I am sitting at my desk today feeling buffeted by Friday’s inauguration and Saturday’s marches. Opposing words, opposing visions, opposing passions. I am aware that, while I have a clear preference, my reality does not align completely with any of these.
I am drawn to memories of a bible study group I helped lead at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility a week or two ago. We watched a video clip on “God” from the (excellent!) DVD, Animate Faith. In the clip, the speaker introduced the concepts of the kataphatic and apophatic traditions, unfamiliar words for this group. In the kataphatic tradition, words used to describe God have real meaning. When we say God is like a rock, or a shield, or living water, or fire, or a father, or a king, those words have some accuracy or meaning in describing God. In the apophatic tradition, words are useless in describing God. In this tradition, for any word used to describe God, its opposite is also true. So, while God is the Lord of Hosts, or Armies, God, in the person of Jesus is also humble, a sacrificial lamb, and the one who pours himself out on our behalf. The strong, immovable “rock” God is also a fluid, changeable “water” or “fire” God. The “forgiving and merciful” God is also a “judging and avenging” God. In the apophatic tradition, our contemplation of God reduces us to an awed silence and the acknowledgement that God is completely beyond our human language.
Kataphatic descriptions of our county, of our values, and of who we are as individuals have pounded our ears for many months now, culminating in the political pageantry of the last few days. Are we a nation that is harmed or strengthened by immigration? By free trade? By the Affordable Care Act? By actions to limit climate change? By our investments in the health and stability of other countries? By technological change? By the current composition of our military forces? These are only a few of the categories in which we are asked to place ourselves. These are only a few of the definitions we are asked to apply to ourselves. And, like descriptions of God, they all seem to be both right and wrong.
On the march yesterday, I saw signs that lifted my spirit; and I saw others that made me cringe. In President Trump’s flood of tweets I find much to deplore and some statements that give me hope. Where and how do I find myself in this world where we are all expected to take sides? How do I decide, as a citizen, what political actions to take, which efforts to endorse and which to oppose?
For me, this is where the apophatic tradition asserts its value. It is in wordless prayer, it is in a contemplative and restorative silent listening, that I contact again my deepest self – that self that is most connected to God. Like God, in whose image I am created, I am too complex to be defined by a word or a slogan, by a movement or a political party. But also like God, my words, my thoughts, and my actions and inactions have consequences; to declare myself above or beyond politics is to deny and ignore those consequences. It is in that listening prayer that I find some answers for my political self. I will march; I will not shout “Dump Trump.” I will urge my members of Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act; I do not have a clear position on free trade. I want our efforts to limit climate change to include assistance for the poor and middle class who may be financially harmed.
In the bible study class we agreed that we needed a tradition “sandwich,” and I find myself relying on that now. Being human, I take in ideas and possibilities using words; and on the other side, I require words to insert pieces of myself back into the public discussion – as I am doing here. But in the center, the “meat” of the sandwich, I am reduced to silence – the silence of awe and confusion, of worry and dreams, of searching and listening – until some small piece of what I hope is God-given clarity emerges.
I need a lot of that silence these days. I hope you can find it, too.
Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.