Spring 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 41-52.

Frederick G. McLeod:
      Apophatic or Kataphatic Prayer?

Understanding the underlying reality of these forms of prayer helps one select a prayer form which may best facilitate the discernment process.

Father McLeod, S.J., has a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and is associate professor of theology at St. Louis University where he teaches spirituality

"KATAPHATIC" and apophatic are strange-sounding and, I dare say for many, unfamiliar and puzzling terms. To be told that kataphatic prayer employs thoughts and images while apophatic transcends these may be somewhat illuminating. But such a distinction may strike the average person as esoteric, being beyond their own personal experience. Yet since these terms are espoused by masters in the spiritual life, many are, I suspect, at least curious as to their underlying reality. They may also wonder whether and how they are related to each other, particularly: does kataphatic prayer lead to apophatic and, if so, is apophatic the higher and more fruitful form of prayer to which all sought to aspire?

The present paper attempts to unravel these terms in a way that not only exemplifies but exposes the reality to which they speak. also intends to show how each relates to the other and to ordinary life. So that this material will be as concrete as possible, I plan to trace out how the kataphatic and apophatic approaches are employed in two classical works that epitomize the best of each. They are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (1) and the Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous Englishman(2) of the fourteenth century. I will discuss each in terms of the dynamics involved in a faith act in order to highlight and contrast both approaches.

First, let us briefly consider what is involved in a faith act. In the past, at least among Catholics, faith was stressed as a supernatural act whereby a believer accepts as true whatever the church reveals on the authority of God. Such an understanding brings out clearly and sharply the objective and ecclesial dimensions of faith. The emphasis today, however, is different. In our experiential and personalistic age, we view faith more as a personal relationship uniting Christ and a believer in a mutual commitment of covenantal love. Faith is emphasized not so much as matter for assent but as an ability to communicate and share in a certain way of life. While both outlooks touch upon authentic aspects of faith, and actually complement each other in the full reality that is faith, it is the personal experiential emphasis that is our concern here. For every authentic prayer experience of Christ is also a faith experience.

Conceived as a relational union, faith can be viewed as a gift. In a faith act, it is Christ who lovingly takes the initiative by offering the opportunity and means to enter into a spiritual relationship that cannot be achieved or merited on one's own. Because this is an offer made in love, a person is free to accept or refuse it. To accept it will involve a total commitment to oneself to do all that will please Christ and bring one closer to him. With such a surrender, a relational bond is established that is real and dynamic, though it is not always sensibly grasped or verifiable by material standards. For this bond exists on a level deeper than our conscious awareness.

Because faith is basically a union of love into which Christ and a believer freely enter, it is not a relationship that we can cause and establish on our own. Nor can any method or structure force or guarantee such an experience. Yet one's desire, method and techniques are important and necessary. For in a prayer experience, they provide a suitable attitude, language, and setting that can promote, provoke, and affect the kind of experience one will have as well as influence how one will interpret and live out the experience.

In what follows, we will highlight the kinds of faith experiences sought within the Cloud of Unknowing and the Spiritual Exercises, the methods employed to evoke such experiences and the responses sought for. We will then point out what are the apophatic and kataphatic techniques employed and what characterizes the experiences they provoke. We will conclude with a discussion of whether and how the two approaches are related to each other.


The Cloud of Unknowing is a literary masterpiece whose influence is still widely felt in our own day. It provides a clear, concise and convincing statement on what is 'apophatic' prayer and how one can enter into it. From the very beginning the author is careful to insist that his work is not meant for all people (43). One ought first to meditate on one's sins and on Christ's life and Passion (57). But for those who sense the need for a deeper experience -- provided they are purified in conscience (85) and endowed with a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of body and soul (101) -- he urges a kind of prayer where one learns to be at home in a dark cloud beyond all thoughts and images (48-49).

The author also insists that no method or technique can bring about the kind of experience that he is about to describe. While confessing that they are all ultimately useless (92), he does suggest a way that may be helpful: centering prayer. One is to choose a single word (e.g. God) (94) and then reject whatever thought, image, or feeling that may well up so as to center one's attention solely upon the reality beyond the word (104). This state is called the cloud of forgetfulness. For it blocks out every creature and creaturely activity from one's awareness and turns to confront the cloud of unknowing hovering between God and self (112).

