It was out of reverence for the Real that the ancient Israelites refused to utter the name of God, for whatever can be named is not Ultimately Real. This is not simply because no finite name can do justice to the Infinite Reality of God, but more profoundly because it is names themselves which constitute the veil that hides this Reality from us.
Ordinarily we suppose names designate a world of substantial objects existing outside of Consciousness. But this is a delusion. In Reality, names designate only images created by Consciousness within Itself. Hence, whenever we make use of a name we are in danger of idolatry—of believing that a name can refer to something real—whereas a name can only refer to something imaginary. As this applies to all names, how much greater then is our danger when we try to name the Unnamable!
Yet, at the same time, names are indispensable for any discourse whether spiritual or worldly. Thus, even the 'Unnamable' is a name as are all the other negative names with which mystical traditions abound—'The Formless', 'The Unmanifest', 'The Inconceivable', etc. Though such expressions are intended only to be remedial—to prevent us from reifying Reality in any form—they often prove worse than the disease they are intended to cure. In eschewing all positive references to a Deity, Buddhism, for example, must constantly guard itself against nihilism. When ignorant minds reify names like Nirvana(extinction) and shunyata (emptiness), imagining Reality to be a mere vacuity or some actually existing void, then idolatry is averted at the price of blasphemy—a far more grievous sin, as Buddhists themselves acknowledge in the saying: "If you get stuck in emptiness not even the Buddha can save you." To avoid such pitfalls more refined formulations are called for. It must be insisted that in the last analysis Nirvana is indistinguishable from samsara; that emptiness is not other than form; that God is neither Something nor Nothing. This, the traditions proclaim, is the Ultimate Truth. But the 'Ultimate Truth' is itself just another name for God.
Apparently, then, in speaking of God we are led only into the slippery swamp of paradox. We cannot escape God's names, but neither can we grasp what they mean. And if we cannot grasp what they mean, it seems impossible to follow a spiritual path, for how can we believe in a Being we cannot conceive of, worship a God we cannot imagine, serve a Master we cannot comprehend?
The trouble is, we are looking at the problem the wrong way around. Normally, when we turn to God we are expecting God to answer a question: how can we be happy? But 'God' is not the name of an answer. God is the name of the question. That is, to invoke the name of God is to cry out this question. And if we focus on the question, instead of an answer, we can see that it arises out of our own suffering, which itself begins with a name—the name of 'I'.
In naming ourselves 'I', we impose on the Absolute Continuity of Consciousness an imaginary boundary between 'subject' and 'object', a 'self' and the 'world'. Although this boundary is purely metaphorical (an 'as if' construction), under delusion we take it to be real and identify ourselves exclusively with the side we have named 'I'. Having identified ourselves with 'I', however, we necessarily become estranged from all 'others'. It is this estrangement that constitutes our 'original sin', that cuts us off from the life of the world, and gives birth to that inherent sense of incompleteness from which all future sufferings flow. But despite this apparent sin of estrangement, in Reality, Consciousness Itself remains an unalterable continuum—a continuum, moreover, which Consciousness now, in the form of 'I', strives to Re-cognize.
At first, this striving expresses itself as a profane effort on the part of 'I' to appropriate the 'other', usually in the form of people or possessions, or both. By bringing these 'others' into the orbit of self, I hope to end my estrangement from them. As long as I believe this strategy can succeed, God remains hidden, for I have no reason to question the nature of my relationship to the world of others upon which the strategy is based. But if the persistence of suffering makes me suspect that this strategy is doomed (which, indeed, it is), then I will be forced into a re-examination of that fundamental relationship, and this by way of asking the double question: Who am I? Who is the Other?
It is through the Grace of such a crisis that God enters our lives, not as the name of some new 'object' or 'being' (however exalted), but rather as the Name of the Mystery of this relationship. To invoke the Name of God is to look upon the Face of this Mystery and allow oneself to be filled with awe. To pursue a spiritual path is to go stumbling after this Question, confessing with every step that one has not the slightest clue to an answer. In other words, it is not to adopt a dogma, but to undertake a quest—a quest for which the only true prerequisites are faith and humility.
Invoking God's Name in this spirit means to cease demanding answers. Instead, we are directed simply to contemplate God's Mystery as it manifests in our own daily suffering. Then and only then will the Mystery begin to unveil itself by showing us what further questions to ask, which is to say, what other names of God we must invoke. Becoming aware of my ignorance, I will seek the grace of Wisdom. Fear and confusion will prod me to find Peace. My iniquity and guilt will produce a longing for God's Goodness; and out of my loneliness and isolation will spring a thirst for redemptive Love. In this way I come to know the names of God's particular attributes precisely by coming to know names of the things which I lack and which cause my suffering.
Furthermore, each of the names of these attributes holds the key to a particular form of practice suited to the kind of suffering which prompted its invocation. Thus, the quest for Wisdom leads naturally to inquiry; a desire for Peace motivates a practice of meditation; the longing for Goodness unlocks the gate of virtue; and the yearning for Love brings one to devotion.
