I am a regular visitor to your website and I enjoy my visits, especially to this section….
I have a question that has been going around in my head for a long time now. you often quote Meister Eckhart and other mystics. I'm reading St John of the Cross, and I begin to wonder how their emphasis on the unknowability of God and on Nothing and Emptiness can be squared with the Word made flesh and living among us. When St. Paul tried to preach about the Unknown God people laughed at him. And he made a decision there and then to preach no more that way, but only to preach about “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Like they said to St. Paul on that occasion, “we would like to hear you talk about this again”. Any comments would be appreciated.
Dear Gabriel, Thank you for sending a question that touches the central nerve of Christian spirituality. I'll mark out a few lines as best I can, and hope that something there will suggest a way forward for your own reflection.
It can seem like two different religions: one of them cold and esoteric, the other warm and human. It might seem that they could get on quite well without each other, but I'll try to say why that isn’t so.
The mystery of Jesus is that he is mediator; this means that he “spans the vast abyss” between God and humanity. St Catherine of Siena called him the bridge. A bridge has to remain fixed on both sides. There would be no special mystery to Jesus if he wasn’t also divine. In leaving the Father’s side he did not cease to be divine; he emptied himself, but not of divinity. So we can never dismiss consideration of the transcendence of God. The Incarnation does not diminish it in any way; it makes it accessible – which is different. St Paul uses this word. “Christ Jesus our Lord in whom we have access to God” (Ephesians 3:12).
The paradoxes that follow from this are everywhere. The poems of John of the Cross are as sensuous in their imagery and feeling as the Song of Songs on which they are styled. Yet it was by way of a line-by-line commentary on these poems that he wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul, and about Nada – ‘Nothing’. On the fly-leaf of his Ascent of Mount Carmel he drew a sketch of the spiritual journey, and along the central path he wrote ‘Nada’ seven times. Before the seventh he wrote, “Even on the summit of Mount Carmel” (by which he meant the peak of spiritual perfection) – “Nada.” This paradox lived in the small physical frame of St John of the Cross, and he never weakened one side to strengthen the other.
Meister Eckhart likewise gave strong expressions of this paradox. “God is in all things, the more God is in things the more God is out of things… the more in the more out and the more out the more in.” This may sound a little obscure until we realise he is speaking about transcendence and immanence! The more transcendent God is, the more immanent; and the more immanent the more transcendent. Transcendence is about the unknowability of God; it says God is other than all creatures and beyond our capacity to grasp. Immanence is about the presence of God in everything. These, as I said, may seem to be two different religions, but Eckhart is saying that they necessarily work together: “the more in the more out…” not the more in the less out.
Years ago an image struck me that could clarify this. Imagine a hospital ward with ten beds in a row and one very active and attentive nurse who is present to every one of the ten patients. She is able to be present to them all because she is not one of them. In a sense, she is ‘transcendent’ to them. But imagine then that one day she herself becomes ill and is placed in an eleventh bed in the same ward. She may appear to be nearer to the patients now, since she is one of them; but in fact she is not, she is farther away from them because now she can be present only to herself. In some such way God is intimate to every creature because God is transcendent to all creatures.
These are general considerations. When it comes to Jesus, what is added? Beyond the intimacy that creatures have with the transcendent God, Jesus is one in identity with God. This cannot be said of any other being. But God is not diminished in Jesus; God remains transcendent – transcendent, but accessible, tangible, in Jesus. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands….” When we look at Jesus we are looking into the abyss that is God. We still cannot grasp that abyss – how could a creature grasp infinity? – but we have the courage and even a certain right to stand there in knowing presence, because we are one with Christ in his Mystical Body.
As I understand it, St Paul on the Areopagus was trying to engage the Athenians in a sort of apologetics, or ‘natural theology’ as it used to be called. This would have no parity with the things that believers say about the transcendence of God. There is a not-knowing in both cases; but one is the not-knowing of a person who hasn’t given the subject any thought, while the other is the not-knowing of the person who has come to the end of thought.
There you are, Gabriel. That's the best I can do at present. If you have further thoughts on it I'd love to hear them.Donagh