The tension between words and their intended meaning has been a prevalent theme in my life as of late (as of always really, but more so as of late). Last night it came up again as we discussed apophatic mysticism, that type of experience of God as Unknowning, as No-thing, as Being itself. Paradoxically, thought the nature of this experience defies images and labels of any kind, to be expressed to others it must be molded into the shape of words and risk distortion. The cry of this conflict crawls through me, as I believe it does through all that is. It is elemental and its implications far reaching. I will not endeavor here to resolve the tension. I feel inclined though to share a reflection I wrote while on retreat a couple of weeks ago that ties into this theme.
There was a reconciliation service at 4:15 p.m. I did not go to a confessor but stayed amongst those who were waiting. I moved from the Our Lady Chapel to the main sanctuary and began a private confession, facing the stained glass window that composed half the wall and beautifully, ecstatically, abstractly portrayed the trinity and the tree of life and seven binding rivers; beneath, small and plain in comparison, was a wood-carved Christ, one with his cross. You could not look to one and not see the other. There is a part of me that is still reticent to accept this effusive return to embrace a specific religion, to say, “I am a Christian and I believe what Christians believe.” I withdraw a little from the use of the name “Jesus” from the reintegration of Christian phraseology into my vocabulary. Words. These are so vital to communication and yet can be the greatest inhibition to accurately sharing thoughts, feelings, truths.
I don’t always like the words said about You, God, nor the ones that allegedly you spoke. Sometimes they don’t make sense to me and sometimes they don’t seem right or good or just or loving. Sometimes I can’t believe that they are true. I can’t believe that you are who we say you are. Just as I am not always sure that Jesus is who his followers say and who the scripture’s records of his words imply. It is not difficult for me to accept God as “Being Itself” or as the life-spring and actualization of Love. But the specificity of Jesus confronts me. He feels like an intrusion. His definitive body, the imprint on history of his words, his actions—a boundary line is thrown—this calls for acceptance and allegiance; this creates us and them, division, “not peace but a sword.”
I read the “high priestly prayer” (John 17), Jesus’ prayer to God on behalf of his disciples. I read it thinking this is how I will listen to Jesus, how I will learn to pray with him. But it didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t sound like I thought it should and I felt disappointed. I had an idea of who I felt Jesus should be and I didn’t find it there. The words confused me, and no wonder, because they are words! Words divide and hid and yet without them we lose significant access to ourselves and others. The naming of things is such a crucial component to being human; according to Genesis, it’s been with us since the beginning. Jesus is the Word of God. What we see of him is the word. In actual essence he is Logos. Logos, the meaning behind the words. Father Kinoti, in a talk on the Holy Spirit, described Jesus as the mind of God. Like an artist, only more perfect, God can project his thoughts onto the world tangible and Jesus is a representation of His mind.
Abstract art is the only way to depict God with anything close to accuracy, I decided, admiring the stained glass in its surreal, mysterious beauty. And religion should always be poetry. But there, beneath it, the harsh realism of the crucifix, Jesus the man, suffering. He looked so small beneath that great glass and yet, his was an unavoidable presence.
And that is Christianity. It is intrusive because its version of God breaks the rules. The Christian God collapses the division between spirit and flesh and yet creates new division between those who believe it and those who don’t. It is a religion that demands mind and heart and strength too, the body because God took on a body and walked among men: touching as they touch, speaking as they speak, feelings as they feel. That is why it is a religion that cannot be contemplated only, it must be lived. What have I to do with all this? I don’t know. I don’t know except I think sometimes that this God loves me, and sometimes I think I love him too.