God Within

(Laurentianum, Annus 48, Fasc.3 (2007), pp.317-337)



‘Words are precious cups of meaning’, wrote Saint Augustine. (Confessions, 1.16) But, being a product of culture, words change meaning with time. Just over three hundred years ago, Sir Christopher Wren, architect of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, took the British king, William III, on a tour of the building while it was under construction. The king commented that it was ‘amusing, artful, and awful.’ Wren was flattered, since what the king meant was ‘amazing, artistic, and awe-inspiring.’ In the King James Bible of 1611, the Lord’s Prayer begins, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ In eleventh century English it reads, ‘Faeder ure thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod’. (1) If language can change so much in six hundred years, then try to grasp the meaning of the bible after two to three thousand years.

Language and experience engage interactively, each shaping the other. Language gives voice to consciousness. The limits of our language are the limits of our world, said Wittgenstein. If we drop the word sacrifice from our vocabulary – to take one example – it may not be long before the thought of sacrifice drops from our mind, and, then, perhaps the reality of sacrifice from our life.

Words matter. All language is symbolic; there are no such things as un-interpreted facts. What “God” means may be expressed by other words or symbols, or even none.

Language may conceal instead of reveal, confuse instead of clarify. ‘Every pattern we try to impose on our experience from outside inevitably falsifies the truth. This is the dangerous quality of language…’ (2) Clinging to formulae and fixed terminology betrays fear, a craving for certainty, a hankering after security, which parodies and undermines the search for truth. Language is weak, fallible, changing, limited, and contingent. It may lend itself to fundamentalism, objectivism, and absolutizing; people fed on a mental diet of slogans become prisoners of their own propaganda. As human history illustrates, from Babel to Pentecost, words have power to divide or to unite.

Think of the multiple and problematic meanings of words like person, nature, word. Think, too, of their significance in theologies of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Redemption, the basics of the Christian faith. Saint Augustine wrote modestly, ‘The formula “Three persons” has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent.’(3) The use of the word person in relation to God lends itself all too readily to the assumption that God is personal as humans are, a bigger and better version of us. That, in turn, draws in its train much unhelpful and even damaging anthropomorphic baggage, such as, for instance, the risk of conjuring up a god in our image and likeness. Better to recognize the word for what it is, a limping analogy, and no more. The word person has its origins in the Greek theatre, where the persona sounded through a mask representing a character in a play. It is close, perhaps, to the journalistic use of the term persona, as in the sentence, ‘The media have endowed X with the persona of elder statesman.’ A woman may be a wife, a mother, and a sister – three personas in one person.

But, if we are to communicate at all, we humans need this imperfect instrument called language. This is not a problem, as long as we recognize and accept its limitations. Language helps – up to a point; then we need to let it go. In spirituality and theology, this applies also to the language of the via negativa (what God is not), and the language of analogy. The scholastics acknowledged that every analogy limps. There are other means of communication at hand, if we, especially in the West, can attune ourselves to them in a culture filled with words.


Jews, Muslims, and some Protestants prohibit images in any form – crucifixes, statues, pictures, icons, mosaics, etc. To Catholics, images are as harmless and user-friendly as family photos on the living-room wall. Those who worry about them perhaps strain at a gnat, and run the risk, not so much of swallowing the camel, as of failing even to see it. It is in the mental image that danger lies, potentially more damaging by far than the simple “holy picture”. “My” God is always an idol, made in my image and likeness, God as me-writ-large. The idolatry so abhorred by the bible is more about reducing God to the status of a creature than about elevating a creature to the status of God.

Images matter. What is suggested by the image of God as a bearded old man up in the sky? Perhaps that god lends itself to being discarded in adulthood along with the other bearded old man up in the sky, the one who comes down the chimney at Christmas with a bag of presents over his shoulder.

The image of God as Ruler, Lord, or King has heavy political overtones, and, in history, has been used as an instrument of power and control:

  • what else was the Divine Right of Kings about?
  • the Orthodox icons of Christos Pantokrator – Christ the ruler of all – majestic and aloof, can be intimidating, even oppressive.
  • the identification of church with Kingdom has led to ecclesiolatry.
  • the terms Ruler, Lord, and King are from the vocabulary of hierarchy, and it evokes infantilism and passivity.

