The 13th-century mystic, Bl. Angela of Foligno, had a deep experience of God, and when her confessor asked her to tell him about it, she said, "Father, if you experienced what I experienced and then you had to stand in the pulpit to preach, you could only say to the people, 'My friends, go with God's blessing, because today I can say nothing to you about God.'"

This is a counterpoint to the excessive fluency we have when we speak about God. The word comes tripping off our tongue as if it there were nothing puzzling about it at all.  It was not so in the beginning.  In the Old Testament God revealed his name to Moses: it was Yahweh. "That will be my name forever, and by this name they shall call upon me for all generations to come" (Exodus 3:15). The Jews regarded this name as so holy that it should not be pronounced.  In Hebrew, only vowels are written, not consonants. So the name was something like YWH.  When they came to this name in the Scriptures they said 'Adonai' instead (Lord). As time went by and no one had ever heard the word pronounced, no one knew any longer how it was meant to be pronounced! (Later, some people began to put to vowels of 'Adonai' with the consonants of YWH, and it yielded - more or less - the artificial name 'Jehovah'.)

It is somehow a wonderful thing to have a name for God that must never be pronounced. We Christians don't talk like that, but in fact we say something that is even more radical. For us it is not that there is some particular word that must never be uttered, but that all words fall short of the mark.  Use any words you like, we say, or as many as you like, but know that when you have said them all you have said nothing!  This is something that is not stated clearly enough or often enough.  So that you will be reassured that this is not some new teaching, here are some brief extracts from the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) on this subject.

<>   "God is ultimately known as unknown, because the mind knows God most perfectly when it knows that his essence is above all that can be known in this life of wayfaring."
<>   "Whatever is comprehended by a finite being [that is, us] is itself finite."
<>   "God is honoured by silence, not because we may say or know nothing about him, but because we know that we are unable to comprehend him."
<>   "Neither Christian nor pagan knows the nature of God as he is in himself."
<>   "We only know God truly when we believe that he is above all that human beings can think about him."

God is a dark mystery.  But isn't God light? –  "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).  Yes, but excess of light, as St Augustine said, has the same effect as darkness.

There are occasions when we are all lost for words: for example, when we are brought up against the fathomless problem of evil.  Is there any answer to it?  We are lost for words when tragedy strikes at us - or strikes near us.  We use a lot of words, certainly, but we know that they all fall pathetically short.  On an ordinary day we can say pat things about God and about suffering and evil, but when we are actually touched by any of these we fall silent. Then the only word we have is the one word that expresses God and humanity to the full extent that they can be expressed in our flesh: Jesus, the Word made flesh.  All the puffs of air that we call words are insubstantial beside him.  He is present to us whether we are awake or asleep, whether speaking or silent, whether full of joy or full of pain.  His presence is "complete comfort," as Julian of Norwich put it.  But remember that the word 'comfort' comes from the Latin 'fortis', which means 'strong'.

What a dark mystery we point to when we say the simple words, "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us!"

Donagh O'Shea


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