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    In the Presence of Mystery

    Our own speechlessness at creation becomes our worship.

    By Abraham Joshua Heschel

    January 12, 2022
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    • Kathy

      This touched my soul. Thank you

    From Thunder In the Soul: To Be Known by God


    Always we are chasing words, and always words recede. But the greatest experiences are those for which we have no expression. To live only on that which we can say is to wallow in he dust, instead of digging up the soil. How shall we ignore the mystery, in which we are involved, to which we are attached by our very existence? How shall we remain deaf to the throb of the cosmic that is subtly echoed in our own souls? The most intimate is the most mysterious. Wonder alone is the compass that may direct us to the pole of meaning. As I enter the next second of my life, while writing these lines, I am aware that to be swept by the enigma and to pause – rather than to flee and to forget – is to live within the core.

    To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words. The essence, the tangent to the curve of human experience, lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. Its flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away.

    Sometimes we wish the world could cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear-filling grandeur. Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.

    Reverence is an attitude as indigenous to human consciousness as fear when facing danger or pain when hurt. The scope of revered objects may vary; reverence itself is characteristic of man in all civilizations. Let us analyze a rather common and perhaps universal example of such an attitude, the inner structure of which will prove to be the same in all examples – whatever the object revered may be. Obviously, we can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight. …

    Reverence is one of man’s answers to the presence of the mystery. This is why, in contradistinction to other emotions, it does not rush to be spoken. When we stand in awe, our lips do not demand speech; we know that if we spoke, we would deprave ourselves. In such moments talk is an abomination. All we want is to pause, to be still, that the moment may last. It is like listening to great music; how it reaps the yield from the fertile soil of stillness; we are swept by it without being able to appraise it. The meaning of the things we revere is overwhelming and beyond the grasp of our understanding. We possess no categories for it and would distort it if we tried to appraise it by our standard of values; it essentially surpasses our criteria.

    We are rarely aware of the tangent of the beyond at the whirling wheel of experience. In our passion for knowledge, our minds prey upon the wealth of an unresisting world and, seizing our limited spoils, we quickly leave the ground to lose ourselves in the whirlwind of our own knowledge.

    colorful illustration of Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Artwork by Julie Lonneman

    The horizon of knowledge is lost in the mist produced by fads and phrases. We refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, content with converting realities into opinions, mysteries into dogmas, and ideas into a multitude of words. What is extraordinary appears to us habit, the dawn a daily routine of nature. But time and again we awake. In the midst of walking in the never-ending procession of days and nights, we are suddenly filled with a solemn terror, with a feeling of our wisdom being inferior to dust. We cannot endure the heartbreaking splendor of sunsets. Of what avail, then, are opinions, words, dogmas? In the confinement of our study rooms, our knowledge seems to us a pillar of light. But when we stand at the door which opens out to the infinite, we realize that all concepts are but glittering motes that populate a sunbeam.

    To some of us, explanations and opinions are tokens of the wonder’s departure, like a curfew ringing the end of insight and search. However, those to whom reality is dearer than information, to whom life is stronger than concepts and the world more than words, are never deluded into believing that what they know and perceive is the core of reality. We are able to exploit, to label things with well-trimmed words; but when ceasing to subject them to our purposes and to impose on them the forms of our intellect, we are stunned and incapable of saying what things are in themselves; it is an experience of being unable to experience something we face: too great to be perceived. Music, poetry, religion – they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.

    The beginning of faith is not a feeling for the mystery of living or a sense of awe, wonder, or fear. The root of religion is the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear. Religion, the end of isolation, begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.

    Wonder is not a state of esthetic enjoyment. Endless wonder is endless tension, a situation in which we are shocked at the inadequacy of our awe, at the weakness of our shock, as well as the state of being asked the ultimate question.

    Endless wonder unlocks an innate sense of indebtedness. Within our awe there is no place for self-assertion. Within our awe we only know that all we own we owe. The world consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.

    The root of religion is the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear.

    All that is left to us is a choice – to answer or to refuse to answer. Yet the more deeply we listen, the more we become stripped of the arrogance and callousness which alone would enable us to refuse. We carry a load of marvel, wishing to exchange it for the simplicity of knowing what to live for, a load which we can never lay down nor continue to carry not knowing where.

    At the moment in which a fire bursts forth, threatening to destroy one’s home, a person does not pause to investigate whether the danger he faces is real or a figment of his imagination. Such a moment is not the time to inquire into the chemical principle of combustion, or into the question of who is to blame for the outbreak of the fire. The ultimate question, when bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question, to be equally suspended between yes and no. Such a moment is not the time to throw doubts upon the reason for the rise of the question.