Images are not culturally neutral; they carry weight. What does the image of God as Father suggest to a child who has been abused by its father? And there is the image of the Godfather, making us offers we can’t refuse, like, ‘Do as I tell you, or you’ll go to hell.’ Imaging God as mother is not necessarily a better option, as Sally McFague acknowledges even while suggesting the images of God as Mother, Lover, and Friend. (4) God-as-Mother need not always be a calm, soft and gentle image; a loving mother may be a powerful, angry fighter if her children are under threat. The image of God as Father, which was the central reference point of Jesus’ life, was not about masculinity – any more than imaging the Holy Spirit as a dove is about birds – but about a deep, personal relationship of respect, trust, and love between himself and God. There is surely the freedom to express this otherwise, especially if, as feminists suggest, the image of God as male and solitary is an immensely powerful symbol of male self-sufficiency and patriarchy. Perhaps the Catholic church, in promoting devotion to Mary, is attempting to soften the image of a masculine God.

The image of God as Shepherd may suggest that we humans are no more intelligent than a flock of sheep. Granted, there is evidence – 250 wars since 1945, for instance – that we are sometimes less intelligent, and our thinking is often woolly, but it’s an image that doesn’t do much for anyone’s self-esteem.

Images matter. When I was in Africa, I was sometimes asked, ‘Why is the devil always black, and angels always white?’

As with language, images are inseparable from human thought. They are a necessary prop, and are damaging only if we become reliant on them, or unthinkingly equate the sign with the signified.

The agnosticism of the saints and mystics

The agnosticism of the saints and mystics is refreshing in its simple groundedness. It recognizes the limitations of any human utterance about God.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘In the last resort, all we know of God is that we do not know, since we know that what God is surpasses all we can understand of him.’ (5) ‘God is self-evident, but what it is to be God is not self-evident to us’. (6) ‘Even if God’s nature is in itself absolutely simple, yet we can know it only in a multiplicity of concepts’. (7)

Saint Augustine said, ‘Beware of affirming the unknown as known’ (8), and, ‘If anyone thinks he understands God, then, whatever it was he understood, it was not God’. (9) ‘More true than our speech about God is our thinking of him, and more true than our thinking is his being’. (10)

The Greek Orthodox saint, Gregory Palamas, wrote, ‘God exists, and God does not exist,’ and, ‘He has many names, yet cannot be named; he is everything, and yet nothing’. (11)

The Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote, ‘When I think of God, I blaspheme, and when I speak of God, I blaspheme twice’.

Hindus say, ‘One God, many manifestations,’ and ‘Truth is One; the wise call it by many names.’ (12)

God is, and always will be, a mystery. We may know that God is; we cannot know what God is. ‘God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few,’ says Ecclesiastes. (5.2)

If what has been written here so far sounds reductionist, I ask the reader for patience, bearing in mind that the other side of the reductionist coin is expansionist.


Poets do it best. Their language is suggestive rather than descriptive, and that this is a plus; it leaves room for imagination, as propositions do not. A poem is a fountain, a proposition, a fence. Is the dove image of the Holy Spirit not one that came from the heart of a poet, a symbol of freedom? Is the Spirit breathing rather than breath, an action or energy, a verb rather than a noun, a relationship rather than a thing? – breathing images life, strength, and movement.

Take the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, for example (13):

‘These men know God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,
And Christ will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb’.
The Great Hunger, III, p.68.

This is reminiscent of Joseph Mary Plunkett’s panentheistic poem, I see his blood upon the rose, and of themes of Celtic spirituality.

‘God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday’.
The Great Hunger, VI, p.72.

How wonderful that God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday! – better by far than in a department of life labelled “Religion.” Teresa of Avila says, ‘the Lord walks among the pots and pans…’ (14) And how faithful to God’s creation was John of the Cross who, when on a visit to Lisbon, declined to accompany his brothers to visit an alleged stigmatist in the city, saying he would prefer to sit on the shore watching the sea! (15) And similarly, again in Kavanagh: –

‘That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
was breathing His love by a cut-away bog’.
The One, p.229.

‘We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be, and act, and live as He intends’. (16)

‘Only God thinks of the dying sparrow
in the middle of a war’.
Lough Derg, p.100, written about 1942-3.

‘You are worth more than hundreds of sparrows’. (Luke 12.7) And, ‘the death of a sparrow can be contemplated without despairing of the goodness of nature, because the bird is “not forgotten by your Father”’. (17)

‘He said: The road you are going will lead you to Hate,
for I went down that way yesterday and saw it away
in the hollow a mile distant and I turned back
glad of my escape.
But I said: I will persist,
for I know a man who went down the hill into the hollow
and entered the very city of Hate
and God visited him every day out of pity
till in the end he became a most noble saint’.
The Road to Hate, p.188.

God, the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, hides himself from those who seek him, and reveals himself to those who hide from him.

‘….. time
has its own work to do. We must not anticipate
or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
unless we stay in the unconscious room
of our hearts. We must be nothing,
nothing [so] that God may make us something….
God must be allowed to surprise us’.
Having Confessed, pp.190-191.