While totally lost, as it were, in this impenetrable cloud, one awaits the stirring of a gentle but powerful movement arising out of the depths of one's being (112). This stirring is a grace given not for innocence nor withheld for sins (91). Only the person who truly experiences this prompting within one's spirit has the aptitude for contemplation and no one else (91). Though this stirring is the lightest of touches (52), it fills one with unsurpassing joy and enthusiasm. It is also blind -- in the sense that every passion seeks to fulfill its desire no matter what a person may intend.

When sensed, this stirring impels one to rise upward towards God hidden in the cloud of unknowing. One needs to surrender wholeheartedly to the spontaneous desire present in this passion and go where it leads (91). One in fact does this eagerly because such submission is felt to be what the self most fundamentally desires. One leaps to God like a spark from a flame (52), discovering that while God cannot be grasped by concepts He can be grasped by love (50).

As a person rises ecstatically within this cloud of unknowing, one is simply to let one's mind rest in the consciousness of God in His naked existence, solely loving and praising Him for what He is in Himself (54). In this state where one is taken outside oneself to live in God, one is immediately and directly experiencing one's existential relationship and union with God, being conscious of not who He is or what He is but only that He is (150). In this state of union, one becomes totally self-forgetful, yet paradoxically finding one's true self in a fuller way. For in this union one is realizing in reality what the true self on its deepest level is thirsting for (169). For the heart knows on a level beyond our conscious awareness and control for what state and for whom it has been made and when this has been attained.

Such an experience has its own value. It is good just to be with the Lord (172). But beyond this, the author sees other practical results flowing from this state that will affect the quality of one's life. It will for instance heal one's inner self (160), rooting out traces of sin and inordinate feelings (64). One will also become increasingly more interior as one lives more and more in tune with the deep solitary core of one's being. This in turn will make one more fully human (59), enabling one to be sensitive to new dimensions of beauty and potentiality and impelling one to love as Christ has loved in a truly universal way (117-18).

In the Book of Privy Counseling, the author recognizes and faces the issue of how to judge whether an ecstatic experience is truly authentic. He realizes that deception can creep in. He lays down two criteria. First, attention must be paid to the desire impelling one to forget all else and center on God's existence. The desire to spring towards God must be "a blind longing of the spirit and yet there comes with it, and lingers after it, a kind of spiritual sight which both renews the desire and increases it' (181). Secondly, there ought to be accompanying this a joyful enthusiasm welling up and persisting within the person (182). The author also adds: "if you think you have really experienced one or two of them, test yourself against the rigorous criteria of Scripture, your spiritual father, and your own conscience" (186).

The above clearly highlights what is the apophatic method and prayer experience. One seeks to reach beyond conscious awareness -- beyond thoughts and images -- and arrive at the depth of one's being, there to await the coming of the Lord. It is the Lord who stirs an irresistible passionate longing for Himself and gives this as a gift. When this occurs, one must willingly and unconditionally commit oneself wholeheartedly to this passion. This then opens up to a sense of union with God where the bond of relationship is experienced as real, passionate and fulfilling. One does not know or even care who God is or what He is. One is simply satisfied with the Lord as He exists at this moment in a relational union with oneself.


The Spiritual Exercises is a director's handbook, containing practical spiritual guidelines, particularly for a 30 day retreat. In this latter part, Ignatius provides a series of structured exercises that are set into four "weeks." Each aims at provoking at a variable period of days specific kinds of faith experiences. In my opinion, the First Week seeks to evoke an experience in which a retreatant realizes how he or she has been forgiven and saved by God's merciful love. The energy released in this experience is then channelled towards an intellectual, moral and affective conversion. The Second Week seeks through contemplative exercises to bring a retreatant to an experience in which he or she is passionately moved to know Christ more so as to love and serve Him more. It may also be a time in which one discerns through inner movements experienced in prayer whether a particular decision is the right course of action for one at this moment. The Third and Fourth Weeks aim at promoting unitive kinds of experiences in which a retreatant experiences a growing sense of oneness with Christ during his Passion and Resurrection appearances.

