Q. Recently, in answering a question about prayer, you used the words "apophatic" and "kataphatic." Did I miss these words back in catechism class? What do they mean? Do they refer to "centering prayer"?
A. "Centering Prayer," so popular today, is only a new name for one of the techniques for entering "apophatic" prayer.
Both words, "apophatic" and "kataphatic," are Greek derivatives, signifying two approaches to prayer. Both forms are solidly anchored in the Tradition, having their origins in the Apostolic age. Any authentic course in Spirituality (also known as Ascetical Theology or Mystical Theology) includes the study of both forms.
One helpful guide toward understanding the distinction, which I happened to learn while taking a course in a Methodist-sponsored theologate, is that "kataphatic" spirituality accents who God is, whereas "apophatic" stresses that God is. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but it does reflect the reality of the distinction.
In analyzing both approaches – or forms – it is common to use the examples of St. Ignatius Loyola's masterpiece, the Spiritual Exercises ("kataphatic") and the Cloud of Unknowing ("apophatic"), probably the work of a 14th-century English author. Not that these forms originated with the above-cited works, but that these books are well enough known by the contemporary world so as to serve as helpful examples. Seminary courses in Spirituality 101 often begin with a study of these two classics.
"Kataphatic" spirituality proceeds, Ignatian-like, step by step, in a series of structured "exercises" in a pilgrimage Godward. Reason, will, memory, imagination and emotions are employed in this process, designed to deepen one's knowledge and personal relationship with the living Lord. Indeed, this pilgrimage not only can refine meditative experience, but also result in a profound mystical union with Christ.
Apophatic prayer, on the other hand, is characterized by – in the words of one scholar, Jesuit Father Frederick G. McLeod – a person's being "totally forgetful of oneself with one's attention riveted solely on the Lord's existence."
Which leads to a discussion of "apophatic" spirituality, as concretized in the Cloud of Unknowing. This manual is often reserved to the more advanced in the spiritual life, because it can easily be misread by beginners. Father McLeod, cited above, accurately describes it as "a kind of prayer where one learns to be at home in a dark cloud beyond all thoughts and images." (See "Apophatic or Kataphatic Prayer?" in Spirituality Today, Spring 1986, pp. 41-52.) Father McLeod's description is drawn directly from the author's explanation (pp. 48-49). (There are many English versions of The Cloud of Unknowing, which are usually available in general bookstores, public libraries and academia; I have two or three versions in my personal library.)
The Tradition underlying "apophatic" prayer is often associated with Dionysius the Areopagite, a convert of St. Paul, who was present when Paul delivered his famous sermon about the Unknown God on the Hill of Mars (Areopagus) in Athens. (See Acts 17:23-34.) Since the 17th century, however, Dionysian spirituality is more accurately attributed in its source to an author called Pseudo-Dionysius, who lived later than Dionysius the Areopagite. (Dionysius translates into English as "Denis," from the intermediary French. Interestingly, St. Denis is the patron saint of France, because a third-century St. Denis became the first Bishop of Paris.)
How does the author of the Cloud explain the "apophatic" style of prayer? One suggestion, he writes, is to use "centering prayer" as a means to apophatic prayer. Father McLeod's article, referred to above, suggests that one "choose a simple word (e.g., God) and then reject whatever thought, image, or feeling that may well up so as to center ones attention solely upon the reality beyond the word. This state is called the cloud of forgetfulness. For it blocks out every creature from one's awareness and turns to confront the cloud of unknowing hovering between God and self." (Op. cit., Spirituality Today)
The bottom line, of course, is that both prayer forms are complementary; neither is better or more effective. Abbot Columba Marmion brilliantly merges the two. (See Christ, the Life of the Soul.)
One could add here that, historically, "apophatic" spirituality seems to be more emphasized in Eastern spirituality, while "kataphatic" prayer appears more usual in the Western Church.