Words Fall Short: A meditation on the limits of human language and thought

By Antonio Litterio,  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Antonio Litterio, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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)

13 Replies to “Words Fall Short: A meditation on the limits of human language and thought”

  1. A few thoughts which are not conclusions, but feel more like idle speculation. “Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw that introduces a great human struggle.” We can be most hurt by this flaw by expecting others to be reasonable, or as close to reasonable as we are, especially if they portray themselves as being closer to reasonable than they are. I don’t think that any of us can be within the bounds of what is truly reasonable in this fallen world but; we can head toward it or, alternatively, seek to sabotage a search for it as a result of fear of truth.
    A love of God and of truth can be inhibited by a fear of both but, the lover of truth overcomes the fear and truly seeks God, while the one(s) who cringe in this fear will seek only the truth about things – and only as much (or as big a portion or as similar to) as is needed.

    “we tend to rush to analysis, rather than to savor reality.” leading to “because we forget all of this, we often get into hideous and prideful arguments.” “two blind men savaging each other and threatening violence over whose analogies are the best.” “Someone encounters God charismatically but another, more traditionally. And out come the long knives.” Competition rather than comparison. Fear of comparison has been attributed to the source of jealousy and envy so we too often replace it with competition to help us to hide from that scary thing called truth – instead of having the courage to “do it anyway as we do it scared” Reminds me of the Kipling story of a group of blind men who encountered an elephant for the first time. One felt the legs and described it as being like a tree trunk. Another felt the ear and said it was like the wing of a bird; and so on.

    “And thus we are reduced more to describing what God is not, than what he is.” “And what we do know is more by negation” deductive logic … ” than by positively grasping that of which we speak.” inductive logic – One can gather by inductive logic then, eliminate what does not belong by deductive logic. If this does not lead to a solution to curiousity, return to inductive logic in order to carry on to the solution because the searcher is no “there” yet. Here it is necessary to use the form of humility called “insufficient data” Yet, this use of logic reduces in much the same way as your description of how words reduce. More honest, and strong, humility by acknowledging this limitation. There seems to be an erroneous belief that deductive logic can find the answer but, it only helps to find the answer that inductive logic is gradually leading us to as we trim away distractions. Be VERY careful in the trimming. Once pruned, a needed branch can be lost among the vast pile of what else has also been pruned.

    Copy/paste led to “Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw” showing “out thoughts” instead of “our thoughts” Wondering if it’s like a friend whose ‘phone changes spoken words into text message. I wondered what she meant by “nurse if on…” until I realized that she was referring to a mutual friend, named Yvonne, who is a nurse. My careless use of copy/paste (among other examples) probably also contributes as I miss some some thngs. At any rate, we seem to still be caught into “rushing the process” which was introduced when our ancestors gave in to it in the garden. Is metaphorically going back to the core the only way to deal with this universal human trauma – somewhat like therapy going back to the core of personal traumas?

  2. Good article, Monsignor! Yes, words can get us into a lot of trouble if we’re not humble! God has the entire view, but we only possess a POINT of view.

    As you point out, our speech is a magnificent gift. For those of us who have been blessed with faith in Jesus Christ and experience His reality(however limited), it is a real challenge to communicate our belief with unbelievers. However, we must try. The disciples left their words for us in an attempt to describe the reality, and Jesus Himself said ‘You have seen the Father if you have seen Me.” He also said if we are not “gathering”, we are “scattering”.

    Unfortunately, people (myself included) often don’t use words well. That’s how we are. Flawed. If we understand anything, we have the Holy Spirit to thank for that!

    I am grateful that you use the gift that God has given you to reach out on a daily basis to point others in the right direction! Many thanks!!

  3. I really got a lot out of your message today. I have a meditation timer that I set for 45 minutes every day and sit (kneel) on a meditation bench and mat. I am able to be quite still and comfortable in this position. I start out with my mental prayer and when I’m finished with that, I just sit and listen. I have periods of time where nothing enters my mind. If it does I repeat the words “no words, no walls, no barriers.” I also repeat Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God”. I continue with “Be still and know that I am, Be still and know, Be still, Be”. Since I’ve been sitting for 13 years, this has become quite ingrained in me and seems very natural. Everyone wants things to happen quickly, but reaching a state of being takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance. Thank you so much for teaching us that God and reality are beyond thoughts, words and concepts. You are a great blessing to me!

  4. I’ve never understood what it means when people say God is goodness itself or justice itself, etc. Since goodness and justice are basically behaviors and intentions we have, we humans can “be good” or “be just” by desiring and doing the right things. But how could a desire or action be a being? I can see God doing and desiring good perfectly since He is all-powerful and all-knowing but that doesn’t mean He is goodness itself. Unless his desires and actions are the ultimate high water mark of goodness and justice.

    1. Well of course goodness and justice are not merely behaviors they are realities that come from God and in which we somehow share. Jesus said, “I am the truth” not merely that I do or say truthful things. He is the truth, he is the way, he is life itself. Thus, he is also every form of way life and truth be it goodness, holiness, justice, love, and so forth. Love is not something he does, or some quality he exhibits. He IS love.

      1. The road to hell is paved with the best intentions. The road to God is paved with the best actions.

      2. Thank you. Those words now have a deeper meaning for me. And yet, I know that I can not fully know the extent of this with my limitations. It makes me ponder more, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life”.

  5. I was speaking with some friends some days ago and told them the story that when I was first beginning to ‘teach’ my son to speak, some forty years ago, I had the thought that I felt very sorry for some reason that I had to do this. My story was met by some dismay by those who listened, one pointing out that the child had already begun to speak in a way, by listening to what I was saying, by crying and various other ‘normal human responses’. I could not respond with a fitting description of what I remembered was behind this thought of mine so many years ago. Later, thinking it over, I thought to myself, -“No, it was a ‘metaphysical meaning’ or some such explanation. Your post today was therefore so welcome to me, as it helped me to come to terms with that feeling of ‘sadness’ that I had so many years ago that ‘language’ ” in itself” was somehow inadequate, and could be considered a kind of cause of so many disruptions in human understanding. Thank you. M. Pope. (My son today, I am grateful to say, speaks well and ‘with discretion’. Thank you.)

  6. Somewhere in On the Trinity, St. Augustine says something to this effect: we can think about God more truly than we can speak about God and that God exists more truly than we can think about God.

  7. The video “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” touched me in a way that I can not put into words. Thank you for letting me see young people sing with such conviction!

    Susan Morrison

  8. Msgr!
    Thank you for using the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu in your postings!
    Taoism and Catholicism have many things in common, that is why I
    peruse your column from time to time.

    For your enjoyment, here is Verse 11 of the Tao:
    The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends.
    Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends.
    The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends.
    Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.

  9. I think the book “Interior Castle” written by Saint Teresa of Avila on the matters relating to prayer is such a help and not a long read but written to be understood.

    1 Corinthians 2:10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

    “Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

    But we have the mind of Christ.


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