July 27, 2018. Kevin Mesher, preaching
Words upon words. We sure use a lot of them. Some are deeply edifying, truly life giving. Others are as easy to waste as a Sunday afternoon–or shaped into weapons, destructive. We just heard the reading of the Word, and this, being a sermon–well, I can guarantee you’re going to hear a lot more words. Because ours is a religion of the Word, and, as such, there are a lot of words in that comprise our theology. You might say we have a nimiety of words. Nimiety, incidentally was the word of the day last week on my Merriam Webster app. Nimiety, it means an excess, or a redundancy, as in, “We should have made a list of who’s bringing what to the potluck so we don’t end up with a nimiety of potato salad. Or manna. Or fish. Or bread.
Here’s something to expand your mind a bit: How many words do you suppose have been spent in the service of our theology? Take just one major “concept”–the Trinity, for instance. In our Articles of the Faith in the Book of Common prayer, St. Athanasius manages to explain it in just 40 sentences–impressive, but it reads more like a clinical manual than it does the poetic and dynamic center of our faith. It’s got all the right intellectual bits in place but it is lacking something. Something elusive–ever just out of reach–something; we’ll call the Ineffable. Because it is. And, adding more words in hopes of understanding the Ineffable–except by rare glimpses and ecstatic insights–turns out to be, at best, clumsy tools for the job. Don’t get me wrong. Theology is an integral part of the Christian Faith, it is edifying in a wholly different way, but it often lacks the mind-bending expansiveness of that glimmering moment in time–two thousand plus years ago–one that still spills its glorious windfall on the modern believer.
Lately I have found myself in an increasing number of those frustrating conversations with non– or, ex, believers. Perhaps you have been cornered in a similar situation. Now, to each their own, in this modern era I would be a fool to harbor a grudge about someone’s faith or lack thereof. I do however object to the insinuation that I am, at best, foolish for my Christian beliefs, or more insultingly, that I am an idiot for having them in the first place. These voices are becoming more prevalent. Sadly, in this increasingly secular age, the authority of religion has noticeably waned, along with–and this is the lamentable outcome–the ability to apprehend the mysteries of the sacred. When it is discovered I am a Christian, I see the attention drop, and a familiar Winchelizing process begins–a sugar-slick glaze washes over the features and before I can say anything else I know I’ve lost them. To continue would be a fool’s errand. Yet, ever a fool for God, I fumble and stutter, grasping for the words–the just right words–to defend myself, to try and describe, on the one hand, what is Ineffable, while on the other, recounting the entire history of my faith journey, so they can track exactly how and why I became a Christian–one of the “cool” ones–which only prevents me from getting to the heart of the matter, which is this; that my faith brings me the greatest joy imaginable, that it is steeped in the absolute Reason of the universe, and that this is actually a cause for joy and celebration. But I don’t and I can’t because engaging the sacred is like exercising a muscle, a muscle that atrophies from disuse and it is painfully clear that we’re at two different gymnasiums. I wonder why they inquired in the first place.
It could be that many people have been traumatized by theologically misused words still in circulation. Lots of damage done there. No doubt. So it isn’t so much about my being articulate enough to converse about big topics, although most days I am quite inarticulate, it is sometimes about the woeful impotence of words–made so by the very personal and historical associations we make with them. For instance, when I say the word dog, the gentle Golden Retriever I bring to mind is no match for the rabid German Shepherd that bit you that summer by the lake. It is a bit of a wonder we understand each other at all–let alone God.
And so the Ineffable spins tirelessly on and trots off, the white stag, ever elusive.
Now, I’m no Thomas Aquinas, but he had a similar problem, writ large. On December 6th, 1273, after years and years of dedicated scholarship, and about 100 written works to his credit, Aquinas underwent a mystical transformation. So intense was it, that he quietly set down his goose feather, closed the folder on his, by now formidable compendium of the main teachings of the Catholic Faith–the summa theologica–and never wrote another word about theology. Tradition records him as saying to his secretary, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more. For all that I have written is but straw.” Aquinas saw the Ineffable, and it deftly evaded capture by his quill, because the Ineffable is, well, just that, ineffable. Josef Piepers in his essay about the silence of Aquinas, writes, “His tongue [was] stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God”. Let me repeat that: “His tongue was stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. Silence was really the only response possible. He was silent because he had been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery, unreadable by any human thought or speech.” Thomas fails to articulate about the Ineffable with words, however, by the absence of words he does, and he does this by leaving a space for it. The Taoist sage Lao Tsu would concur: “Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.” Aquinas’ refusal to finish the summa speaks volumes not only about the magnitude of God, but also about the limits of theology. Yet, seen in a different way, the summa is finished: Aquinas’ silence therefore teaches something about doing theology that he could not have taught by any other means. Silence is the rest of the story.