Kavanagh speaks of living in the here and now, without agenda; it is in the present that we experience the Presence, that we are surprised by joy. He evokes the nada of John of the Cross and of the Upanishads and of countless other mystics, simply waiting in silence: ‘Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, knows nothing else, that is the Infinite.’ (18)

‘We are not alone in our loneliness;
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own,
Problems that we could not solve,
Lovers that we could not have,
Pleasures that we missed by inches.
Come, I’m beginning to get pretentious,
Beginning to message forth instead
Of expressing how glad
I am to have lived, to feel the radiance….’
Thank you, Thank you, p.247.

‘I am not alone for the Father is with me’. (John 8.16; 16.32)

This is reminiscent of the Jewish saying that, at the end of our life, God will call us to account for every pleasure which we did not enjoy. Instead of ‘beginning to get pretentious,’ to pontificate, Kavanagh is glad simply to have lived, to feel the radiance….

There is something of the same exuberant joy in the prayer of the Celtic poet who wrote, ‘Son of God, You whose crimson blood redeems mankind, purify my heart. It is you who make the sun bright and the ice sparkle; you who make the rivers flow and the salmon leap. Your skilled hand makes the nut tree blossom, and the wheat turn golden; your spirit composes the songs of the birds and the buzz of the bees. Your creation is a million wondrous miracles, beautiful to behold.’ (19)


Jesus taught in parables. He left no writings; though he could write, we don’t know what he wrote. (John 8.6) In this he is similar to Siddhartha Gautama: ‘Buddha’s state of mind surpasses human thought; it can not be made clear by words; it can only be hinted at in parables’. (20)

Parables may take the form of actions or words; they are social and individual. In either case, they are tentative; they evoke more than lecture; they engage more than infuse; they are concrete more than abstract; they are icons in words – you look through them rather than at them, they point beyond themselves; they give questions to answer more than answers to questions. They are a mirror held up to us, asking, ‘Who do you identify with in the story?’ and our answer reveals to us something of ourselves. Parables are new, creative ways of looking at reality, especially human relationships. They shift the focus from the abstract to the practical, from fence-sitting to commitment – God is not amenable to the detached observer. They have an intensity, an emotional character, that reveals dry, “objective” detachment as bogus, a cop-out. Parables are universal: you don’t have to be “religious” to appreciate them; you just need to be human. They surprise us, ambushing our assumptions, turning our expectations inside out. And there is always something in a parable that eludes us; as Peter Kreeft says, ‘Lightning will not stand still while you paint its portrait’ – and that is all to the good; God will not be domesticated.

Parables are realistic (differentiating them from fables): ‘There is a reason for this realism of the parables of Jesus. It arises from a conviction that there is no mere analogy, but an inward affinity, between the natural order and the spiritual order; or, as we might put it in the language of the parables themselves, the Kingdom of God is intrinsically like the process of nature and of the daily life of men…. This sense of the divineness of the natural order is the major premise of all the parables’. (21)

In trying to shed light on what always remains a mystery, the difference between parables and descriptive prose may be likened to the difference between playing a piece of music and describing it in words – ‘You start with a B flat, and then go to a C and then to a….’ In story-telling, the vital difference is not between true and false (or “made-up”) stories; it is between those that are alive and those that are dead.

‘Christian theology was formed in the matrix of words and ideas, despite Jesus teaching in parables, the medium of images. It has been said many times in recent years that one of the principal obstacles to the renewal of the Christian community today is a failure of imagination. We seem to have got our theology into a conceptual strait-jacket.’ (22)

Western theology was formed in the matrix of words and ideas – Athens taking over from Jerusalem; it takes as literal things never meant to be taken literally, as, until recently, the creation story in Genesis. While most of us have left that particular literalization behind us, we are often afraid similarly to re-think concepts such as the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the perpetual virginity of Mary, to name a few. Western theology has acquired a defensive ideological burden and ceases to liberate. Protestants fall into bibliolatry: the word, the word, the word – the word is a finger pointing at the moon. Catholics fall into ecclesiolatry: the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord – see Jeremiah 7.1-15 and the wonderful parable in 1 Samuel 4.1b-11. The word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have spent two thousand years turning the flesh back into words. ‘There are… many who are disappointed that he [Jesus] taught mysteries in parables rather than systems in syllogisms and who try to remedy this “failure”’. (23) The East speaks in symbols: the jewel in the palm of the hand, the monkey mind, the raft you leave behind having crossed the river, etc. Parables embrace words, images, and symbols. How good it will be if the one world of East and West breathes with both lungs!

Rabbi Lionel Blue says that Jews joke, saying, ‘We Jews don’t have theology; we leave that to Christians; we just tell stories’. Jesus was a Jew; he taught in parables.


