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Here be Dragons: A Cartography of Mysticism

April 9, 2012

Every time I use the words “mysticism” or “mystical” I know that I’m courting misunderstanding. These words indicate flakiness or nonsense to a lot of people. There’s good reason for that – a lot of people who use these words are using them in flaky ways to cover for views that are actually just nonsense. When someone says to me that they are mystical I tend to wait to see whether they were identifying themselves with the mystical traditions of the Church or just admitting to being a fruitcake. Because of this, it’s probably worth putting in some ground work to be able to talk about mysticism in a reasonable way.

Imagine the world as a vast, three-dimensional map of space. The star clusters represent concepts and ideas. There are two basic ways to give you directions to the star to which I want you to pay attention. One of these is the cataphatic one. In this way I simply name the star or point it out. “Star X,” I might say, or maybe, “The star three stars over from star Y with the slight bluish tint.” The apophatic way is also pretty simple, although it’s hard to make it actually work. Instead of indicating the correct star I indicate which ones are wrong. “Not stars Q through Z.” Obviously, in a well-populated area of the star map it will be very, very hard for me to use the apophatic method to direct your attention properly.

These methods also exist for things outside of our metaphorical map. I can say, “The card you picked was the ace of diamonds,” to cataphatically astound with a magic trick or I can say, “The card you picked wasn’t the two of clubs,” to be apophatically less amazing. So far apophatic methods of describing things come off sounding pretty bad. But let’s talk about areas where the cataphatic method has serious problems.

To describe something cataphatically we need a way to reference the item. It’s easiest when we actually share a really clear reference like a name. “I’m thinking of an elephant,” is nice and clear. “I’m thinking of a bdelloid rotifer,” probably isn’t. If it is it is only because you and I share an unusual level of knowledge in the correct sub-specialty. If I have to describe a bdelloid rotifer to someone who has no idea what those words mean (what those references refer to) then I have to go for other references. Perhaps, “I’m thinking of a very small animal with a ring of cilia, little hairs, at one end of its body,” would help. If we actually had some large collection of animals in front of us then that might be sufficient – if we don’t then I’m going to need to say a lot more.

At this point the apophatic might be useful. If we’ve got four animals in front of us and one of them is a bdelloid rotifer but you don’t know that name, then saying, “The one that isn’t the monkey, the parrot, or the tuna,” might be just as easy as describing the rotifer. However, we can make this much more difficult.

Imagine that I’m now not trying to direct your attention to something you have any clear reference for. I’m not trying to point out the bdelloid rotifer in the spread of animal photos; instead I’m trying to get you to see that some of the things that you think are growths on a plant are actually animals. Now I pretty much have to use the apophatic method, at least in part. “Look at that plant. Now, the thing that is on the stem but isn’t smooth and green like the rest of the stem….”

At this point what we’re really discussing is the divide between reality and language and the ability humans have to use words to talk about things for which they don’t (yet) have words.

Let’s return to our star map. If we have some massive star cluster with only a few named stars how do I point it out? I probably name the named stars to you to get your attention in the right area and then compare the target star to a few known stars. “It’s big, like star Q.” Then I just rule them out. “It’s not the one on the left of D, it’s not the one above M, and it’s not the one between J and A.”

This is essential to the fuzzy nature of mysticism. We have words for what we know and what we have experienced. For instance, we have a word “love” that refers to something we have experienced either directly or through other people’s descriptions or interactions. When we say that God is love, that’s helpful. We can attach our idea of love to God. We know something about God. Problematically, we know something wrong about God. God is certainly more like love, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and majesty than He is like hatred, corruption, harshness, fickleness, and squalor. However, He is not equivalent to what we refer to by the words love, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and majesty. Each of those words points to a concept in our heads. These concepts are formed in our world. Therefore, they are limited in comparison to what God actually is.

This is the primary reason that the Church has mystics. As God reveals Himself to people, they are less and less able to explain what they experienced clearly to others. When we all live in the same stratum of experiences it is easy enough to explain ourselves. We all have words that point to the experiences we have and so when those experiences are the same, or very close, this works just fine. But what happens when a contemplative experiences the divine in an extraordinary way? They will be left without the ability to clearly express that experience to someone else. This is where our star map comes back into play. Effectively, the mystic (or the contemplative, or some other word that doesn’t mean “nutcase” and doesn’t have connotations of other religions if you prefer) has seen a new star that is not on the map. How do they point this star out? The best they can manage cataphatically is “it is like star H” or “it is near star V”. They must use the apophatic to force their listeners to realize that they are pointing out something that is not mapped – that the map itself is incomplete.

This is where the star map analogy probably begins to collapse. When we begin to try and comprehend divine things we are attempting to understand things that lie beyond our scope of understanding. We are not merely focusing attention one way or another but attempting to expand our ability to understand. Unlike a map with discrete stars and empty space, much of our mental space is already blocked off. When a new concept arrives it may arrive in between established concepts, shoving them aside to make some space for itself. This means that when we merely focus attention on the spot in which someone else has found a new, difficult concept it is easy to merely see one of the concepts we already know. This is where the apophatic truly shines as it allows us to rule out what is currently occupying that mental space to allow room for something new to grow.

However, the primary need for the apophatic in the Christian life is to restore the mystery that underlies even the term “mystic”. God is far beyond us and while God has revealed Himself to us that does not automatically make us capable of comprehending that revelation fully. I can show a color-blind person colors but this doesn’t give them the ability to see them. In fact, were I to try and explain colors to a completely color-blind person or the difference in the way people’s voices sound to a deaf person or how a five-dimensional object works to anybody at all, I would be forced to draw upon the methods I’ve discussed in this article. I would be describing the outlines of a mystery by, in essence, sketching the continents of knowledge and saying, “Not those – somewhere out in the unknown places.” That’s the best we can do when we are confronted by something that doesn’t fit cleanly into our human brains.

The point of all of this is to let us talk plainly about what we gain by being able to sketch the edges of the unknowable. If we can point in the direction of the unknown and then rule out all the wrong ideas that populate that space then, maybe, we can approach the mysteries of God. However, to do this we need to get around the basic problem of much of our speech: that words are only references to things of which we already have some sense. When we have no sense of a thing to indicate with this sort of verbal pointer we must draw on a different toolbox. And this, of course, is why mysticism sounds so weird and nonsensical.

One route towards making mysticism less like nonsense is to combine approaches. I’ve already suggested this with the map analogy where we use named stars to narrow down the area in which to look for unnamed ones. The Church has always had mystics who use the cataphatic as a launching pad towards the unknown. Those who don’t generally don’t turn out well. A lot of modern thought treats the cataphatic and apophatic approaches as opposed. You can either know doctrine or know something inexpressible. However, they are both appropriate approaches to particular sorts of knowledge. Those who start with the inexpressible may just be too confused to give a straight answer. Those who never see anything they can’t express should be pitied.


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