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Via Negativa

This is the second week on our series based on Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, and the four paths in creation spirituality for experiencing God. Creation spirituality calls us to deconstruct the fall/redemption theology of traditional Christianity which focuses on human sin and the need for redemption, and to reconstruct a theology in which God is good, and God’s creation (including us) is inherently good.

The first path was the Via Positiva, the path of affirmation, thanksgiving and ecstasy (see last week's blog if you want to know more). But if we were to believe that we could only find God in these seemingly “good” things, the things of joy and nature and light, then what would happen when we experienced time of darkness, pain, suffering and difficulty? Perhaps we'd believe that we were deserted by God during these times. Or we might try to deny or hide or run from these things. We might even believe that we were being punished in some way by God

But as Psalm 139 says, there is no where we can run where God is not. So, also, there is nothing we can experience that God is not in the midst of. Please hear me… I am NOT saying that God causes pain, suffering, or difficult times, I am saying that God is there WITH US!

God is with us when we fail and make mistakes. God is with us when we lose someone dear to us. God is with us when we get divorced, or have abortions, or do drugs, or end up in jail. God is with us when we hurt someone else or get hurt. God is with us when we are rejected, depressed, afraid, and angry. God is with us when we swear and throw things and drink until we forget. God is with us when we suffer with pain and illness. God is with us when we die.

Matthew Fox says that the commandment of the Via Negativa is “Thou shalt dare the dark.” Every spiritual path I respect says that we have to brave the depths of our very selves to get past the superficialities in life and begin to develop a true relationship with our souls and the divine. We have to enter the dark to discover that we are more than the dark, more than the pain, more than the fear or anger or hurt or whatever.

The Via Positiva is good and wonderful and life-giving and absolutely necessary. But the Via Negativa is where our growth happens.

Caron Butler, the former basketball star who will be an NBC Sports TV analyst in the upcoming season, is living his second chance at life.  In an interview with Oprah years ago he shared how rough his first chance at life was.  He actually grew up on the streets of Racine – he was involved in gangs, saw people beaten and murdered.  He saw things that no one should ever see in their lifetime.  He saw others getting hurt or getting arrested and believed he was too smart for it to ever happen to him.  But he was arrested 15 times.  The last time they arrested him at school for carrying a handgun and selling cocaine.  This time he was taken to a juvenile detention center – prison, for all practical purposes.

Oddly enough it was there on the prison yard basketball court that he discovered his passion for playing – it came in the midst of getting out his anger and frustration.  But the turning point for him was when he was put in solitary confinement for two weeks.  Solitary confinement was a 7x12 room where 23 hours of each day were spent in darkness.  Food was pushed through a slot in the door.  It is the ultimate form of “I want you to think about what you’ve done.”  Oprah called it a “little come to Jesus meeting.”  Anyway, that time in the darkness confronting himself was the turning point.  He vowed he would straighten his life out.  He wrote his mother long letters about how sorry he was and how he would never give her cause to worry again.  The darkness gave birth to a new person.

In the interview he said that now he gave thanks to God for having gone through the situation because he went from having a really big head and believing that he was untouchable to being humbled.  When he got out he finished high school (not here in Racine), went to college and eventually realized his dream of being an NBA starting forward.  Now he talks to kids about having a second chance, about turning their lives around, about having hope.

It took the darkness for Caron to realize that he was more than his pain, more than a drug dealer, more than a gang member or a prisoner.

There is another key piece to Caron Butler’s story… silence. But the silence of the Via Negativa is more than simply the absence of noise and words. Fox says, “Silence means the letting go of all images – whether oral ones or auditory ones or visual ones or inner ones or cognitive ones or imaginative ones.” It is letting go of all we ever thought we knew, every expectation we have, every concept, perception, image. Sometimes this letting go will enable us to release things that hold us captive and to begin again like Caron was able to do. In other situations we need to learn to let be instead of letting go.

For a moment imagine that a piece of paper is something you are struggling with – job loss, loss of ability, death of a loved one, illness, hurt. Crumple the paper and hold in your hand upside down. This is often the state we find ourselves in… it takes energy to hold that paper in your hand. We don’t like what that paper is and so there is resistance, yet clenching. We often hear people say “let it go.” Like we should be able to just chuck that piece of paper, but there are many situations where you can’t just chuck it – a relationship you have to deal with, a work conflict, a chronic illness. You can try to throw away the paper, but it’s like throwing into the wind and it will be blown right back. So, there is an alternative. Instead of chucking it or clenching it so hard, turn your hand over with your palm facing upward and open your hand. This metaphoric action creates space around the difficult situation, lowers the resistance, and changes how it affects you. This is letting it be versus letting it go. By letting something be you can look at an event or a feeling as if you were holding it in your open hand, palm facing up. You don’t have to resist it, and you don’t have to get rid of it. You can simply be with it and perhaps develop a healthier relationship with it.

Dare the dark. Brave the recesses of your own soul. Look beneath the superficialities of life to find your true self and the divine that dwells within. Do not be afraid of the dark, of letting go or letting be. For it is this darkness which will lead us to the next path… the Via Creativa.