Life is larger than logic; it is the very home of paradox, and every person is a living paradox. Life teems with paradox at every level. Some examples:

  • The scholastics used to say, ‘Nemo dat quod non habet’ – no one gives what he hasn’t got. That’s logical, but life surpasses it: ‘It is in giving that we receive.’ Blaise Pascal has God say to the one searching for him, ‘You would not be searching for me if you had not already found me’. (24)
  • We seek to prevent, relieve, and accept suffering – all three.
  • To become oneself, one needs to grow beyond oneself. Fulfilment of self is found through self-emptying. ‘Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’. (Luke 17.33)
  • Caring and not caring are complementary, as are attachment and detachment.
  • When we forgive, the first person to benefit is ourselves, by releasing us from anger, resentment, the desire for revenge, or the crippling disablement of a victim mentality.
  • Saint Paul wrote, ‘Bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6.2); just three verses later he wrote, ‘Let each one carry his own burden.’ (v.5) Neither either-or but both-and.

Jesus taught in paradoxes as well as parables. He spoke of hating the world and loving it, honouring parents and hating them. ‘… the fundamental Christian paradox: you must love nothing but God, or you insult your Maker; you must love all things, or you insult their Maker’. (25)

We come to know God by loving people.

Jesus said, ‘He who is not with you is against you’ (Luke 11.23) and, ‘He who is not against you is for you’. (Luke 9.50)

Read the prologue of John’s gospel alongside John 14.28: ‘The Father is greater than I’.
The great Christian paradox is that of Jesus, God and man. Indeed, any statement about God is paradoxical: Saint Gregory Palamas wrote, ‘We participate in the divine nature, yet it remains totally inaccessible. We need to affirm both at the same time and preserve the paradox as a criterion for right doctrine’. (26) That last phrase is significant: ‘paradox as a criterion for right doctrine.’ For the Orthodox, paradox and ‘silence represented the only correct posture before the mystery that we call “God” – not a philosophical hubris which tried to iron out the difficulties’. (27)

The mystics are at home with paradox – John of the Cross for instance:

‘To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing’.

‘To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not’. (28)
A method to avoid impeding the all: –
‘When you delay in something
you cease to rush toward the all.
For to go from the all to the all
you must deny yourself of all in the all.
And when you come to possession of the all
you must possess it without wanting anything.
Because if you desire to have something in all
your treasure in God is not purely your all’. (29)

It is not only the Christian faith that is aware of paradox; so are other religions: ‘What is the meaning of the saying, “A cupful of water is more than the water of an ocean?” This is the answer: “A cupful of water given in a pure and compassionate spirit to one’s parents or to a sick person has an eternal merit, but the water of an ocean will some day come to an end.”’(30) Koans – riddles, or paradoxes – are a favoured Buddhist way of teaching.

At every level of existence, death is the way to new life. Matter, for example, is indestructible: destroy it in one form and it is re-constituted in another. If the great religions are at home with paradox, it may come as a surprise that physics, that seemingly most mathematical and exact of sciences, is, too.

The macro-world

Matter. Max Planck, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, wrote, ‘As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can say, as a result of my research about the atoms, this much: there is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds the most minute solar system of the atom together…. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter’. (31)

Energy. Stephen Hawking says, ‘the total energy of the universe is zero.’ (32) ‘If all the matter in the entire Universe could be collected together at a single point, its negative gravitational energy would exactly cancel out all the positive mass energy of all the matter’, and, ‘It is natural to wonder how much mass-energy our entire bubble Universe contains…. The answer is… none at all!’ (33)

Light. In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed that light energy was a particle phenomenon, though he knew well that light energy had been proven to be a wave phenomenon’. (34) Light therefore is a particle, that is to say, point-like, of no extension, but it is also a wave spread throughout space. (35)

The micro-world

Action at a distance, simultaneous existence in two states, and the principle of non-contradiction. ‘Quantum mechanics, the branch of physics that describes events at the subatomic level, is a consistent, empirically proven framework that predicts how subatomic particles will behave and interact. But it is also “spooky”, to use Einstein’s description. His most famous experiment in this regard is so odd that, when Einstein devised it with two collaborators [Podalsky and Rosen], as a thought experiment in 1935, he called it a paradox. It goes like this. Let’s say that a radioactive atom decays. In doing so, it emits a pair of particles. The particles are linked forever in this way: the laws of nature dictate that if one of the particles is spinning in a way that we can call clockwise, then the other particle is spinning counter-clockwise’.

