’s not really okay in a white protestant church—not week after week. When black people worship, when native people worship, the pain doesn’t have to be covered up. It’s shouted. It’s chanted. It’s sung. Sometimes it’s danced. Lamentations are in order today, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the escalating environmental crisis, injustice toward people of color, for-profit jails and for-profit war-making, and our failures at wisely educating our children. We have a lotto learn from other forms of worship regarding lamentation.

 

I believe our entire society has been going through a collective dark night of the soul for many months. What if we were to use this time of darkness and plague as a chance to draw closer to God? What if we were to take this time of isolation to re-examine society and imagine a better way, a deeper spirituality, a more just society? Matthew Fox says, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”

 

Julian of Norwich lived in England during repeated waves of the Black Death in the mid 1300s. She had every reason to question the existence of God or at least the relevance of God. 1/3rdof Europe died in that pandemic. Julian almost died of the plague herself. Yet in the midst of a pandemic that kept returning in wave after wave, she is best known for declaring, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Where could this notion have come from during a time of pandemic farworse than ours? I believe it came from the many hours, the manyyears, Julian spent cloistered in contemplative prayer and contemplation. Knowing that “All shall be well” is part of our Christian walk of faith.

 

So here we see the convergence of both forms of the Via Negativa—the Via Negativa we choose and the one thrust upon us. Julian’s life combined them both.

 

How many of us have drawn closer to God during our own dark nights? And, like the recurring bouts of the plague during Julian’s time, many of us experience more than one. Eventually I did emerge from the darkness I was experiencing seven years ago and from many other dark nights. And yes, most of them did bring me closer to God.

 

An old, patriarchal belief assumes that we climb a ladder to God. “No,” says Matthew Fox, “We sink into God.” That sinking can come involuntarilyfrom deep loss, depression, coming to terms with addiction, loss of faith—from any grief thrust upon us. Sinking into God may also come when we sink voluntarilyinto silence. 

 

Contemplative prayer and meditation are two ways through which we can sink voluntarily into the darkness. God willbe there to greet us, gradually filling us with knowledge of Godself. It takes time. It takes practice and we’ll never know all of what God is. 

 

I’ve been a working mother and a peace and justice activist most of my life. You would not have described me as a contemplative. But I have changed—partly because it was years of stress that brought on my worst symptoms of the illness. I’ve hadto slow down and my Buddhist boyfriend David has helped me.

 

I told David that once the election was over, I wanted to take three days off to do a personal “retreat.” We had planned one last summer, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. So for three days this week I did that. I was alone in quiet to read, write, meditate, and to walk. David supported me by bringing me meals. We didn’t see each other. 

 

Now, I am no expert at meditation, and I spent more time reading and writing than meditating. Last winter I when I was bringing Davidmeals, it was because he was doing a 49-day retreat downstairs in the dark—in complete darkness. No books. No writing. No lights. Just darkness, reflection, and meditation. And he does not consider himselfan expert. I am fully aware that we can’t all do that. My son has a three-year-old. He can’t take three days off to meditate. When I was a working mother, I might have needed three days of reflection, but like many of you non-retired humans, I couldn’t do it. 

 

Today, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Why not voluntarily enter the Via Negativa by choosing a special time each day or night to sit in meditation. There are many kinds of mindfulness. I suggest you find one that suits you. Guided meditations are often a good way to start. You don’t have to be skillful at it. That’s why it’s called a practice. You just have to show up.

 

“God is at home,” Eckhart says. “It is we who have gone for a walk.”

 

So—what can we expect to happen during this voluntary darkness?

 

Meister Eckhart said, “I pray to God to rid me of God.” That’s one of the reasons he was condemned by his Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. But the church “leaders” didn’t understand what he was saying. Eckhart meant that we need to empty ourselves of our preconceived ideas about God so that the indescribable God can pour in and amaze us with more of what God actually is.

 

One Lent, I decided to read one of the gospels as much as possible from a fresh point of view—as if reading it for the first time, learning about Jesus for the first time, as if I knew nothing about him.

 

I chose The Gospel of Markbecause it was the first one written and scholars tell us that it is the least embellished by the writer. It stands as a simple telling of the public life of Jesus of Nazareth. 

