Christianity is not the first religion to grapple with the problem of describing God. Moses, when confronted with the burning bush immediately demanded of God His name. The Almighty was having none of it, and the most Moses got was the elusive, “I Am that I Am”. Oh, and by the way, take your shoes off for you’re standing on Holy Ground.
Fast forward a millennia and travel East and the great Chinese sage Lao Tse was battling with the same problem: how to conceptualise that which, by definition is beyond conception. When he wrote, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao” he posited the same epistemological problem: as soon as we conceptualise or even attempt to name (label) the infinite, the truth slips between the syntaxical gaps and we are left bereft of anything satisfying to the heart, no matter how elegant the mental gymnastics of our mind may appear.
All spiritual seekers grapple with this fundamental problem; which is why no two people can entirely agree on how to conceptualise that which they mean when they come to describing God. The old story of the three blind men, each grasping at an elephant and seeking to describe what they experience comes to mind here. One declares confidently that an elephant is like a tree, as he holds on to a leg of the creature. Another declares an elephant to be like a large hose pipe, as he considers the trunk. The third remonstrated that the elephant is in actual fact like a riding whip, as the tail smacks him across the face.
For sure, we must use the mind if we are to communicate anything of our discoveries at all, but to recognise the limitations of the mind opens the possibility of direct experience. The Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, pointing to an experience that, while it may be spoken about after the event, is immediate, personal and ultimately unreproducible in the limited language we have available. Which is why the more we know of the infinite, the less attached we become to our particular linguistic constructions of that reality and agree with Wittgenstein that, “of that which we cannot speak, we must keep silent.” When we insist on approaching the infinite with the apparatus of the conceptual mind, we become trapped in our concepts and fail to touch ultimate reality. When we let our precious concepts go, we will find that which lies beyond, in the mystery, the darkness of the mind and the bafflement of the sense. We remove our shoes. We approach with awe. We apprehend with humility. We stop talking.
And it is in that stupendous absence that we discover that which we have been trying in vain to describe all along. In the Holy of Holies, with the senses clothed in silence, eyes unable to see, ears unable to hear and mouth unable to speak that we discover that which can never be spoken of, that which can never be described and that which can never be reproduced in a text book. When the proud human mind is silenced and all the artifice of man is declared insufficient for the task, the heart wraps itself around the source and is transformed.
Perhaps we would learn so much more if we put down the textbooks; surrendering the mind’s insatiable desire to know and learn to enter the deafening silence of eternity and discover what has been there, staring us in the face all along. To quieten the turbulent mind, still the torrential waters of our hearts and see, perhaps for the first time, reflected in the waters of our own hearts reality as it truly is, and having found, be satisfied?
Breathe through the heats of our desire,
Thy coolness and Thy balm,
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.”