I Don’t Know

When I was 12, I had a friend who could say only three words: “I don’t know.” Riding my bike home from school, I would stop by the nursing home to visit Mrs. Feemster. She was always in her room because a stroke had not only wrecked her speech but also left her bedfast. I would tell her about my day, and she would listen sympathetically to anything I wanted to say for as long as I wanted to say it; this is the great advantage of bedfast friends.

Whatever I asked her, whatever I told her, she always replied, “I don’t know.” If I told her about the good things that had happened in my day, Mrs. Feemster would respond to me in a cheerful voice, “I don’t know.” When I told her about a bad day, Mrs. Feemster would still say “I don’t know,” but in a sad voice. And whether I said good things or bad things or nothing at all, she liked to pat my hand and watch my face with soft eyes. I counted her as a good friend

After a few months, my brother told me that I was a fool if I believed Mrs. Feemster was my friend; Mrs. Feemster didn’t even know who I was. It was a blow. So I went to talk with Mrs. Feemster about it. I told her what my brother had said and asked, “Mrs. Feemster do you know who I am? Are we friends?” I expected her to say, “I don’t know.” But Mrs. Feemster looked at me and said nothing for a long time. Then she smiled and said very slowly, each word separated by the effort it took to get them out, “I … love . . . you . . . Beka.” I was so excited. “Really?” I asked. She patted my hand and smiled again, “I don’t know.”

This is my life – as a mother, a wife, a professor, and a Christian. My words are inadequate. I can’t get things right. I don’t know. I muddle along. And, then, every now and again, by God’s grace or an opening in my heart or some other strange circumstance, I stumble on the right answer, the truth, the fitting thing to say. The rest of the time, it’s just an everyday slog through my own ignorance.

Like Mrs. Feemster, most days I just don’t have the words.

This is the problem of my life … and this blog, especially when I try to write about ecstatic religious experience. I’ve committed myself to write lots of words about something for which I have no words.

I’m not the first to discover this problem. Many first person accounts of ecstatic experiences open with the lament – “I have no words” – and then keep on going. Words don’t seem to be wanting.

Scholars of mysticism have claimed that ineffability (aka incommunicability or having no words) is a primary characteristic at the heart of ecstatic religious experience. We just don’t have words. Philosopher Peter Appleby calls this the “ineffability thesis” and goes on to say that it’s wrong. In the end he claims that the problem isn’t so much that mystics have no words, but that they have nothing to say.*

Well, that’s a comfort. I don’t have words or I have nothing to say. Either option leaves me in an awkward position … or maybe not. Maybe having no words and having nothing to say is a perfect place from which to start talking.

So, I begin this blog with the confession that anything I say here about religious experience – or about any other part of life– will be inadequate. And, really, that’s all right. This shared inadequacy puts all our words in the right light, a humbling light … a light that keeps on blinking over every last thing we say, “I’ve got it wrong. I have nothing to say. I don’t know.” But we keep on talking.

Isaac of Stella, a twelfth century British theologian who spent his life as a Cistercian monk in France, wrote about this problem with human language about God: “We say what we can when we want to speak about the Ineffable One about whom nothing can be said in the proper sense.”**

What?! We say what we can when we want to speak about the One about whom nothing can be said.

Is that going to be good enough?

I don’t know.


*Peter Appleby, “Mysticism and Ineffability,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 11 (1980): 143-66.

**Quoted in Bernard and Patricia Ferris McGinn’s Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Spiritual Masters (Crossroads, 2003), 11.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christine Jones on February 6, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Will I bookmark your blog, and look forward to enlightenment and encouragement ?
    I don’t know 🙂


  2. Posted by Len Delony on February 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Good start Beka. I love that story about Ms. Feemster. Though i’ve heard it before, it still brings tears to my eyes. Indeed, holy listening and holy communion happen throughout each day in the sacred rhythms of sound and silence. God, help us to hear…


  3. For what it’s worth, your words have always managed to bless my life. So, I don’t know, but I think it’s a good start.


    • I can’t help but add that my visits to the nursing home were motivated not by virtue but by crass and misguided expediency. I offered a deal to God: I would visit the nursing home as long as God kept my parents’ from learning about something I had done. [Something I won’t mention here in case my daughters read this.] In spite of the bad theology and bad behavior, it turned out well.

      A friend told recently told me, “If your parents never found out, maybe it wasn’t such bad theology after all!” That’s a good point. Really, what do I know with certainly about how God operates? Although I’m hesitant to even say this … it is with the realm of possibility, I suppose, that it was divine providence and not blind luck. In any case, the deal kept me going to the nursing homes which was a great blessing for me. (By the way, after I started visiting the nursing home, the other older ladies in town — those still living in their own homes and able to get around– were always doing sweet things for me. It was a wonderful experience for me.


  4. Beautiful! What an excellent beginning to your not knowing. I look forward to reading many more words.


  5. Posted by Karen on February 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Looking forward to following your blog!


  6. Beka, you are amazing! I have found that my words don’t match my thoughts I wanted to relay. But most of the time, my effort and concerns are well received, in spite of my stumblings.


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