 

As I read, one major theme struck me: Jesus was consistently trying to get away from people! From the crowds that sought him and from his disciples! He wanted to get away by himself. Of course compassionkept drawing him back to the crowds—their need for healing or for food. 

 

Now it’s strange that this is what struck me. I’m sure something different would strike you if you tried the same process. Apparently, it’s what I needed to hear. Lectio Divinais a Benedictine practice that works this way—that allows us to reflect on scripture so that it speaks to us in a personal way. 

 

What my reflection said to me is that even Jesus needed a lot of alone timewith God. And if Jesus needed it, then I certainly need it—we need it! That’s how we become one with God, or as Paul the Apostle put it, how Christ comes to live in us.* Not just through our actions, even if those actions are as consequential as feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fishes or lobbying Congress for nuclear arms treaties or for equal justice for people of color. Such actions spread compassion and justice. But, to spread peace and justice from a compassionate heart, one needs time alone withGod so that we may knowGod. 

 

When we sit in silence, when we empty ourselves during this time of Advent, the Christ Child can slowly seep in, gradually revealing to us who God is. After all, as the banner in front of our church says, “God is still speaking.” Emptying ourselves takes time. It takes attention. It takes a willingness to live without answers for a while and it takes consistency in our spiritual seeking. And all that often comes when we are in darkness—darkness we have chosen or darkness we have had thrust upon us.

 

Juan de la Cruz wrote the sacred poetry for which he is most famous while he was in jail in 1567. His purest art came out of his deepest suffering at the hands of the same church authorities who later canonized him as St. John of the Cross.

 

What kind of God will we find when we drop into the Via Negativa? Richard Rohr says we can find a balance between what we know and what we don’t know. Eckhart says, “Be silent and do not flap your gums about God, for to the extent that you flap your gums about God, you lie and you commit sin.” The writer of Isaiah` calls God “a hidden God.” By reverencing the hidden nature of God, we express humility and respect for God’s transcendence. 

 

After all, what can we, as mere mortals, understand about a transcendent, ineffable, mysterious God? 1stCorinthians 13:12 says, “for now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” 

 

In August of 2017, I attended a retreat in Scotland where we began each day with communion. Our first communion began with this statement: “To believe you know more than you know is heresy. To be open is to be faithful.” I don’t know who first made that statement, and I don’t generally like calling someone a heretic but the statement drives home the importance of humility when we talk of God.

 

“Whatever one says that God is, he is not,” says Eckhart. Of course! God is always beyond what we can imagine—in compassion, in wisdom, in power, in beauty, in love, in creativity. Which one of us could possibly be as creative as God? When we look at the beauty of Creation how can we notstand in awe? Who could possibly be as compassionate as God? And so here we are, circling back from the Via Negativa to the Via Positiva—to the beauty of God’s greatness. And so it is. And now we wait in silence or in grieffor the Christ Child, so that by way of him God can show Godself to us.

 

Amen

Voice of the Coronavirus 2020 April 1, 2020

[My poem was greatly inspired by “Letter from the Coronavirus” by Kristin Flyntz,

3-12-20.  My eternal thanks to Kristin for inspiring my poem.]

Please listen.

Do not be afraid.

Wait for me to speak. Do not try to speak for me. Just listen.

I chose a bat as my host because I could not begin my journey in you.

You are too strong and powerful and have too many ways of fighting.

I had to search for a weakness through which I could enter you

And I found it.

I had to find a way to speak to you.

It was imperative. Is imperative.

The little bat gave me entry.

Please listen. I am still speaking.

Speaking because I love you.

How otherwise can a thing as tiny as a virus find a voice

Against all your defenses?

My name is Coronavirus.

I began my journey in China because it is the most populous on Earth.

I need to reach as many people as possible.

I am traveling now through the United States

Because you are the most powerful on Earth.

I apologize for my stop in Italy.

A land of poetry and song and love.

It did not deserve the horror I left there.

But, you see, once I began traveling,

I was guided by science.

That is the way I travel.

It is the only way I can.

But maybe something in me also knew

That the West as you know it

Began in Rome.

And being who I am, I was drawn there.

