Saturday, December 05, 2009

Apophatic spirituality expressed as via negativa

For Sunday 29 November 2009, Rev. Ken Sawyer of the First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, writes a sermon, "Going Apophatic: The Spirituality of Emptying" in which he discusses Urban T. Holmes III’s book, An Analytic History of Christian Spirituality (1980). In the sermon, Sawyer mentions,
"So I was all set to return to apophatic spirituality, and then I went to a convocation of UU ministers a few weeks ago, up in Ottawa. These happen every seven years. The theme of the week was stories, and the keynote speaker, the author Thomas Moore, stressed emptiness stories as part of his focus on the via negativa, the path of negation, which is another traditional Christian term for apophatic spirituality.

Moore is all for it. He thinks the twentieth century was all about acquisition, adding things, and it did not get us where we should go, which is deeper into our own spirituality – and the way to do that is by emptying, especially for people much given to talk (maybe like the 400 UU ministers he was addressing).

Moore offered a quote from the Gospel of Thomas: "The kingdom of God is like a woman who bought a bag of seeds that dropped out of the sack by the time she got home."
Sawyer concludes his sermon with two Zen stories, including, "The nun Chiyono studied for years but was unable to find enlightenment. One moonlight night she was carrying an old pail, filled with water. She was watching the full moon reflected in this water, when the bamboo strip that held the pailstaves broke. The pail fell all apart; the water rushed out; the moon’s reflection disappeared. And Chiyono found enlightenment.
She wrote this verse:
This way and that way
I tried to keep the pail together
Hoping the weak bamboo
Would never break.
Suddenly the bottom fell out:
No more water:
No more moon in the water:
Emptiness in my hand!
[Enlightenment.]"

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