‘Now, let’s say that you measure the spin of one of the particles. It turns up clockwise. By this very act of measurement, then, you have determined the spin of the other particle – even if it is at the other end of the universe’. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance”, but it has been proved right time and again. What happens, according to physicists’ current interpretation, is that each particle exists in two states simultaneously, somehow spinning clockwise and counter-clockwise at the same time. Only when an observer makes a measurement on one particle does that particle settle down and choose one spin. This choice affects which spin its partner chooses. This suggests to some scholars a level of reality beyond the familiar everyday one, a reality in which spatial distance is meaningless (because the second particle receives the information about the first particle’s choice simultaneously and makes its own choice based on that instantaneously). It is in this other level of reality that some find a place for the existence of a supreme being’. (36)

This “thought experiment” of Einstein’s has been verified empirically: a group of French scientists conducted an experiment in 1982 – Aspect – when ‘two identical photons were emitted in opposite directions by a calcium atom; it was noted that if certain influences were brought to bear on one of the photons, then the second was also affected, although the latter may be on the other side of the moon!’ (37) ‘This reverses an axiom of classical physics: action-at-a-distance is inconceivable in the classical physics of Newton; nevertheless, in the micro-world of quantum occurrences, there are repeated violations of that law of local causality. Meaning has been reversed; there are presences within the micro-world that are unthinkable within the world of sense experience’. (38) ‘The quantum world is a dimension that is accessible only through symbols’. (39) As is God.

The principle of non-contradiction states, ‘The same attribute cannot belong, and at the same time not belong, to the same subject in the same respect’. (40) But, ‘In the micro-world it is necessary to affirm the presences of two identities of the same individual object at the same time. Furthermore, the “either-or” mode of thinking that applies so often to the world in which humans live, where two presences or identities of the same object cannot be identified to be valid at the same time, is weakened as absolutely applicable to the world of human consciousness because of its inapplicability in the micro-world’. (41) If objectivity is inapplicable in the physical world, one might ask whether it is applicable in the world of consciousness? (It may be worth re-reading here what C. H. Dodd wrote above about the inward affinity between the natural order and the spiritual order.)

Subject-object differentiation. Kierkegaard maintained that, ‘When the truth viewed objectively appeared to be a paradox, then this was an indication that subjectivity was the truth – meaning that the truth had to involve one’s own active participation’. (42) ‘The universe does not exist “out there” independently of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening. We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe’. (43) ‘All meanings exist in a relativity to the frame of reference from which occurrences are observed.’ (44) ‘Observation of real events includes the observer, “heart” and all’, says the poet, Robert Conquest. (45) The idea of the objective mind, standing apart from, or above, reality, subjecting it to cool, impartial analysis and judgment is an Enlightenment delusion based on hubris. Subject and object are reciprocally interactive. Everything is inter-connected; nothing exists or acts in isolation; the name of the reality game is inter-dependence. Relationships are at the heart of everything.

Part of growing up involves learning to live with ambiguity and uncertainty rather than expecting precision and complete answers. ‘The trick is about learning how to live with the open-ended question, accepting of emptiness, coping with not knowing’. (46) To “leave people in peace” with simplistic certainties taken for truths, a religion of observances, and a few doctrinal formulae learned by heart, is to sell them short; it is a “kindness” indistinguishable from contempt, like giving a person the book of rules governing football as a substitute for the thrill of playing in the match.

‘Mystics [and scientists] use the language of paradox: they talk about meditation as an entry into silence, and then they recommend the use of words, e.g. a mantra; they say meditation is imageless, and then speak about seeing; they talk about emptiness, darkness, nothingness (nada), and then use erotic language to speak of joy, love, celebration. The Western mind, with its rootedness in logic, doesn’t like paradox; we prefer the little boxes of ideas’. (47) Are the mystics and physicists not alike in their language, and in their respect for symbol and paradox? And why not? They both operate in the realm of faith, religious or human: the scientist begins with an act of faith in the validity of human reasoning – you cannot use reason to prove reason; and with an act of faith in the coherence of reality – there could be no science if, for example, cause and effect were whimsical and arbitrary. May mystics and scientists not be like the lines of a railway track, always close but never converging, even though on the same route!

We may be grateful that Stephen Hawking did not find the Great Universal Theory (GUT) he sought; it would have left science with nothing to do but tidy up loose ends. Life is a mystery to be revered and celebrated, not a problem to be solved and explained. ‘Jesus gives a person two basic certainties: the certainty of being infinitely loved, and the certainty of being capable of loving without limits.’ (48) That is enough to support, without stifling.


‘There is a linguistic connection between the three words “myth”, “mysticism” and “mystery”. All are derived from the Greek verb muein: to close the eyes or mouth. All three words, therefore, are rooted in an experience of darkness or silence’. (49) ‘All theology, all talk of God, comes to an end in silence which acknowledges that God is beyond anything which human beings could possibly say’. (50) ‘The kingdom of God is not in words but in power.’ (1 Corinthians 4.20) God has inbuilt in humanity a significant hint: we have two eyes and two ears – but only one mouth!