    There is no knowledge that would be an answer to endless wonder, that could stem the tide of its silent challenge. When we are overtaken by endless wonder, all inference is an awkward retrogression; in such moments a syllogism is not self-evident, but an insight is. In such moments our logical affirmation, our saying yes, appears like a bubble of thought at the strand of an eternal sea. We, then, realize that our concern is not: What may we know? How could we open Him to our minds? Our concern is: To whom do we belong? How could we open our lives to Him?

    Where self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not within our power anymore to assume the role of an examiner of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.

    What is decisive is not the existential moment of despair, the acceptance of our own bankruptcy, but, on the contrary, the realization of our great spiritual power, the power to heal what is broken in the world, the realization of our capacity to answer God’s question.

    The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless. Those of us who share neither the conceit of the former nor the unconcern of the latter, and reject both specious answers and false evasions, know that an ultimate issue is at stake in our existence, the relevance of which surpasses all final formulations. It is this embarrassment that is the starting point for our thinking.

    The sense of the ineffable, the awareness of the grandeur and mystery of living, is shared by all people, and it is in the depth of such awareness that acts and thoughts of religion are full of meaning. The ideas of religion are an answer, when the mystery is a problem. When brought to the level of utilitarian thinking, when their meaning is taken literally as solutions to scientific problems, they are bound to be meaningless. Thus the basic ideas in Judaism have more than one dimension; what they refer to is a mystery, and they become distorted when taken as matter-of-fact descriptions. The idea of man as a being created in the likeness of God, the idea of creation, of divine knowledge, the election of Israel, the problem of evil, messianism, the belief in the resurrection, or faith in revelation become caricatures when transposed into the categories of pedestrian thinking.

    When Moses was about to depart from this world, he said, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee one favor before I die, that all the gates of both heaven and the abyss be opened, and people shall see that there is none beside Thee” (Deuteronomy Rabba 11:8). Moses’ request was not granted, and the gates remained closed.

    Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality. The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence. Not only man; even inanimate things stand in a relation to the Creator. …

    Awe is an intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things and their preciousness to God; a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something absolute. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to Him who is beyond all things. It is an insight better conveyed in attitudes than in words. The more eager we are to express it, the less remains of it. …

    In analyzing or evaluating an object, we think and judge from a particular point of view. The psychologist, economist, and chemist pay attention to different aspects of the same object. Such is the limitation of the mind that it can never see three sides of a building at the same time. The danger begins when, completely caught in one perspective, we attempt to consider a part as the whole. In the twilight of such perspectivism, even the sight of the part is distorted. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe. When we “stand still and consider,” we face and witness what is immune to analysis.

    Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. True wisdom is participation in the wisdom of God. Some people may regard as wisdom “an uncommon degree of common sense.” To us, wisdom is the ability to look at all things from the point of view of God, sympathy with the divine pathos, the identification of the will with the will of God. “Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice, and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer. 9:22–23).

    There is no faith at first sight. A faith that comes into being like a butterfly is ephemeral. He who is swift to believe is swift to forget. Faith does not come into being out of nothing, inadvertently, unprepared, as an unearned surprise. Faith is preceded by awe, by acts of amazement at things that we apprehend but cannot comprehend. In the story of the Red Sea we read: “Israel saw the great works which the Lord did … and the people feared the Lord … and they believed in the Lord” (Exod. 14:31). We must learn how to see “the miracles which are daily with us”; we must learn how to live in awe, in order to attain the insights of faith.

    “The thoughtless believes every word, but the prudent looks where he is going” (Prov. 14:15). The will to believe may be the will to power in disguise, yet the will to power and the will to believe are mutually exclusive. For in our striving for power we arrogate to ourselves what belongs to God and suppress the claim of His presence. We must learn how to let His will prevail. We must understand that our faith is not only our concern but also His; that more important than our will to believe is His will that we believe.

    It is not easy to attain faith. A decision of the will, the desire to believe, will not secure it. All the days of our lives we must continue to deepen our sense of mystery in order to be worthy of attaining faith. Callousness to the mystery is our greatest obstacle. In the artificial light of pride and self-contentment we shall never see the splendor. Only in His light shall we see the light.

    Man’s quest for God is not a quest for mere information. In terms of information little was attained by those countless men who strained their minds to find an answer. Only in terms of responsiveness, as an answer to Him who asked, much was achieved and much can be achieved by every one of us. In the realm of science, a question may be asked and an answer given by one man for all men. In the realm of religion, the question must be faced and the answer given by every individual soul.

    Contributed By AbrahamJoshuaHeschel Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was one of the most prominent Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century.

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