The Virtues of the Negative Way

art of encore living personal development Sep 26, 2022

Calling me a lapsed Catholic would be a gross understatement for my relationship with the faith tradition I was born into.

However, it is a filter through which I witnessed the world for many years. 

One frame that continues to help me practice a “less is more” approach to my life and work is the concept of “via negativa,” the negative way.

In the first centuries of Christianity, most of the faithful plied a great deal of hyperbole to describe God.

Phrases like “God is good,” “God is great,” “God is love,” and “God is truth” abounded and yet fell quite short of adequately describing the ineffable qualities of the divine.

In the 5th century CE, a Syrian monk known only by his pseudonym, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, developed a counterintuitive solution to resolving the inadequate attempts to define what God is. Instead of describing what God is, he explained God by what God is not.

Via negativa fully embraces the mystery of the divine by removing all the inadequate names, descriptions, and definitions of God. God is above and beyond the limits and restrictions imposed by naming, describing, and defining.

To know the divine, paradoxically, one must practice “unknowing”—a practice in surrender and non-attachment—letting go of everything that cannot be known about the divine actually brings you closer to it.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with finding your calling and difference-making...

The negative way is a practice in pruning—cutting away everything that is not essential so that you can more effortlessly achieve what you really want.

Too often, my pursuit of defining who I really am and what I’m really meant for has been an additive process—acquiring more knowledge, skills, tools, etc.

What about you?

More is rarely better, and less is often more. Subtraction makes systems more efficient and effective than addition.

Reducing the downside helps optimize the upside.

Avoiding mistakes and bad decisions makes discovering and exploiting opportunities and good decisions more likely.

What possibility do you desire to step into more fully? What routines or relationships could you prune to make the way more clear? How might a process of elimination help you find a better way forward?


Scott Perry, Encore Life Coach at The Art of Encore Living

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