This could be seen – mistakenly, I believe – as reductionist, or even despairing. More accurately, it might be seen as liberation from the narrowness of words, ideas, images, and logic. It is not the silence of skepticism, defeat, or despair, but of reverence and rest, of joy, wonder, and gratitude.

Wendy Robinson, in her Exploring Silence (51), speaks of four kinds of silence:

  • the silence of availability: ‘Here I am’.
  • the silence of growth: gestation, the silence in which words have the courage to swim in a sea of silence.
  • the silence beyond words: the silence of lovers.
  • the silence of the Pietà: the silence of suffering and the mystery of death, neither passivity nor obedience, but powerlessness, self-emptying, like Jesus’ descent into hell.

And she adds, ‘Where there is silence there is a nesting place for hope – pure hope; not hope of anything in particular – just hope’. (52) In this, she echoes what mystics of all traditions have said:

Lao Tzu (570-490 BCE), wrote in Tao Te Ching, ‘The great revelation is stillness’. (53)

The Muslim Sufi mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), said: ‘Become silent, and in silence move toward non-existence, and when you become non-existent, you will be all praise!’ (54)

Jewish tradition states, ‘Let all the earth keep silence before him!’ (Habakkuk 2.20)

The Catholic mystic, Angela of Foligno, said (55), ‘Those who feel God most deeply can say least about him’, and Meister Eckhart, ‘There is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence’. ‘Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God… for the only language God hears is the silent language of love’. (56)

The Christian (Greek) tradition follows a similar path: ‘As Basil said, these elusive religious realities could only be suggested in the symbolic gestures of the liturgy, or, better still, by silence’. (57) ‘It is better to be silent and real than to talk and be unreal’. (58)

The Protestant tradition values silence, too, despite its inordinate pre-occupation with the word at the expense of images and symbols: ‘Kierkegaard said that if he were a doctor and were allowed to prescribe a remedy for all the ills of the modern world, he would prescribe silence’. (59)

In recent times, the Anglican apologist, C. S. Lewis, wrote with perceptive humour of the comment of Screwtape, a senior devil writing to an underling: ‘Music and silence – how I detest them both!’ (60)

Scientists, too, are not without appreciation of silence. Auguste Antoine Piccard, Swiss pioneer of underwater exploration, wrote, ‘Silence stands outside the world of profit and utility. It is “unproductive” and therefore regarded as useless. Yet there is more help and healing in silence than in all the useful things’. (61) Is it not remarkable too that the singularly misnamed “Big Bang” which marked the beginning of the Universe is held by scientists to have taken place in silence? ‘How loud was the Big Bang? Not very loud at all. It was, in fact, completely silent.’ (62)

The former UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, wrote, ‘The best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life, is that you should be silent and let God work and speak’. (63)

The psalmist sings,

‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ (Psalm 45 {46}.11)
Be still and know that I am God – a call to focus and connect with God.
Be still and know that I am – a call to believe in God as the “Eternal One”.
Be still and know – a call to be open to God with the heart, not just the mind.
Be still – a call to exterior and interior silence in expectation of a personal experience of God.
Be – wait before the mystery of God; let God take over your life. (64)

The Indian theologian, Raimon Pannikar writes:

An interior silence is necessary for anyone who wants to talk of God.
Talking about God is not like talking about anything else.
It is our entire being which talks of God.
God does not belong to the churches, to religion, to science, or to any other human activity.
We still need religious language, symbols, and beliefs.
God is a symbol, not a concept.
Just as there are many cultures, there are many ways to talk about God.
What “God” means can be expressed by other words or symbols, or even none, for God is not the possession of those who express belief.
All talk of God ends in a renewed silence. (65)

Silence – why do we run from this friend as if from an enemy? ‘The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles.’ (66) ‘Keep silent! – what a strange expression! Silence keeps us’. (67) ‘Our restlessness pushes us outwards rather than inwards… rarely, when we are deeply restless, are we drawn inward, to seek a solution to our yearnings in stillness and silence.’ (68) ‘Reality can be known only as a whole, not in parts, and… this total apprehension can be realized only in silence’. (69)


For many, the absence of God seems more real than the presence. Is God silent? – or are we deaf? There may be many, including “religious” people, who have quietly given up on prayer, perhaps still punching in time at it, but no longer expecting anything. To say to such a person, ‘Persevere,’ may condemn them to suffocation by routine. Perhaps their imagination has been stifled by the repetition of fixed forms of prayer; perhaps they are afraid to let go and take a new approach, having been taught not to trust their own judgment. Dom John Chapman wrote, ‘Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t.’ (70) Our ways of prayer change, and need to, as we change on our way through life. Letting go of what no longer helps is a necessary step on the way towards finding what does help. It is having the courage to launch out into the deep in the expectation that God does not make fools of us, leading us forward in hope, only to abandon us. In the bible, almost every theophany is found, not in a temple, synagogue, or church, but in nature.

