I HEAR THE WORD, of course. I go to Mass some Sundays, listen to Al Green’s Greatest Gospel Hits, and have lived in or near the Bible Belt for the better part of the past decade. Even still, the word God has never quite fitted itself to my ears. And when I’m called upon to say it, I get shifty-eyed and spastic. I smile hard and mutter other words—spirit or goodness—anything but the word God, which sits like a fistful of rubber bands in my mouth.
God bless you, people say, and unless I’ve sneezed, I’m at a loss.
I visited my friend Mary this summer. A ninety-six-year-old church lady adorned with more medals of the saints than I can count, Mary’s been an ardent and unlikely guide as I’ve made my way back to Catholicism. She’d just moved into a nursing home, and she showed me around—the cafeteria, the sunroom with plant stands and floral padded wicker chairs, the chapel with statues of Mary and Jesus flanking the altar. “Go up and say hello,” she said. The chapel was small, with nowhere to hide, and my attempt to change the subject did not work. “Go on and touch them,” she said. “Show them that you’re here, and you care.”
Well, I was there and did care, but setting my hands against the plaster robes embarrassed me somehow, made me feel exposed and inauthentic. Which is precisely how I feel when I attempt to use the word God.
This is not a big problem in and of itself. We have freedom when it comes to language. If we don’t like a word, we don’t usually have to use it. Writers can be persnickety about such matters and keep running tallies of objectionable words in their heads. For years, I simply lumped the word God in with cerulean and staccato and moved on.
The trouble began a year ago when I returned to Catholicism. I was as surprised as anyone else to find myself surrounded by stained glass and the Stations of the Cross. I’d left in my mid-twenties, no longer able to square the Church’s teachings on everything from limited roles for women to birth control with my own experiences and values. Why had I come back? Intellectually and politically, the action made no sense. I tried to untangle the question in writing, which is the best way I know to do my untangling. But how to fully delve into the matter when I could not bring myself to use the word God?
Devout Jews do not utter the God of Israel’s name. They say the Holy One or HaShem (literally, The Name). Adonai (Lord) is almost always substituted in prayer. Even in writing, The Name must be handled with care. Hyphens are inserted (G-d), or they use the tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters transliterated as YHWH, which many Christians pronounce Yahweh).
Even among some Catholics, there’s an awareness of the limitations of language where God is concerned.
St. Anselm said: God is that, the greater than which cannot be conceived.
St. Augustine said: God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand, you have failed.
The theologian Karl Rahner did not like to use the word God. He preferred to use Absolute Mystery instead, saying: God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names . . .
It’s possible my problem is sociological. I grew up among people who did not reveal their tenderness. We went to Mass, yes. We fell in love and exercised the soft tissue of our hearts as best as we could, but to leave ourselves so open as to enthusiastically believe? That was madness.
But that doesn’t entirely explain it. I have, despite it all, developed a proclivity toward softness. I’ve learned to say words like honey and sweetness, to like them, and to mean them.
The larger problem is that, though I was only a child, I never expected words to be even exchanges for truth. That the world was wondrous, I could almost let myself believe, but religious language seemed to trap wonder in cardboard boxes. I still remember the day I quizzed people after Mass about the virgin birth, the way they clung to the story no matter how I battered them with questions. How disappointed I was to discover we’d spoken words with the same shape and sound, but understood so little of each other. How alone I suddenly felt. It was bad enough to be a kid from the family that got food baskets every Christmas, but now it seemed I was alone in adoring the Blessed Mother whether or not she’d ever given herself over to a man.
My misgivings did not keep me from church. I went eagerly and as often as I could. I loved what I found there, even if I could not name it, so I learned to make do. For as far back as I can remember, when anyone said God, I simply added an o in my head and made the word God into good.
God is good, someone will sometimes say at church, and it’s the one time I nod and smile and do not feel false.
But the word Good is not related to the word God. They have entirely different roots. Good comes from Old English (gōd), is cousin to gather and –gether, and derives from the Proto-Germanic (gōdaz) and the Proto Indo-European (ghedh), which mean to unite, be associated, to suit, or to fit.
