It happens, quite often, that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles. And one of our strengths, clearly, is our capacity to speak and to write, to use words to symbolize reality, and thereby convey thoughts. So also our ability to think, to abstract and conceptualize, and interpret reality. I of course am a great believer in the magnificent thing we call speech, for I write every day, and I preach every day and like to consider myself a reasonably thoughtful person. .
To speak and to write, such a magnificent mysterious capacity within our soul. Somehow with our senses, and our mind we are able to grasp the physical realities, people places and things, as well as metaphysical realities such as justice, love , nature, and purpose. And we are also able to think and to abstract. There is not just nature, there is what is “natural,” there are not just trees, there is “tree-ness”, there are not just humans, there’s something called humanness. Yes, such a miracle, thought, language, speech, and writing. By it we communicate facts, ideas, feelings, longings, and yearnings.
Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw that introduces a great human struggle. For “words” and thoughts, by their nature, reduce complex realities to a simple sounds (i.e. words), and concepts (i.e. thoughts). Words are little more than a grunt, a mere sound. And words in written form are the mere combination of letters we call a word. But words and even thoughts are not the reality we describe, they are merely a symbol pointing to that reality.
To say the word “tree,” neither produces the reality of a tree, nor fully describes it. The word “tree” can only summarize the whole range of realities and ideas such as: wood, roots, leaves, photosynthesis, strength, shade, green, autumn colors, things made of wood, paper, furniture, and on and on. What a tree is, potentially or actually, cannot be reduced to a mere sound.
If this simple word, “tree,” referring to a relatively simple reality is inadequate, how much more so far more complex realities such as the human person, justice, love, poetry, and above all else, God.
Yes, words are wonderful things, a kind of shorthand. But words can also get in the way, especially when we think that because we have named something, we have fully described or comprehended it. Not so, reality is always richer than the words or thoughts that we “reduce” it to. It is perhaps necessary for us to do this sort of reduction in order to manage, and not be overwhelmed, but, again reality is always richer than the thoughts or words we reduce it to.
In this sense, there is an old saying which goes “Don’t think, look!” In other words, we tend to rush to analysis, rather than to savor reality. And while analysis is ultimately essential, we ought to try to experience reality as fully as we can, before we “reduce” it by analyzing it, before reducing it to thoughts and words.
Another related saying is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” For too often we rush to respond to reality, rather then to experience and savor it. Reality is always richer in our analysis in our thoughts or words about it. And without experiencing it as fully as possible, reactions are often mistaken, or off the mark.
In a noisy age, it is important to rediscover the need to slow down and experience reality, and also the need for silent contemplation before quick analysis and the “necessary evil” of reducing reality to words and concepts.
There’s yet another old saying, likely from the far East, which says, “Those who know do not say, those who say do not know.” That is, words for fall short of the reality of what is known, and the wise person grasps this.
One of the Eastern fathers, when asked to explain this saying to his disciples said, “How many know the smell of a rose?” And all of his disciples raised their hands. But when he said to them, “Put it into words” everyone remained silent.
There is a humility and recognizing the limits of words. Some things cannot be reduced to words at all, other things only partially. The wise and humble person appreciates this. St. Augustine, when asked about Grace said, “If you ask me I don’t know, if you don’t ask me, I know.” In other words, this is a truth best appreciated, and savored, apart from words.
Silent contemplation of the very deep mysteries of God is a more proper disposition than many words. And while words are eventually necessary, the silence between the words when we speak of God, are probably more instructive than the words themselves.
St. Thomas said in the prologue to question three in part one of the Summa: “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue). Since God is hidden, and we could never even come close to comprehending Him. His essence is therefore beyond anything we can describe with words. Words and analogies about God fall so far short, as to be more unlike him than they are like him. And thus we are reduced more to describing what God is not, than what he is.
And even when we say what he is, we really have little idea of what we are talking about. God is not just wise or like some wise man, He is wisdom itself. God is not just good or like some good person, He is goodness itself. He does not exist like we exist, He is not just some other object in the universe, he is existence itself. And while we are using these words, we do not really fathom what they really or fully mean. To some extent we know what it means to exist, but we do not know existence itself. We know good things, and good people, but we do not know goodness itself. These realities are too rich to be reduced to a manageable concept. or mere word.
