What is beyond language? How do I put words to it? Do I even want to try?
A post about why I stopped talking about G-d. It came on gradually really.
At first, it was a recognition that those of you reading my Caringbridge.org blog about my daughter’s health crisis had so many different associations with the term. (as evidenced by the comments or private emails). I tried to be as precise in my language as I could– not alienating by using God language when I could be more precise, but also describing what I truly believed when I really meant it. I began to find more and more that beginning a sentence with God as the subject like “God is this” or “God does that” was harder and harder. When I said or wrote the word I felt God getting smaller. The air would get sucked out of the room as I suddenly felt a wall between what I call God and what my listener/reader could call God. I could see myself getting propelled down a long hallway as the walls closed in between me and my companion. This, of course, was the opposite feeling inspired by the connecting force that I meant when I said God. I began to feel more and more why faith traditions have found that name too holy to utter or the image too sacred to even attempt to depict.
What is beyond language? How do I put words to it? Do I even want to try?
These questions weren’t just theoretical for me. They weren’t about getting my theology right or even about you or someone else following this line of thinking too. They were personal. They were about my experience of relationship. These were the questions I faced when the attempts to save my daughters life paralyzed her vocal cords and took away her voice. Our relationship was born out of a deep silence. We learned to communicate in facial expressions and gestures. We stared at each other a lot. Every parent of an infant experiences this to some extent. I did with my first-born. The difference was when I stared at my daughter’s inscrutable face, I did so with little hope that I’d ever hear her speak. A life of unknowing hung over us and informed how we would begin to get to know each other in whatever ways we could.
When I began sign language classes at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, I learned how much the face mattered in communicating not just tone and emphasis but varied vocabulary. For instance, the hand motions for “awake” and “Surprise” are the same. The emphasis is with the widening of the eyes and opening of the mouth. Those who speak and sign are considered “bi-modal.” Spoken and written words are symbols that stand in for objects and concepts. Communicating with the body requires you to inhabit what you say. It eschews some of our detachments. What we say is no longer symbolic but corporeal. It takes muscle as well as thought. In the beginning my fingers hurt a lot. The joints would feel stiff by the end of the two hour class. I embarrassed myself too. When I tried to finger spell words with the letter “K,” I accidentally made lewd anatomical references. When I tried to order “chicken,” I ended up cursing my partner.
I began to feel helplessly misunderstood and mourned the intimate mother-daughter conversations I felt would never happen. Without a shared fluent language, I imagined I would never know the internal life of my daughter. I felt the pain of the spaces between myself and those I loved. I was more aware of how often my words always missed the mark. I began to wonder if like color-blindness I was seeing green when everyone else saw red. Except I associated the wrong meanings to words I thought I knew. I left conversations feeling more baffled than when I started, even when they were with my husband or colleagues. I wondered how stuck inside our bodies and minds, how alone we all really were.
I compared these widening gaps between me and loved ones to the black hole I felt when I tried to define G-d or grace or love anything that had no obvious antecedent. And yet these shimmering concepts preoccupied that yearning space inside me. When I tried to pin anything I felt or experienced down, I watched as whole words flew out of memory. I felt my feet slip underneath me where I walked. I no longer trusted gravity or felt a hard surface underneath me. We all seemed to be hovering over something bottomless. Far from creating “doubt,” this reality created more of a sensation of living with faith. Losing language for something is not the same thing as losing faith. Without the ability to define, without a sense of mastery over my surroundings and mental recall, I had to face what kept me from trusting and develop that ability to trust more.
“I feel like the bottom dropped out, I’m hovering over an abyss, but I’m not falling…But I’d rather be here than somewhere I was before — believing in the bridge.” This is what I told a friend who asked me how I was doing after a recent recovery from a near-fatal accident with my daughter’s trache0stomy. I was trying to explain how I felt like I lived with more faith over an abyss not less, but how I had no way of explaining that in a way that registered to others. When I began to look into the depths below, to try to describe it to others, it was dismissed as doubt to those who wanted to believe that faith must be “faith in — something,” rather than something that is lived out day by day as a process not of identifying what you do know or believe but of fearlessly meeting what you do not or cannot know.