To the beginning of what you call “civilization.”

You ask why I am here.

I am asking you to stop and rethink.

What of all your inventions?

What of all your technology?

What has it brought you?

Has it allowed you to better enjoy a sunrise?

Does it sharpen your ears to hear the birds sing in the morning?

Or hear the crickets as night begins?

Is swimming in a river more pleasurable now?

Is your ascent to mountaintops

Or your descent into valleys more full of wonder?

Does the scent of the rose bring you more joy?

Or the giggles of children bring you more delight?

Does the taste of the peach burst more brightly inside the vestibule of your mouth?

Can you see more clearly into the tide pools?

The insects are disappearing.

The rivers are drying up from your unquenchable thirst.

The views from the mountaintops are occluded.

Your flowers altered for easier transportation

So they have lost their scent.

The children are sad and ill-equipped for enchantment.

Our fruits too modified for travel, not taste.

The old stories are lying untold and unread.

The reefs too are dying.

Wake up beloveds.

I am here to awaken you.

Why did I choose you as a host?

Because you are the most beautiful of the creatures.

All creatures are beautiful.

Were they not, why would the love that made them have called them so?

Yet you,

Most of all.

Who else can sing? What other creatures have created

Guernica, the Sistine Chapel, or Starry Night?

The great sculptures of ancient Greece and Europe?

The cathedrals along the Rhine

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or Leonard Cohen’s?

Who else the great gardens of England or the delicate ones of Japan?

They pyramids of Egypt? Those within the rainforests of America? The Taj Mahal.

Who else has written the Arabian Nights, The Brothers Karamazov?

Les Misérables? The Razor’s Edge?

It has been you, my hosts.

Yet all this majesty has made you proud.

It has made you believe you are invincible.

You have become self-important.

These gifts were given you

Because you were meant to be co-creators with God

But too many of your gifts have been ill-used

Used to build your egos instead of your art

And peace

And justice.

It is time now to

Stop.

Listen.

The cataclysms that were meant to stop you

The hurricanes, and floods, and fires

Did not make you stop.

You kept using your creativity to kill instead of birth.

So the fire has come inside your bodies.

It has come through me.

I am your teacher.

I am your lover.

Please stop.

And listen.

Patriotism 101 June 6, 2017

 

I have often half-jokingly said that my two ways of being patriotic are baseball and the National Parks System. I’m not one to put my hand over my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance or because we’re directed to sing the national anthem. How can I pledge allegiance to one country and its people without wanting to stand up for all people everywhere?

As a human being I’d rather pledge allegiance to God as I know God to be. As a

Christian, I don’t pledge my allegiance to a flag, I pledge my allegiance to Jesus the

Christ. (And yeah, I fail a lot!) As for the “indivisible” part, I have no problem with

that—it’s just that I feel indivisible with all the Earth’s people, along with all the

Earth’s animals, its landforms, waterways, “and to every beast of the earth and to

every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that

has the breath of life,” so to speak.

In any case, the range of the national anthem makes it far too difficult for any normal

person to sing (what were they thinking?), and if it is sung, then it should definitely

be followed by “Play ball!”

The thing is, I’ve recently discovered that I am more patriotic than I had presumed. I

do like the appellation for the National Parks System, “America’s Best Idea.” And,

unlike when the national anthem is sung, I do still get chills and tear-up when

“America the Beautiful” is sung—and it’s even sing-able. As for baseball, something

about it evokes images of immigrants making their way in this new country, of

immigrant kids playing it on the streets of the Lower East Side, and of my first generation

dad watching it on TV. Maybe it’s like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It’s

comfort food.

But as the recent administration has increasingly been spending time in the White

House, I’ve discovered that there are other things I’m patriotic about—like the

Constitution and the rule of law, and the system of checks and balances. I’m patriotic

about presidents who understand those things—maybe even because he or she

studied them in twelfth grade or even eighth grade and paid attention—you know at

least took it for pass/fail and passed. Even so, expecting a future leader to get an A in

American History or American Government kind of seems like one of those good ideas.

