Apophatic or Kataphitic? How should we meditate?

Not often I use strange words like those Apophatic and Kataphitic, but lately I’ve been musing, pondering and indeed meditating, on the nature of meditation, and in specific the nature of Christian meditation, and what forms it might rightly take.

There are basically two schools of meditative practise in the Christian tradition, the Apophatic school, which work on the ‘beyond words, thoughts, feelings etc’ way of meditating, which in many ways draws upon the Eastern traditions, or at least is closely aligned in terms of its use of repeated phrases – known in other traditions as Mantras.This form of meditation is also most closely aligned with what you might describe as secular meditation, including types of TM, which also draw on Eastern philosophies.

The other way is the Kataphitic way, which is a way of meditating which involves or specifically includes the mind, the imagination, and the senses. This may lead on from a reading or memorised piece of text, or may be guided by a teacher.

I have used both of these kinds of meditation, and can see the positive benefits of both. My wondering is whether the first can be called authentically Christian, or whether despite its association with other religions and practises, the focus of the individual is what transforms it to being a Christian practise. If that is the case though, where does such ‘redemptive’ thinking stop? Can one claim any spiritual practise is Christian in such a way? While I have attempted it, and found no personal harm in it, I do find myself troubled by the ’emptying of the mind’ nature of Apophatic meditation, which seems to allow no opportunity for the mind to interact in some way with the Divine. The late John Main a Benedictine brother who taught a kind of Mantra meditation repeatedly instructs us to keep saying the Mantra – keep saying it.

I recognise that there is real value to be found here, and I think that Main’s claims of the ‘spiritual poverty’ of the Mantra as being of implicit value are powerful, but still I find myself confused as to whether we can see this as being explicitly Christian.

The Jesus Prayer, which I have used also, and which I noted recently that a new film is to cover, seems like a middle ground between these two forms, but I’m not usually one for middle ground (not that we should discount the Jesus Prayer on that score, not at all).

I guess that, unless you lovely readers can provide good and coherent arguments to the contrary, my final opinion for now is that there is value in both, but on the whole one should take the Kataphitic as a starting point, perhaps Lectio Divina, or an Ignation form of visualisation, and immerse onesself in that, before (if appropriate) moving on to an Apophatic form of meditating at relevant times.

Again, sorry for (very) obscure (very) religious jargon, would be interested to hear your thoughts.


4 thoughts on “Apophatic or Kataphitic? How should we meditate?

  1. I don’t see why a spiritual discipline that people find helpful needs to have a specifically Christian character. Sure, it shouldn’t have a specifically anti-christian character, but at the end of the day humans over the centuries have found that a variety of things help them to relate to the less material aspects of existence, just because you disagree on exactly what those aspects are like doesn’t mean that similar techniques won’t help you.

    I don’t see anything about fasting that gives it an inherently Christian character. It seems very biological and mechanical, yet people give it meaning and find it helps them. I think that the kinds of things we do with our minds in meditation are probably more biological and mechanical than we credit, yet they can be meaningful and helpful in the same way that fasting can.

    1. I dont particularly disagree with your statement, and as I have made clear, I have practised these different types of meditation myself, and recognise their benefits.
      However, given my personal belief that meditation has a spiritual AS WELL AS a physical/chemical/biological dimension, I am interested in exploring the question of how these forms fit within a belief system.
      Moreover, and this is something I havent touched on in the blog, I think that as well as having real benefits, the Apophatic forms of meditation can have significant dangers for those who are (for instance) suffering with certain mental illnesses – just as (incidentally) certain practises within the charismatic traditions can. So its these things I am wondering about.

  2. > meditation has a spiritual AS WELL AS a physical/chemical/biological dimension,

    As does fasting, but not inherently. It has a spiritual dimension because we are spiritual beings and what we do with our bodies affects our spirits. Whether being deprived of food is spiritual or not depends on the reason for it and the attitude of the heart.

    According to Romans, true, spiritual worship is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. Which again, is all about giving physical, mundane acts meaning through why and for whom we do them.

    > I think that as well as having real benefits, the Apophatic forms of meditation can have significant dangers for those who are (for instance) suffering with certain mental illnesses

    That’s an interesting point. I suppose again, I’d make a comparison with fasting. For some people fasting is just not healthy, and so they should avoid it. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people for whom it is useful should avoid it.

    1. I love having these discussions with you, I wish we lived nearer one another again.
      I suppose I am wondering about it in the wider context, as you are – for instance, if we take self mutilation into account, some religious adherents find that helpful to them in their spiritual walk.
      Now I would say on a physical and spiritual level its an ill advised thing to do, but you could find reasoning for it (and practise of it) in the Christian traditions… Would that make it something acceptable for a Christian to practise?
      Just for the record, although I do practise and advocate fasting and meditation, I dont practise or advocate self mutilation… except accidental self mutilation caused via falling off stuff (bikes, skateboards, walls etc) which I practise, but still dont particularly advocate.

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