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Center for Action and Contemplation

Speaking of What Truly Matters

Monday, May 16, 2022

Father Richard explores why he believes we must be humble in our language when we speak of God and truth:

German scholar Heinrich Zimmer (1890–1943) studied sacred images and their relationship to spirituality. He said, “The best things can’t be told: the second-best are misunderstood.” [1] So we settle for talking about the “third-best things,” which, in my culture, I suppose are things like sports, television, the weather, and other safe topics.

The best things can’t be talked about—they can only be experienced. And then if we try to talk about them, we know that we see “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our best attempts will still be merely stammering, grasping for good enough words. But one of the great difficulties of theology and spirituality is that its subject matter is precisely those “best things” that cannot be talked about. If religion does not have humility about knowing, it ends up being smug, silly, and superstitious.

The second-best things which, according to Zimmer, “are misunderstood,” are those things that merely point to the first-best things. These belong to philosophy, theology, psychology, art, and poetry, all of which—like sacred Scripture—are so easily misunderstood. Yet what I have tried to do in my work is to use those second-best things that point to and clarify the first-best things. What else can we do? All our words, beliefs, and rituals are merely “fingers pointing to the moon.” [2]

I believe Jesus follows the same risky path, which has allowed him to be interpreted in so many different ways. Apparently, he was willing to take that risk, or he would have written down his teachings himself. Why do we think we have a right to certainty or complete clarity? This is the necessary and good poverty of all spiritual language. After all, Jesus never said, “You must be right!” or even that it was important to be right. That’s the genius of the biblical tradition. Jesus offers himself instead as “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6), and suddenly it all becomes about the sharing of our person instead of any fighting over ideas. Some people will meet that statement with resistance and criticism because we feel so much more in control when we are right than when we are in right relationship.

Such admitted poverty in words should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God, although the history of religion has been quite the contrary. In fact, what we have largely done, even in church, is talk about the third-best things. Focusing on things like finances, clothing, edifices, roles, offices, and who has the authority gives us a sense of certitude, order, and control. In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom.

[1] As quoted in Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (New York: Alfred van der Marck, 1985), 21.

[2] Traditional Buddhist saying found in the Lankavatara and the Shurangama.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), 69, 119, 121–122.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Where do I belong? Not with the rich and privileged, not with the very poor, not with the liberals and not with the conservatives, not with the intellectuals and successful [people], not with organized religion and social organizations, and not even with some family members. I belong in Christ’s arms, in the space of paradoxes, in the space of unknowing and in the cracks of suffering. This is where I am free to see God’s Glory and feel his loving touch of Grace; an open, humble heart.
—Kathy Jo W.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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