In 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.