What is significant here are the ways that Ignatius uses reason, will, imagination, feelings and senses to provoke the above kinds of experiences and then to channel these experiences toward specific goals. In other words, his method, techniques, and goals are kataphatic. For instance, in the first prelude (a preparatory step) of the First Week, Ignatius directs a retreatant to imagine him or herself as imprisoned in his or her own body (47). Prescinding from its dualistic implications, this image can evoke strong feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Then in the second prelude, the retreatant is urged to nourish feelings of shame and confusion (48). If all these feelings can be experienced, they create an affective mood and setting ideal for promoting a faith experience in which the gratuity of God's saving love is highlighted.

In the body of the exercise, a retreatant is directed to meditate for Ignatius, to apply reason, will, and memory -- to three instances where others have been severely punished for one serious sin, while the retreatant is spared despite many (unspecified) failings (50-52). Because the rational mind cannot plumb this mystery of God's loving will, its imaginative activity can be stirred, particularly in the colloquy or concluding prayer where the retreatant is to confront Christ dying on the cross for our sins (53). This scene is a challenging one. It demands a surrender of faith. For one can only accept in loving faith what one is personally powerless to attain, unworthy to receive, and unable to understand.

If an experience does occur, the gift aspect of faith will stand out in sharp relief because of the mood and setting in which the experience has occurred. One realizes that he or she has been saved and forgiven by Christ's totally gratuitous love. In this state, Ignatius directs the retreatant not to rest in the experience but to ponder what the mind produces in response to three questions: what one has done, is doing, and ought to do (53). It is significant to note here how Ignatius keeps the retreatant on the conscious level. He is keenly interested in what the mind presents at this moment, especially as regards what ought to be done, in other words what one senses and admits to be a personal imperative in one's life at this moment. He does not say 'will be done' but 'ought to be done.' At this point, he wants a retreatant to affirm what he or she will do but what he or she intellectually sees as the direction that his other life needs to move in order to be true to oneself. Ignatius, in brief, is challenging a retreatant to face and make an intellectual conversion. Whatever the mind presents will of course have to be tested and discerned to be sure that one's deepest creative self is in agreement. But this exercise shows how important kataphatic prayer is for a conversion experience.

In the second exercise, Ignatius calls for the same emotional setting. In an affective climate of powerlessness and sorrow, the retreatant ponders in detail one's sins and their malice and then contrasts one's self with all others, the created world and God (56-59). In this state where one's sense of sinfulness and creaturely insignificance will be overwhelming, the retreatant then observes how the angels, saints, and created world continue lovingly to serve and care for him or her (60). This setting challenges one to a faith surrender -- to accept what is not deserved and cannot be understood. If a faith experience does occur, one will sense an at-one-ment with the angels and saints, creation, and God. Then in the colloquy, one is directed to thank God and resolve to amend one's life (61). By this latter directive, Ignatius wants, I believe, to channel the passion and energy released in the faith experience towards implementing what one has admitted in the previous exercise ought truly to be done. In other words, this exercise seeks to promote a moral conversion.

The third exercise is a repetition of the previous two, but with special emphasis placed upon those thoughts and feelings prominent in the earlier periods. Ignatius wants to use these latter as a 'way to plumb more deeply into the inner self and to surface what .one may be sensing as personally important. He also has, I believe, another major goal. This is found in the triple colloquy at the end of the exercise where Ignatius seeks to foster abhorrence for one's sins, their roots and those external forces inciting or inclining one to sin (63). If an experience does take place, he wants at this point to channel the released energy and feelings against whatever hinders or blocks a closer union with Christ. He wants in particular to nourish negative feelings that can condition one's future response and so act as a deterrent against internal or external temptations. As I see it, Ignatius is thus rounding out the earlier intellectual and moral conversions by extending conversion to the affective level.

The fifth exercise is a meditation in which one imagines what someone (not oneself) sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches in hell (65). Here Ignatius is seeking to bring one's sense life into the prayer experience, making it thereby a more fully personal act. Because of its fear-inspiring subject matter, this exercise usually stirs a deep and powerful emotional response. Ignatius wants it to provoke a faith experience in which one thanks God for being mercifully spared. He also wants to generate feelings of fear that can condition one's future response to sin, for as he says in the prelude: "if because of my faults I forget the love of the eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishments will keep me from falling into sin" (65).

