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A Short Meditation on Mystery

January 4, 2012

In the secular world a “mystery” is something which baffles or eludes understanding, something which lies undisclosed. And 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 Christian and especially the Catholic world, “mystery” is something a bit different. Here mystery refers to the fact that there are hidden dimensions in things, people and situation that extend beyond their merely visible and physical dimensions.

One of the best definitions I have read of “mystery” is by the theologian and philosopher John Le Croix. Fr. Francis Martin Introduced it to me some years ago in one of his recorded conferences. Le Croix says:

Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.

Fr. Martin’s classic example of this to his students is the following:

Suppose you and I are at a party, and Smith comes in the door and goes straight way to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” And you say, puzzled: “What’s the big deal, they shook hands…so what?” And then I tell you, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.

And thus there is a hidden and richer meaning than merely what meets the eyes. This is mystery, something hidden, that is accessible to those who know, and are initiated into the mystery and come to grasp some dimension of it, it is the deeper reality of things.

In terms of faith there is also a higher meaning that mystery brings. And thus Le Croix added above, It [mystery] introduces a vertical dimension, and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.

Hence we come to appreciate something of God in all he does and has made. Creation is not just dumbly there. It has a deeper meaning and reality. It reveals its creator, and the glory of Him who made it. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).

Indeed, there is a sacramentality to all creation. Nothing is simply and dumbly itself, it points beyond and above, to Him who made it. The physical is but a manifestation of something and Someone higher.

In the reductionist world in which we live, such thinking is increasingly lost. And thus we poke and prod in order to solve the mysteries before us. And when have largely discovered something’s physical properties we think we have exhausted its meaning. (We have not). In a disenchanted age, we need to rediscover the glory of enchantment, of mystery. There is more than meets the eye. Things are deeper, richer and higher than we can ever fully imagine.

Scripture, which is a prophetic interpretation of reality, starts us on our great journey by initiating us into many of the mysteries of God, and his creation. But even Scripture does not exhaust the mystery of all things, it merely sets us on the journey ever deeper, ever higher. Mysteries unfold, they are not crudely solved.

For the Christian then, mystery is not something to be solved or overcome, so much as to be appreciated and reverenced. To every person we know and everything we encounter goes up the cry, O magnum et admirabile mysterium (O great and wondrous mystery)! Now you’re becoming a mystic.

Here is Fr. Francis Martin speaking briefly on mystery:

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  1. James says:

    Fr. Martin is pretty great. He applies the same sort of concept to the interpretation of Scripture, which too often is treated as any other work of history or liturature. Fr Martin points out that methods like the historical critical method and all the different types of criticisms are useful for understanding the “horizantal” or literal meaning of the Bible. However, if we stop there, the Bible looses much of its content.

    The Holy Spirit is also a true author of Sacred Scripture, giving it a vertical dimension available only to those who have faith. God can use different things and events in history to point to future and divine realities. God is the Lord of History! Scripture is especially mysterious because things within it are signs of Divine realities which surprass our understanding. How God acts in history teaches us something about His character which we otherwise wouldn’t know. Moreover, there are discernable patterns in Scripture percisely because He is revealing Himself. King David, for example, interpreted from the perspective of faith, is an early revelation of Christ’s kingship. We can also look at the Mass which passes on revelation through Sacred Tradition and which points to the heavenly liturgy.

    Blessed be God who, through faith, helps us to see the world from His own perspective!

  2. Scotty Ellis says:

    The origins of religious mystery reveals that the “mystery” is very much more like a secret. It is the innermost doctrine or heart of a faith, requiring initiation before its revelation. Early Christians took the patterns for their own mysteries (especially the Eucharist) from the pagan mystery religions around them (in some cases, these mysteries have surprising parallels and similarities, such as the rites of Bacchus). It was considered especially important to keep these doctrines secret for fear that, should they be “let out” on profane ears, they would be subject to ridicule. This was clearly the case, as we see the early Roman pagan persecutors of Christianity churning out all sorts of barbaric lies based upon an uncharitable interpretation of the Eucharist, such as that Christians were cannibals.

    I think the interpretation of mystery as Msgr. Pope is describing it comes out of a natural progression from this origins, and has become especially important during the enlightenment and following. The “mystery” is used to defend doctrine from scientific skepticism. I think that it is an important but subtle concept, and that it is also a concept prone to abuse. Theoretically, any religious claim could be defended by an appeal to “mystery,” if by mystery one means “something hidden, that is accessible to those who know, and are initiated into the mystery and come to grasp some dimension of it, it is the deeper reality of things.” In this form of abuse, any skeptic can be more or less ignored by labeling him an outsider, and any objections halted by the counter-claim that one must “believe in order to understand.” But I do think that mystery does not have to be this form of abuse. I see mystery more along the lines of “a reality which defies total comprehension but which is nevertheless capable of (albeit incomplete) rational explanation.” We talk about these mysteries all the time, and clearly we must have some notion of their content. They are mysterious precisely because despite of all these explanations something remains unexplained, unknown, or paradoxical. But we can talk about them; and we hopefully should be able to defend them.

  3. Cynthia BC says:

    I suspect that the bubble did not long survive the cat’s regard. They tend to quickly thwack at anything that floats through the air.

    We thwack at mysteries just as readily – we just can’t tolerate the fact that some things are beyond our ken.

  4. Bob Kurland says:

    As a retired physicist (since 1951), I agree with you heartily–and so do other physicists who don’t subscribe to the easy reductionist interpretation of the world around us; for example Bernard d’Espagnat, who proposes a “hidden veil of reality” given by quantum mechanics.