Episode 16 – It’s Apophatic, not Apathetic, Prayer

Shownotes Episode 16 – Apophatic prayer explained in a conversation with Dr. Laurie Mellinger.


Laurie Mellinger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation and Christian Theology
Dean of Academic Programs
B.A. Millersville University; M.A.R. Evangelical School of Theology; Ph.D. The Catholic University of America

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Encountering and examining Apophatic (contemplative) Prayer

Conversation Notes

MINUTE 2:00 Apophatic not to be confused with apathetic


2 main ways of understanding God

Via Eminencia -The way of eminence

The highest of something we know as humans and elevating it. Power, strength “The most powerful”, omnipotent)

Via Negativa – The way of negation (Denying the limited or bad we can observe. God is Immortal (NOT mortal).


Katophatic (or cataphatic) vs. Apophatic Prayer

Katophatic  – What we can see and say in prayer.

Apophatic – We we cannot see and bri; and without our senses.

6:00 Meditation and how it relates to apophatic prayer

6:30 What is Lectio Divina

Reading scripture and prayer as we seek relationship with God

The four movements of this form of prayer.


Eastern vs. Western styles of Meditation

Experiencing vs. Word-driven forms


Contemplation 2 going definitions

1. To observe

2. Contemplative to look at with continued attention.


Contemplative vs. Discursive prayer


Breath prayer


Apophatic prayer as a way to pray without ceasing


Allowing God to be in every moment, even with every breath.

Laurie’s experience with the Jesus Prayer

Being carried along through pain knowing experiencing that God was with her.

Celebration of Discipline-Richard Foster


Prayer as a habit that changes you.

…Like holding hands as you walk…


What happens after the questions like: “I’m I allow to do this?”

The distractions and a flood of thoughts become the hardest part.

How to help that…

Examples: “eye floaters”, “balloons”


on being patience with yourself


Brian McClaren getting distracted and quoting from the dessert fathers.

28:30 Turning our face back to God





The discipline of being attentive to God allows us to be more present and attentive with others as well. 


People crave presence and can even be (un)used to it.


Learning how to listen. Simone Weil.



How we are over-stimulated. Children get overstimulated and need naps which means they get silence and solitude and lack of stimulation. Silence and solitude are restorative.


The demons we encounter in solitude or in the desert.


A clean and swept room, removed of clutter makes us more aware of new things that might be wrong.


New Testament Professor Douglas Buckwalter


Spiritual formation is not doing disciplines.

One kind of prayer isn’t better (per se), but God is forming and reform and transforms us back into the image of Christ. God must reform us. In God’s presence we will feel more loved and acceptance and he might put his finger on something to take care of.

Luke 11:24-26

24“When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25“And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26“Then it goes and takes alongseven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”


on…The messy interior work needed to be more like Jesus.

Letting God dig around.


Helpful and practical advice for getting started with apophatic and contemplative prayer.

Practice reading the Bible and using the text to help you pray and wait.  (Lectio Divina)

“That waiting (in prayer) is the entry into apophatic prayer.”

Breath Prayer

Centering Prayer (using a word to focus)

“Be patience with yourself. Just do it and God will meet you there”

Using a candle to bring our attention back.


Good focus is ill-fitting at first until you commit to the process.

Leonard Sweet

(paraphrase) “If you are still counting the steps, you aren’t dancing yet. You are still learning to dance.”


Prayer can become flow.


Union with God – The traditional understand of the goal of apophatic prayer.


God invites us corporately and individually as human beings into that (triune) relational and our participation in that relationship is what I mean by union with God.”

Sensing the presence and love of God more fully, and more and more fully. This is union with God.


Western goal in Christianity is often understand (first) as Salvation in terms of Penal Atonement and payment for sin. It is a more judicial angle compared to what Eastern Christians do. It’s much more about relationship restored.

Something about a Labyrinth and Surprises


This time the weather was the coldest I’ve ever experienced in Wernersville. Until now, my times of retreat at the Spiritual Retreat Center were during Spring or Summer.

Stripped of leaves, color, and warm weather, the place seems monochromatic outdoors, but is still restful and precious to me. There are many prayer room options, a beautiful chapel, plus rooms for things like creating art, music, reading, or for meeting with others. Each place seems to wait for your arrival. Anyone can go there for the day without notice. I love that about it. That’s true hospitality. You are always received and welcome. You don’t need to be Catholic either. God is there in a special way and it’s a sacred place created solely for the purpose of divine communion and renewal. To me, that sounds just like Heaven.

