I Know him
I know him. He is the almost anonymous, the one with the near perfect alibi, the face over us that lacks nothing but an expression. He is the shape in the mist on the mountain we would ascend disintegrating as we compose it. He can outpace us in our pursuit, outdistancing time only to disappear in a black hole. He acknowledges our relationship in the modes of thought repudiating, when we would embody thought in language, a syntactical compulsion to incorporate him in the second person.
Thomas has been described as the poet of the “absence of God.” It is easy to see why. But, for me, that misses the target. In Western Christianity apophatic language about God has been, at best, a side-bar to the main tradition. It is not so in the East, and Thomas seems to me to belong there.
The apophatic tradition begins with the recognition that if God is Infinite, then we, the finite, and with the limitations of language, can only ever grasp whatever we can grasp; but we cannot know him fully. The finite can neither grasp nor define the Infinite; if we think we have, whatever it is we have grasped cannot be God. In the final lines of the poem, Thomas is not denying Jesus, he is making a comment on the insufficiency of language. The Trinity is our best attempt to grapple with the task, and the task must be undertaken, for words are all we have.
They are all we have collectively. That is why Thomas writes, but what he writes, knowing their insufficiency, is of those small epiphanies, those “golden silence”, those glimpses on moor and headland, and yes, that shape in the mist on the mountain, which disintegrates with the mist ever as we seek the words in which to capture it.
And there is the point. God is not to be grasped. He is to be experienced. Experienced in the world he created, in loving others, in doing what Jesus said. If we cast our mind in that set then we are his, and it is known not by the time we spend in church or on our knees, but in the breaking of the bread and in our loving one another enough to try to follow the Lord Jesus.
In her reflections, Mthr Carys calls Thomas’s language “slippery and elaborate’ (p. 91), but I would prefer to use the word “allusive”. Apophatic language defines only in negatives – God is not x or y or a, b and c. That does not mean God is not any of those things, but rather that he is all of them and more. We are told God “is love”. We think we know what that means, but we hardly get to the heart of it, for that love is there for us despite our worst selves, and it brought Jesus to the Cross and the cold tomb. It brought, too, the shining resurrection of that first Paschal Sunday. In the face of that, I just love – his love I may not be able to fully grasp, but what of it, he loves me, I love him and if he accepts me Maranatha!