Thursday, September 22, 2005

Awareness of the Ineffable

A great philosopher of Judaism, Abraham Heschel, said that our first intimations of God come from an “awareness of the ineffable,” that which is profoundly real but which eludes our concepts and formulations. In a pithy phrase, he says, “in moments of insight, the ineffable is a metaphor in a forgotten mother tongue.” It’s as if the voice of God in us is like a half-remembered dream, which we know was quite vivid in the night but which now hangs about us like an intangible mist, a disappearing image. But it calls us to return.

“We…leave the shore of the known…because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. Citizens of two realms, we must all sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.”

The awareness of the ineffable creates a sense of awe, for the Lord is near. “Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine… to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”

One pitfall in our own spiritual lives may be to try to contain the Ineffable in a conceptual box in order to gain a sense of knowledge and control. But God will always resist that, and will withdraw until we let Him be who He is on his own terms. When I begin to have some experience of the Ineffable, I tend to try to articulate or analyze it (so as to remember it, or even to write an article about it!), and thus I either dissipate it or send it back into hiding. Some people can sense the mystery underlying all things and are filled with wonder and awe, but the majority walk around like blind, deaf, stumbling clods who would rather “wield the definitions of the superficial” than “be overwhelmed by the symbols of the inconceivable.” It’s time to quietly listen and let God be God, even if his essential incomprehensibility is daunting to our fragile spirits.

“We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life... Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-assertion?... We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God. We constantly pour our inner light away from Him, setting up the thick screen of self between Him and us, adding more shadows to the darkness that already hovers between Him and our wayward reason...”

Take some time to enter into the stillness—of a quiet dawn, of the depth of your own soul. The Lord is near. Don’t try to figure Him out; you can’t anyway, and that’s not why He’s here. Be there for Him who is there for you. Begin to realize that God is your origin and your destiny and ultimately all that matters. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” We may have relativized his importance in our daily lives, but in the end we will behold the full truth. Pray for open eyes.