Don’t Just Solve Mysteries. Live them. A Meditation on the Christian Meaning of Mystery

082613In our modern culture we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than the Christian antiquity to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In this brief post I’d like to review that, and add a new insight I heard recently from Fr. Francis Martin.

As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved, and the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. So, in the typical mystery novel some event, usually a crime, takes place, and it is the job of our hero to uncover cause of the problem, or the perpetrator of the crime. If he does not, he is a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine in the series “House MD” if Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery. Ratings would drop rather fast.

But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Further, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful, and prideful too.

Why is this so?

One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one. For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.

Further, in the Christian view, some, even most, of what lies hid, ought to be respected as hidden, and appreciated rather than solved. We can surely seek to gain insight into what is hidden, and mystery does reveal the depths of things and events. But, respectfully, we dare not say we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For, even when we think we know everything, there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.

Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Your physical appearance is surely revealed. There are also aspects of you personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physicality lie hid. No one sees your inner organs for example. And regarding your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth, much of this too lies hid. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? can you really explain every aspect yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.

Now, part of the respect that I owe you is to reverence the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to respect that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful unto myself. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have one another figured out.

Hence, mystery is to be both respected and even appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in an appreciation that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us but much of which is hidden and gives each person a dignity and a mystique.

Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. Indeed, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because, while something is seen, much more is unseen, but very real. When a child is baptized, our earthly eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, very real, lies hidden. For, in that moment the Child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, with all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ, he inherits the Kingdom, and becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead, he is now alive, and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things lie hidden from our early eyes, by they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, a mysterious dimension to what we see. What we physically see is not all there is, by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.

So mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to get to the bottom of. Rather, mysteries are something to appreciate, something to reverence, something to humbly accept as real. Aspects of them are revealed to us, but much more is hidden.

That said, we are not remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things either. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is that we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of who we are, who God is, the mystery of one another, the mystery of creation, Sacraments and Holy Scripture. As we grow spiritually, we gain insights into these mysteries, to be sure. But we can never say we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever deeper meanings that we should reverence.

In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin develops how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see, or other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things, there are deeper dimensions that to some extent can be seen, and appreciated, but also respected as not fully seen or comprehended.

Fr. Martin gives the example of a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets Jones with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shaking hands, so what? But what if I tell that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah! That is significant. So the handshake has an inner dimension that, knowing it, helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular handshake. To the average observer, this inner dimension lay hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery reveled to us, we appreciate more than the surface. But we cannot say, “Ah I have fully grasped this!” For, even here, we have grasped only some of the mystery of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner lives of these two men. For mystery has a majesty all its own and we reverence it best by appreciating its ever deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God himself.

This video is part of a series Fr. Martin has done on the Gospel of John. I would strongly encourage you to podcast the series and view it or listen to it. It will bless your soul. Here is the podcast site for the whole Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series: Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series.

18 Replies to “Don’t Just Solve Mysteries. Live them. A Meditation on the Christian Meaning of Mystery”

  1. You said, “the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one”.
    I should say, “Delightfully Different”.

  2. Our beloved former parish priest, don Jesús (*) used to say that “we should be open to Mistery”. One of his (and mine) favourite sentences. He was a very practical man… when it was necessary, and an sound “prayer man”… and an excellent preacher.

    (*) I think Msrg Pope has explained it, sorry if I repeat: here in Spain (and Portugal, too, I believe) “Jesus” is (or at least used to be) a common male name. I don’t know if in Latin America it is the same.
    Dear Monsignor: “María” (Mary) is still a common name in Spain, even between agnostics and atheists. But normally it is standing alone. For decades we have been losing the Virgin Mary names: María Esperanza (Mary Hope), María Inmaculada (Inmaculate), Ascensión, Purificación, Socorro… But some of them are “up” again… alone, as well: Carmen, Pino, Vega…

  3. I was unable to access the Fr. Martin podcast site. Please try to find a link to it again. Thanks.

  4. The mystery of the Holy Eucharist, so deep, so vast and so infinite. When we see how it was meant by GOD to be the source of eternity for men we can only wonder in awe and tremble in fear and cry and wail in love for HIS Justice is now covered in Mercy in the Flesh and Blood of HIS SON OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST encompassing time. Yet, who can understand this mystery for every time it is raised by a HIS Holy Priest we are sucked into an ever beautiful splendor of HIS very being. The eyes of my heart know that I am there together with HIS total creation witnessing. Puny are the words of men stating that this is just a waffle being worshipped by the Carholics. If they only knew, they too will shudder within and beg to be part of the mystery. YHWH MEKADDISHKEM.

