Published in Church and Life (1823) No 15  28.9.2011 – 19.10.2011 Pg 2

Amongst the early Christian communities the phrase that was most commonly used to distinguish the new Faith from that of the Old Covenant was, ‘The Way’. We see the term ‘The Way’ first used in the Didache (known also as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), a piece said to have been written about a century after the Resurrection of Christ.

 In essence the Didache represents almost a charter of Christian identity, informing the reader as to what is the essence of the New Covenant. Here lie the teachings of the Christian Faith in simultaneously their most simple and most profound form. The work opens with the passage: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death: and great is the difference between the two ways. The way of life is this: first, you shall love God, who created you; second, your neighbour as yourself. Whatever you would not wish to be done to you, do not do to another. The teaching of these words is this. Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies: fast for those who persecute you. For what kindness is it, if you love those who love you? Do not even the pagans do this? Love those who hate you, and you will not have an enemy.” (Jurgens, 1970, p. 1).

Making the correct choice between good and evil, and thus between life and death, sets the pilgrim on his or her ‘way‘ to God. Thus early Christianity emphasized a notion of a change in the manner in which the individual lived their life, rather than what was to become later as a membership, perhaps very nominal to say the least, in a religion. Ironically enough, the institutionalization of Christianity that occurred after the adoption of the new Faith by Emperor Constantine, secured the welfare of Christians in the Roman Empire, but also resulted, in time, with the establishment of a State Religion. Christianity thus became at risk of losing the emphasis of a spiritual journey taken by the Faithful that had been The Way’s peculiar character under the early period of persecution.

Perhaps as a response to the acceptance of Christianity as the religious mainstream of the Empire, not a few individuals sought the solitude of the wastelands and deserts to recollect and to contemplate. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the biographer of St. Anthony of Egypt (the latter having been a leader of the Desert Fathers), writing at the time of the transition of Christianity from being the Faith of the catacombs to the religion of the ruling class, expressed poetically and poignantly the soul-centeredness of ‘The Way’ in his Letter to Marcellinus. Athanasius wrote: “And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succour available to believers – how this kind of grace exists for him – he exults and begins to give thanks to God”. (Athanasius, 1980, p. 111). What must be stressed in the passage written by St. Athanasius, is that although a person’s conscience convicts, God has the potential to restore to exultation. For Athanasius it is the mystical journey that is paramount. The individual has to purge their spirits, to seek deep within themselves, to cast from within, out, what is not of God, and to build from without, in, what is of God.

The mysterious figure known today as Pseudo-Dionysius (an individual deriving his nom de plume from the name of a disciple of St. Paul’s, a judge who converted to Christianity, cf. Acts 17: 34), living around the 5th or 6th Century, wrote a short essay, The Mystical Theology. In this piece he introduced another notion of The Way. To Pseudo-Dionysius, God cannot be understood in any other way than by negation, that is when we attempt to speak about God with certainty, we, the finite creature risk speaking incorrectly about the Infinite. In Pseudo-Dionysius’ words: The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can be either identified with it nor attributed to it.” (Pseudo-Dionysius, 1987, pp. 140 – 141). Such a ‘way’ of coming to be in relationship with God, became known as the via negativa, or the way of negation. In Greek the term for this form of mystical theology is: apophatic (the Greek word meaning, ‘to deny’). This way of mystical understanding became characteristic of Eastern Christian theology, with proponents such as St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas and St. Basil the Great championing this notion of understanding through ignorance; seeing Divinity most clearly in the shadow that the Divine casts. The influence of via negativa on the Eastern Church cannot be understated. God is capable of all in the East – because we are incapable of understanding Him. To rationalize God, amounts to near blasphemy. The Scientific Revolution and the Faith/Reason debate has never taken hold in the Christian East primarily because of a Mystical Theology based on negation. The beauty of apophatic theology is that it does not seek to explain God – but gives God the space in which to be the Pantocrator, the Almighty. It is this form of mysticism that has now become more and more popular in a western world seeking to re-discover a sense of mystery once more in life. In the Western Church, via negativa has also been expressed in the writings of the Dominican theologian, Meister Eckhart, as well as in the anonymous work, The Cloud of Unknowing, and in some of the writings of St. John of the Cross. Other western exponents of negative theology, such as Nicholas of Cusa and St. Bonaventure credit their inspiration from many Eastern Christian sources.

The converse ‘way’ of mystical journeying is known as via positiva, or cataphatic theology – this is the discussion of God through positive terms. For example, the cataphatic theologian would claim that God is good; whereas the apophatic theologian, that God is not evil. This distinction is important and not merely a matter of theological semantics. When Meister Eckhart stood and delivered his famous sermon on the theme that God is not good – he did so from an apophatic viewpoint. What Eckhart was trying to point out was that the Divine must exceed all known limitations of language, and therefore to claim that God was good, was to reduce God to mere human confines, such as: “my son is good”; “the play was good”; “wasn’t that a good piece of music?” According to Eckhart, God must be beyond goodness to be God – and therefore a God who was merely good, could not be truly God. Although Eckhart’s logic may now make sense to the audience of the 21st Century; to an un-educated audience listening to Eckhart in the vernacular, and trained to hear about God from a cataphatic viewpoint, such language amounted to scandal. To the audience: if God was not good, as Eckhart proclaimed; there was only one alternative – He must be evil. Eckhart the apophatic theologian was condemned, not over a theological error in this case – but over a difference in looking at the same ‘good’ God, in like manner as a person may look at the sun directly through a protective lens, or look at the sun from the shadows the sun casts upon the ground. In any event, Eastern theologians clearly emphasize that apophatic theology can only take place after the individual first has a grasp of cataphatic theology, otherwise the individual runs the risk of being lost in Divine darkness; and the Scriptures were given to humanity exactly to prevent such a disorientation of the soul.