God Beyond Words

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

…then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

On Ash Wednesday, we remember our origins—that we are dust of the ground. In Hebrew, adam (humankind) and adamah (ground, land) are cognate. No preposition links adam (humankind) and aphar (dry earth, dust) min-hā·’ă·ḏā·māh (of the ground), indicating the closest affinity between humankind and dust of the ground. 

Like a mother, the Lord God blew into the nostrils of adam the breath of life. The word for breath (neshamah) is derived from the Hebrew verb nasham (to pant or gasp like a woman in labor). Since labor pains were pronounced a penalty after the transgression, postlapsarian language strains to express the inexpressible. 

God who is beyond thought and speech “clothed Himself in our language, so that He might clothe us in His mode of life,” writes St. Ephrem the Syrian.1

It is our metaphors that He put on—
though He did not literally do so;
He then took them off—without actually doing so:
when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts on one when it is beneficial,
then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that He strips off
and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor
does not apply to His true Being:
because that Being is hidden,
He has depicted it by means of what is visible.2

Language that developed “east of Eden” now serves as a bridge over the chasm between creation and its Creator.

Mystics testify that the journey into God eventually leaves words and thoughts behind. The Dominican mystic John Tauler (c. 1300-1361) writes of this divine abyss:

No one can imagine the solitude which reigns in this wilderness, no one at all. No thought can enter here, not a word of all the learned treatises on the Holy Trinity with which people busy themselves so much. Not a single word. So inward is it, so infinitely remote, and so untouched by time and space. This ground is simple and without differentiation, and when one enters here, it will seem as if one has been here from all eternity and as if united to God, be it only for an instant. This experience sheds light and bears witness that man was everlasting in God, before his creation in time. When he was in Him, he was God in God.3

The language of the mystic can be misinterpreted as denying the distinction between God and creation, but it is actually pointing to an experience beyond words. Trying to express in words a wordless reality is like trying to produce a whole sheet of paper using a pair of scissors. Language is a scissor.

Jesus calls us to return to oneness with God. When Eve’s mind turned to the question of the serpent, her thoughts scattered and dispersed from one-pointed union. Adam became distracted along with his wife. Ever since the exile, humans have been looking to their left and right for approval rather than living directly in the Light of God.

“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Matthew 6:1-4

Looking left and right is not only an external phenomenon but an internal one as well, in self-congratulation and self-righteousness. When the left hand knows not what the right hand is up to, the person is single and simple: 

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”

Matthew 6:22

“The Father and I are one,” Jesus said (John 10:30). The “I” of the Son of God includes adam, all humankind, which he assumed. Hidden prayer draws us into that original intimacy and communion with the Father:

But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Matthew 6:6

Words enfleshed God till
God became flesh.
When the Word enfleshed
Stripped flesh of words,
Flesh became God.

-GMC

1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith, no. 31. From The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, trans. Sebastian Brock (Cambridge: Aquila Books, 2013), 85-6.

2 Ibid.

3 Sermon 44 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 148.

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