I’m patriotic about our country’s ideals—because they are ideals and many of us

keep striving to meet them the way I strive to be a little more like Christ, even

though people keep telling me that Jesus didn’t really mean give all your goods to

the poor and that he only meant to welcome the stranger if that stranger wasn’t

Muslim or possibly black.

I’m patriotic about those ideals. I believe in what the Statue of Liberty stands for.

Recently, I got to see her in all her green glory up close from the river, and with how

we’ve been treating “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe

free,” my heart was tearing at me. Then, then, I wanted to put my hand over my

heart.

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of my son, I took the sky tram to Roosevelt

Island. Walking under the cherry blossoms to the southern tip, I stood silently

reading beneath the words carved in granite at Four Freedom’s Park. Then, then I

wanted to put my hand over my heart. I’d arrived a bit late in the day, just as the

island’s Cherry Blossom Festival was ending. I guess I’m patriotic about cherry

blossoms too.

When my daughter was in eighth grade, with the full support of her public, not

charter, middle-school principal, I took her on a three-week tour of Connecticut and

Massachusetts—an American history tour. We visited what seemed like

everything—from Mystic Seaport, CT, where we helped out on a schooner, to John

Adams’ house in Quincy. We walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, read gravestones,

and ate at an oyster house frequented by Ben Franklin. At Mystic Seaport we saw

where they built the replica of the slave ship, the Amistad; and in Boston, we went

onboard that replica and descended to where enslaved people would have been

chained.

We followed the path of Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, and Billy Dawes, and I sat for

an hour in a pew in the Old North Church, imagining lanterns and considering that

night. We walked the 5.5-mile Battle Road Trail from the North Bridge in Concord to

Lexington, the path of the opening battle of the American Revolution.

We toured Plymouth Plantation and carried tin lanterns into a dark graveyard one

night as a tour guide searched for ghosts. We learned that it was the Wampanoag

who made it possible for the pilgrims to make it through that first long winter and

that it was they who shared their food with the new immigrants that first

Thanksgiving, not the other way around.

We drank fresh-pressed cider at a mill, watched a blacksmith, and played early

children’s games at Old Sturbridge Village. We toured a fabric mill where docents

turned on the sound so we could hear how deafening it was for the children and

immigrants who worked there, and we visited the houses where the girls lived.

We learned about Louisa May Alcott’s father and his experiment with socialism at

Fruitlands, where we also sipped the best pumpkin soup ever. We stood in the room

where we imagined Louisa writing Little Women. We visited the homes of Mark

Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw that they lived

just across a lawn from each other, and learned of the salons in Mark Twain’s parlor

where intellectuals shared ideas. We walked around Walden Pond. We rode bikes on

Cape Cod and, after a waiter explained how, we ate lobster in Rockport, Maine. And

we did more.

Each night, I had my daughter—who has the lovely Irish-immigrant name Molly—

write in her journal to which she added picture postcards and later photographs

once we’d returned. I wanted Molly to understand our country, its history, what it

stands for, or until recently stood for.

Did I mention that I’m also patriotic about Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movies and

that I tear up at the end of both White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life? I simply

don’t believe for a minute that that’s corny. I repudiate the concentration of income

or power or making of decisions in the hands of a few rich oligarchs. I repudiate the

erosion of the EPA and women’s rights. I repudiate the undermining of truth and the

respect for a free press. I repudiate domination by any one cultural group—be that

of white men, the banks, the oil magnates, the military, or the 1%. I repudiate the

undermining of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. I

repudiate the undermining of our system of justice and the separation of

government service and private gain.

I repudiate the sale of more military weapons to other countries, and applaud the

selling of democratic ideals to other countries—something we can only do if we

return to a form of government that represents those ideas here at home. An

oligarchy is not a democracy.

Dignity. I believe I understand the unmet goals and noblest ideals of this country. I

try to pass these on to others. And right now, I resist this administration because I

refuse to normalize the shredding of our Constitution, our rule of law, our goals,

ideals, our history, our aspirations, our experiment in democracy, our welcome to

the immigrant and refugee, our respect for people of all faiths and all cultural and

ethnic backgrounds. I refuse to say that these things for which this country stands

are not worth remembering and consistently, against all odds, working for. I study, I

remember, and therefore I resist.

© All text copyright 2018 by Micki Shelton