The Importance of Not-Knowing: "The end of our knowing is to know God as something unknown." (St Thomas Aquinas)

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
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We like to know. We like clear and suitable narratives.  Moreover, we create mental concepts about life and love that pacify – like a baby’s binky – our need to grasp and understand.   We do it with God, spirituality and religion no less than we do it with everything else. We like to “arrange the furniture” of the world “in our mind’s living room” so that it all makes sense to us, serves us, justifies us, or gives us a sense of control.  Hence, we’re convinced that no one is smarter than that mysterious character – whom we’ve never met, whom we don’t really know, whom we haven’t figured out – called “Me.”  Grief and tears, perhaps, will shatter the illusion one day.  If so, hopefully we won’t build another one.  In any event, some troubling act of Providence is bound to turn our world – our “mental living room” – upside down.  If this happens, perhaps you’re among God’s favored ones.  “The LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:12).   And so, all we have left are the shards of a shattered life.  A crisis of faith.  It’s the Holy Spirit’s work.  He knocks down in order to build up.  “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28).  In the impasse, we confront what a medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing.” 

Purifying the senses – lust, greed or gluttony – is child’s play.  It doesn’t seem so at the time.  But just wait.  Purifying the mind is the big leagues.  It’s much more painful.  It gets down to the root of things and gouges out the venom of Legion: pride, arrogance, envy, vainglory, possessiveness and judgmentalism. “Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion’ he replied, ‘for we are many.’  And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area” (Mark 5:9-10).  This is dizzying.  It purges faults we thought virtues – illusions flowing not from apparent sins, but from apparent virtues.  It’s disorienting.  Generosity and noble causes can be our most lethal illusions.  So too can reading lots of spiritual books and blogs and spending hours in what we think is prayer.  Why?   It’s champagne for the ego.  “Spirituality is champagne for the ego.  Cork after cork pops as ego guzzles enthusiastically while reading up on what phase of the spiritual life it is in, what doorways of prayer it has pranced through; or it insists that it is ‘spiritual, not religious,’ or ‘religious, not spiritual’ – whatever the trendy sound bite of the day is that will keep it at the center of all drama and trauma.  Ego does not have to be unpleasant to tiresome, but it does need to be center stage” (Fr. Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p.p. 135-136).

St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision, later in his life, whereby he said that everything he had written is “straw.”  We know little about God or holiness. “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Marshall McLuhan said that every discovery leads to vast new frontiers of ignorance. Knowledge creates ignorance. It eclipses entire dimensions of reality.  This humbling realization puts us face-to-face with our insoluble limits.  It’s “the cloud of unknowing.”  This realization is, however, a passage – or purification – leading to holiness and charity that comes not from ego.  Rather, it liberates the grace of Baptism.  So I offer you the wisdom of St. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Father of the Church.

From a homily on “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”

St. Gregory of Nyssa

God is like an inaccessible rock.

Consider the feelings of a man who looks down into the depths of the sea from the top of a mountain. This is similar to my own experience when the voice of the Lord from on high, as from a mountaintop, reached the unfathomable depths of my intellect. Along the seacoast, you may often see mountains facing the sea. It is as though they had been sliced in two, with a sheer drop from top to bottom. At the top a projection forms a ledge overhanging the depths below. If a man were to look down from that ledge, he would be overcome by dizziness. In this same way my soul grows dizzy when it hears the great voice of the Lord saying: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. 

The vision of God is offered to those who have purified their hearts. Yet, no man has seen God at any time. These are the words of the great Saint John, and they are confirmed by Saint Paul's lofty thought, in the words: God is he whom no one has seen or can see. He is that smooth, steep and sheer rock, on which the mind can find no secure resting place to get a grip or lift ourselves up. In the view of Moses, he is inaccessible. In spite of every effort, our minds cannot approach him. We are cut off by the words: No man can see God and live. And yet, to see God is eternal life. But John, Paul and Moses, pillars of our faith, all testify that it is impossible to see God. Look at the dizziness that affects the soul drawn to contemplating the depths of these statements. If God is life, then he who does not see God does not see life. Yet God cannot be seen; the apostles and prophets, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have testified to this. Into what straits is man's hope driven!

Yet God does raise and sustain our flagging hopes. He rescued Peter from drowning and made the sea into a firm surface beneath his feet. He does the same for us; the hands of the Word of God are stretched out to us when we are out of our depth, buffeted and lost in speculation. Grasped firmly in his hands, we shall be without fear: Blessed are the pure of heart, he says, for they shall see God. 

The happiness God promises certainly knows no limits. When one has gained such a blessing, what is left to desire? In seeing God one possesses all things. In the language of Scripture, to see is to have. May you see the good things of Jerusalem is the same as May you possess the good things of Jerusalem. When the prophet says: May the wicked man be carried off and not see the glory of the Lord, he means: May he not share in the glory of the Lord.

One who has seen God has, in the act of seeing, gained all that is counted good: life without end, everlasting freedom from decay, undying happiness, a kingdom that has no end, lasting joy, true light, a voice to sing pleasingly in the spirit, unapproachable glory, perpetual rejoicing, in a word, the totality of blessing. 

Such is the wonderful hope held out by the beatitudes. As we have seen, the condition for seeing God is purity of heart, and now once more my mind is in confusion, as from an attack of giddiness, wondering if purity of heart is something impossible, something beyond the capacity of human nature. If the vision of God is dependent on purity of heart, and if Moses and Paul did not attain this vision - they state that neither they nor anyone else can see God - then the promise of the beatitude spoken by the Word seems to be something impossible of realization. 

What do we gain from knowing the means by which God may be seen if we have not the power to see him? It is like saying that one is blessed if one is in heaven because in heaven things are seen that are not seen on earth. If we were told beforehand how to get to heaven, it would be helpful to know that one is blessed if one is in heaven. But as long as the way to heaven is impossible what do we gain by knowing about the happiness of heaven? This only saddens and annoys us when we realize the good things we are deprived of, because it is impossible to get there. 

Surely the Lord does not encourage us to do something impossible to human nature because the magnitude of what he commands is beyond the reach of our human strength? The truth is different. He does not command those creatures to whom he has not given wings to become birds, nor those to whom he has assigned a life on land to live in water. If then in the case of all other creatures the command is according to the capacity of those who receive it, and does not oblige them to anything beyond their nature, we shall come to the conclusion that we are not to give up hope of gaining what is promised by the beatitude. John and Paul and Moses, then, and any others like them, did not fail to achieve that sublime happiness that comes from the vision of God; not Paul, who said: There is stored up for me a crown of righteousness, which the judge who judges justly will give me, nor John, who leaned on the breast of Jesus, nor Moses, who heard God saying to him, I know you above all others.

If it is clear that those who taught that the contemplation of God was beyond their powers are themselves blessed, and if blessedness consists in the vision of God and is granted to the pure in heart, then purity of heart, leading to blessedness, is certainly not among the things that are impossible.

Hence it can be said that those who with Paul teach that the vision of God is beyond our powers are right in what they say, and that the voice of the Lord does not contradict them when he promises that the pure in heart will see God.