How do we see prayer? Like a long-distance call to someone who doesn’t seem to answer the phone very often? Like directing a beam upwards in search of something? Or like trying to build a bridge over a gap between God and the person?

No one can build a bridge over a gap that doesn’t exist. There is no gap between God and the person. We are in God in the most total and radical sense imaginable; we could not exist, in any form, even for an instant, without God. ‘God is more inward than my innermost self’, wrote Augustine. (71) ‘The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are’. (72)

But we still think of God as off out there somewhere, perhaps “up in heaven”. That is not how the mystics see things. ‘Consider what Saint Augustine says, that he sought him in many places but found him ultimately within himself’, wrote Teresa of Avila. (73) Perhaps what Jesus himself said was most important: ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21), a phrase which could equally well be translated as “among you,” that is to say, “in your relationships.” Relationships – with God, others, ourselves, and nature – are at the heart of everything. ‘Find the key to your heart; it will also open the door to the Kingdom of God’, said Saint John Chrysostom. (74) We are afraid to enter within; how many people live in self-loathing! If we did enter within, we might be surprised to discover that the truth about ourselves is good and joyful. Someone has said, ‘Never be afraid to accept the truth about yourself – no matter how good it may be!’ Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ (Matthew 19.19) Is there in us a perfectionism that alienates us from ourselves, so that what we seek we always expect to find some other place, some other time? It is in the here and now, this place, this time, and this person, that God finds us. ‘It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it there for us, so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.’ (Deuteronomy 30.12-14) Within. ‘God is the life of my life’. (75)

‘Man’s primary task is to penetrate within and there discover himself. Whoever has not found himself within himself has not yet found God; and whoever has not found God within himself has not yet found himself. No one finds himself apart from God, and no one finds God apart from himself’. (76)

Mark Gibbard wrote, ‘The best kind of prayer is that in which there is most love.’ (77) The way inwards is not by the path of knowledge – after the next course or book, or when I sort out the ideas in my head – but by love. ‘Give me one who loves; he will understand what I say’, said Augustine. (78)

‘O Lord, you search me and you know me,
you know my resting and my rising,
you discern my purpose from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down,
all my ways lie open to you.

Before ever a word is on my tongue
you know it, O Lord, through and through.
Too wonderful for me this knowledge,
too high, beyond my reach.

O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.

If I say: ‘Let the darkness hide me,
and the light around me be night,’
even darkness is not dark for you,
and the night is as clear as the day’.
(Psalm 138 {139}.1-12)




