Do not worry, for he provides you with a technique for singing. Do not go seeking lyrics, as though you could spell out in words anything that will give God pleasure. Sing to him in jubilation. This is what acceptable singing to God means: to sing jubilantly. But what is that? It is to grasp the fact that what is sung in the heart cannot be articulated in words…. Jubilation is a shout of joy; it indicates that the heart is bringing forth what defies speech. To whom, then, is this jubilation more fittingly offered than to God who surpasses all utterance? You cannot speak of him because he transcends our speech; and if you cannot speak of him, yet may not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out in jubilation, so that your heart may tell its joy without words, and the unbounded rush of gladness not be cramped by syllables? Sing skillfully to him in jubilation
~ Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 32
My son, A.J., turns two in September. Each and every day he rolls out new words recently added to his vocabulary and demonstrates an ever expanding understanding of syntax and abstraction. Saturated with words as my life is, I find his unassuming and faltering language a greater source of joy than that of my admittedly more linguistically sophisticated heroes. I hang on his every word and eagerly reply to each, “What that?” and “What doing?” so as to encourage him to a further fascination and love for the world.
Of course, the right words do not often come to one so young. Such a linguistic interruption can force A.J.’s strong emotion along an alternate path out of his little body. Sometimes, when he doesn’t know or can’t find the right words, joy explodes from his heart as a shriek of delight, accompanied by a smile and uncontrolled jumping. Recently, this jumping has taken the form of launching himself off of furniture at me. I write, “at me,” as he usually pays no heed to my attention or preparedness. He throws himself at me with a shriek of joy trusting that I will catch him. And I always have.
It’s humbling to think that his linguistic and conceptual appreciation of the world around him is most likely far more adequate than mine is of God. The story is often recounted of Thomas Aquinas, who, after what may have been a mystical glimpse of heaven, never would again compose his theology, proclaiming that his best efforts were no more than straw compared to the reality to which he directed his words. Thomas Merton adds, however, that one ought not be quick to define theology as straw until after one has labored to write as Aquinas did. What then, might we hope for?
Inquisitive and energetic, A.J. is rarely at a loss for questions, for fascination, and for attentiveness. But he also, quite often, runs smack up against his limited understanding of the world and an even more limited means by which to express himself. But he never lacks in joy and rarely in a means for expressing that joy. Augustine’s words remind us that out hearts can bring us over the edge of intelligibility, beyond the sufficient circumscription of language to an “unbounded rush” of jubilation. This rush, if we are open to it, promises to carry us along to its source (for if the grace of God is here to be a river, the source is no different than the end).
We may hope that in our continual asking, “What that?” we might be led to see the world as creation—as signs always already directing our gaze to the Creator. We may hope that in our refrain, “What doing?” we might open our attention to the activity of grace in our lives. And if we happen to find ourselves wanting for words, perhaps we might opt for a child-like shriek of jubilation as we throw ourselves at the holy and mysterious arms of God.