06 February 2012

Touching the Ineffable

5th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Just about every spiritual director I've ever had has asked me to describe my image of God. Do I see God as a distant father? A nurturing mother? An impersonal cosmic force? A cruel judge? Being a Christian, I always said, “I see Jesus.” The point of the exercise was to get an idea of my relationship with God. One's relationship with a petty and vengeful tyrant is very different than one's relationship with a benevolent cosmic force. Most of the directors we had available to us in seminary we of the Feel Good Religious Social Worker variety, so they were usually delighted when we described our image of God in gender-neutral, morally ambiguous terms. The more abstract our image of the divine, the happier they were. My answer—“I see Jesus”—usually got a blank stare or a longish pause. Yes, I see God as both human and divine, a divine person—the Son—given flesh and bone. But I see God Himself as ultimately unknowable in merely human terms, what St Gregory of Nyssa calls “Impenetrable Darkness.” This is not the darkness of an evil god but rather the darkness of human ignorance when confronted by the ineffable nature of the Divine. God is both unknowable in Himself and intimately known in Christ Jesus.

Our readings today bear this out. In 1 Kings we read that the glory of the Lord manifests as a cloud in the temple of Solomon, preventing the priests from ministering at the altars. Solomon proclaims, "The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud. . .” and he believes that his temple provides a place for that cloud to abide forever. In Mark's gospel, we read a radically differently description of God in the person of Jesus, “Whatever villages. . .he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.” From a dark cloud billowing in Solomon's temple to walking the hillsides Palestine, our God is at once presented in the glory of His untouchable divinity, and in the humility of his all-too-touchable humanity. The genius of our faith is that our God transcends His creation as its Father; and He abides with His creation as the Holy Spirit. He is with us and beyond us, always right here among us and always exceeding, surpassing everything He has created. 

Before and after the new Missal translation was approved for use in the U.S., several bishops, liturgists, and theologians objected to the reintroduction of the word “ineffable” into the prayer life of the Church. They argued that the word was arcane or too philosophical or too confusing for the poor average Catholic pew-sitter to understand. Try to describe the joy you felt at the birth of your child. Try to describe the pain you felt at the death of a loved one. When you find yourself at a loss for words, you have found an ineffable experience. The glory of God that clouds Solomon's temple is ineffable. The joy of those healed by touching the tassels of Jesus' cloak is ineffable. What's not ineffable, what's not beyond our words to describe is the mission and ministry of the man, Jesus Christ. He walked the hills of ancient Judea preaching, teaching, healing, casting out unclean spirits, and sometimes fleeing the needy crowds of those who hope to touch him! And that they could touch him—the Word made flesh—is the genius of our faith. They could lay hands on the Lord and receive his blessing. We can do that and more. We can receive him, body and blood. And we can go out to follow him by bringing others to him. Bring the sick to him. All they need do is touch Christ to know him and his healing.

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