Archive for March 20th, 2014

The Apophatic Blues


When I was young I did not much like the blues. I thought that they just sounded depressing, and looking back on it I was a pretty sanguine kid, idealistic, naive, sentimental, and upbeat. I did not have room for downer music.

Melancholy had not yet set in.

In spite of my relative indifference toward the blues, I actually have heard a lot of the greats, because one bored weekend in 1973 I ventured south to the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival:

Concert - Ad, Ann Arbor, Ray Charles, Ann Arbor Sun, July 12 - 19730907

The cost to hear this stunning lineup: $20.

I appreciated all the music I heard at the Festival, and especially remember Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, but I left the festival vaguely depressed. The blues gave me the blues.

But as decades passed and time brought its inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks the music began to sound more like a healing balm than the dead weight I once thought it to be. I got the blues, somewhere along the line.

Similarly, when I was a young Catholic returnee I had little use for apophatic theology, which teaches the unknowability and deep mystery of God. I preferred the sunny afternoon of the heart to the dark night of the soul, and gravitated quite naturally toward the cataphatic theology that celebrates the beauty of God, especially as manifested in creation. I was a natural Franciscan.

And I was drawn to medieval English spirituality, which was deeply affective; warm and sweet, with an emphasis on love.

I know, the English are widely characterized as emotionally cold and repressed, but this is a stereotype based more on the Victorian British aristocracy than in any true archetype in the English soul. Just think of English poetry, or the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams (one of my favorites) or Benjamin Britten or Frederick Delius: all soulful strings and swelling melodies.

Indeed, one of the most revealing things about modern DNA research is that the thesis that most British people are primarily Germanic in their heritage has been disproved. The average Englishman, modern genetic science now knows, is mostly of Celtic descent. This is a relief to me: though my father’s family is descended from an Irish Presbyterian, who emigrated to the fledgling US in 1813, nearly every other surname in that line is English. And my mother’s family is, aside from a Huguenot here and there, pure New England Calvinist, turned Wesleyan in the 19th century for sanity’s sake .

But I always felt Celtic, and assumed that something from my dad’s past had been distilled in me. But now it makes sense.

Not that all English spirituality was cataphatic; it is true that writers like Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich wrote of divine love and the beauty of God, but then there was The Cloud of Unknowing, which speaks of the darkness and obscurity of the Way. Which left me cold. And when it came to the even starker teachings of Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso? All I can say is leave it to the Germans to really obfuscate the obscure.

And sometimes the same Englishman will express both approaches. Here is poet Henry Vaughn, for example, waxing cataphatic:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
       All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
       Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
       And all her train were hurl’d.
And here is Vaughan, in an apophatic mood:
There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Vaughan wrote that latter poem later in his life. For just as time has made the blues sound sweet, so a lifetime of knocking my head against Reality, spiritually speaking, has made me warm to the unknowability of God, to the utter Mystery at the heart of all things.

To the point that I am concluding that there really is no such thing as “atheism”.

After all, if one is rejecting  a notion of “god” one is in effect rejecting a concept that falls short of something one perceives as greater and more perfect than the “god” one is rejecting. Thus, the rejected  idea of “god” cannot be God, as it is a less perfect thing, but can only be an idol, a false image of God.

I really do not think there is a human capable of denying the existence of the real  God, if God could be truly perceived as God Is (though, alas, I am pretty sure that humans can indeed reject the Path to God, freedom and disordered passions being what they are).

When I was thirty I “knew” a great deal about “God”; my religion consisted of propositional truths plus emotional responses.

I am not rejecting all propositions about God, but now I see how limited such things are, how incapable humans are of communicating anything that takes more than a baby step toward the ineffable Reality of that-which-we-call-“God”.

At sixty, I am singing the apophatic blues, holding my head above water and swimming in the dark.

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