St. Thomas Aquinas also said in his commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate that while we can know God through His creation, and in God’s actions through history, the highest form of the knowledge of God is to know God as the Unknown (tamquam Ignotum). That is, to have the wisdom and humility to say that the highest form of talking about the Holy Trinity is to know that one does not know, that one does not comprehend or grasp the essence about that which we speak. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say comprehensively what He is, in essence.
Now this is humility. It does not mean that we know nothing, but it does mean that we must approach God with humility, realizing that we know very little. And what we do know is more by negation, than by positively grasping that of which we speak.
Yet because we frequently are not humble, because we forget that what we know is very limited, because we forget that our words reduce even natural concepts to simplistic signs called words, and thoughts…because we forget all of this, we often get into hideous and prideful arguments.
An old saying goes, “The wise man may point to the moon, but the fool sees only the finger.” That is, words are like the finger, our thoughts are also like the finger, but our thoughts and our words are not the reality, they only point to the reality.
But instead of seeking the reality, we debate about the words, about the reduction that we call thought. Surely this is unavoidable in an absolute sense, but if we can humbly realize that our words and concepts are not the reality, but only that which points to the reality, perhaps in this humility, arguments about “the finger” (to use our analogy) will become less destructive and hateful.
It is true, some words, and ideas are simply wrong, are not in conformity with the truth, and are quite out of touch with reality or revelation. In such cases, we must critique, debunk, and demonstrate the error of such notions.
But in so many other cases, we end up debating things that we ought not to debate. And we do so, not because the words that are spoken by others are untrue, but simply because they are not precisely the words we would use, or the formula that we prefer. Someone may speak poetically, but we prefer science, and so we scoff. Someone speaks in terms of Carmelite spirituality, but we prefer Ignatian, so we scoff. Someone encounters God charismatically but another, more traditionally. And out come the long knives.
How foolish. God and the life he offers is so much richer than our words, concepts, and thoughts. Of course there will be legitimate diversity, there has to be. The Church, in Her Scripture and Tradition certainly sets up guardrails, beyond on which we shall not go. But within the guard rails is a road with different lanes, different traditions, both intellectual and spiritual.
Perhaps an old story I heard once on retreat will help. It is about two blind men. Each of them went separately to a man who could see and asked, “What is this thing called Green?” But of course. how does one describe the color green to a man who is never seen? All one can do is use analogy. So the man who could see, said to the first man, “The color green is like soothing and soft music.” To the other man who came to him later, he said, “The color green is like the smell of cool mint.” Both men went away reasonably content. Of course, neither of them had really experienced the color green, but had only heard an analogy of it. But when the two blind men got together they were heard to be screaming at one another, and even threatening violence as the one shouted, “Green is like cool mint!!” and the other said, “No! is is like soft music!”
Of course those of us who know the color green, know that it is a far richer concept than either cool mint or soft music. We easily laugh at the the blind men debating which analogy was the correct one. Neither analogy was correct, nor incorrect, they’re just analogies, describing some aspect of “Green”, but not even close to the whole meaning. So we laugh. To use the previous analogy, the blind men were “seeing” only the finger, and missing the moon to which it points. Green is not cool mint or soft music, it is only like them in some distant way. In fact, green is more unlike cool mint than like it, more unlike soft music than like it.
But though we laugh at the blind men, we are so much like them in so many ways. We think we see so well, but much of reality is hidden to us. So many of the words and concepts on which we insist are but reductive analogies of a far richer reality. And while we may find certain approaches, certain words, certain traditions, certain analogies, to be more helpful than others, the reality to which these things point is so much richer than any reductive word, thought or analogy of them.
It is too easy, even in matters which the Church grants us freedom, to be like the two blind men savaging each other and threatening violence over whose analogies are the best. And yet, neither analogy is even close to the actual reality. More unlike it and like it!
Perhaps it is best to end were we began: Our strengths are often our struggles. Our capacity for language, for words, for signs, analogies, and all sorts of intellectual concepts, is a remarkable and magnificent capacity. But too easily our strength also becomes our struggle because we forget that our signs, words, analogies and intellectual concepts are not the reality they describe, but merely point to the reality, a reality that is far richer the words or concepts.
Only humility can help us, so that our strengths do not turn to become the very thing over which we struggle!
The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)