It reminds me of a tale about the Buddha teaching his disciples about the nature of reality and, because he knew he couldn’t do it with words, all he could think to do was to pluck a lotus out of the muddy water and hold it aloft. One of his disciples started smiling and then laughing, fully grokking the Buddha’s teaching in an instant, beyond windy and lengthy sermons. Not surprisingly, it’s called the Flower Sutra (or sermon).
And then it got me musing; given there is a finite number of words, and given that, due to this fact, the yearning to know the Ineffable will always be frustrated by the inability to secure a definitive image of it with words, it seems to me simple mathematics, right? Reduce the amount of words thereby raising the Ineffability quotient in like measure. This could be done in any number of ways, and various mediums already exist because of this fundamental human desire to express the Ineffable. We have archetypes, symbols, rituals, music, and parables. There are icons, paintings, stories, and pictures. Pictures–worth at least a thousand words, right?
Eliminating the larger modes of expressions, I settled on the Haiku. Given its simple yet enigmatic format, one could compress near infinite possibilities into this handy, poetic suitcase of just 17 syllables. 17 syllables, that’s all I get. It’s literally designed to celebrate the Ineffable and it’s economic use of words seemed ideal for my experiment. Haiku’s take place in the moment, without metaphor; are simply observations designed to convey the essence of an experience linked to the human condition while at the same time imparting a universal sentiment. Typically, a Haiku should stand alone making commentary unnecessary, and much like a Zen koan, should frustrate the reason in an effort to pierce beyond it to apprehend the All. Thus the image is itself speech to paraphrase Ezra Pound. “The image is the word beyond formulated language.” Simple, right? Here’s what happened.
I refer you to your order of service if you’d like to read along.
Cool breeze, stroll at dusk,
Terra cotta wall still warm–
Rumor of day’s sun.
Yeah, no. Obviously we’re going to need more words–after all, it takes a crane to build a crane. Not a drop-the-mic haiku moment as hoped for, for sure. I had fun with the challenge, but now I run into the trouble with words from a different direction–the matter of their interpretations. And that’s where the Haiku falls short, it isn’t meant to hold the cool mentation of western theology, but is instead meant to catapult you into a full-tilt gestalt of direct experience—because it is written by someone who has encountered the same. So, even though my Haiku follows the correct format and yields some interesting images, I am unable to replicate and impart my experience of the Divine. You’d have to be a psychic to see how this Haiku related to the Trinity as I understand it.
But we’re on to something here. Stay with me.
So what’s all this to say? And why such a nimiety of words to say it? Are we never meant to use words again? Hardly! Words are the tools we have–it’s the nature of this divine dance. We’re Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake, we love our words! Words are there for us to extend our reach so as to know God ever more intimately. But words are fallible. You’ve probable heard the adage, “the menu is not the meal.” Words can separate us from the true experience of the divine like the thin gauze of mosquito netting; wherein we can see, but not clearly.
Martin Buber observed that the relationship between the human and the divine is “without speech, yet begets it.” That’s the deal–and our Psalm bears that out. The psalmist is so affected by God’s presence and activity in the world, he is bubbling over with words. Listen: “All your works shall give thanks…all your saints shall bless you…they shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power…[and will] make known your deeds…[for] the Lord is faithful in all his words…He is near to those who call upon Him…who call upon Him in truth…My mouth will speak of the praise of the lord.”
Words are the gift we are given to seek God, even if, like Aquinas we cannot find them, we keep at it, because the chase is so frustratingly gratifying. Every so often, through the curtain of words, we are ambushed by God’s fiery Ineffability and by this fire we are slaked–if but for a joyous moment. “Oh Lord, thou hast seduced me, and I was seduced,” wrote Jeremiah (20:7). But not with words—and also with words. Therein lies the paradox.
The examples of Aquinas, my own experience with the non-believer, along with the playful exercise of the Haiku, were an effort to try to communicate the Ineffable, while at the same time, to explore why it can’t easily be communicated. Whether I succeeded or not is uncertain, but one thing became ever more clear as I meditated upon the gospel for today, something I hadn’t seen before in John’s heady, high-Christological portrait: less is more. In this account we are met by a Jesus simply attending to the needs of hungry people. “15. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season…You satisfy the desire of every living thing,” sings our psalmist. Feed people what they truly hunger for (which may be words, incidentally)!
In John’s account, Jesus doesn’t explain himself, Jesus just does Jesus. In a couple of verses later Jesus will begin to employ ever deepening metaphors so that his disciples—and we—can understand who he is. But right now he is pure action. You wish to know a holy man? Don’t listen to his words–watch him tie his shoes, an old Hassidic tale tells us. Watch him feed 5,000, nay 20,000 people. You wish to glimpse the Ineffable? Feed people what they hunger for. Our actions bring down the Holy. Khalil Gibran wrote, “Our work is our love made visible.” Jesus’ work is God made visible. Jesus’ activity of feeding the 5,000 is the haiku—this image of him is the word beyond language. Jesus is at the nexus of silence and sound. He is the lotus of Ineffability. Jesus is the Word and feeding us is his wordless sutra.