Reverencing Mystery

In the secular world a mystery is something which baffles or eludes understanding, something which lies hidden or undisclosed. Now the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to resolve it, get to the bottom of or uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle or “who-done-it” must be solved.

In the religious world mystery is something a bit different. Here mystery refers to something revealed by God which largely or completely escapes what we can know by our intellect alone and unaided by God through grace and revelation. These are not worldly mysteries but mysteries of the faith.  From the perspective of faith it is also usually that case that a mystery is something partially revealed by God but much more of which lies hidden. So something is seen, but much more is unseen.

For the Christian then, mysteries are not something to solved or overcome so much as to appreciate and reverence. In worldly mystery it is something to approach and with daring, perseverance and smarts to conquer. But the mysteries of faith are something to be considered with humility and reverence realizing we can never exhaust their meaning or capture and conquer their full essence.  A few thought on the mysteries of faith:

  1. Consider the picture at the upper right of the iceberg and allow it to be an image for the mysteries of faith. Above the water line we see something of the iceberg, but beneath the waterline, remains much more, hid from our eyes (except in a picture like this).
  2. Consider the mystery of creation. In the book of Sirach, after a long list of the marvels of creation there comes this magnificent line: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34) This is mystery, what we see is far surpassed by what we do not see!
  3. Consider the mystery of the human person. Think of someone you know rather well, perhaps a spouse, family member or close friend. There is much about them that you see and know, but even more of which lies hid. You can see their body, but only the external parts of it. Much more lies active and intricate beneath the skin. You “see” aspects of who they are in terms of their personality and mannerisms and so forth but much more lies hid from your knowledge such as their inner thoughts, aspects of their history, and deeper drives and motivations that may lie hidden even to them in many ways. As time goes on and relationships deepen the “mystery” of the human person unfolds and more is revealed. Yet the mystery of the human person is never “solved” and it would be irreverent to assume we ever could or should do so. No, this  mystery must be reverenced and approached with humility and if we ever really think we have some one (even our selves) “figured out” we are badly mistaken and transgress the dignity of the person. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:9-10). Surely we are on a journey to understand and the discover as the mystery of our selves and the others as our life unfolds but the mystery must always be respected and reverenced, not solved in order to be controlled and manipulated.
  4. Herein lies a problem with modern American culture that should be critiqued and that is the tendency to lack modesty. One definition of modesty is “reverence for mystery.”  Part of the dignity of the human person is not simply to be on open display in an indiscreet way. In deeper relationships more is revealed in increasingly appropriate ways. Close friends share more and understand more. Spouses, ideally, share even more to include the deep intimacy of the body. The disclosing of the mystery of the human person in appropriate ways based on the depth of relationship is at the heart of modesty. But today too many things of a private nature  are too easily sought and disclosed. A nosey media is partially to blame along with an increasingly odd tendency for many today to want to disclose matters that should remain private. Talk shows come to mind wherein a person or celebrity “tells all.” In today’s physcotherapeutic culture there is also the tendency to request and also to provide too much information about personal things. Surely close friends and family may be an appropriate audience for such disclosures but immodesty causes many to reveal indiscreetly  what should remain private. Clearly too, physical immodesty is epidemic and we have discussed it here before. And this also fails to reverence the mystery due the human person by putting on display that would should only be revealed in the most intimate and appropriate settings. Mystery is at the heart of the dignity of the human person. Modesty is reverence for that mystery, immodesty is a lack of reverence  (cf 1 Cor 12:22ff).
  5. Consider the mystery of the Liturgy and the Sacraments– We see much in the Liturgy and the celebration of the Sacraments but far more remains hidden from our eyes as these mysteries are celebrated. (You may well know that the Eastern Churches and especially the Orthodox Churches refer to the sacraments as the “Mysteries”). Consider a baby being baptized. We see the water poured and hear the words. Perhaps there is a cry. But what remains unseen is even greater: The child dies, is buried with Christ and rises to new life with him in an instant (Rom 6:1-4). Sin is washed away, an inheritance is received, true membership into the Body of Christ is conferred, the office of Priest Prophet and King are received, divine sonship is conferred and on and on. Far more is actually happening that we see or even know. This is mystery, something seen, yet far, far more unseen.  Consider the Liturgy, the altar is there,  a priest, the faithful gathered, words and gestures perceived. But far more is unseen: Christ the high priest is the true minister, the physical church building gives way to the truth that we are mysteriously caught up into heaven and the heavenly liturgy surrounded by countless saints and angels worshipping the Father and we as members of the Body of Christ render the Father perfect praise and thanks through, with and in Jesus our head.
  6. Herein lies a problem with the Liturgy in modern times– In recent decades there has been a laudable attempt to make the Liturgy more intelligible to people. However there is a trade off to be careful of. The mystery of the Liturgy and the sacraments must be reverenced. In our attempt to make everything intelligible and accessible we risk offending the dignity of the liturgy and sacraments which are ultimately NOT fully intelligible or explainable. They are  mysterious (in the way we are using the word) and ineffable (not reducible fully to words). In the ancient Church the Liturgy was surrounded by the disciplina arcanis (discipline of the secret) wherein only fully initiated Catholic Christians were permitted to witness it. Sacramental catechesis was carried on largely AFTER the celebration of the Sacraments (Mysteries) in a process called mystagogia (a Greek word meaning “Education in the mysteries”).  I do not argue here for a complete return to those days but one of the characteristics of the modern age and the manner in which liturgy is often celebrated is the lack in a sense of mystery. It often seems that everything has to be “seen” and “understood” to be authentic or relevant, or so the thinking goes with some. But this is wrong on two levels. First, everything CANNOT be seen. Most of the liturgy in fact lies hid from our earthly eyes. Secondly most of the liturgy cannot be understood. It is mystery to be reverenced and appreciated as such. It is “other” and beyond what this world can ever fully appreciate. We can grow in our appreciation of it as the years go by but never solve or understand it fully here on this side of the veil. Somehow this appreciation of the mystery of the Liturgy and Sacraments must be balanced with the attempt to render our worship “intelligible.” I put intelligible in quotes for we can only use that term in a relative manner.
  7. Finally it remains true that our longing to enter fully the mystery of God and our very selves will one day be fulfilled. St. Paul speaks of this when he writes: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known ( 1 Cor 13:12). You may be aware that the Greek word (title) for the last book of the Bible is  Ἀποκάλυψις (Apocalupsis) which means “unveiling.”  One day, the great mystery of this world, of ourselves, and God’s plan will be fully unveiled. For now, we reverence these mysteries of our self, others, the liturgy, the sacraments, creation itself and God’s plan. One day they shall be revealed. A caution here. I do not think we will ever exhaust the mystery of God (and perhaps not even ourselves). I do not think all eternity will ever be enough to exhaust the full mystery of God who is infinite and can never be fully comprehended in essence  by his finite creatures.