No one agrees on the origin of the word God. Used as both a proper noun for the supreme being and more generally to designate a deity-at-large. Various theories have the Old English word rooted in the Proto-Indo-European words for to invoke, or to pour (as in libations or earth), or the one to whom we make sacrifice.
God is perhaps uttered most as a secular exclamation. God damn it, a father shouts as his truck slides into a frozen ditch. My god, the lover murmurs as she bites the inside of her lip. God, no, the wife sobs as the surgeon emerges with a haunted look on his face. OMG, the student says, and we all LOL.
The word God springs from the gut in such cases. It’s the last sound we make as we move toward speechlessness, the drop-off point to the vast ocean where language has no jurisdiction.
What we feel most, the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, has no name.
In the meantime, the word God falls millions of times a day from our collective mouths, though there’s no real sense of what we’re talking about. To some, God is an omnipotent guardian with a heap of white curls riding shotgun on clouds. To others, she’s the green breath of trees.
“Do you believe in God?” The editor was trying to decide whether to take on my work. I’d started writing Catholic essays, which meant visits to shrines and churches, discussions with priests and pilgrims, and this editor was the only one who came right out and asked. I couldn’t decide if the question was brave or rude. The piece we were discussing was steeped in religion, so I suppose I’d opened the door.
“Do you believe in God?”
She may as well have asked if I believe in the scent of gardenias wafting around my neighborhood on humid evenings, the slow groan of their oily petals, the throb of cicadas, or the word belief itself.
Allah is nearer to man than his jugular vein.
—The Qur’an (50:16)
So near we approach the place where words have no business. Or have important business if we learn to use them in new ways. Some words get closer than others. Verbs do better than nouns. Metaphors come closer still. But even then, in the face of such immensity, we are children throwing pebbles at the sky.
But writers broker the world in words, so what else can we do but try?
Every semester I share the quote often attributed to Chekhov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. We talk about showing and telling and move on to concrete language. I give students a prompt, asking them to translate a series of abstract words (beauty, greed, poverty) into concrete images (black feather on snow, two-timing ex-boyfriend, the bottle and can collector on East Main Street). I sometimes add God to the list, because God seems to me the ultimate abstraction. And yet our work as artists—whether we identify as believers or not—is not only to show the light on broken glass, but also to try to touch the thing that gives the moon its light, the source of luminosity itself. What an impossible and lovely proposition—to attempt to build bridges of words to reach the mysterious and necessary expanse where language cannot join us.
That name—my conception of Him—extended to me a hand that led to a place where even His divine name could not exist.
—Teresa of Ávila
In the end, I told the editor about adding the o to God.
“I believe in goodness,” I said. And though I meant it, I heard only the clumsiness of words and how little we’d managed to say.
I should have told her about the sheep sprawling on green hillsides on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, surrounded by mossy old stones and the blue of the sea. The way they sink into the grasses—the lambs, the overgrown ewes, and a few cows—any doubt they’re cradled by the earth itself never once crossing their woolly heads.
I should have told her about the old men in Seville. The way they sat beside each other in a café where anyone foolish enough to be caught in the midday heat had taken refuge. One sat in his wheelchair, the other in a café chair. They sat so close, their birdlike heads nearly touched. Outside, the sun scorched and blinded. Inside, the men ordered ice cream. One lifted the spoon and brought it to the other’s mouth. They glowed, those men, and laughed with pure delight—one for the taste of ice cream, the other for the pleasure of lifting the spoon, again and again, to his friend’s mouth.
I might have told her about the fireflies my husband led me to this summer at a small clearing in the park. We had to hike along a dark trail to get there. I imagined spiders, worried about twisting my ankle, and grumbled about having to do without my phone and flashlight, but we kept on until we reached the spot. The pitch black was broken suddenly by tiny bursts of light. Little flashes in the grass, the low-hanging branches, the crowns of trees. Like Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one. But quieter. Truer somehow. When my prospective editor used the word God, I should have told her about that dark hollow filled with light. The way we stood and stared and did not speak.