The Second Week is structured to evoke an experience in which one seeks"an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely' (104). Towards this aim, Ignatius allots twelve days, though this number can be flexibly adapted (162). Except for the meditations of the Fourth Day, all others are contemplations, i.e., exercises in which a retreatant employs his or her imagination in an attempt to become an active participant in a Gospel mystery. When one switches from the mind's rational to imaginative activity, a person is in a receptive mood for acquiring knowledge. In such a state, since the person is open to the whole scene, he or she is truly able to see more than when the rational mind is focusing on one point. Also by permitting his or her imagination to function on its own, a person allows deeper issues and feelings to surface and can sometimes come into contact with his or her creative drive for personal fulfillment through the images produced.

For the first three days of this Week, Ignatius chooses Gospel mysteries in which Jesus, Mary and the angel are all pictured as fulfilling God's will, even when this involves profound personal suffering. If a retreatant is able, through his or her imagination, to become involved in what the Gospel participants are saying and doing, he or she will doubtlessly become aware of how totally and unconditionally committed he or she is in his or her love for God. Then as one shares personal thoughts and feelings with Christ in the colloquies and repetitions, one's way of acting will impress itself on one's mindset and at least be assented to as the right course of action.

Then on the Fourth Day, Ignatius switches from contemplations to meditations, from the use of the imagination to that of reason, will, and memory. Ignatius does this, I believe, because he wants to put the retreatant in a position where he or she has to own what has been assented to or appropriated in the previous exercises. In other words, he is challenging the retreatant to confront how far he or she is willing to use his or her freedom to make a total unconditional commitment to whatever God may permit, even if this means actual poverty and persecution (147). If one can make such a total self-commitment, it will likely spark a faith experience.

At this point, the course of the retreat depends on whether the retreatant is facing a major life decision. If not, one simply continues to deepen his or her personal knowledge of who Christ is and how he acts. But if one is to make a decision on matter that is good (or indifferent), not forbidden by the church and implementable (170-73), then the contemplations can become times for discernment. From the fifth day on, one continues to contemplate Christ in various Gospel mysteries. Though the retreatant's attention is centered on Christ and the desire is primarily to deepen one's relationship with Him, the decision one is wrestling with will almost certainly intrude into one's consciousness during the prayer periods. Ignatius is especially concerned about the insights, feelings and images arising during this time. They can sometimes provide the ingredients for discerning whether a proposed decision ought to be made. Because this is difficult to determine, Ignatius wisely provides several days to test out these reactions. He would be looking above all for a deep lasting peace that is accompanied by a clarity of vision and an ease of resolve.(3)

Throughout the Third and Fourth Weeks, Ignatius continues to employ contemplations, but with a different focus and purpose than in the Second Week. Besides seeking to deepen one's personal knowledge of and relationship with Christ, the present exercises aim, I believe, at evoking an experience of being at-one- with-Christ in his passion and glory. In the Third Week, one desires to feel sorrow, compassion and shame "because the Lord is going to his suffering for my sins;" (193) and in the Fourth Week "to be glad and rejoice intensely because of the great joy and the glory of the Lord" (221). To be able not only to imagine what Christ may be thinking, saying, feeling and desiring but to feel for and with him and by sharing this in a dialogic prayer, one will develop a sense of personal union with Christ. Admittedly this may be happening only on the feeling level but it does give a solid basis for realizing in a sensible way one's faith relationship with Christ. These feelings of compassion and empathy may also of course be a symbolic indication of a deeper spiritual bond uniting oneself with Christ. While this kind of contemplative prayer may lead one to a mystical or apophatic sense of union with Christ beyond the sensible, Ignatius seems intent on keeping a retreatant on the kataphatic level where he or she is able to share with Christ in a sensible way.

Ignatius, therefore, uses kataphatic prayer in a threefold way. First, he employs it not only to provoke faith experiences but to specify the kind of experience. By carefully building up an affective setting and mood and presenting appropriate material, he influences the form that an experience will take. Secondly, when an experience does occur, he wants a person to stay with the thoughts, images and feelings and to share them with Christ. This helps to develop and deepen one's relationship with Christ. Thirdly, he sees that kataphatic prayer can aid a person in knowing how to live out what has been experienced. One's imagination can sometimes produce an image of how an impulse for conversion ought to be implemented in one's life, while one's feelings can sometimes authenticate a decision -- provided they are reflecting the aspirations of one's deepest creative self. KATAPHATIC/APOPHATIC RELATIONSHIPS From what has been presented, I believe that the Ignatian Exercises and the Cloud of Unknowing clearly and sharply highlight how the kataphatic and apophatic approaches differ and relate to each other. As evidenced by the results these classics have had in the lives of believers, both are marvelous, instrumental ways to provoke faith experiences of the Lord. They differ in their methods and techniques as well as in the kinds of experience that each seeks and in their directives on how to respond to the experience.

