Normally, we can find suitable words to describe the details of our lives: our experiences, thoughts, feelings, prayers. The English language offers us a rich storehouse of words, many gleaned from other languages.
Sometimes, especially when we are tired, unwell, stressed, or frightened, we may fail to find the apt word.
At other times, the words themselves fail us, and we run up against the limits of our vocabulary and language. This can happen when we feel deep emotion: wonder, love, joy, grief, sadness.
Recently, one of our sisters was describing the pairs of bluebirds building nests in the birdboxes on our property. She was attempting to describe the beautiful contrast between the birds’ plumage and the brown and grey colors of the late-winter woods, but she found herself saying, “Bluebirds are just so… so….blue!” Words failed her, and we all found ourselves laughing with her at the silliness of the expression.
We’ve all been in this situation, especially when we’ve had a profound experience of God’s presence, love, and care.
We may respond to such a profound experience with silence, resting in the inexpressible.
The urge to share the experience with others may be so strong, however, that we can become, again, like the little children Jesus asks us to be. We want to say something but lack the tools and means to capture the experience in every detail. We may babble. We may use words in unexpected ways. We may find ourselves simply emphasizing a word because we can’t find a worthy superlative: “so … blue!”
How do you express the inexpressible? In our daily lives, we use superlatives so freely – describing things as the greatest, the best, the most—that when we attempt to describe our experience of God, we can’t find a superlative that is truly superlative.
The ancient Israelites employed poetic and rhetorical devices to describe the glory, majesty, and supreme power of God. They heaped words upon words to express His magnitude. They used parallelism, synonyms, and repetition in the way that we might use superlatives, to emphasize greatness and importance. During the Sanctus at Mass, we retain this phrasing as we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts” (see Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).
St. Francis also layered adjectives and nouns to build a structure of praise, much as he had placed stone upon stone to rebuild the chapel of San Damiano. Some scholars suggest that he was influenced by the Ninety-Nine Names (or Attributes) of Allah in the Qur’an, which Francis most likely heard and learned about when he visited Sultan Malik al-Kamil at Damietta in Egypt in 1219. His litany of names for God in the verses that he wrote on Mount La Verna in 1224 certainly seems to show this influence:
You are love, charity; You are wisdom, You are humility,
You are patience, You are beauty, You are meekness,
You are security, You are rest,
You are gladness and joy, You are our hope, You are justice…1
Francis also used superlatives, as, for example, in his prayer in the Office of the Passion: “All-powerful, most holy, most high, supreme God: all good, supreme good, totally good, You Who alone are good….”2
If you haven’t read much of St. Francis’s writing, you may find the string of names and superlatives jarring, but if you stop to reflect on the meaning of each word and phrase, you’ll notice that each describes a distinct quality or characteristic of God, much as the Ninety-Nine Attributes of Allah do. Cumulatively, they point to the inexpressible: the most, most, most, most, most! The infinite.
It may feel as if we need to adapt and combine every word in our vocabulary in order to describe our experience of our God, as if we could use calculus to measure words that approach, but never reach, God’s infinite majesty. Even then, we would not be close to describing Him.
When words fail us, we need to remember the opening to John’s Gospel. “In the beginning, was the Word” (John 1:1). The Word (singular). The Word.
We should be comforted when we struggle for words to describe our God, comforted and unafraid to respond with prayerful silence or the one Word that is His name.
As for bluebirds, just remember that they are called “bluebirds” for a reason.
1 St. Francis, “The Praises of God and the Blessing,” in vol. 1 of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, ed. Regis Armstrong et al. (New City Press, 1999), p. 109.
2 St. Francis, “The Office of the Passion,” FAED vol. I, p. 139.