In submitting to such practices the seeker of God becomes also a worshipper of God—literally, one who "turns towards what is most Worthy". But this turning towards what is most worthy is simultaneously a turning away from what is unworthy—i.e. the old, profane strategy for attaining happiness through the appropriation of mundane others. In its stead, the seeker adopts a new, sacred strategy aimed at appropriating the Divine Other, or God. In order to accomplish this the seeker now strives to acquire God's names or attributes for him or herself, i.e., to become personally Wise, Peaceful, Good, and Loving—to become, in short, just like God.
Such an ambition, of course is absurd. Nevertheless, the effort to achieve it is both necessary and beneficent. As more and more attachments are sacrificed during the course of practice, the seeker's entire relationship to what is 'other' undergoes a profound change. Objects begin to lose their appearance of solidity; forms become more fluid, events and meanings less fixed. Gradually, the world of concrete quantities is transformed into a field of Divine qualities—qualities which in turn require new names to describe them. Inquiry, for example, yields glimpses of a providential harmony and perfection extending throughout the cosmos. In meditation one discovers an ineluctable clarity or presence infused in all phenomena, yet untouched by their constant fluctuations. During the exercise of virtue one may be suddenly overtaken by a beauty and light which melt the flesh and reduce the soul to tears; while in the fire of devotion it is possible to reach states of ecstasy and bliss that put all other pleasures to shame.
What differentiates this new constellation of names (harmony, perfection, clarity, presence, beauty, bliss, etc.) from the previous ones (Wisdom, Peace, Goodness, Love) is not that they are any less mysterious, but that they represent dimensions of actual experience. By entering these dimensions God's Mystery becomes, for the seeker, transformed from a set of intellectual Ideals into a series of experiential facts. Consequently, seekers in this stage often believe they are penetrating the Mystery Itself. In reality, however, the situation is just the reverse: the Mystery is penetrating them. For just as Consciousness has been striving to Re-cognize Itself in the form of 'I', it has also, all the while, been striving to Re-cognize Itself in the form of the 'other', which is to say, from the opposite side of the boundary. What has actually taken place is that the 'self' in its ludicrous effort to appropriate God has, through the sacrifice of attachments, opened itself to God's appropriation of it.
This is usually felt by the seeker as the Power or Hand of God (Holy Spirit) directing not only phenomena outside the self, but also operating within the depths of one's own innermost soul. With the realization that such a ubiquitous power is at work, God ceases to be simply the Mystery of the self's relationship to the world, but becomes more sublimely the Mystery of a Consciousness that transcends both self and world yet is fully incarnate in each. At this advanced stage of the path all 'things', 'beings', 'states' and 'experiences' are seen by the seeker to be merely occasions for this Transcendent Consciousness to commune with Itself. In effect, every name becomes, for a heart so illumined, the name of God, for now there is nothing but oneself and God in all the world—not because the world has been put away or left behind—but because everything in the world is clearly cognized as just another form of God.
This is true even and especially of what were once regarded as 'mundane' objects—trees, chairs, bugs, birds, stones, stars, friends, etc.—all are perceived as, in themselves, devoid of any substantial content. Rather they are but windows for God's blinding Radiance which cascades in from all sides, and from which there is no escape. Now, I and God stand face to face in every moment of experience. . . but that is the problem. There is still an 'I' and a 'God'. We remain separated by this one, last, agonizing distinction.
With God so tantalizingly close, the seeker begins to exert an all-out effort to obliterate this boundary once and for all. However, for reasons the seeker cannot yet understand, this proves impossible. But if in the process the effort itself is thoroughly exhausted, then something totally unexpected happens. The seeker finds that he or she has no will left, even for spiritual practice. It has simply dried up. There is a complete emptiness, a vast desert into which the seeker wanders without any sense of purpose, convinced that all his or her spiritual efforts have wrought nothing but a colossal failure.
Such a state may last only a moment, or it may stretch into hours, days, weeks. Yet, if the seeker has really depleted every reserve (which is the real point of the practice), burned all bridges, then inevitably, sooner or later, it must be noticed that this emptiness is truly complete; that in it there are no boundaries, no distinctions, no barriers—hence, no 'I' and no 'other', no 'self' and no 'world'. All were merely imaginary (which is why no effort could obliterate them; for what was never in existence cannot be wiped out of existence). From the very beginning there was only Consciousness Itself, and when Consciousness Re-cognizes this Fact, then I lose the name of 'I', and God loses the name of 'God', for, in Reality, I and God are indistinguishable, and what is indistinguishable cannot be named. This is Gnosis—the end of the Path. With its instantaneous dawning the metaphorical world vanishes. Names and forms are now perfectly transparent to Consciousness Itself and, indeed, are identical to it. As such they lose all semblance of an independent reality and, in an absolute sense, even all meaning. Nevertheless, looking back from this vantage point, as it were (though truly no points can be specified), it may be seen how the pursuit of a nameable God leads to this, the God who is Forever Nameless. The trick then is not to avoid God's names, but, on the contrary, to actively engage the Mystery they represent.
- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1991. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.