Arriving at Silence
The following is the 30th chapter in, “AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words” by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center
“Everyone asks me about what will happen when they finally arrive. Is this just curiosity? We’re always asking how would this fit into that system, or whether this would make sense in that context, or what it will feel like when we get there. Get started and you will know; it cannot be described. It is said widely in the East, ‘Those who know, do not say; those who say, do not know.’ It cannot be said; only the opposite can be said. The guru cannot give you the truth. Truth cannot be put into words, into a formula. That isn’t the truth. That isn’t reality. Reality cannot be put into a formula. The guru can only point out your errors. When you drop your errors, you will know the truth. And even then you cannot say. This is common teaching among the great Catholic mystics. The great Thomas Aquinas, toward the end of his life, wouldn’t write and wouldn’t talk; he had seen. I had thought he kept that famous silence of his for only a couple of months, but it went on for years. He realized he had made a fool of himself, and he said so explicitly. It’s as if you had never tasted a green mango and you ask me, ‘What does it taste like?’ I’d say to you, ‘Sour,’ but in giving you a word, I’ve put you off the track. Try to understand that. Most people aren’t very wise; they seize upon the word—upon the words of scripture, for example—and they get it all wrong. ‘Sour,’ I say, and you ask, ‘Sour like vinegar, sour like a lemon?’ No, not sour like a lemon, but sour like a mango. ‘But I never tasted one,’ you say. Too bad! But you go ahead and write a doctoral thesis on it. You wouldn’t have if you had tasted it. You really wouldn’t. You’d have written a doctoral thesis on other things, but not on mangoes. And the day you finally taste a green mango, you say, ‘God, I made a fool of myself. I shouldn’t have written that thesis.’ That’s exactly what Thomas Aquinas did.
“A great German philosopher and theologian wrote a whole book specifically on the silence of St. Thomas. He simply went silent. Wouldn’t talk. In the prologue of his Summa Theologica, which was the summary of all his theology, he says, ‘About God, we cannot say what He is but rather what He is not. And so we cannot speak about how He is but rather how He is not.’ And in his famous commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate he says there are three ways of knowing God: (1) in the creation, (2) in God’s actions through history, and (3) in the highest form of the knowledge of God—to know God tamquam ignotum (to know God as the unknown). The highest form of talking about the Trinity is to know that one does not know. Now, this is not an Oriental Zen master speaking. This is a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church, the prince of theologians for centuries. To know God as unknown. In another place St. Thomas even says: as unknowable. Reality, God, divinity, truth, love are unknowable; that means they cannot be comprehended by the thinking mind. That would set at rest so many questions people have because we’re always living under the illusion that we know. We don’t. We cannot know.
“What is scripture, then? It’s a hint, a clue, not a description. The fanaticism of one sincere believer who thinks he knows causes more evil than the united efforts of two hundred rogues. It’s terrifying to see what sincere believers will do because they think they know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everybody said, ‘We don’t know’? One big barrier dropped. Wouldn’t that be marvelous?
“A man born blind comes to me and asks, ‘What is this thing called green?’ How does one describe the color green to someone who was born blind? One uses analogies. So I say, ‘The color green is something like soft music.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘like soft music.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘soothing and soft music.’ So a second blind man comes to me and asks, ‘What is the color green?’ I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch. So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles. One is saying, ‘It’s soft like music’; the other is saying, ‘It’s soft like satin.’ And on it goes. Neither of them knows what they’re talking about, because if they did, they’d shut up. It’s as bad as that. It’s even worse, because one day, say, you give sight to this blind man, and he’s sitting there in the garden and he’s looking all around him, and you say to him, ‘Well, now you know what the color green is.’ And he answers, ‘That’s true. I heard some of it this morning!’
“The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. That’s what the gospels were saying, that religious people ‘knew,’ so they got rid of Jesus. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it. There is too little awareness, too little love, too little happiness, but let’s not use those words either. There’s too little dropping of illusions, dropping of errors, dropping of attachments and cruelty, too little awareness. That’s what the world is suffering from, not from a lack of religion. Religion is supposed to be about a lack of awareness, of waking up. Look what we’ve degenerated into. Come to my country and see them killing one another over religion. You’ll find it everywhere. ‘The one who knows, does not say; the one who says, does not know.’ All revelations, however divine, are never any more than a finger pointing to the moon. As we say in the East, ‘When the sage points to the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.’
“Jean Guiton, a very pious and orthodox French writer, adds a terrifying comment: ‘We often use the finger to gouge eyes out.’ Isn’t that terrible? Awareness, awareness, awareness! In awareness is healing; in awareness is truth; in awareness is salvation; in awareness is spirituality; in awareness is growth; in awareness is love; in awareness is awakening. Awareness.
“I need to talk about words and concepts because I must explain to you why it is, when we look at a tree, we really don’t see. We think we do, but we don’t. When we look at a person, we really don’t see that person, we only think we do. What we’re seeing is something that we fixed in our mind. We get an impression and we hold on to that impression, and we keep looking at a person through that impression. And we do this with almost everything. If you understand that, you will understand the loveliness and beauty of being aware of everything around you. Because reality is there; ‘God,’ whatever that is, is there. It’s all there. The poor little fish in the ocean says, ‘Excuse me, I’m looking for the ocean. Can you tell me where I can find it?’ Pathetic, isn’t it? If we would just open our eyes and see, then we would understand.”