An Austrian friend of mine told me this story. During the days of the Third Reich, a rabbi stood on the corner of a Vienna street reading from the Hebrew scriptures while waiting on a bus. An SS officer stepped up behind him, saw the Hebrew letters, cleared his throat theatrically and said, “What language is that you’re reading?”
The rabbi looked up, noted the sharp Nazi uniform and, completely unintimidated, turned back to his book. He said, “I’m studying Hebrew.”
“And,” the officer said, drawing out the conjunction, “why are you studying this . . . Hebrew?”
“Because it’s the language of Heaven,” responded the rabbi.
Crossing his hands behind his back and rocking on his heels, the Nazi officer sneered, “What if you go to Hell?”
“That’s alright,” answered the rabbi, never looking away from his book, “I already know German.”
That story is funny on a number of levels, but we know that it’s ultimately absurd. Any faithful person knows that you don’t have to learn Hebrew, or Greek, or German, or any language before you go to heaven. On the other hand, it raises an interesting spiritual question: how DOES one communicate in eternity? What IS the language of heaven? What is God’s “native tongue,” as it were?
Most Christians believe that God is the Creator of everything, including the flux we call time. That being the case, we confess that God is actually greater than time itself. God, the Creator, is timeless.
On the other hand, human beings are completely time-bound. Think about the languages we speak. The vast majority of human languages depend upon various forms of past, present, and future tenses to express ideas, communicate plans, and voice hopes. Our very psychologies have been shaped by this dependence. We literally cannot get our minds around timelessness.
Since God is greater than time, this means that any linguistic attempt to describe God, all assertions of orthodoxy and right teaching, are ultimately time-bound and ultimately fall short of God’s reality. Human language simply cannot do it. We cannot rationally, verbally conceive of the totality of God’s reality. Language can only point us in the right direction, open our minds and hearts, and prepare our beings for a Presence larger than language.
The practice of Silent Prayer, or centering prayer, has emerged in every major religion, including Christianity, because we humans have an intuition that there is a dimension to our humanity greater than our rational, verbally express-able, time-bound selves. In silent prayer, we begin to awaken this aspect of ourselves, but we cannot experience this greater aspect of ourselves in rational verbiage any more than sand can convey the experience of wetness. We must leave off language and be silent in order to make space for that aspect of our humanity to grow.
Indeed, the language of God is beyond syntax, vocabulary, and grammar. When we enter into a disciplined practice of silence, leaving off all our attempts to explain things, or describe things, or make judgments about this or that, we awaken the timeless nature of our souls and know a reality beyond words, which we cannot prove with words, but the assurance of which no amount of words can shake. In the silence, we learn to hear and speak the language of God.
Then, when we’ve practiced the silence over time, we discover that it has reshaped us. In turn, the practice begins to change how we employ our rational and verbal selves. Most folks discover that their words decrease while their compassion increases.
Of course, learning to speak any new language is admittedly very difficult at first. This includes learning the language of God’s timeless Silence, so in the next blog, we’ll address the matter of “the cocktail party in my brain.”