Reverence mystery, relish mystery, respect mystery. Magnum mysterium, admirabile sacramentum!

5 Replies to “Reverencing Mystery”

  1. Just like there are things we can not know on this side of the veil, I do believe there are things that we can not readily see BUT the Lord will reveal to us if we put our faith in him and simply ask (pray). So much has been revelaled to me simply through the rosary. I am not a scholar, a theologian, priest or prophet but I am amazed at how much knowledge of myself and our Lord I have gained simply by praying for guidance. For example, I had a problem understanding why the Lord asks us to abstain from sex until marriage. I was never one to sleep around or “pick up chicks” so I didn’t see the harm in having fun with someone you know and have atleast some feelings for. Then, a few years later when I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the women I was attracting and being attracted to, it happened. I met a girl who bragged about her sexual conquests. She considered sex to be fun and no big deal. For her, sex actually defined the relationship. For example, she told me that if after four months of sleeping together it was still pleasurable then it was a real relationship. If it ever became unpleasurable during the four months, there was nothing there and she called it off. As we dated, I saw just how damaging that attitude truely was. She had no ability to love or be loved except physically. For instance, I enjoy doing nice and spontaneous things for some one. Even after telling me she has never been treated so well she still seemed baffled as to why I would do it. When I would tell her how nice she looked or how much I enjoyed the restaurant she picked she would literally tell me to stop and accuse me of being disingenuous. That’s when I realized why the Lord asks us to discipline ourselves and why lust is truely a deadly sin. Here is a girl, smart, beautiful, great personality but steeped in lust. It was truely destroyng her to the point of emotional numbness. Even when it felt right, it was somehow wrong. One night she said, “I don’t know why I can’t be happy”. The relationship deteriorated and, eventually, ended. It was an emotional battering ram but, looking back, a blessing. Eventhough, I sinned of my own freewill, through my sin the Lord was reaching out answeriing the question I asked 3 years ago. The only reason I can think of for the 3 year delay in answering was this. I was not ready to hear it. When I asked him it was my first real relationship and it was all new and felt good. I was not ready for anyone to tell me that something that felt good was wrong. But after suffering for my sins and turning to him for help, it was then that I was ready. I was ready to accept the Lord fully into my life and trust in him even when it came to something that seemed so natural. Patience truely is a virtue. Eventhough, there is much hidden from us on this side of the veil, their is still alot for us to see. We just have to have the strength and trust in our Lord to reveal it.

