When the Words Stopped

The ineffability of God is simply another name for his transcendence, which is both absolute and eternal.

Santi di Tito, “Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas,” 1593
Santi di Tito, “Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas,” 1593 (photo: Public Domain)

When asked what he was most thankful for, St. Thomas Aquinas answered quite simply, “That I have understood every page I ever read.” Pretty amazing, I’d say. Unlike the rest of us, that is, who must struggle to understand almost any page. Certainly any page of Aquinas. Not like God, of course, who understands everything, including Aquinas. In fact, he took the time to tell him so, expressing his great approval of everything Thomas wrote. “Thou hast written well of me,” said the voice coming from the Crucifix where Thomas wept and prayed. “What reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied at once: “None other than Thyself!”

The episode, we are told, took place near the end of his life when, in the midst of trying to finish a text on the Holy Eucharist, Thomas placed the work upon the altar, asking God to judge the worth of it. Evidently God was very pleased. It was not long after, however, that Thomas fell into a strange and persisting silence, refusing to write another word. Confiding to Brother Reginald, his friend, he said: “I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.”

This happened on the Feast of St. Nicholas, in the year 1273, and shortly thereafter both he and Reginald visited the Countess of San Severino, who was the younger sister of Thomas.  On seeing her brother she was greatly shocked, asking Reginald what happened to have suddenly shorn him of speech. Thomas then repeated what he’d already said: “All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw … compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” 

The lengthening silence continued for months, lifting only after Thomas had begun, in answer to a papal summons, to travel by foot to Lyons for a general council. But he never made it, death having put an end to the life of one of the greatest teachers of Christendom. Death had also, by the way, been an answer to a prayer that Thomas had made, which was that he should not have to live beyond the time God had given him to teach and to write. 

If the last word from Thomas was not another treatise on God, but rather silence before God, what does that mean? If it wasn’t death that robbed him of speech, then what was it? Josef Pieper, in a wonderful little book called The Silence of Saint Thomas, suggests that he fell silent, “not because he had nothing further to say; he was silent because he had been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.”

There are, strewn about his many writings, not a few hints and guesses concerning those depths to which neither speech nor word can reach. These may be found among the few hymns he composed some ten or so years before, the happy result of a commission given to him by Pope Urban IV in 1264 for the Feast of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, which had just been instituted. Adoro te Devote (“Godhead here in hiding”), for example, which is the one most Catholics remember, especially during Mass or Benediction. The Latin is lovely but the translation provided by Gerard Manley Hopkins is not less so. The first and final stanzas are particularly beautiful with their ardent plea to see the face of God:

Godhead here in hiding Whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all in wonder at the God Thou art.
Jesus, Whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech Thee, send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on Thee face to face in light.
And be blest forever with Thy glory’s sight. Amen.  

The inference is surely plain to see, which is that the sight of God can only finally take place on the far side of death, when all the veils have at last fallen away. Even for a mind as profound and penetrating as that of St. Thomas, the limits of finitude must always be given due deference. The deeper we plunge into that infinite sea which is the Otherness of God, the more we understand that he cannot be held by human hands. This is why if anyone were to claim complete understanding of God — to sound the great theme of all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church — then it is not God whom they claim to have understood.

“The better you know God,” exclaims the Angelic Pilgrim, Angelus Silesius, “the more you agree / That you are less and less capable of expressing what is he.”

St. Thomas himself certainly knew this, reminding us in his Commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate: “God is honored by our silence, not because we do not say or inquire into anything about him, but rather because we understand that we are deficient in our understanding of him.” 

The ineffability of God, then, the fact that he cannot be, as St. Gregory of Nyssa neatly put it, “crowded into a concept,” is simply another name for his transcendence, which is both absolute and eternal. “God is not ineffable in the sense of being unintelligible,” explains Henri de Lubac in The Discovery of God, a work intended “to lend a helping hand to a few people in their search for God,” which first appeared more than 75 years ago: “He is ineffable in the sense of being above everything that can be said of him …

The ineffability of God is only another name for absolute
transcendence. Silence comes at the end — not at the beginning. 

Thus, the soul in search of God, whether here on this side or there on the other, is not meant to move in silence from the start, as if one were no more than a stone. Muteness has nothing to commend if begun too soon. But at the end, yes, when, having gone through all the ways of knowing God, one is forced, in humility, to submit in silence to a Mystery one cannot master.  Here analysis gives way to adoration, busy scrutiny to blissful silence.

Cuzco School, “The Enthroned Trinity,” ca. 1730

On Knowing What We Cannot Know

“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God. … Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (CCC 40)