  5. Looking forward to hearing the podcast.

    I just spent a week with family on the Outer Banks. Some of my relatives are Seventh Day Adventists, so we spent a lot of our time together debating Christian doctrine. They reject the notion that Communion is anything other than symbolic. I wish I had thought to explain the meaning of “mystery”. We read Scriptures together to examine Jesus’ words, but they just kept saying that we have Communion as a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. Very frustrating!!

    1. Don’t be frustrated, don’t give up. One day soon real real soon we will understand this mystery – the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. No kidding!
      God Bless you!

      Now a riddle is in order for no one has yet answered my riddle.
      A riddle, a riddle, now riddle me this:

      How can wisdom be a tree?
      And how can a tree transmit wisdom?
      And how can wisdom bring forth the fruit of everlasting life?

      For “Wisdom is a Tree of Life.” – Proverbs 3:18

      “He will search out the HIDDEN MEANINGS OF PROVERBS, and will be conversant in the secrets of parables.”
      – Sirach 39:3

      If you can answer this riddle then you can unveil the mystery of the Holy Eucharist!
      I know the answer but you must wait. To be continued………

    2. I heard that has some good resources about the Seventh Day Adventists. I think the source I heard said that there is an article there that chronicles every failed Seventh Day Adventist prophecy about the end of the world. FYI.

      1. By GOD’s grace, I was given a chance to give a talk on the Holy Eucharist before the celebration of the Holy Mass and just witnessed and solemnly declared my experience of this great mystery. Afterwards, during the celebration of the Holy Mass, not a pair of eyes is without tear, even the Priest was so enthralled in the Anamnesis that his voice broke during the Elevation. Did I do it? Nay, it was the HOLY SPIRIT convicting each of us, only if we can truly and fully indulge in this Mystery of mysteries. We have got to witness from the depths of our hearts and HE will do the rest. “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the FOOD that endures for eternal life,* which the SON of MAN will give you. For on HIM the FATHER, GOD, has set HIS Seal.” GOD Bless you, my sister.

        1. EdraCruz, you are so right! God bless you, too!

          Also, thanks Richard and Repent/Believe for the encouragement. I won’t give up!!

          1. Yes, EdraCruz, you are on to something!! God Who is the source of all Wisdom!!

            1 Corinthians 2: 6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

            “What no eye has seen,
            what no ear has heard,
            and what no human mind has conceived”—
            the things God has prepared for those who love him—

            10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.

  6. “For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.”–Very well said and excellent post. Thanks.

  7. I support everything in this article. In addition, regarding my meditations upon a particular “mystery,” I liken it to a rosebud which opens more fully each day. Then when it seems ready to expose its heart, behold–another rosebud!

  8. What strikes me is that there are so many people who just have to know every single little detail of a thing, before they can accept it. And often these are the very souls who simply will not accept the premise of God and to me almost as sad, they have no wonders in their lives.

    I am never bored, because just looking out my windows i see wonder and mystery in everything. I, along with the rest of the human race, know very little about the total nature of God, heaven, angels and more. And you know what? I like it that way. When we were children, i can recall, gazing at the gifts under the tree and just wondering, wondering, what might be in them. Once opened though, the mystery and excitement were gone.

    Many of us are like that with lovers, and other things. Once we grasp it, own it, understand it, a certain boredom creeps in. There were things in my husband i could glimpse, but never quite take hold of and was and am glad. He often told me i was the most complex mysterious woman he had ever known. And he told me he was glad. It gave us privacy and just enough intrigue to keep the flame of our rather passionate love going for 35 years.

    We need our mysteries to keep us humble, To remind us that we may have gained a boatload of knowledge, but we really don’t know much of anything. And i LOVE it like that.

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