Spiritual Paths: Via Positiva & Via Negativa

Beverly Lanzetta Meditations, Study

The two broad categories of language mentioned in my last post—kataphatic and apophatic—are reflected in the spiritual journey. The path of affirmation or via positiva ascribes to the divine the highest attribute that one can conceive. Thus, if love is the highest form of expression, the seeker finds meaning following the way of love as a spiritual path. For example, bhakti mystics of India, and Sufi mystics, such as Rumi, express in their poetry the profound devotion, overwhelming affectivity, and ecstatic love the soul has for God.

Espousal prayer, prayers of thanksgiving, gratitude, and so forth, are other examples of via positiva, placing God before you as spouse or intimate friend. In this category is found the evocation of the Psalms, the God of pathos with whom humans argue, supplicate, struggle, yearn, and groan. Psalm 38: “I am utterly spent and crushed. I groan because of the tumult of my heart. Lord, all my longing is known to thee. My sighing is not hidden.”

The mysticism of nature, whereby one contemplates the divine in creation, is another type of affirmative path. Here, through the spirituality of matter, one internalizes and ascends to higher states of consciousness. At times the awe one feels in nature consumes all traces of self and initiates an all-pervading state of belonging to creation, of participating in the unity of life.

At some point, via positiva is overcome by silence, by via negativa, the apophatic or negative path, which is often depicted in religious literature as a higher form of contemplation. The seeker enters a pathless wilderness, moving away from what can be grasped by categories and names into an unknowing where the divine is obscure and silent.

Via negativa deconstructs the foundation of thought, and disrupts the minds attempt to order reality. In Zen, the complementarity of negation and meditative practice achieves a high degree of sophistication. Although bound to language, the koan functions to deconstruct its own linguistic structure and to undermine the absoluteness in which everyday concepts are held.

Hakuin describes it well: “By pursuing a single koan the Zen disciple comes to a point where his mind is as if dead and his will as if extinguished. This state is like a wide void over a chasm and no hold remains for hand or foot. All thoughts vanish and in his bosom burn hot anxiety. Then it suddenly occurs that with the koan both body and mind break. This is the instant when the hands are realized over the abyss.”

Via negativa also can be highly intellective and speculative—the God beyond God of Meister Eckhart, Plotinus’ assent of the alone to the Alone, or the path of nada (nothing) found in St. John of the Cross. The genius of the negative or apophatic path rests on its ability to recreate the tension between saying and unsaying, emotional affectivity and detached silence. This tension uncovers the vulnerability of the self’s encounter with the radical openness of reality, revealing both sides of our natures, and suspending the ego.

Via negativa gives rise to silent meditation, centering prayer, and other forms of content-less practices. Its most important effect, however, may be its manifestation in the personality, where one is able to hold seemingly contradictory and paradoxical truth claims. It is a state of consciousness that recognizes how emptiness, letting go, and deconstruction foster new understandings of reality. And just so, each personality contains aspects of its opposite. The affirmative or affective personality corrects the excesses of the ascetic, as the silent or negative way mitigates the dangers of the overly emotional or devotional.

Thus the paths of affirmation and negation hold a significant place in the spiritual life. They remind us that every affirmative expression is but a glimpse of the enormity that defies language; in every coming to speech there is the mystery of unsaying, the letting go of speech, and a new freedom of being.