The Names of God

Emperor Constantine and bishops holding the Nicene Creed.

Many years ago, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, I met a monk from the Orthodox monastery at the foot of the mountain. Michael was a young American, but he rebuffed my curiosity about his journey from a Pennsylvania childhood to an ascetic community in the Egyptian wasteland. “A monk’s past is meaningless,” he said brusquely. Embracing the desert spirituality of renunciations, he had little patience for the inessential. He was terse, acerbic, and opinionated, as harsh and unyielding as the landscape. I was intimidated by this strange and demanding figure. My own thoughts and questions began to seem weightless and trivial in the face of such passionate certainty.

Michael reassured me that Anglicans were his favorite schismatics, but our novelties and lack of theological rigor were clearly not up to his standards. “We do have the Nicene Creed in common,” I said, trying to find a point of agreement. “We recite it in the Sunday liturgy.” I was wrong about that, Michael insisted. Since we use the western aberration of the Filioque clause, we are not really saying the Nicene Creed, but only a defective imitation of it.[i]

In an ecumenical spirit, I said I was happy to defer to the eastern Church on the matter of the Filioque. “Not the eastern Church,” Michael shot back. “It’s the undivided universal Church.” He was fond of absolutes. But what did I expect to find in the wilderness––comfortable small talk?

I thought of Michael last Sunday when I experimented with the creed at an outdoor eucharist on the shore of Puget Sound. We wanted to minimize the use of printed texts, so that the people could keep their eyes on their surroundings rather than the pages of a bulletin. That was easy in the case of repeated chants or choruses, but reciting a long text like the Nicene Creed posed a challenge.

Summary statements of the faith have been a part of Christian practice from the beginning. We are bound together by a shared story and shared understandings. St. Paul proposed a creed of exemplary brevity: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will find salvation” (Romans 10:9). Over the ensuing several centuries, creeds would grow longer and more controversial. The more they tried to say about the mysteries of faith, the more they became subject to critical scrutiny and debate.

Although the liturgical use of creeds remains obscure in its origins, making common declarations of belief eventually came to seem a natural function of the worship assembly as a way of self-definition and communal bonding: “This is why we’re here. This is the story and the reality we belong to.”

Even though individual worshippers may quibble about language and terminology, or differ in their precise understandings of creedal formulations, the fact that we recite a creed together is perhaps more important than its content. What we say about our faith certainly does matter, but unanimous agreement about mysteries beyond all human knowing is not what binds us together. Faith is more relational than propositional. As the Byzantine preface to the Nicene Creed puts it:

So, brothers and sisters, while we have time,
let us love one another,
that we may with one heart and mind
confess our faith.

My concept for the creed in the beach liturgy was to have the assembly chant, slowly and repeatedly, the first words of the Nicene Creed: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). Over this unifying sonic ground a cantor would utter a diverse series of words and phrases expressing the names, attributes and activities of the Holy Trinity.

In one sense, the attempt was pure folly. The God greater than anything we can conceive cannot be captured in language. As the Tao says, “One who knows does not speak. One who speaks does not know.” But God, however hidden, wants to be known. God reveals. God addresses. God responds. And we in turn make our “raid on the inarticulate, / with shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”[i]

Creeds are communal work, hammered out in conversations and councils over time. And I, writing in my study, am no Nicaea. But there is still a certain collectivity in my Credo, a diversity of voices either consciously borrowed or lodged deep within me from forgotten sources. You will hear the Bible and Nicene Creed, Augustine, Bonaventure, Henry Vaughan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eberhard Jungel, Dorothee Soelle, John Bell, Terrence Malick and others. You may wish to differ, delete or add. Consider it a work in progress. Your reactions and reflections are welcome.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” several American computer scientists are hired by a Tibetan monastery to program a computer that will speed up the spiritual labor of listing every one of the divine names. It’s a huge number, but the computers can make it happen in a matter of weeks.

‘Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’

‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”’

Clarke’s story ends with the scientists fleeing the monastery in the dark, just before the computers list the nine-billionth name. Dismissive of the “superstitious” beliefs behind the project, they were afraid the monks would blame them when the world failed to end as predicted. As they hurry down the mountain, one of them happens to look up. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Well, for better or worse, I list my tentative and infinitely incomplete “names of God” below. Brother Michael of Sinai would undoubtedly disapprove. But I am not presuming to supplant the Nicene Creed. I only want to explore the possibilities––and the boundaries––of Christian language in liturgical and poetic forms. How can we make the naming of God a prayerful, contemplative and formative experience in a communal setting? What words take us deeper into the Mystery? Do any of them go astray, or have an expiration date when they become no longer fruitful? How do we recognize and welcome the divine names yet to be revealed?

 

Credo in unum Deum

Holy and eternal God, without beginning or end,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source of all that exists and the ground of all possibility.

Hidden yet revealed, author of life and mender of destinies,
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world, fount of our being,
inexhaustible and overflowing, grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair,
the joyful Yes negating all nothingness.

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
the Unnamable whose names are many:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us and yet so deep within us,
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Abba, Amma, Father and Mother of us all: personal, relational, intimate;
Love who loves us,
our true home.

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten of God,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
fully human and fully divine,
Word made flesh, living and dying as one of us,
that we might see and know
the self-diffusive love of God,
and at the same time
realize the full and perfected form of our humanity.

As God’s icon, the face of love for us,
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
shepherd and Savior, repairer of this broken world.

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love drawing all things into holy communion.

Life-Giver, Sustainer, Sanctifier, Counselor, Comforter, Awakener,
disturber of the peace, tender bond of affection,
voice of the voiceless, empowering fire of prophetic imagination,
the breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity,
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
marking us as Christ’s own forever, forgiven and free.
And we pray that we may always live in the light of resurrection,
with steadfast hope for the glory to come.

May the faith we confess in this place
be made known in the lives we lead and the choices we make.

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Filioque(“and the Son”) was added to the words, “who proceeds from the Father” in describing the “procession” (the movement of self-giving and receiving among the persons of the Holy Trinity––it’s complicated!) with respect to the Holy Spirit. The original Nicene Creed names the Father as the sole source of the Spirit’s procession, but “Filioque”––making the Son a partner in the Spirit’s procession––was later added to the text by the Western Church, creating a major source of conflict with the Eastern Church which continues to this day. The first draft of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer of 1979 tried to drop the Filioqueclause as a gesture of Christian unity with the East, but traditionalists voted it back in (later conventions have signaled the intention to omit it from any futurePrayer Book). I was present for that debate at the 1976 General Convention, which seemed more orderly and polite than what I’ve heard about the Council of Nicaea! My own practice is to omit the clause when I say the Creed. I guess I still haven’t gotten over that conversation with Br. Michael.

[ii]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets,

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration