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Knowing and Not Knowing
Knowing and Not Knowing

God Cannot Be Thought

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Knowing and Not Knowing

God Cannot Be Thought

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Augustinian priest Fr. Martin Laird is an author, retreat leader, and professor of early Christian studies at Villanova University. He is a gifted teacher who makes the history and practice of Christian contemplation accessible to people of all backgrounds. Here he relates the insights of The Cloud of Unknowing to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the great theologian and bishop.  

The fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges the distinction (not separation) between what our love can do and our thinking mind cannot. The author likens it to having two faculties, a faculty (or capacity) of the thinking, calculating mind and a faculty for loving. God created each of these. However, “God is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, [God] can be fully grasped by each individual being.” [1]

The author [of The Cloud] clearly values the thinking mind. It is necessary for understanding (grasping with the mind) created beings and “to think clearly about them.” [2] Thinking mind functions by means of concepts, images, words, and so on. But God is beyond the grasp of concepts; no word can capture God, no word can have the final word on the Word made flesh, who yet dwells among us (John 1:14). “God can well be loved,” the author says, “but [God] cannot be thought. By love [God] can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.” [3] God is eternal, the human mind is finite. If God could be comprehended, surrounded by a concept, this would make us greater than God. We invent the illusion that God is a thing that we lack and must therefore seek, find, and (attempt to) control. . . .

St. Augustine, the great teacher of love that knows and knowledge that loves, reflects on his own experience of looking for God as an external object, a thing—just huge—that could be located and fixed in space and time. In his Confessions, he relates how all this changed when he at last forgot himself.

But when unknown to me you caressed my head,
and when you closed my eyes lest they see things
that would seduce me,
I began for a little while to forget about myself,
and my madness was lulled to sleep.
When I awoke in you, I saw very differently,
infinite in a very different sense.
But what I saw was not seen with the eye of the body. [4]

For decades Augustine searched for God where God cannot be found—outside himself in conquest, career, and ambition. Only when God casts him into sleep (Genesis 2:21) does something immensely creative happen. Augustine awakes in God and beholds what only the inner eye can behold: the traces of God as luminous vastness. As we journey toward the God who causes us to seek, may we discover our own grounding silence and awake in God who has found us from all eternity.


[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (Penguin: 2001), 23.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid, 27-28.

[4] St. Augustine, Confessions, 7, 14, trans. Benignus O’Rourke (Darton, Longman, and Todd: 2013), 286.
Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (Oxford University Press: 2019), xiii-xiv, xv-xvi.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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