In which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a crazy Scottish love poem.
I have to confess I actually like Advent more than I like Christmas. Christmas itself, at least in my own Midwestern, American, middle-class culture has been so taken over by a combination of commercialism and seemingly obligatory rituals and expectations that, for me, Christmas proper, I fear, has become more of a yearly exercise in stress management techniques (as much about dealing with the stress of others as about dealing with my own) than in commemoration of the incarnation of Christ.
Advent is different: it’s a season rather than an “event,” which gives me time–to prepare, to rest, reflect backwards and imagine forwards. Advent is when I have the time and wherewithal to think about things like the incarnation itself, with a sense of anticipation, as in the first part of this meditation. This second part tries to get to the purpose of that kind of thinking, to the idea of the kind of communion with the Divine that that event of the incarnation makes possible. This will come in two installments, one on Christmas Eve, and the next on Christmas proper.
To begin, try a quick exercise:
- Think about something you love deeply: a person, a friend, a spouse, or even an activity or a work of art.
- Try to list the things you know about that that thing that you love.
Now consider this question: To what degree do those things that you know seem to account for the love itself?
Now try again, but instead of explaining things you know about that object of your love, start explaining the love itself.
Show of hands: do you feel like your explanation of your love expressed that love in every iota of its fullness?
Yeah, of course not.
Now think about that “gap.” There’s some distance, there, between what you can explain and understand intellectually,, or even symbolically: “my love is like a red, red rose”–kinda, but not all of it, right?
So in a way, that gap is important. That gap between what you can know and whatever it is that accounts for the complete fullness of your experience. In a way, the gap is the thing; that’s what you love. That gap, in a sense, is the most “real” thing about your love; the very thing that makes it more than anything you can symbolize or put into words is its most essential component.
It’s like this:
Your experience of your love in all its fullness.
What you can explain
What you can sense
In a sense it’s that top gap that’s most essential, right? If you were only stuck with what you could explain, your experience of it wouldn’t be love.
So there’s a very real sense in which what we cannot symbolize is precisely the same thing as what we love. The existence of something we cannot symbolize is precisely what makes it as real as it is.
And that thing is really hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not something that can be expressed using any of the tools we humans have–that is, symbols–to express and communicate things.
This is why, for example, even great love poems tend to end in things like failure and negation. Take this one by Robert Burns:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!
Notice how this poem starts with two really cheesy, cliche similes; then moves to a sort of attempt at equation, which doesn’t quite work for the speaker either, and then the speaker goes on not to positive images but rather to images of dissolution: the seaIn which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a Scottish love poem.s going dry, rocks melting with the sun. It’s a strange set of images–we’re destroying the world in a Sci-Fi apocalypse and it’s still not right! Then all the speaker can do is say goodbye–twice–and try to imagine placing infinite distance between himself and his love and try to think about an infinite effort to return to that at which he never arrived to begin with.
But that’s the idea: the love, the real love, that which makes it love, begins precisely at the point where the speaker’s ability to symbolize and express it breaks down. That’s what the poem is about.
That’s as good an initial illustration as any, perhaps, of how medieval mystics tend to think about the relationship of human beings to God: knowledge and intellect and human powers of symbolic expression only get us so far in terms of relating to God in all his fullness, because what we can express and understand about God is limited by our fallen humanity.There’s a very real way in which, if we can understand and express it, it must not be God, because we are less than God, so anything that we can actually get our minds around is also less than God. If we can understand it, we’ve already got it wrong.
At the same time, we have a sort of vague sense of that gap between what we can understand and symbolize and something else, and that something else as to be precisely what makes God God (because it can’t be what makes God God if we can explain it in human terms that fit within the finite and fallen human capacity for knowing).
Which means that if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism I’ll talk about on Christmas Day.