22 June – Thanksgiving Service – Alexander James Wearing
Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
In a space like this we gather to tell not one story but two. The one is our story with each other, of which we have just told a little (and it is always too little); the other is God’s story with us, to which we now turn.
Yet, in this turn, we don’t leave the first story behind; we tell the two because they are intertwined. Their relationship can be treated in all manner of ways but today, taking the lead from the psalmist and St Paul, we’ll consider the relation of these stories through the question of what it is to know .
The quest for knowledge drives us, whether it is what we hope to glean from staffroom gossip or from probing an atom with a laser. Yet, among all the things that might be known, are we ourselves not what we really seek to know in this world? Of all the objects of knowledge we might encounter, are we ourselves not the most interesting, the most extraordinary?
Anthropology, sociology, psychology (of course!); medicine, linguistics, economics, politics, history, literature, arts: together such pursuits constitute the search to understand and express what makes us tick. For we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we delight to know this.
Even the driest of sciences, which seek as thoroughly as possible to exclude from their quest for knowledge the unreliability of human perception – even these cannot finally exclude the human as the one who knows and marvels and searches, or who will benefit from what is discovered.
Do we know more than Paul, writing 2000 years ago, or the psalmist, 500 or 1000 years before that? Certainly, in terms of the kind of knowledge which lends itself to publication in journals and books. The wonder which we are is reflected in that knowledge.
And yet it is of a certain, limited type. It is oriented toward the human being as ‘problem’: the What and the How and Why of what we do, or need, or suffer. This type of knowledge we seek principally with a view to unravelling the tangles, solving the puzzles, resolving the issues.
The knowing we encountered today in the psalm and St Paul is of a different order.
Psalm 139 is one of one of the most intimate passages of the Scriptures, in which the poet marvels at his very self, and at God’s knowledge of that self.
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Alongside the poet, we heard from St Paul, who is not often accused of poetry. Yet if not aesthetically, he poetises technically – not so much in his selection of words but in his sense for the order in which things should be said, the way in which things should be made relative to each other:
I know, but only in part; yet I shall know even as I am now fully known.
These two write not of knowledge of as answer to question or as resolution to problem; they intimate knowledge of mystery.
Mystery has degenerated as a notion for us these days. We imagine that a mystery is a problem: the murder mystery is a puzzle to be solved. More to the point, this kind of ‘mystery’ is understood to be solvable, given all the evidence.
But, for the poet of the psalm and for Paul, mystery is that which, of its very nature, is impenetrable. It is unmistakably there, it can be seen, it matters, but it resists comprehension.
‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it…’
‘…For now we see through a glass, darkly’ (as we said it in the old tongue).
The particular mystery they contemplate is their own irreducible being, known to them, and yet unknown.
We are driven to know ourselves, and we must let ourselves be propelled by that drive. And yet, what are we to do with the thought that we will never reach our destination, not because it is too far (there is too much to know) but because comprehending in this way is not the point of it all.
What we are to do is, in short, nothing. The mystery which we are is not a thing to be ‘done’ with. It is not a useful thing, not a tool in our hand, certainly not a problem to be solved. It is something within which to live, from which to take reference.
Paul was writing against a certain use of knowledge and interpretation of experience. In a 2000-year-old kind of way, it was the kind of knowledge which correlates to the facts and figures our sciences, or just our ordinary experience, yield for us today.
His criticism of the use of this knowledge in the community was that it didn’t carry humanity with it, the mystery of who they were, and the mystery of whose they were – whose we are. And the community was breaking apart all over the place.
You are more than this, he insists. And the only way you can know it is, love. Properly to be the mystery you are, is to be loved, and to love.
Love relativises everything we think we know, our drive to know, our pride in knowing – all of this is subjected to the gift of being known. The subjugation of knowing to being known reflects the dynamic of love, in that the love which makes us is, first of all, the love we receive.
It is the love which nurses the unknowing infant; it is the love which teaches those who don’t know yet what I know, that they might know themselves better; it is the love we hear in the ‘I do’; it is the love which holds the hand of one whose knowledge now passes in and out of reach, who is beginning now and then not to know himself; it is the love which causes us to gathers as we have today because we knew someone who no longer knows anything, and yet is loved.
Whatever we might strive to know, it is finally only that we are known – loved – that makes us.
Prophecies, tongues, knowledge – these things of ours, Paul says, all come to an end. If love ever ended, then we would too, even if we lived on.
But Paul and the poet testify: Love never ends, because it does not begin with us. We were known before we knew; we know now only in part; we will be known still, once we cease to know any more.
In Alec we saw something of what we can be, if we know ourselves known and loved: a glass which refracts – even if darkly – the possibilities of love.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, for love.
Live, then, from, in and through love. For God’s sake, and for your own.