Yesterday in the Theological Reflection class we spent some time savouring the spiritual prose poetry that is the writing of A J Heschel. This writer was mostly new to the class members, and his style of writing a stark contrast to much that passes for spiritual writing today. From the first day they saw this book cover there was interest in a man who had such a lived in face, and near the end of the course when choices have to be made about what there is still time to explore and discuss - my suggested omission of Heschel was thankfully over-ruled. So we worked through a handout of brief extracts, each of us reading one, not feeling the need always to comment, but now and then saying what we had found touched us, or how what we read found us. It was an important interlude when teaching doesn't need the constant explanatory, expository, interrogatory voice. It was a class taught by numerous acts of reading, reflecting and occasional vocal appreciation. And I think what was learned wasn't so much how to do Theological Reflection, as how to recognise the profoundly reflective way of doing theology that arises from depths of human experience. Such expereince is forged in the fires of a faith both profound and immediate, a burning passion for God that welds the mystical and practical, and from the resulting fusion, a philosophical theology distilled to the essence of the religious encounter between the human and the divine, which is the meeting of holiness and humanity, divine pathos and human need.
Here are a couple of examples of Heschel's remarkable glimpses into the nature of prayer as both joyful discovery and unassuaged longing:
Prayer begins where expression ends. The words that reach our lips are often but waves of an overflowing stream touching the shore:We often seek and miss, struggle and fail to adjust our unique feelings to the patterns of the texts. Where is the tree that can utter fully the silent passion of the soil. Words can only open the door, and we can only weep on the threshold of our incommunicable thirst after the incomprehensible.
In no other act does the human being experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape...For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one's origins.
Centuries of Jewish dealings with God have shaped such a theology of the soul's astonishment. The extracts come from Man's Quest for God. It would be to inexcusably misunderstand and misrepresent Heschel to point out that Christian theology teaches the greater truth of God's quest for humanity - Heschel would rightly point out, with something of that pathos he understood so personally, that such a view of the initiative of God is yet another idea Christians borrowed from the Hebrew Bible and the people God chose to be an 'echo of eternity'. Such theological plagiarism (unacknowledged borrowing) tends to obscure the beauty of the tradition out of which, in the providence of God, the Christian faith emerged. The human quest for God, uttered, or unexpressed because inexpressible, is always going to be the soul's response to the grace that first creates the urge towards God, and calls for that reckless trust so full of risk, to begin the journey with God into a future without tangible certainties.
Augustine's great prayer, 'Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee', is the cry that recognises that human incompleteness is itself the truth that turns us towards the One in whom all longing may be satisfied - but not yet, not here, and perhaps - not ever, for how can we ever have the capacity to have enough of God? P T Forsyth had no interest in being a 'finished futility' - he too recognised that the longing for God, the inadeqaucy of human expression to do justice to the inexpressible and ineffable, the categorical deficit in human capacity compared to divine inexhaustibility of grace, suggests that even in the encounter with God, in the fullness of glory and face to face, we will still be lost in wonder, love and praise. Which comes back to Heschel, and his willingness to be content, not with reductionist explanation, but with eternal mystery - which is why he confessed, 'I asked for wonder......' and not 'I asked for answers!'