This is the second ‘Phrases I Love’ post. Coming back from Calgary after our Christmas break, I began reading Abraham Heschel’s I Asked For Wonder.1 There was a piece taken from his book Man Is Not Alone that really captured my attention. Here is a the part of that writing:
“Our awareness of God is a syntax of silence in which our souls mingle with the divine, in which the ineffable in us communes with the ineffable beyond us.
It is the afterglow of years in which soul and sky are silent together, the outgrowth of accumulated certainty of the abundant, never-ebbing presence of the divine. All we ought to do is to let the insight be and to listen to the soul’s recessed certainty of its being a parenthesis in the immense script of God’s eternal speech.”
First of all, I absolutely love Heschel. As my friend Tim says, “his words drip like honey.” So true. Heschel was not only a great thinker but also a superb writer. How amazing that English was not his mother tongue. The introduction of this book – which alone was worth the cost – was written by Samuel Dresner. Reflecting on Heschel’s writing, Dresner said that “[Heschel] found just the right word not only to express what he thought but to evoke what he felt, startling the mind and delighting the heart as well as addressing and challenging the whole person.”3 I smiled when I read that sentence because it sums up my thoughts on reading Heschel. He is able to “evoke what he felt” through his writing. All that to say: read Heschel.
I love the whole Heschel quote and suggest reading it a several times very slowly, letting it sink in. The phrase “a syntax of silence” is what really stood out to me. In recent years I have used my dictionary a lot more when reading (now far more convenient since it is on my phone). I don’t only use it for words that are unfamiliar to me, though, I use it for words that I read a lot but ponder little. The word syntax, for example. I generally know what syntax is but I looked it up for a more concise definition. Merriam-Webster: “linguistics: the way in which words are put together to form phrases, clauses, or sentences.”4 You can immediately catch the paradox in Heschel’s phrase. Mix Merriam-Webster and Heschel and you get: “words…put together to form phrases, clauses, or sentences…of silence.” A syntax of silence. Brilliant.
What is Heschel getting at here? The key is in a word he uses very frequently in his writings and twice within the first sentence of our quote: ineffable. Let’s call on our friend Marriam-Webster again: “too great, powerful, beautiful, etc., to be described or expressed.” This is part of the reason that Jews don’t pronounce God’s Name: it is too great for words. Too holy. But notice that Heschel is not just speaking of the ineffableness of God. Rather, “our awareness of God is…[that moment when] the ineffable in us communes with the ineffable beyond us.” There are things which are too great for words within us, too.
Last March we learned my Dad had cancer and didn’t have very long to live. I made two visits before he died in April. Near the end of my first visit I felt like I needed to say the things you say to someone close who is dying: I love you; you’ve been a great father and…what? Goodbye? It was nothing like the movies for me. As hard as I tried I couldn’t say the words without blubbering and didn’t manage to say anything profound. It was okay though – he knew. On my second visit I sat next to Dad on the couch a lot. There I sat with my father, whom I loved, grieving the fact that he wouldn’t be with us much longer. I had no words. One time my Dad reached over and took my hand. We just sat there in silence, side-by-side, holding hands. If you had told me a few months prior that my father and I would sit together on a couch and hold hands I would have laughed at you. But this was different. What happened in those silent moments communicated far more than my failed attempt at saying goodbye on the first visit ever could have. The ineffable within us communicated in the silence of those sacred moments. They were some of the deepest moments I ever shared with my Dad.
So it is with God.
Sometimes we are frustrated that God doesn’t just speak to us the way a friend speaks to us over coffee. But perhaps it isn’t that God wants to withhold communication from us, but rather that He communicates with us in a manner that is too deep for words. He sits with us, holding our hands, reminding us that we are loved. In the silence He opens up our hearts and reveals to us a glimpse into the ineffable; the holy. We experience glory which, in Hebrew, also signifies something weighty. Some truth is too heavy for words. It is glorious. The more we learn to sit with Him in the silence, the more the ineffable in our own lives rise to commune “with the ineffable beyond us.” God speaks to us though “a syntax of silence.”
1 Quick note: This is not one of Heshel’s books per se, it is “A Spiritual Anthology.” Thoughts have been taken from ten of his books and have been pieced together, by topic, in small segments. If you’ve never read Heschel, this is a great place to start.
2 Abraham Heschel, I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology. (1983). Crossroad Publishing, 2015. pp. 28, 29
3 Samuel H. Dresner, I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology. (1983). Crossroad Publishing, 2015. p. 13
4 2017 Merriam-Webster, Inc.