Moments of Grace and Vision: Unintelligibility in the face of divine mercy

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 on September 27, 2022

Our son is in a good and loud rock band. As I have been listening to the songs there is one particular tune that seems to stick in my mind. The detail of this song that I keep coming back to is the unintelligible phrase that is repeated quite often at the opening of the returning chorus. The phrase is in two parts. 

The first part sounds to me like: “whuofahsaydah.” The second phrase is only a little clearer: “Hnnpahuvvuchr life.” What are they saying? I want to know! 

This unintelligible phrase generated a couple of surprising thoughts. Did you know that the names of G-d with which most of us are familiar: Jehovah and Yahweh are ‘made up’ words? There are no such names of G-d. The Hebrew name of G-d has no vowels: JHVH. This is the famously unpronounceable ‘Tetragrammaton’ or representation of the name of God. You might remember the occasion when Jesus was approached by the man who addressed Jesus as: “Good Rabbi…” and Jesus responded immediately as any Jew would: “Why do you call me ‘good’? There is only one who is good. No one is good but G-d alone.” G-d is above and beyond us all. 

Our hymnody is replete with references to a divine mercy beyond understanding. The example that comes readily to mind describes the hiddenness of G-d: “…in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…”. 

In both the New and Old Testaments any close approach to the Holy One was thought of, to say the very least, as not only ‘risky’, but an experience of overwhelming awe and wonder. St. Paul speaks of not knowing whether he was ‘in the body’ or ‘out of the body’ when he shares his ecstatic experience of ‘the third heaven.’ It is important to note that Paul in his humility speaks of himself in the third person: “I know a man… he was caught up in paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which is not lawful for a man to utter.” Again, the nearness to G-d is of such an overwhelming nature, that even in the presence of Jesus, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Voice of G-d speaks to Peter, James, and John from within the cloud which has descended upon them. You can almost hear Peter’s voice trembling as he cries out: “It is good for us to be here!” I wonder if ‘good’ is exactly the right word! 

Our faith journey through the ages has also brought us to engage the profound experience of the seeming absence of G-d in the lives of individuals and peoples. This has been the subject of intense and profound inquiry in our post-Holocaust era. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her astonishing series of reflections on the Torah has this to say in her reflections on the Book of Esther (483BC). Esther, as a self-hidden Jew, who risks a self-revealing action, manages to stave off a genocidal action against her people. “[Esther] has lost her place in time, as well as in space. G-d inhabits the navel of her dream, where it plunges into the unknown. In this dark dream, she cries to the G-d who has abandoned her, invoking Him as the terror of unknowing possesses her…In the twilight of prophecy, she is named the last prophetess. But unlike the prophets before her, she has no way of knowing if she is dreaming or awake. Perhaps, as mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, her dream will make her fall back inside herself, lead her into the unknowable future. Here, perhaps, is the chink through which another voice is heard.” (The Murmuring Deep, pg 132.) 

We cannot hear these words without thinking of Jesus Himself who from the cross cries out: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Words from Psalm 22, as a Jew, his Scripture and now as Christians, ours as well. 

Our G-d is a G-d of infinite love, mercy, and creative power. Our G-d is also a G-d of mystery, hiddenness⁠—ineffable holiness. No wonder then, that our walk of faith brings us into unintelligible moments of grace and vision – where speech fails us. No wonder then as we look back on the lives of those who have gone before us, in the Scriptures and in our parishes, we find moments of both glory and heartbreak, divine presence and seeming divine absence. 

My curiosity concerning the unintelligible words mentioned earlier? I had to ask our son: What in the heck are those words David is singing? 

“Holy Lights light up…in the path of future life…” 

The Spirit calls us “to know this love which surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of G-d.” 

  • Max Woolaver

    The Venerable Max Woolaver is rector of St. Andrew's, Grimsby. He is also an avid singer/songwriter as well as a retreat leader. Max was ordained in the Diocese of Niagara in 1986 and received his M.Div. from Wycliffe College, University of Toronto; he also studied at the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation.

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