On the Wisdom of Holding Mystery in Silence – A brief meditation on quote from Oscar Wilde

Pithy sayings have a way of ringing true but also of needing distinctions. Here is one I ran across recently and just a few thoughts on it.

I’m not young enough to know everything – Oscar Wilde

I remember that, as a young priest in my late twenties that I was extremely confident of what I knew. Frankly I was fed up by the older generation, especially of priests, who sounded a vague and uncertain note in the pulpit. And who will follow an uncertain trumpet? I was also convinced that the generation of adults prior to mine was a generation lost to moral relativism, skepticism, and antinomianism (a theological and philosophical notion that is skeptical of law based on a flawed notion of grace).

I am not willing to say that I was wholly wrong. For indeed we have come through a bad period that arrogantly cast off the wisdom and learning of the past and, in a slothful way, liked to claim that we should be tolerant and open to just about any claim to truth. And while they marched under the banner of tolerance, I am still largely convinced that what that generation called a virtue was really more a form of laziness that, having denied there was a real or lasting truth, dismissed themselves from any duty to find and defend the truth.

But I must admit that I, as a young man, over-corrected in this regard. For, while there are eternal truths which, by faith, I can be certain of, our same Catholic faith holds that God is “other” and that mystery must often be held and appreciated, rather than be explained to death. Sometimes I was far too certain in my explanations of things that really cannot be wholly explained (e.g. the problem of suffering and evil, and many questions related to God’s nature and being).

Having met God quite personally in my mid thirties I was quite astounded by how far beyond our feeble words He really is. That does not make our feeble words, as revealed by faith wrong, just very incomplete. I became more content to hold the mystery of his breath-taking beauty and majesty in reverent silence, than attempt a blizzard of analytical words. For as Scripture urges: “Be still and know that I am God.”

A kind of serenity has enveloped me now, in my middle age and I am more content not only to hold the mystery but accept the Catholic insight that one truth is often held in tension with another truth (e.g. that God is sovereign and we are free). Not everything has to be resolved or explained perfectly.

I have come to understand what St Augustine meant when discussing mystery (in this case, time), and he said, If you ask me, I don’t know. If you don’t ask, I know (Conf 11.4). Words and human categories just sometimes get in the way. Somehow it is enough, having met God, to know that God knows. And knowing God, and knowing that He knows, somehow we “know” his mysteries. But this way of knowing is not in an intellectual way. Rather, more in a trusting and serene way, beyond words, deep in the heart. Some how in admitting there are many things we do not know, we know something deeper, a kind of knowing that only comes with humility and childlike trust which accepts that it is enough that God knows the things beyond us.

When I was younger, I needed much more in the way of certainty and clarity. And thus I often insisted that I knew much more than I did. Now I can say, with Oscar Wilde, I’m not young enough to know everything. And it’s alright. I do know many things by faith, but that same faith draws me ever deeper into wordless mystery, ineffable truth, silent contemplation.

This song speaks of prayer and quiet trust in the face of suffering and affliction:

13 Replies to “On the Wisdom of Holding Mystery in Silence – A brief meditation on quote from Oscar Wilde”

  1. One point that should be noted is that God reveals Himself when we are at points where we are questioning or at conflict with our purpose or behavior in it. We reach an agony before the exstacy of God’s audience with us. It is a profound and personal introduction and revelation. It may be difficult for those who have yet to experience this passion play to believe or understand what this experience is like or if it is real, but the receiver of such a blesssing cannot necessarily not share such an experience. You don’t cast your pearls before swine, but if one has learned anything from the experience, they know that there will be times when such an experienced should and was given to be shared as an act of charity for fellow brethren who follow Christ in faith and hope. That is what scripture has taught. ” You don’t push the river, but you don’t hold no punches.” The Lord came to His disciples across troubled waters. It’s evangelical.

  2. I’m not young enough to know everything – Oscar Wilde

    This pithy saying is a satirical jab at the arrogance of know-it-all youth, but it is at the same time, ironically, quite true.

    The young do, quite often, know a lot more than older people do. That is to say, people often learn to be ignorant. We learn to be stupid. No youngster could come up with the foolish, and sometimes evil, errors that their “smarter” and “more knowledgeable” elders have come up with after stuffing themselves eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

    The young may not know “everything,” but they often know everything that truly matters, and they know more than their more experienced and educated elders. It’s just that their knowledge is a more simple, more true at the essential level, more innocent knowledge since they feed, not from the Tree of Knowledge, but from the Tree of Love.

    The key is, as we grow older, to throw off all that false and counterfeit “knowledge” that encumbers us and clouds our minds and to instead reaquire that earlier and greater knowledge of our younger days.

  3. Beautiful! He is constantly seeking us and leading us into deeper relationship with him. Cautious about sharing my own personal encounter with Him, I have learned that He limits the experience and understanding of the encounter this side of Eternity. The complete understanding awaits us and I believe will be revealed once we meet Him face to face. Having experienced that personal encounter then requires our complete and total trust, stillness and peace that only He can give. “To those who much has been give, much will be required.”

    The time has come for us to change our hardened hearts, turn from our wicked ways,and pray for His forgiveness. In this place and time in our history we need to remain faithful to Him. The victory has been won. We place our hope and trust in Him and Him alone.

    The spiritual battle is intense……

  4. My daughter, who will turn 11 this spring, has reached the stage at which her parents are embarrassingly stupid and ignorant. Those who have survived this stage tell me that eventually I will regain my intelligence and possession of worthwhile knowledge…sometime in my daughter’s mid-20s.

    If our collective “superior knowledge” is anything as infuriating as that of a preteen, then God’s mercy truly is vast and far beyond our ability to grasp its scope.

  5. I think this is appropriate for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. It makes me recall his dicision to give up writing because everything he wrote (while good) was much less than the fullness of the Mystery.

  6. Msgr.,

    Thank you for this posting which rings so true in my own life. At 45 years of age and a priest for 20 years, I now recognize that I, too, in my early days thought I knew much more than I actually did. I also saw the older generation as lost to relativism, modernism, etc.

    God is merciful and through prayer, experience and the wonderful mentoring of a very kind and gentle priest with whom I lived for several years, I came to understand how beautiful the priestly life is and what great good can be accomplished through the priestly ministry if we love our people in Christ.

    Youth is wonderful but I am grateful for the perspective which middle age brings.

  7. Had you been wrong with regards to modernism, you can rest assured The Lord would have pointed that out to you when you met Him.

    But He didn`t, and you were there.

    So you can safely conclude that you were right about modernism and moral relativism.
    As you may recall, God is no hippie.

  8. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” That was Bob Dylan’s paraphrase, in the 1960’s, of Oscar Wilde (whether Dylan realized his debt or not!). In its own way, it captures the mystery of getting wiser by admitting how much we don’t know and admitting our dependence on a loving God.

  9. You might also have chosen Dylan’s “My Back Pages” to illustrate your point, with its chorus of “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

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