As the author of the Cloud insists, meditative prayer, including the Ignatian contemplation, is good and valuable. But for some, the Lord may be calling them to a deeper mystical union with himself. The author suggests an emptying technique that enables one to center one's attention solely on God as an ideal preparation and setting for this. Ignatius, on the other hand, finds that kataphatic techniques, employing reasoning, imagining and affectivity, also create sensible situations that can stimulate faith experiences.

As experiences, the kataphatic and apophatic are neatly distinguishable. In the apophatic, one is totally forgetful of oneself with one's attention rivetted solely on the Lord's existence. For Ignatius, the experience is a time when one ought not only to be conscious of who the Lord is but to communicate with Him by sharing one's thoughts and feelings. Ignatius is keenly aware that love impels one to learn more about a loved one and that a love -- and therefore a faith-relationship grows through intimate verbal communication, i.e. through kataphatic prayer.

Ignatius and the author also differ as regards their instructions on how to react to a faith experience. For the author, one is simply to praise the Lord and remain joyfully and enthusiastically in his love. This will have practical but general effects afterwards in one's life, such as healing of oneself as well as enabling one to be more sensitive to right responses and more motivated to live out one's life with goodness. Ignatius, however, wants a retreatant to be aware of one's thoughts, images and feelings during an experience. For they may be indicative, over a period of time, of what one ought concretely and specifically to do towards personal conversion and whether a life decision is personally congruent. Ignatius is careful in this assessment. For he is fully aware of how one may have an authentic faith experience but end up misinterpreting it. Though cautious, he nevertheless values the role kataphatic prayer can play in the discernment process.

In regard to how kataphatic and apophatic are related to each other, they are in a sense complementary or perhaps better described as being at opposite ends of the same prayer spectrum. They aim at producing different kinds of faith experiences: apophatic at provoking an experience of union with the Lord beyond conscious awareness, and kataphatic at evoking experiences of God's merciful and salvific love in which one is aware of a dynamic movement towards conversion as well as aiming at intimate experiences in which one seeks to know more who Christ is so as to be able to love and serve Him more and in which one sensibly feels an at-one-ment with Him. As is evident, kataphatic prayer does not necessarily lead to apophatic prayer or vice versa. But by choosing one method over the other, a person will influence the kind of experience that will result.

Since both experiences are faith experiences, all the essential elements of faith are present, but not always in conscious awareness. Thus in a kataphatic experience a person may not be aware of the relational bond between oneself and Christ as would occur in an apophatic experience. Nor would one, in an apophatic experience, be conscious at that moment of a dynamic thrust towards conversion. What this means, I believe, is that neither experience is of itself necessarily of higher value. Faith is simply being experienced in different ways and on different levels as the Lord calls an individual. What is significant is the extent and intensity one surrenders to God's loving will in apophatic or kataphatic prayer.

In conclusion, kataphatic and apophatic refer to different techniques for evoking faith experiences and occur on different levels of human consciousness. Neither is to be considered in general as superior and more efficacious than the other. Much depends on how the Lord calls one and on what kind of experience one is looking for. What really counts is whether one encounters the Lord in a prayer experience -- not that the prayer is apophatic or kataphatic!

  1. Louis J. Puhl, S.J. (ed.), The Spiritual Exercises Of Saint Ignatius (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951). All subsequent references to the Exercises will be made in the text and refer to the paragraph numbers common to all modern editions.
  2. William Johnston (ed.), The Cloud Of Unknowing and The Book Of Privy Counseling (New York: Image Books, 1973). As above, all references will be made in the text and refer to the page number of this edition.
  3. Cf. Jules J. Toner, S.J., A Commentary On St. Ignatius' Rules For The Discernment of Spirits (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1982), pp. 69-70.