The other day as I strolled past St Albans on Beaufort St I noticed this graffiti on one of those trendy and witty (?) Church signs which, I guess are an attempt to make people feel the Church is hip enough to consider attending.
It made me laugh like a loon. The artist was obviously trying to make an atheistic point. He (or she) however, was probably unaware of the deep strain of Christian Apophatic theology which indeed posits a non-existence of God. In fact “God” is revealing to us all the time that she does not exist in any sense we can conceive of. It was so funny… 🙂
I discovered apophatic mysticism after reading the Cloud of Unknowing as a teenager. I was already ingesting St Bob, Vedanta, Buddhism, the Golden Dawn and other weird stuff. Drugs would have been much cheaper. The Cloud of Unknowing struck me deep and has in many ways stuck.
Over Christmas I dived into the archives searching for some Christ-Compassion notes I know are there somewhere (I am the world’s worst librarian). I came across some early teaching notes on the Qabalah. At the ridiculous age of 23 I was asked to teach our group, the original leader leaving suddenly to follow his sex drive all the way to divorce (and later criminal) court. In the notes I made fumbling attempts to explain the Ayn in terms of apophasis, as I misunderstood it back then. I concluded that in our spiritual paths we have Nothing to gain, and if we consider the Nothing an achievement or goal we have once more forfeited our right for Illumination. There is Nothing, was Nothing and always shall be and not-be, Nothing.
These days I would (I hope) say it a bit better, but the essence of the mystery is there. Apophatic theology is sometimes described in limited terms as a theology of negation, unlike kataphatic theology where God is described in terms of attributes. So God is declared as not wise, not good, not omnipresent, as each description would limit God. Eventually and crucially this process of negation leads us to a complete reversal of previously held mental conceptions and we realize that however we perceive the divine is wrong or incomplete.
We realize that any concept of God or the One or the divine we hold cannot exist “really” as it is incomplete, and “God” is complete. No matter how we attempt to hold onto God, he moves away from us. We are then left with an empty space where our previous conceptions were, which can now be filled with God. Though as soon as we do, we limit and must again enter the unknowing. And so it goes on.
Once, which as incarnate creatures is a hard and ongoing journey, we accept we can never know, we realize God does not exist in any sense we know of. He never has existed. And we cannot say God is not, without denying that also. Even the conception or words “God is not” or even our holding of deep experiences of meditation on the Ayn, are all limited and all fail. We cannot say or not say at all. T.S. Eliot’s later and longer poems are some of the best examples of saying what cannot be said in this regard.
In the Golden Dawn there are few overt examples of apophatic mysticism, though it is definitely there thanks to the presence of Qabalah, Christianity and the Rosicrucian currents. It is subtly present in that outwardly busy and very full initiatory text, the Chemical Wedding, which is utilized greatly in the higher grades of the Inner Order. It is there in the Qabalah. It is occasionally there in the way the Grade ceremony Godforms interact with each other on the temple floor.
An appreciation of apophatic mysticism is also helps in understanding a crucial point on the Golden Dawn (and all esoteric traditions) which I have raised before and will cut and paste here:
“All esoteric paths and systems are worthless in themselves, the GD included. They can only point us to the One, and at worse they lock us, often unconsciously into a system of practice that feels good but ultimately produces no transformation. Most esoteric paths, the GD included, are predicated on a two value premise and a ‘promise’ to move between the two: ourselves now, ourselves later (enlightened, transformed, healed, more in tune etc.) and the practices/initiations that move us between the two.
The danger in such a view is that it can become a closed loop. The person I ‘am’ now can never be the person I foresee at the ‘end’ of the process, since my definitions have already separated the ‘I’ now and ‘I’ desired. The gap between the two, while impossible for ‘me’ to bridge, is the spiritual practice and while I engage in that I have the sense of moving forward. Of course ‘I’ can never actually reach the goal, but simply having this mental structure and doing some practice I will experience the sense of moving ahead.
Any tradition that has a well developed ‘path’ between the two ‘I’s will naturally draw people, as we all like to see how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’. The Golden Dawn thus is very attractive with its clearly mapped out path of transformation and rituals/practices at each stage of the way. Ultimately of course, most GD people (like most esoteric students) don’t really transform in any deep way at all – as amply demonstrated by the lives of both historical and contemporary GD magicians.
What makes an esoteric path effective, what makes it actually able to lead us to the One is death. The ‘I’ now cannot become the ‘I’ we desire, so we must die. Effective esoteric paths shake us all the time; they invite us to die continually and completely. It is up us to choose death or not.”
Death is the ultimate unknown and entering the unknown sparks intimations of death. This is why initiation procedures are best left unknown to the candidate. This is why we like to know things – it makes us feel alive. Yet to fully benefit from any esoteric path we need to unknow, or it will leave us in a closed loop as described above, thinking we are getting somewhere simply because our mental state is programmed to believe this if we are doing things in a before-and-after closed system
Over the years I have had the privilege of being a member of many esoteric groups and helped start several. I have as yet been unable to design a structure that embodies the apophatic paradigm and the points above so that students feel it and get it early on. No matter how I try, people still think there are things to gain, things to know and “God” can be found. Maybe it is only in Inner Orders like the RR et AC where we can expect these mysteries to be permeated through the structure and paradigms of the Order itself? After all, traditional RR et AC colleges hardly exist in the conventional sense at all. This is one reason why the Fama only calls for a yearly meeting – so that the Body of Christ becomes the still central point that is everywhere, and the members that encircle him, the circumference that is nowhere.