1) Steve Olsen, Mapping Human History; Discovering the Past through our Genes, Bloomsbury, London, 2002, p.138.
2) John Main OSB, The Inner Christ, DLT, London, 1994, p.243.
3) On the Trinity, 5.10, Fathers of the Church, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1963, vol. 45, p.188.
4) See her Models of God, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987.
5) De Potentia, ques.7, art.5, ad 14.
6) Summa Theologiae, I, II, 1.
7) Summa Theologiae, I, ques.13, art. 4.
8) An Imperfect Work on Genesis, 9.30.
9) Sermon 52.6.16 in PL 38.360, and Sermon 117.3.5 in PL 38.663.
10) On the Trinity, 7.4.7.
11) From Bishop Kallistos Ware, “Spiritual Stars of the Millennium,” The Tablet, 18 March 2000, p.400.
12) Rig Veda, I.164.46.
13) Quotations from Patrick Kavanagh are taken from his Collected Poems, ed. by Antoinette Quinn, Penguin, London, 2004.
14) Foundations 5.8, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD, revised edition, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, DC, 1991, p.120.
15) The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD, revised edition, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, DC, 1991, p.28.
16) Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Penguin, London, 1971, p. xx.
17) C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, Fontana Books, London, 1969, pp.20-21.
18) Chandogya Upanishad, 7.24.
19) See Robert van de Weyer, Celtic Prayers, Hunt & Thorpe, London, 1997, p.14.
20) The Teaching of Buddha, Buddhist Promoting Foundation, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, Tokyo, 1987, 137th revised edition, p.33.
21) C. H. Dodd, op.cit., pp.20-21.
22) Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church, OUP, Oxford, 1979, p.6.
23) Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993, p.222.
24) Pensées, Krailsheimer edition, Penguin, London, 1966, n.919; Brunschvig edition n.553.
25) Gerald Vann OP, The Divine Pity: a study in the social implications of the Beatitudes, Collins, Fontana, London, 1971, p.85.
26) Theophanes, PG 932.D.
27) Karen Armstrong, A History of God. From Abraham to the Present: the 4000-year Quest for God, Heinemann, London, 1993, p.294.
28) Ascent of Mount Carmel 1.13.11.
29) Ibid.
30) The Teaching of Buddha, p.136.
31) Cited by Diarmuid Ó Murchú, Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997, pp.102-103.
32) Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London, 1996, p.146.
33) Michael White and John Gribbin, Stephen Hawking: a life in science, Viking, London, 1992, p.211.
34) Daniel Liderbach, The Numinous Universe, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, USA, 1989, p.62.
35) Russell Stannard, The God Experiment, Faber and Faber, London, 1999, p.223.
36) Michael Reagan (editor), The Hand of God: Thoughts and Images reflecting the Spirit of the Universe, pp.21, 24.
37) Diarmuid Ó Murchú, Our World in Transition: Making Sense of a Changing World, Temple House Books, Sussex, England, 1992, p.74.
38) Liderbach, op.cit., p.104.
39) Liderbach, op.cit., p.105.
40) Aristotle, Metaphysics, edited and translated by W. D. Ross, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966, 1005b 19-20.
41) Liderbach, op.cit., p.96.
42) Stannard, op.cit., p.233.
43) Diarmuid Ó Murchú, Our World in Transition: Making Sense of a Changing World, p.124, citing John Archibald Wheeler.
44) Liderbach, op.cit., p.14.
45) Cited by C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper, Fount Books, London, 1980, p.170.
46) “A Pastor’s Diary”, Intercom, April 2004, p.44. See also Matthew 13.24-30.
47) William Johnston SJ, The Mystical Way, Fount, London, 1993, pp.68-69. Is it a preference for the “little boxes” over thinking outside the box that explains the Vatican’s negative reaction to Roger Haight SJ, Jesus: Symbol of God, (Orbis Books, New York,) Jacques Dupuis, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, (Orbis Books, New York, 1997), and Seán Fagan SM, Does Morality Change?, (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1997)?
48) Congregation of Religious, Vatican City, Fraternal Life in Community, (2 February 1994), n.22.
49) Karen Armstrong, op.cit., p.244.
50) James M. Byrne, God: Thoughts in an Age of Uncertainty, Continuum, London, 2001, p.48.
51) SLG Press, Fairacres, Oxford, 1995.
52) Wendy Robinson, op.cit., p.12.
53) Cited by Paul Harris, The Fire of Silence and Stillness, DLT, London, 1995, p.44.
54) Divan-i-Shams, 2628; cited by Juliet Mabey (compiler), in Rumi: A Spiritual Treasury, Oneworld, Oxford, 2000.
55) From a private collection of sayings. Also the following quote from Meister Eckhart.
56) John of the Cross, the man of la soledad sonora (the sounding solitude), Letter 8, 22 November 1587, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD, revised edition, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, DC, 1991, p.742.
57) On the Holy Spirit, 28.66.
58) Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, section 15.
59) Kreeft, op.cit., p.35.
60) C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: letters from a senior to a junior devil, Fontana, London, 1964, Letter 22, p.113.
61) From a private collection of sayings.
62) Paul Parsons, The Big Bang, BBC Worldwide Ltd., London, 2001, p.49.
63) Markings, translation by Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden, Faber and Faber, London, 1964, p.134.
64) From the late Donal O’Mahony OFM Cap.
65) Cited by Byrne, op.cit., p.157.
66) From the anonymous nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox author of, The Way of a Pilgrim, Triangle Press, London, 1995, p.89.
67) Georges Bernanos, probably from The Diary of a Country Priest; from a private collection of sayings.
68) Ronald Rolheiser, Against an Infinite Horizon, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995, pp.11-12.
69) John Main OSB, op.cit., p.81.
70) Spiritual Letters, Sheed and Ward, London, undated re-issue, p.25.
71) The Confessions, 3.66.11.
72) Thomas Merton, cited by John Howard Griffin, Thomas Merton: the Hermitage Years; a biographical study, edited by Robert Bonazzi, Burns & Oates, London, 1993, p.151.
73) Way of Perfection, 28.2, quoting The Confessions, 10.27.
74) From a private collection of sayings.
75) Saint Augustine, The Confessions, 10.6b.
76) Henri le Saux (Abishiktananda, 1910-1973), The Man and his Teachings, cited by Paul Harris, op.cit., p.133.
77) Twentieth-Century Men of Prayer, SCM Press, London, 1974.
78) Cited by William Johnston, op.cit., p.70.



‘Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.’ (Matthew 13.34)