Unless you get run over by a jet-powered lawn mower, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Center has recently added a prayer labyrinth (shown above). Many people aren’t familiar with labyrinths–their purpose or their gifts. They create the opportunity for reflection and spiritual awareness. Some (Evangelical) Christians bristle at the copious statues, candles, prayer mazes, and other unfamiliarities about a Catholic environment. I suppose I’m post-Evangelical: the richness of the Christian history and the solidifying sense of the sacred draws me toward the transcendent in a place like this. Every time in an unexpected way.

That’s what happens when you go there. You find God. You find God at the center. The center of you…in your core where he’s always been, because he’s everywhere-present and boundless in love. He’s been whispering things of love to you and smiling but you thought it was just bad pizza leftovers or something you made up to make yourself feel better.

Life is like a puzzle. A labyrinth is a puzzle. It’s a tool too. You can study a labyrinth before you walk the path through it, but while you are walking through studying it can make it far more confusing. Usually, you stop being stupid and cease trying to decipher the pattern precisely and just follow it like a child might do. This way, a labyrinth can be a lovely stilling and spiritual experience, not because of its own woo woo mystical powers (it doesn’t have that), but because it invites a traveller to concentrate and focus–to place her steps carefully. Most importantly, it forces one to slow down.

We don’t realize how fast our thoughts buzz until we get these sorts of opportunities to be careful. If you walk a labyrinth things mentally wind down and simplify to, “Stay on the path. Follow this narrow way. Pay attention.” Some enjoy walking very slowly and praying as their heart grows hushed.

Searching for the puzzle
I saw a photo of this newly constructed prayer walk inside the Center and I started to search for it outside. It was actually in plain sight but I hadn’t been looking for it, so I didn’t see it. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this true story doubles as an allegory.)

When I spotted it, a man driving a zero turn radius lawn mower was zipping and roaring around it, back and forth; expertly, but fast enough for me to wonder about his judgement. Crisp leaves shot into the air and the wind whipped them into little showers of bullets.

“That won’t work,” I said. “What am I suppose do? Have a peaceful prayer time as Zippy here shoots me with leaves and the mower engine drives me to distraction?” I crossed past the paved puzzle a small stretch to a gazebo with park benches set in a circle.

It was still noisy there, but the mower sounded duller. I would wait him out. I tried to settle my mind. Maybe I could do some warm-up praying. No. My thoughts swam. “Who’s Zippy now?” I thought.

Instead of waiting, I went on a short walk in the wood nearby over a little ridge. The path looked to have been crudely bulldozed recently and massive tree parts and 4 inch thick vines were crammed in piles. It was other-worldly–so many thickets covering whole sections like umbrellas, even though most of their foliage was missing. Surreal yellow leaves on the ground seemed day-glow bright. I felt like a zombie putting one foot in front of the other as I made my way around the wet earth and wild terrain. The humming mower served as a beacon to orient me. It was comforting and ironic.

Then a church bell snapped me back. It chimed 11, and I recalled how church bells were auditory calls to prayer and attention. It felt like a call to go home…to something. I immediately wanted to get my bag from the gazebo and look at the church more carefully in a peaceful and maybe prayerful environment. I managed a shortcut straight up a bank after a brief bout with prickly plants. I got my things and trekked toward the church. When I got there, guess who was on the grounds too? Zippy, or some other diligent lawn guardian, was tooling around the church grounds. The noise was worse now because it was bouncing off the stone structure and echoing off the parking lot asphalt.

I decided to double back and sit on a bench near a garden path that featured the Stations of the Cross. (If you’re wondering about the Stations of the Cross, visit again soon, because I’ll be detailing that in a future post.) I munched on some snacks, journaled a few things, prayed some (kinda-sorta), and enjoyed a few sunbeams that momentarily bested the clouds. It felt nice to be there, but, then I started to feel really cold. My nose had a ice cube quality and the sun had ditched me.

I headed toward the large main building. An ancient woman was being rolled toward the main entrance in a wheelchair. Rather than getting in their way, I decided to walk through the covered colonnade and flank out to the door on the right. I passed the prayer garden on my left. It was filled with statues, fountains, and newly manicured hedges and remembered how pretty it had been in full bloom that Spring. It was much warmer then too. I was getting colder by the second. But, then I got to the door–relief.

Except that it was locked. The metal handle sent a shiver to my backbone straight through my arm. But, “No matter,” I said to myself. I’ll just continue around the building and try the next door just around the corner. There are probably no fewer than 25 exit doors to the place. I’ve exited a number of them and try to find a new one to some surprise new part of the grounds whenever possible. It’s all part of the fun.

No. Locked too. Things were getting interesting.

It turns out that there’s just one way into the place. There are plenty of ways to exit outdoors, but the main entrance is referenced on each locked door. I came to this realization by the 5th door. I’m not sure if the cold was my dulling my mind or if I was too distracted laughing to myself. I had just realized I was literally following a footpath around the structure. It wasn’t just  a path but a puzzle. I could have turned back and saved myself a lengthy walk, but I thought, “Oh! Okay God, this is the labyrinth you wanted me to take.”