The ineffable, what may be real but cannot be expressed has fascinated some of the greatest writers: Dante, Beckett, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Wallace Stevens among too many to name. It is as secular as it is religious. It leads some to faith and others to radical skepticism. It opens us up to despair and to embracing life. I have at some point in the last 3 years, found all of these aspects equally important.
Language is an amazing thing, it can make the inchoate, the formless that nags inside us appear before us in a shape we can recognize, converse with, love, reject. When we do this together with another living, “speaking” human being, it can strengthen or break the relationship between us. Language enables love, mercy, advocacy, and justice. It also threatens these things.
Plato insisted that ultimate reality “colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to the mind” cannot be fully realized in speech which is temporal and mutable.
“Language is the lie we all agree on” said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Never did this feel more isolating than when faced with a mute child. The limits to language’s inclusiveness hit me every time I heard someone use “finding your voice” as a metaphor for self-realization or “breath” (and the ability to breathe on one’s own) as a synecdoche for life. Our everyday speech is never universal, intentionally or not, we cut someone off when we define the world around us.
To Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysus, Dante, and others, Plato’s concept of an ultimate reality that was inexpressible meant there was a transcendent realm, and that was (or within it was) a transcendent G-d.
To Beckett, the ultimate reality, was not the No-thing of G-d, but nothing, ultimately expressed and always looming in Death. Against this final silence, words were a testament to human survival. “There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” (Beckett, Transition, No. 5)
During our greatest crises, it just so happened that the people I called first– fellow parents from the NICU, moms with trach kids, –on this journey have often been atheists–those who have been forced to stare death in the face and not looked over it or away. Their attempts to put words to the nothingness, to the harrowing journey that will not immediately but very well could abruptly end have been as illuminating and comforting as any eschatological hope of one who believes in something.
I find myself less and less able to talk about G-d, while being drawn to that very concept of the name being too Holy to speak. Feeling drawn to the belief in the N0-thing, a principle common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, and I like to think not wholly incompatible with non-theistic religions like Buddhism, Jainism, etc. When I use or hear “G-d” with a capital “G” I continue to wonder if we are ever really referring to the same thing.
I feel more and more estranged by words of abstraction like the capital “G” word, which in context can feel less and less ultimate reality and more and more of a self-referential, personal reality. Too often my G-d begins a sentence too subject to my own bias and experience of the world. Too often when I speak the word “G-d” it feels too small. Sometimes I feel to really experience the ultimate reality–that surprising, mind-opening, heart-expanding, worldview-shifting, creation-loving, connected awareness that I’ve got to stop confining myself to the god I made up. Often that means suspending the use of that word altogether. The irony is the less I use it, the less I find myself talking about G-d as a specific subject, the less alienated from others I feel, the more I actually find myself willing to experience new revelations of an ultimate reality that is not cut-off from everyday life but is intimately connected to all that lives and dies in the cycle of life.
Language is an assault against silence. In today’s world, we are winning the battle with our words, with our groping for answers, marking our territory of beliefs for those to follow but we are losing the war. We are losing the very source of our being. Whether you believe there is nothing or there is No-thing, an ending or an infinite, there is silence at the center of everything. This silence–this ineffable, ultimate reality–is the source of all potential to me. I learned to love silence when I reluctantly found myself the mother to it, embodied in my child. I pursue it now any chance I get as my life gets more chaotic and our world too loud. In it, I find myself connected to those who find silence as the ultimate destination, whether that be the end of being or the ground of being. That connection transforms the silence, changes the ending. Not only do I not feel alone. I feel the connection touches the frayed ends of the linear into the circle of the infinite. Silence is no longer absence but presence, the presence of everything.