Reverence for the Mystery

(The Nationalist, 29 April 2005)


One of the more remarkable features of writings of the saints about God is that they are modest in any claims they make to know him. You could almost say they were agnostic.

Perhaps the greatest of Western theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas, said, ‘We do not know what God is’. We may know that God is, not what God is.

The Greek Orthodox saint, Gregory Palamas, wrote, ‘God exists, and God does not exist’. What did he mean by the second part of the sentence? I think he meant that God is not just another existing being, but rather the foundation of all being, the one in which everything exists, and without whom nothing could ever have existed in the first place.

Saint Augustine said, ‘If anyone think he understands God, then whatever it was he understood, it wasn’t God’.

And, in more recent times, the Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, wrote, ‘When I think of God, I blaspheme. And when I speak of God, I blaspheme twice’.

When we humans think of God we often think of him as a bigger and better version of ourselves. We cannot help but think of God in human terms. We make God in our own image and likeness.

God is a mystery. What is a mystery? It’s not so much something we can never understand, as something about which we can never understand enough. The word “mystery” is not a STOP sign. When we seek the truth we seek God, and will find him. All truth is God’s truth; it comes from him and leads to him.

Any image or idea we have of God is certainly inadequate, probably inaccurate, and possibly misleading. For the most part, all we can say is what God isn’t, not what God is. That being the case, an appropriate attitude is humility, wonder and silence – the silence of reverence, not of despair.

When we pray to God, it’s best to try not to think of him as “up there” or “out there”. God is ‘within’ us, more than the blood in our veins. And we are “in” him more than we are in the air around us. Another saint, John Chrysostom said, ‘Find the door of the inner chamber of your soul and you will discover that this is the door into the Kingdom of Heaven’. The Kingdom of God is within us, or among us, that is, in our relationships.

The best way to know God is not by intellectual exploration but by loving people. Nonsense? Try it.


For those in a hurry: ‘At the evening of life, we will be judged on love’. (Saint John of the Cross)