Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

Know God by unknowing

We know God by unknowing.
Gospel reading for June 16, 2024,11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus tells us a parable about a man who scatters seeds across a field and does not know how the seed will sprout and grow. The man in the parable does not know. It is a story about unknowing, which is crucial, oddly, to knowing and loving God. The Christian mystics put unknowing at the very center of the spiritual life.

One of the first mystics to discuss unknowing was an anonymous Syrian monk from the sixth century who took the pen name Dionysius the Areopagite. He talks about unknowing because for him God “solidly transcends mind and being.  [God] is completely unknown and non-existent.  [God] exists beyond being and he is known beyond the mind.  And this quite positively complete unknowing is knowledge of him who is above everything that is known.” Since God is Transcendent Mystery beyond the reaches of the human mind to grasp, we must rest in unknowing to encounter this God.

Dionysius teaches us to abandon all mental activity to encounter God: “leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.  By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine darkness beyond being.” Dionysius is teaching us to lay aside our thinking and to stop being concerned with our feelings to rest in God in silence. Unity with the divine darkness beyond being erupts from this contemplative silence.

Many prayer practices usher the soul into the spaceless space of contemplative silence, such as Centering Prayer (which we practice in groups here at the Cathedral), Christian Meditation, the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina, or the Rosary. Each practice uses more or less words and thoughts to help the soul abide in the silence without actively thinking.

Dionysius describes the experience of one who practices contemplative silence: “he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.  Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything.  Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” In the prayer of unknowing one knows nothing – it is an experience of nothingness. But in this lack of experience the soul is transcending all knowledge to enjoy God.

Practicing this contemplative silence in prayer involves the total cessation of all mental activity. And it is the highest way of loving God because the divine mystery cannot be comprehended by our thinking. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says it rather concisely: “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him.” God does not ask us to think about the divine nature as much as love the divine reality.

The divine unknowing, though unfamiliar to us because it is beyond us, is spiritually seductive, according to Meister Eckhart: “Though it may be called ignorance, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and understanding without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well.” In unknowing we enjoy the Mystery of God, this is the lure. This is what helps us to see the utter futility of putting any-thing (the Bible calls them “idols”) at the heart of our lives other than God. In the spaceless space of unknowing we discover joy.

Meister Eckhart assures us that “neither knowledge of all creatures nor your own wisdom nor all your knowledge can bring you so far as to know God in a divine way. If you wish to know God in a divine way, your knowledge has to become a pure unknowing and forgetfulness of yourself and all creatures.” We have to let go of our ways of knowing, our opinions, our worldviews, and even our very thinking to be one with God. Jesus calls this way of unknowing faith.