Kataphatic or Apophatic Prayer?

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Did you know that Ignatian prayer is “kataphatic” as opposed to “apophatic?” Neither did I.

Actually, these fancy words point to a useful distinction. “Kataphatic” prayer has content; it uses words, images, symbols, ideas. “Apophatic” prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God. Centering prayer is apophatic. Ignatian prayer is mostly kataphatic.

That’s an oversimplification. Here’s an article by Frederick McLeod, SJ, that explains the details.

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Jim Manney
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is What Matters Most and Why. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


    • Joe, thank you for alerting us to the issue. The link has been updated now.

      IgnatianSpirituality.com Editor

  1. If the centering pray-er is using a sacred word, a sacred breath or a sacred glance as the symbol of consent to the presence and action of God within himself/herself, then the centering prayer is not apophatic. However, if the practitioner is using the sacred nothingness -WITH NO THOUGHT, WITH NO SYMBOL, WITH NO EFFORT, WITH NO PERCEPTION, WITH NO IMAGE, WITH NO FORM, WITH NO THING, then the centering prayer is apophatic. It becomes pure contemplation, a grace already given to every one (not only to a selected few) by God from the start.

  2. Two interesting terms that can help us to talk about the unspeakable and trace the complexities of spiritual process, if we don’t lose the forest looking at the trees. Like the terms ‘immanent’ and transcendent’, the two polarities are always intertwined in their aliveness.

  3. Centering prayer is NOT apophatic. The problem is, as with this post, people think it is and so never really get to understand the nature of real apophatic spirituality. It’s a trendy, modern – and pale – imitation of the real thing.

  4. Mindfulness is now a common practice.Disciples of the gospel are invited to engage in Christfulness.My wish is to commence prayer groups with that in mind.”Be still and know (with mind and heart)that I am GOD.”

  5. I rather dislike the term “centering prayer” for more than a single reason. Clearly, a proper relationship with God minimizes the self and magnifies the Lord. Perhaps I misunderstand, but I cannot, for example, envision centering prayer while enjoying the Beatific vision. “Deo centric” – now that is a concept I can grasp, whether in stillness or in active prayer.

  6. Thanks for posting this Jim.
    The article by Fr. McLeod clearly described both methods. It is great to see both being validated and encouraged for practice.

  7. They are of course not mutually exclusive. Recitation of the rosary, for example, can take us naturally from one to the other and back again within the same period of time.

  8. 3 Years ago when I discovered and began studying the Blessed Angela of Foligno and john Scotus Eriugena, et. al, and the Apophatic path, it was truly a revelation that was deeply resonant with my spiritual aspirations at that time and up to today.


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