    Jesus extend to us in the light,
    in your infinite knowledge the power through the light,
    to understand the task that lies ahead for all of us
    who wish to be saved. Amen.

    God Bless you Father and thank you for your insight and guidance.

  2. Hi Father, Why is the concept of God, who is a part of us, as we are created in his image,so hard for the theologian to comprehend? All the manifestos and Saints thoughts will not get one any closer to God, than one can with careful thought and meditation ,and the realization that God is not in the details, but in the individual! Simple observation and logic must point out to the realization, ,that God is within ourselfs! We are He! He is us! To be with Him,we must be with ourselfs. This is where meditation and seeking God is so important to understanding, what our true purpose in the cosmos is! Can we say we are trully evolved, without knowing our purpose, to truely knowing, of what our reason for being ,is? This question, for which philosophers, and theologans,have restled with forever,is answered so easily! As we are loved (by proof of our allowed existance) so must we love! So simple, but so hard to bring to fruiation! That was Christs simple message! Love one another! What will always be the grand cosmic “joke”, is how. even with all that can be revealed, and is revealed, we cant see the truth, even when it is” staring us in the face”.When we “truely” love one another,will we be with God, because, that is our purpose for being!!

  3. Here is a girl, smart, beautiful, great personality but steeped in lust. It was truely destroyng her to the point of emotional numbness. Even when it felt right, it was somehow wrong.

    I obviously do not know this particular woman, but I’ve known, and known of, others who sound exactly like her. And I would not say that it is a case of being “steeped in lust.” Rather, it is a case of being starved for love, but having been poisoned with the idea that you find love in someone’s bed.

    Often times that is the result of not getting enough fatherly love growing up, and then being sucked into being sexually active at a much too early age, so that her entire concept of love and human sexuality is totally distorted. It is a case of chasing after love, but of course never able to find it, or being distrustful of it when she does, because it has been ingrained in her psyche that sex equals “making love,” when, of course, it all too often means exploitation. Even when she knows that is not the case, even when those few minutes of sexual thrill do not lead to fulfillment, but are instead replaced with feelings of emptiness, still she is stuck in that behavior.

    Sadly, such women are not alone. That disease has infected most people today — the young and the not-so-young.

    It’s too bad Dawn Eden stopped blogging (to obtain her master’s degree from the Dominican House of Studies) because she used to write on this a lot (having been there, done that).

  4. Not to pretend that I know all about it – none of us do (we are human, not God); but we can list certain ways in which we are created in His image: each of us has 1) an intellect; 2) free will; 3) memory; 4) a soul destined to live forever;
    and something we have that the angels do not; each of us shares in a way God’s creative power. This may be why the devil hates us so. And it is also a reason that we should treat sex with reverence. It is perhaps also why the Church teaches that misuse of sex (outside of marriage) is seriously sinful. God has given us a gift; and we can easily mess up our lives by its misuse. The dominant culture – TV, the movies, songs, everything around us – sells the concept that sex is for recreation. Our children and grandchildren grow up, tending to absorb this concept despite best efforts of parents. Much prayer is needed to try to protect them from missteps.
    Also, seeing how a family is injured by a young adult child who errs this direction, thinking “it’s no big deal.” But it is! Sex stirs up powerful emotions, even if the persons involved initially have no intention of forming a permanent commitment. One often reads newspaper items about murders committed by a spouse or live-in partner when the significant other tried to “break it off”, or seek a divorce. In some way, the identity of us humans is tied to our sex; and rejection by someone who has been a sexual partner seems to have a crushing effect. Suicides have occurred reflecting this. One of my nieces was involved in a lesbian relationship and, because of such a rejection, ended her life, full of promise, and not yet 30 years old.
    Much prayer is needed.

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