God Cannot Be Thought

January 30th, 2020 by Dave Leave a reply »

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Augustinian priest Fr. Martin Laird is an author, retreat leader, and professor of early Christian studies at Villanova University. He is a gifted teacher who makes the history and practice of Christian contemplation accessible to people of all backgrounds. Here he relates the insights of The Cloud of Unknowing to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the great theologian and bishop.   

The fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges the distinction (not separation) between what our love can do and our thinking mind cannot. The author likens it to having two faculties, a faculty (or capacity) of the thinking, calculating mind and a faculty for loving. God created each of these. However, “God is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, [God] can be fully grasped by each individual being.” [1]  

The author [of The Cloud] clearly values the thinking mind. It is necessary for understanding (grasping with the mind) created beings and “to think clearly about them.” [2] Thinking mind functions by means of concepts, images, words, and so on. But God is beyond the grasp of concepts; no word can capture God, no word can have the final word on the Word made flesh, who yet dwells among us (John 1:14). “God can well be loved,” the author says, “but [God] cannot be thought. By love [God] can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.” [3] God is eternal, the human mind is finite. If God could be comprehended, surrounded by a concept, this would make us greater than God. We invent the illusion that God is a thing that we lack and must therefore seek, find, and (attempt to) control. . . .  

St. Augustine, the great teacher of love that knows and knowledge that loves, reflects on his own experience of looking for God as an external object, a thing—just huge—that could be located and fixed in space and time. In his Confessions, he relates how all this changed when he at last forgot himself.  

But when unknown to me you caressed my head, 
and when you closed my eyes lest they see things 
that would seduce me, 
I began for a little while to forget about myself, 
and my madness was lulled to sleep. 
When I awoke in you, I saw very differently, 
infinite in a very different sense. 
But what I saw was not seen with the eye of the body. [4]  

For decades Augustine searched for God where God cannot be found—outside himself in conquest, career, and ambition. Only when God casts him into sleep (Genesis 2:21) does something immensely creative happen. Augustine awakes in God and beholds what only the inner eye can behold: the traces of God as luminous vastness. As we journey toward the God who causes us to seek, may we discover our own grounding silence and awake in God who has found us from all eternity.  

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Prayer for Our Community:
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. [Please add your own intentions.] . . . Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, amen.

Listen to Fr. Richard read the prayer.


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