The language here is very exact; it does not say that our thinking does not grasp this. No thought whatsoever – of any level, whether that of a human being or even of an entity that is vastly superior to the human mind – can understand God. God transcends all minds. The Divine is not some “Superior mind” but beyond any level of intellect. Intellect, at any level and any power, is not the vessel that can grasp divinity, which is infinite, which is beyond any definition.
—Adin Steinsaltz, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose.” Maggid Books.
Steinsaltz's explanation of the “Pataḥ Eliyahu (Elijah Began), part of the Tikkunei Zohar, echoes the comment from the author of the Cloud of Unknowing:
You cannot know God with the mind.
We hear and agree; yet we come to these words with the mind and agree with the mind.
Do we know we have other parts through which knowledge and understanding are imparted?
And are we using them to encounter God?
Only a through and impartial investigation of these other parts, which receive God's Grace and Presence, can reveal the underlying meaning of these statements. It's easy enough to hear the words, decide they are "definitive" (they are anything but, since by themselves they already argue one cannot define) and move on.
In moving on, one excuses the mind at the outset from hard work which it not only ought to, but even must, do; one disrespects the entire matter by assumption.
The formulation in the prayer already contains some inexactitudes; because there is no need for thought to grasp God; rather, there is a potential, a capacity, for God to grasp thought, and this is where all prayer ought to come from, is out of that hope: what Gurdjieff called hope of consciousness.
The inexactitudes are, to be sure, lawful ones; because the subtext here—the words that are not written—rightly leave open all the questions which need to be asked. Like the best poetry, the prayer's great meanings lie not in what is said, but in what is not said. These open places in the heart which can be filled with the holy presence, if only they are sensed and felt.
So forget about words that tell one about how one can or can't know God. Nothing is so simple; and if you rely on texts to guide you you will only see two dimensions. The heart of the matter is hidden and the river runs much deeper. It is, moreover, filled with a certain kind of spiritual ice (to which Gurdjieff's childhood tales of frigid bathing are an inner allegory.)
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.