The cityscape contains empty spaces, voids, which are the as-yet undeveloped tracts within the urban setting. But the word ‘void’ possesses a dual meaning. It is also a spiritual word. The void is what mystics experience in the depth of their ecstasies.
Similarly, ‘nada’ is used by the great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, to describe his experience of unity with the Divine.
People often misunderstand the nature of mystical experience. They think it is about having visions and prophecies, dreams and revelations. More often, however, mystical writers are suspicious of such experiences, because they can frequently lead people astray.
Far from being gullible victims of religious frenzies and superstitions, the mystics are careful to dissociate themselves from such popular misconceptions.
In fact, contemplative practice is designed to make us sceptical of such experiences, as possible sources of delusion and deception.
Instead, the mystical way is intended to lead the practitioner into silence and stillness, the absence of images and ideas.
In this spiritual union all human concepts and words are inadequate to communicate the essence of the Godhead. This experience is ineffable, worldless, transcendent.
But what has this to do with the urban?
If we are identifying an experience of the void, of nada, in the urban, might the city also be a site for the mystical? Far from being a secular city, as Harvey Cox suggested at the height of 1960s optimistic humanism, we are seeing a resurgence of religion in the city.
Our assumptions about the decline of religion are proving false. Mosques and prayer houses are found in the most unlikely of locations.
Pentecostalism and migrant churches proliferate in London’s warehouse areas. Mega-churches are being planted in the city centre.
An anonymous mediaeval English writer composed the great work known as The Cloud of Unknowing.
He suggested that the higher one rose spiritually, the more unclear and cloudy, became our spiritual experience.
We begin to realise that our earlier child-like conceptions about God are inadequate to the real experience of knowing him personally.
This is the Via Negativa, whereby one proceeds to the Divine, through a process of unknowing, gradually realising all our knowledge is inaccurate.
Perhaps there is also a Via Negativa Urbana, as we find the urban void also to be a site for discovering the spiritual dimension?
Walking around the city streets has been referred to a dérive, an aimless wandering, which may nevertheless lead to some sort of serendipity.
This urban promenader has also been called a flâneur: a loafer, or stroller, roaming the streets at random and whim. The Situationsists adopted these terms in the 1960s, to describe the opening up of the city to its inhabitants, taking possession not through grand strategy, but by the simple tactic of walking. Perhaps walking through our city may also be framed as pilgrimage, if we choose to enter into its void, its emptiness, and dive into the Divine.