We’ve never seen the sun. Not really. It comes up every day, lights the world, shows us the ground we walk on, and casts our shadow. But you can’t see the sun. Not really. We can watch the sunrise over the ocean and see the jittery water flash a dazzlingly testimony to the sun. And later in the day, when sinking behind the trees, the silhouetted forest dispatches the sun from view. But not in the entire sun-filled-sky day did we actually see the sun. Not really.
We see the sun’s shine. We catch the sun’s rays. We see by the sun’s light. Bursting off the surface of the sun, light photons travel to our home in about eight minutes and push away the invisible nothingness of darkness. But the sun itself is opaque in the sense that it isn’t transparent. Being opaque, though, doesn’t mean being invisible. Rather, quite the opposite. If something is opaque, it should mean that it can be easily seen. The wall, the car, the birds outside my window. But all these opaque things reflect the light of the sun. Hence, our seeing and being seen is an act of dependence. The sun, though, depends on nothing, not even itself. The sun lets light loose, and as the light goes out, the one thing it will not reflect is itself. The sun is hidden from view by its own light.
Imagine trying to read the label of a flashlight in a perfectly dark field – if the field is truly perfectly, completely dark, the light of the flashlight can tell you nothing about the flashlight itself.
In other words, the sun is the most visible thing in the day. It is the most visible thing a thing can be. We can see other suns trillions and trillions of miles away – light years away. Use a telescope and you can see suns on the other side of the galaxy. But oddly enough, these suns are an impossible thing to see because the source of illumination is obscured by its own illumination.
God suffers no dependence, hidden from sight by God’s own light, and our cognitive command and penetration of that simple question, “Who is God?” breaks down into paradox: God is the obvious, clear source of understanding and sight that can never be understood or seen. “The ‘darkness’ can be understood as the immensity and surpassing excellence of the divine light...’He dwells in light inaccessible,’” says Meister Eckhart quoting the Epistle to Timothy.
I stand in a field of sunflowers in the morning. Gnats and flies land and crawl on my bare legs. Moisture comes out of the ground, heating up with the rising sun. The air breathed feels like the sticky goo of a partially melted lollipop. I should have worn shoes and not Rainbows. But the field is perfect. Six acres of sunflowers, all facing east, waiting, patiently waiting, for the sun to rise just a little bit higher over the tree tops. Waiting for the field to be flooded with sunlight is like waiting for an eclipse – I can see it getting closer and closer. And then, finally, it happens. Instantly the field turns a golden hue, and the bees dance from one flower to another, and butterflies skip and jerk skimming the surface of their terrain.
The flowers seem unnaturally saturated against the dark blue sky. Their leaves pointing like beams of light, mimicking their namesake. Rowed in circles, falling inward to their core, the sunflower seeds trace the golden ratio backwards to the start of infinity.
I’ve always heard that sunflowers follow the sun through the course of the day. I don’t know if this is true, but I want it to be. I want the sunflower to exhibit that smallest bit of intelligence, a sort of piety enthralled by the one thing that gives it everything and yet remains completely other. The sun to the sunflower, I think, is a sort of god. Or maybe, every day is a god, and a new sun comes rising above the tree line. And the sunflowers watch in perfect obedience – learning, worshiping, and praising that nurturing orb that is complete hidden behind its own splendor.
This preoccupation, I am imaging for the sunflower, means it is concerned about nothing. Its life devoted without rival to that one thing high above erases all concerns. If the sunflower has a soul it is a soul at perfect rest, concerned exclusively on the brightest glory that cannot be seen. And if the sunflower had no roots anchoring it to this terrestrial home, it would thrust upward, following its sunward gaze, “rising ever higher and [making] its flight higher – by its desire of the heavenly things straining ahead for what is still to come,” as says Gregory of Nyssa.
Compared with the sunflower’s understanding of its own sun god, our comprehension of God is so much less. We can gaze and worship; we can feel our hearts strangely warmed, as Wesley said of his encounter with the Divine, but we can no more know God than we can see the sun, the real sun hidden behind light. An entire life devoted to prayer and alms, study and charity give us only the blinding light that says, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” But we can’t see this. Not really. For what is darkness but the absence of light. And what is light but the absence of darkness. And we can twirl our minds night and day around this mystery and have no more of an understanding of who God is because our creed in the end is always, “Not really.”
“We approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect as we are able to remove more and more things from him. For we know each thing more perfectly the more fully we see its differences from other things,” says Saint Thomas Aquinas. Which is to say, we can only know what or who God is not. The via negativa. It is the best theological method we have that parodies itself, listing one thing after another until everything that can be named is named and still we have only learned what or who God is not.
Like the sunflower tracing the divine through the sky day after day, our entire life is oriented towards the one who remains ineffable. “I do not wish to make peace between my heart and my head, between my faith and my reason; I want them to fight one another and to deny one another reciprocally, since their combat is my life, and if they take away my life, I am no longer myself,” writes the Spanish mystic Miguel de Unamuno. Heaven will be the abeyance of this conflict, when the self becomes absence in God, when we are uprooted with the sunflowers, and move body and soul infinitely towards the one hidden behind the brightest of lights, which is nothing, nothing we can ever know or speak or understand. God is nothing, that is, no-thing created, and so we confess, “Not really.”
“Now this Soul, says, Love, has her right name from the nothingness in which she rests. And since she is nothing, she is concerned about nothing…For she is so small that she cannot be found, and every created thing is so far from her that she cannot feel it. And God is so great that she can comprehend nothing of Him. Accounting of such nothingness she has fallen into certainty of knowing nothing and into certainty of willing nothing. And this nothingness, of which we speak, says Love, gives her the All, and no one can possess it in any other way.” – Marguerite Porete.