Then out loud I said, “Stop being so funny.” At that exact moment, a black helicopter hummed overhead and I briefly thought the things were going to end in waterboarding or an unpleasant government website experience and arbitrary fees. Maybe, I was on the psycho path. I pushed my icy hands into my coat pockets, stopped trying to open locked doors, and made my way counter-clockwise to the main entrance–the long way around. This was probably the intended journey in the first place so I might learn something. I was starting to pay attention. Finally.

No, it wasn’t the labyrinth I set out to do. It wasn’t the one I picked to walk or the one studied as I walked by with Zippy swinging his mower wildly nearby, but eventually it would get me inside if I kept going around and circled the place.

As I got most of the way around the complex I could smell lunch cooking from the kitchen. “The kitchen help probably don’t have to go through the main entrance,” I thought. (It was my first useful notion all day.)

Sure enough: I spotted an inconspicuous point of entry, sheltered with an overhang and a coffee can full of sand and cigarette butts sitting outside the door. Maybe it would be open. It was. As I pull the door a blast of warmness greeted me and behind it the smell of comfort food. I was back. I had almost gone full circle, but I had an insiders’ access point to put things to rights.

Just before I left the place for home I took my friend–who had carpooled with me there that morning–to see the new prayer puzzle up close. I walked through slowly but it wasn’t prayerfully. The symbolism had already done its job. I was just canvasing the design and saying my goodbyes. I got to the center of the circle and I knew I was ready to leave for home.

I did a little spin with my arms out because I think if it was a movie that’s what would have happened right at the point, and then I stepped straight through the center to get back out.

The surprise is that you don’t get to ever really pick your own labyrinth. It is picked for you. You can decide how to walk it and how meaningful it will be. You can be frustrated by it and worry about the turns or you can slow down, put one foot after the other, and get to the center. Then you’ll be home.

# # #


Judo Chop Your Inner ZOMBIE: 3 Ways


So, first you have to decide if you’re busy or numb.

The last post talked about that. It’s the necessary reading for this post. (Plus, there’s a hilarious Judo Chop knockout 26 second video you should see.)

Maybe you’re some of both. Read on!

Judo Chopping your inner Zombie = Judo Chopping FEAR

If you’re stuck and assuming some Zombie qualities here  are 3 Ways to deal a Judo Chop blow to what’s holding you back! (btw this is the best and funniest example of how an actual Judo Chop works to knock someone out cold. It surprised me!)

1. Move from self-soothing to solutions


You want another job but as you troll around to find one at a big employment website…you find it’s complicated and tedious. All those stupid forms to fill out again and again! CURSES! You get bogged down. In a bit, you get distracted or you burnout in frustration. Time to check FACEBOOK, Intagram, or Pintrest. . . buzz—-you’re a zombie! (Can’t relate? Just think of anything else that takes a while and how you tend to get bogged down.)

Solution: Change the whole dynamic. Jump to the end.

Use a computer at a library that has a time limit. (Time limits are the death of passivity.) Make a few phone calls that close the gap between you and someone else, and see what’s available with the contacts you already have in real life. Jumping to the end usually involves direct connects. Don’t avoid it.

Find a way to jump over the lag and drag. Reach out for help. For real. JUDO CHOP the Zombie!

2. Look Harder. 


You’re bouncing around on Facebook or otherwise dawdling. You feel frustrated, stuck, or disconnected and ineffectual. You see a neighbor in their yard and think something mean or critical about them. BUZZ–Zombie alert! (It’s you!)

Solution: Look harder at what’s bothering you. 

When we start turning on people we are going numb, because we’re trying to anesthetize our own pain by throwing it outward. Start noticing the red flags. You’re numbing out, my friend. Get real about your pain. Take a few (literal) notes. (we’ve all heard the phrase that ‘s turned into a cliché, “Admitting it is the first step.” This is your big chance. But lots of chances will surface. Assess what you are really feeling.)

After that, refer to Step 1. Judo Chop the Zombie!

3. Put in a Gate



You’re at a stop sign and you’re thinking, “Can I make a text from here, or will it take too long?”

or Someone asks you to help on a project and you’d rather sleep, avoid them (in the first place), or find an exit.

Solution: Get your GATE on

The truth is we need boundaries. Using electric fences with barbed wire as some of us are prone to do only disconnects us and keeps us numb.

“Good fences make good neighbors” goes the adage. That doesn’t mean, build a fence to keep everyone out. It means you have neighbors and you need neighbors (some people call this community), but defined boundaries make it better for everyone.

If you have a white picket fence instead of one a federal penitentiary uses, people can see you and you can see them. Busting through in an emergent is possible or you can jump it to reach out. Picket style fences mark off where your sanctuary is and the gate you “install” determines the entry point.

