“Thou art what Thou art.”
Let’s face it. I know nothing about the Mystery of Mysteries. Yet somehow my heart rests in deep satisfaction born of my utter cluelessness. It’s even strangely liberating. Blissfully ignorant though I may be of Its nature, yet I am stirred to my depths when Baha’u’llah, in words at once mind-boggling and awe-inspiring, hints at that “Unknowable Essence” which is shrouded behind an impenetrable veil. I am led to humbly acquiesce in the compelling truth that there is ‘Something’ that exceeds everything that I can ever hope to muster in Its praise – the most lyrical verses of poetry, the most mystical of meditations, the most soul-stirring of human experiences, the most awesome of spiritual feelings. Even the abstrusest of allegories. The great prophets, holy ones and sages of old have given that undefinable Something, that hidden Essence, a veritable catalogue of labels that have steadfastly withstood the test of time. Allah, YHVH, Brahman, Atman, The Buddha-dhatu, The Great Spirit.
We seem to have been graced with a paradoxical faculty of grasping that there’s Something beyond our grasp. Something that is nothing less than Glory, Love, Power, Everlasting Father and Tender-loving Mother. But rather something beyond these human concepts. Baha’u’llah revealed in the Arabic Hidden Words: “…souls shall be perturbed as they make mention of Me. For minds cannot grasp Me nor hearts contain Me.” This “perturbance” is a wonderful and sobering thing. Not some fault in our praying method to feel guilty about. It is utterly unavoidable to be perplexed by the Unknowable while trying simultaneously to talk to It. “Dear Lord, I am truly reaching out to You whilst having no clue about what You really are!”
A prayerful state is when this faculty thrives. But to create and to maintain that state amidst the buzz and noise of life is no easy task. A wholehearted daily recital of the Short Obligatory Prayer serves perhaps as the ideal training trial. Whenever (and I wish it were more often) I succeed in really, truly, meaning every word in its three short lines in the privacy of my chamber, the prayer awakens in me something. A liberating awareness of my own pitiful smallness before Unfathomable Greatness that watches over me. The polar opposite of what some modern meditations teach. And yet, ironically, my humble resignation to a greater Will guided by supernal wisdom which sometimes (rephrase, usually!) runs counter to my own desire, feels far more true and empowering than the alternative meditative posture of calling out to my inner god and power. But this humble intuition of a Greater One than me, at least for yours truly, is also easily beclouded. By my own fickle mind, by my spiritual idleness born of material contentment, and by a worldly rat-race driving me into seemingly important pursuits which, in the light of Eternity, are worth as much as “dust and ashes”. Like the windshield that gets plastered with bugs when driving too fast. The importance of a daily reminder of an infinitely greater One cannot be overstated. The obligatory prayer is our inner windscreen wiper.
Isaiah aptly declared: “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour”. Even the greatest attributes and names of God tell us not what God is, but what God is not. God is nothing less than them. This so-called ‘negative theology’ is the only known theology that doesn’t really drift into the quagmire of dogmatic jousting and doctrinal hairsplitting. Bahya ibn Pakudah, a Medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world, glorified our profound ignorance of God’s Essence: “The essence of your knowledge of Him, O my brother, is your firm admission that you are completely ignorant of His true essence.” In church history similar ideas are found in the spiritual tapestry evocatively woven by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart. But negative theology is in fact way older. “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” was God’s answer to Moses asking for His name. “I am that I am.” (Or “I will be that I will be.”) It is the Hebrew equivalent of the Sanskrit “neti neti” (“not this, not that”) which is a Hindu mantra found in the Upanishads. The “neti neti” mantra, too, powerfully acknowledges the namelessness of God. No name nor concept, no matter how superlative or wonderful, due to the limitations of human language and comprehension, can adequately describe God. Hence God is “not this” and “not that”. God just, well… is! The Qur’an reads: “No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision.” Guru Nanak, the sage regarded as the founder of Sikhism, said: “If anyone presumes to describe God, he shall be known the greatest fool of fools” .
Mystics of all faith traditions offer thirsty spiritual seekers the personal privilege of “experiencing” God as long as they observe a set of highly refined meditative manoeuvres. But how can our imperfect radio antennae, even with their amazing capacity to receive ultra-high frequency waves, possibly sense the Perfect Signal? Unless of course we have the hubris to claim perfection to our inner capacities. How can the All-Transcending possibly be reduced to a human feeling – no matter how meaningful and powerful these feelings may be? Unless of course He is not All-Transcending after all. And how can the One be divisible into parts, some of which can be “experienced” whilst others remain elusive. Can He be relegated to a soothing feeling of comfort to be purchased by the needy spiritual shopper? Some indeed find it distressing when they can’t put their finger on God, when they can’t feel Him. Some would sincerely regard their most mystical and wonderful experiences as “God experiences”. Yet God’s unknowability and hiddenness neither means He is some awkwardly distant and impersonal deity reigning indifferently from afar. Baha’u’llah gives us the powerful assurance that God is “nearer unto all things than they are unto themselves.” The Qur’an teaches that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. But does this mean He is inside us? Baha’u’llah responds:
“Wherefore must no stranger be allowed in the city of the heart, that the incomparable Friend may enter His abode. By this is meant the effulgence of His names and attributes, and not His exalted Essence, inasmuch as that peerless King hath ever been, and shall eternally remain, sanctified above ascent and descent.”
While human “hearts” cannot “contain Me”, His attributes reside in us. They are that saintly Friend waiting to enter His home. But God’s Essence doesn’t enter us like a draught of water trickling down our gullet, and subsequently reside within us. How could the Unconstrained be contained? ‘Containment’ simply does not apply to the Creator of the very notion of ‘containing’.
Nearness, distance and containment are simply features of the physical universe. God is not prisoned by them. Even the ideas of “experiencing” (God) or “union” (with God) dabble with primitive qualities in the Divine scheme of things. At best they characterize the natural world and its creatures. A raindrop falling onto a puddle or a burning match thrown into a fireplace is a union. God is not a puddle. A mongoose experiences ecstacy while mating. God is not just a higher form of mongoose merriness. How can a created principle that governs a fleeting flame and breeding mongeese possibly govern its Creator and His relation to man? Yet, Baha’u’llah is equally clear that “separation” and “distance”, just like “union” and “nearness”, are merely qualities of the created world which cannot describe God’s relationship with us. Quite simply, worldly concepts do not “bind” God and his relation to man. Even the greatest humanly conceivable qualities that are often, and confidently, cited to describe God and our relationship to Him, remain ultimately more applicable to liquids, gases and wildlife in the savannah.
Yet the above is certainly not to say that the ecstacy of a divine presence recounted by saints and mystics from time immemorial, or even the more commonplace experience of reverence each time we pray, are but a fancy. Oh no. But that’s a whole different post. And a whole different being. The Manifestation of God, that is.