God as Mystery

(Among my Lenten readings this year is Met. Kallistos Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way”. I must admit that I was drawn to it because of the chapter titles. Noting that the number of chapters equaled the number of weeks of Lent + an epilogue for Easter week, I could not resist it. God willing, I will also write once a week, using the author’s chapter titles as my post titles. Although I have used Met. Ware’s reflections as a starting point, please do not blame him for what I write. Certainly he knows far more that I do and is far more faithful to God than I will ever be.)

Every time I set out to write about God it seems that I am struck by what a foolish endeavor this is.

Not only is my understanding of God minimal but any words I might craft will inevitably be inadequate. And this is an understatement.

One might ask then why I write. Sometimes I am not sure – or even sure that I should try. But I believe in God and have heard Him speak through me enough times to be convinced that I must not stand in His way.

And so I write. Sitting here at my computer tonight, first I say a short prayer. I tell God that I would like to write for Him if that is okay with Him. But I also ask Him to stop me if I am writing foolishness that is unworthy of Him.

He has stopped me a number of times in the past. On these occasions, I would start writing on what I thought was a worthy topic. However, I would have to set it aside for some reason or another, losing interest before I got back to it.

When I later view such drafts, I quickly delete them. Close call.

Clearly I was writing out of ego. May He ever protect me from falling into that trap. Stop me, Lord, if I am. Do not let me profane Your name or lead any of Your little ones astray. I too am a little one and can only listen for You to lead me.

Met. Ware reminds us that the Greek word for repentance, Metanoia, literally means to change our minds. And to approach God we must strip ourselves of all of our habitual ways of thinking.

How many and varied are the habitual ways in which each of us thinks about God! How can I strip them all away? Why should I strip them all away?

I was talking to a priest the other evening and the conversation meandered into some of the differences I have experienced in Eastern and Western approaches to God.

I noted that the one of the things I cherish about Orthodoxy is its greater sense of mystery – whereas the Western Church seems to have almost a compulsive need to try define and explain everything Divine.

The priest, a historian, pointed to The Age of Reason and Scholasticism as driving forces.

I’m not a historian but I do know that we human beings tend to like things that we can explain – and we are wary of things that we cannot. The latter often leaves us with an uncomfortable sense of not being “in control”.

Of course, we are never truly in control – but we like to think that we are. On a human level, it helps us to feel safe. Until it doesn’t.

In any event, this desire for rational explanation, while leading to much reflection and discussion about God, has some troubling side effects.

Perhaps the most obvious one is that rational explanation does not help us to know God. One can be a scholar of theology without ever experiencing the presence of God.

And another may have a very primitive understanding, riddled with theological “errors”, while daily opening his/her heart before the Lord God and knowing His love deep within.

This latter individual lives a life of love and enters the Kingdom, while the former remains at the gate, arguing with those of similar ilk.

Another problematic side effect of our desire for rational explanation is that, as we try to describe God and define His parameters, we inadvertently create a god who is too small to be credible.

Those genuinely searching for the Creator of the universe will pass over a god who can be described by mere man. Earth and its creatures are but a speck amidst the estimated 100 – 200 billion galaxies that astronomers say surround our Milky Way. If there is One who created all of this, surely human beings cannot know or describe Him.

Furthermore, in our attempts to make this One comprehensible, the ordinariness of our human words can easily deflate our sense of awe. The intellectual debates keep our minds active but too often leave our hearts dormant.

And so it is time to strip away my habitual ways of thinking about who or what God is or isn’t.

I am not suggesting discarding what may be many years of experiencing God in faith – but rather the assumptions culled over lifetimes of exposure to culture and controversy.

In other words, I must repent.

I stand before Him, the Unknowable. He is Mystery – so far beyond my intellect and senses that I hesitate to try to conceive of Him, for fear I will invent Him rather than encounter Him.

He is Other. Only He is uncreated. I am one, tiny created being.

I might attempt to praise Him – with such words such as “How holy You are! How good and loving!”

But this sounds so very foolish. Me telling God that He is holy – when I can only imagine holiness because of Him?

If I step into even greater foolishness, I might try to define how God is organized in Himself, His essence and His energies – or the route by which His Spirit proceeds – or whether His grace is created or uncreated.

Forgive me, dear theologians – I cannot be one of you. For the heresies you have prevented or halted, I thank you. I do not doubt your vocation. But I cannot enter an exchange of words about such things.

No, I must be silent before Him in the place of unknowing where the wonder of His great glory transcends all thought and word.

I must let go of Who I want God to be or even whether I want Him to be. I must be still and allow Him to speak to my heart.

But if this God created all of the billions of galaxies, is He not too “Other” for me to experience Him? Can I realistically expect that He would sing to my heart?

All of Scripture cries out to me a resounding, “Yes!” to this latter question. Not in its many words but in its one Word.

He hides from me in mystery, lest I imagine that I understand Him and diminish Him with my ramblings.

Yet He also reveals Himself in ever-present reality, lest I suppose that a chasm of unknowability exists between us.

Am I not too small and insignificant for His notice?

Yet could all of the cells in my body carry out their functions, working together to simultaneously draw in and direct raw materials, cleanse and remove waste, create thoughts and feelings and perceptions – were He not present to be Life within me?

Could I desire Him were He not near enough to be known?

And He is near.

I see clues to His presence all around and within me. Creation is not only magnificent and beautiful in its design but it is an ever-living, interacting, developing dance of unimaginable intricacy and balance, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the most immense of galaxies.

Then there is the consciousness of creatures, reaching such an incredible complexity in human beings that we seem driven to search for eternal truths. And there appears to be a built-in capacity in us, a conscience, that assesses the right or wrong of things with remarkable consistency.

And, of course, there are the experiences of love and grace arising in the depths of my own being that I know I, myself, did not cause or create. They seem to have come from outside me, from Another who is both beyond me and within me.

Still, He remains mystery. And for this I am grateful.

I celebrate my inability to comprehend Him with my mind – as my heart delights in unfolding layer after layer of a Love that it never could have anticipated or imagined.

I rejoice in the reality that I cannot prove Him, describe Him or control Him.

I can only stand before Him, empty and humbled in my nothingness, awaiting the gift He never denies.

He fills all things. And so He fills me…

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3 thoughts on “God as Mystery

  1. albert

    Hi Mary, I’m going to the library tomorrow to print this. It bears daily re-reading, especially for one who finds it difficult to pray. And for one who is discouraged by the apparent divisions among believers.

  2. albert

    P.S. I just read one of the scripture passages for today’s Divine Liturgy. This part fits well with your post:

    “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” (Rom 13: 11 – 14: 4)

    Coincidence? No way.

  3. mary Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Al.

    I had not really paid much attention to this passage from Romans before…interesting. My footnotes tell me that Paul is addressing the tensions triggered by the termination of the Mosaic law – some people feeling traumatized by the abandonment of the dietary practices that had been lifelong habits that made them a people set apart; others readily accepting liberation from the old law. I hadn’t thought of it much before in those terms but I can see how this could create tensions – and the tendency for one group to judge the other.

    In my own mind, I find it so easy to judge others – I have to actively resist the tendency and certainly I do not always succeed. May we all learn to actively resist it – undoubtedly this would lead us to a more peaceful world.

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