In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice wanders into a wood where things have no names. She steps under the shade of the first tree and finds she no longer knows what to call it or even what to call herself. A fawn approaches and shows no fear when Alice reaches out to touch. “Please, would you tell me what you call yourself?” Alice asks. But the fawn replies, “I can’t remember here.” They walk together through the wood with Alice’s arm around the fawn’s neck. Only when they reach an open field does the fawn break free. “I’m a fawn!” it cries. “And, dear me! you’re a human child!” The words are barely uttered before a look of alarm comes into the fawn’s eyes, and it darts away at full speed.
The fawn no doubt has good cause to fear human contact. But as this little episode makes clear, it is not Alice herself who causes the fawn to flee but the mere thought of her once the word “human” has entered its mind. Hindus use a similar example to illustrate how we get caught up in the world of maya, or illusion. We may react in fright if we mistake a coiled rope for a serpent in low light, then laugh at our error when a lamp is brought near. Maya is not a hallucination per se but the inability to see things as they truly are when we confuse our thoughts for the thing itself.
In the biblical creation story, God forms a man from the dust of the ground and places him in a garden. For a brief time the garden is also a place with no names. Then the man is given the task of naming God’s creatures, presumably including the serpent, who has so far given the man no cause to fear him. As yet, the man has no name to call himself – nor will he until he flees God’s presence and identifies himself in the first-person singular. When called upon to give an account of himself to his Maker, he responds, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid.” The act of naming has given the man dominion over creation but has also isolated him from it -- never more so than when he utters the fateful “I.” In naming himself, he knows fear for the first time.
It is the man’s prerogative to name his fellow creatures but not to name the one who made him. The Lord is notably coy about identifying himself throughout much of the Old Testament and is generally referred to only by title. The name he reveals to Moses on Mt. Sinai is spoken aloud only by the High Priest once each year in the innermost sanctuary of the temple, which he alone is permitted to enter. To this day, pious Jews avoid direct references to God, other than the word Hashem, meaning “the Name.” Apart from the danger of profaning the sacred name, there is also the belief that God’s name contains the creative power of the universe and must not be lightly invoked.
In seeking to know God, we imagine that there is something to be gained by naming him. But more nearly the opposite is true. We must draw near like Alice wandering in the wood where things have no names. Words are left behind when we enter the sanctuary of our own being – the names that set us apart from the world and from one another. And if we dare to leave behind the name by which we know ourselves, we may discover there is nothing that now separates us from the Unnamable.