Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Via Negativa: The Way of Unknowing

At an obscure used bookshop last week I picked up a used volume of poetry by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and pastor. The bookstore owner, Clive, sold it to me for $2.50.

[I would have thought that any bookstore owner named "Clive" would have valued Welsh poetry at more than $2.50! But then, who am I to tell Clive how to price his Welsh poets?]

Thomas has a poem in the book in which he writes about the via negativa. In the Christian contemplative tradition, via negativa carries several nuanced meanings. It represents "the way of letting go" or "the way of negation," that is, it suggests that the way we move on in the spiritual life is not by accumulating more and more knowledge or spiritual goodies, but rather by letting go, surrendering and releasing. It speaks to a spirituality of subtraction, not addition. We slowly drop what is false and illusory, revealing the truth of God that is at our soul's core.

The via negativa also suggests that the way onward in the spiritual life is the way of not knowing. It affirms silences and movement without knowing the destination. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul are two classics texts on the via negativa.

Thomas wrote:

"Why no! I never thought other than
That God is . . . the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find."

[R. S. Thomas, Later Poems, p. 23]

His words had me considering my own experience of letting go, abandonment, and the Great Silences of life. My own experience of God has been more significantly shaped by the periods of emptiness and unknowing than by the things I'm sure of and willing to fight others over. My own faith is not so much about getting everything right and having all the correct answers, as about living faithfully in the mystery of the unknown, allowing myself to be shaped by the emptiness, and staying faithful to the path even when I have no idea where I am being led.

So last week I wrote this poem . . . my poem . . . inspired by the vulnerability and eloquence of R. S. Thomas (with thanks to Clive!):

Via Negativa
after R. S. Thomas

In the sorrow
and maybe, too,
in the pain
There is the Great Absence
You are --
not in --
the Void
that arrests my cry

I have not always
thought so
and cannot pretend
to such heights -- or
depths -- of

So seldom now, though,
can I boldly
pronounce my
know the Presence
fully realize
the Promise

In the emptiness
I know
mostly when the
lights go out
in darkness
I know.

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