The Way of Unknowning

thought-for-sundayFrom the desk of Fr. Ignatius Waters, cp

Sunday, 14th May 2017




We were told in Primary School that we were here on earth to know, love and serve God in this life and then to enjoy him in heaven for all eternity. This was when we were just getting used to being here and before we even wondered why we were here. We were given lots of answers to questions we didn’t yet have! If I could float back in time to that classroom with the understanding I now have, I could respectfully say, “Well, excuse me, but knowing God is problematic because Karl Rahner says that the variety of ways the writers present God in the New Testament, the phrases and images they use, all show how inadequate all human ideas and images are when trying to express who God is. And away back in the fourth century, St. Augustine said “If you think you know and understand God, it’s not God you know.” And St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that the only thing we can say about God is what God is not.” So, why didn’t they just tell us that God is a great beautiful mystery that no human words can describe? And that this great beautiful God created us and loves us. Children, fresh from God, feel completely at home in the world of wonder and mystery.

I was very happy when I discovered, many years ago, that there was a tradition of spirituality called the ‘Way of Unknowing’. This tradition says God is greater than any language we might use to speak of God. We cannot lay hold of God by way of concept, language or experience because God is ultimately beyond human comprehension. St. John Cassian defined contemplative prayer as an imperfect yet “astonished gaze at God’s ungraspable nature, something hidden from human sight.”  At the same time, this tradition has used a few lean landscape images to challenge the very use of images! These include the desert, the mountain and the cloud, used to question the overconfidence in words that sometimes characterises the study of theology.

 Desert and mountain terrain confront us with our human limits, with how puny, small and unimportant we really are. Stand on Skellig Michael, that great fortress of rock off the coast of Kerry and you will be aware of the tiny speck you are on this great rock which is itself hardly even a speck in the vastness of the ocean. It is wild, fearful and overwhelming. And then the image of the cloud: The14th Century mystic who wrote ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ put it this way: “You are to smite (to strike, to attack) that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.” But loving God is also problematic. What does it mean? St Paul, in all his writings talks very little about our love of God and much more about God’s love for us. And if we can come to believe and bask in God’s love shining on us, then our love of God is some kind of responding gratitude and amazement, wonder and joy! And, of course, our human brother, Jesus, is the best word, the living word that helps us begin the adventure of coming to know and love the living God, an adventure that has no ending!                      

“Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome.”(The Cloud of Unknowing)