It’s a balance: Don’t use high iron bars like a jailbird, but don’t expect that a boarder row of pansies will get the point across either. If you’re inundated you need a better fence, but to JUDO CHOP your inner Zombie always include a gate.

Boundaries Explained
We need to allocate time for ourselves and what’s really important. This turns out to be people and not things. Things keep us numb. People give us the connection and belonging we are craving. But it’s painful and tricky stuff to be sure. Don’t feel guilt about making boundaries: Our fences need gateways to get let certain things in at certain times.


Don’t JUDO CHOP your inner Zombie alone. Grab another Zombie and go for it. Jump the pen of isolation. (more on that in the next post!)

Ending numbness happens in groups. Yes, so do Zombie attacks, but in the end of a Zombie attack there are less brains to go around. So, partner, ally forces, pick someone and make efforts to be a better friend.

Don’t miss that next post! (add this blog to your RSS feed, your bookmark list, or sign up to get instant access when a post goes live. Click in the sidebar to get started.)

 (gate:photo source)

(zombie: photo source)


Are you a ZOMBIE? 3 Ways to Know if you’re truly stuck and NUMBING-OUT


As a kid I would see adults numb out. (I didn’t know it was that at the time.) They’d get obsessed with hobbies, drink too much, channel surf late into the night, veg-out with a bag of potato chips, flitter about with shopping, or keep their nose in a book. Smart phones hadn’t been invented but going numb abounded!

I sensed I wasn’t like them because I was always moving on to the next adventure. I was sort of powerless as a kid, but I wasn’t stuck. It wasn’t just their actions, it was their faces gave away that something had shut off.

I get it now.

I get that we grow to numb out because it’s a way to reduce anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t lessen with age. In fact, more disappointments have piled up and more is at stake after a few decades of life. Disappointment, pain, fear, and frustration all drive us to numb out. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t do it in some variety.

The difference is that some people can block and judo chop numbness and start moving again, and others get stuck in a pattern they go back to it–like food, or stay stuck in it–like a bed. That makes you fat and sleepy. Undead. A Zombie.


I have to fight off a tendency to go numb and zombie out, too. Life is painful, I get it. But, I’ve realized it’s worth the fight. (It’s an actual life or death struggle.)

Blasting numbness takes skills.

But how can you tell if you’re numb or just in a slump?
Here are 3 Ways:


1. You just can’t “get to it” 

Whether it’s that you’re -super busy-, or that you feel the conditions are never quite right to get started, there is a special sort of “stuckness” that signals Numb territory. You meant to. You want to. You should. But, there’s lag and drag.

2. You’re distracted by design

You try to stay busy or occupied (whether you realize it or not). Maybe you check your emails a lot, or play apps or video games, surf the net for reading material or naked people, or scrapbook like mad. Maybe you text a lot, or you have to “get your run on” (frantic exercise), maybe you troll blogs, or do Facebook on your Smart Phone when you find a gap in your day. You want a break! It makes sense.

Or maybe, it’s more subtle. Maybe the kids have crazy schedules of activities you must attend to. Whatever it is, you have to admit that you’re trying to appease to your restlessness. You’re trying to stay moving but really you’re going nowhere. In the end, you only want more “soothing” or movement because you’re still in the same place.

3. You’re less connected

Have you really opened up to a friend lately, face-to-face? Can people get close to you or really know you? Have you avoided getting close to other people because they seem like a pain in the butt? This is because there is something painful about it. You want to avoid that stuff and you want to stay numbed out. People are a great source of anxiety for all kinds of reasons, but disconnection means you’ll stay numb. It’s time to be fearless.

What’s really so bad about going numb or staying numb?

Tons, but I’ll limit it to 3.

• You. Stay. Stuck. (Hardly anything is more frustrating. It’s like a jail. But, you made this jail. It’s time to get out.)

• You stop growing as a person. (Remember the cranky neighbor or the jerk boss? That is or will be you! Don’t be that guy. Remember, the mean librarian or pissed off gym teacher. Don’t let it come to that.)

Deadness. Zombies look cool in the movies, but…hello…they. are. dead. (and they eat the brains of living people. gross. Wow. How true is that, anyway?)

If you are numb, you are deadened. You can’t feel the good stuff either, like love, acceptance, belonging, and joy. (This stinks because it’s hardly living when you’re numb to the good stuff!) You can’t fine tune numbness. It’s a categorical deadening.

I can’t stress this enough: Don’t be a Zombie.

In the next post, I’ll share best practices for judo chopping numbness in the neck…and getting on with your best life. (Click the content link in the right sidebar to get that post zipped right to you.) 

Now you’ll like this! Check out what a good judo chop can do.

(photo source)