A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:
Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”
The choir cracked up.
After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,
We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.
I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,
It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.
Wild at Heart
God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.
In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.
If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.
You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.
There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.
St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.
Wild in Mind
A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”
It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.
Saints of God, come to our aid!
Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.
The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.
To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?
It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.
How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?