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).

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)

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 savored 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:

17 Responses

  1. Robertlifelonfcatholic says:

    That’s why we read your blogs monsignor, to experience the mystery. Dominus vosbiscum.

  2. Anne Marie says:

    Thank-you Msgr. Pope for another excellent article.

    It speaks for itself!

  3. Thomas says:

    Fr. Pope can you recommend some books on the catholic spiritual life for a laymen other than intro to the devout life that will help me to avoid sin and grow in holiness and prayer and toward union with God?

  4. Pedro says:

    As our former parish priest used to say, we should be open to Mystery.

  5. teomatteo says:

    So, to a non believer, would it be safe to say that their attitude would be: any question man can ask will have an answer that man can find, given enough time, expenditure, and commitment.?

  6. Repent and Believe the Gospel ! says:

    Oh, but SOME mysteries are meant to solved, Msgr.! And if we humble ourselves in prayers perhaps He might even reveal the most important to us!

    Perhaps in a few weeks or months He might even reveal to us the mystery of John 6:54.

    But for now, you must be content with the mystery of the Proverbs ( I know the answers to John 6:54 and to Proverbs 13:12 for they are related):

    “Hope that is deferred afflicteth the soul: desire when it cometh, is a TREE OF LIFE.” – Proverbs 13:12

    And are you ready to solve the mystery of the ages? Well I am. In a few weeks, I will be giving you more riddles.

    Remember folks, there are hidden meanings in the Proverbs:

    “He will search out the hidden meanings of proverbs , and will be conversant in the secrets of parables.” – Sirach 39:3

  7. Joseph says:

    I explain “mystery” not as something we do not understand but as something we do not understand fully.
    A mystery is like a beautiful rosebud that keeps opening itself up to us more and more each day. Then when we think it is about to be fully opened, a new rosebud is found within its heart. The process begins anew on a deeper level. Isn’t God wonderful to us mere mortals!

  8. one anonymous says:

    Yes, mysteries unfold, the old becomes new again, a new revelation from God. I love the examples given. On a recent visit with my granddaughter we were playing with her dolls and I said, “When I was a little girl I loved to play with dolls too.” She looked at me wide eyed astonished and said, “You where!” So sweet is revelation! I hope to know more and more from God.

  9. Peter Wolczuk says:

    This ties in (in my perception) so much with the previous post on deception. I don’t see the desire to solve all mysteries to be negative in itself but, if overly emphasized, can lead us into self deception such as taking short cuts (by such things as “jumping to conclusions”) into such things as giving in to a desire to be first at the finish line. But what if that leads us to wander astray, as is indicated in the previous post? What if we cheat by leaving the race path and; in perceiving the wrong “finish line”, cross it and declare ourselves to be winners?
    I have so admired Descartes’ contribution of the cartesian co-ordinate system that the observation of criticism of him forced me to confront the idealized viewpoint (idolatry?) which I had of him and to see his work as a clinging to, rather than improving of, out-dated logic.
    Upon looking I now see his presentation(s) as being like the physicists who struggled with quantum physics. In both cases it would seem that the logic, of the time, was inadequate. The structure of logic, that is used, is man made to fit the facts which have been perceived so far. When this structure no longer fits then, this structure of the “tool” of logic needs to be adapted, or expanded, to fit the old and the new. Science is, to me, a search for truth and – when the tools (logical structure) become no longer useful then, it’s time to develop the tools further.
    Even Einstein (and his sometime partner, Neils Bohr) found things in quantum physics which they disliked and set out to disprove. To their benefit they were meticulous and thoroughly stuck to the structure without using shortcuts but, didn’t expand the logic so as to resolve the problem.
    Others used shortcuts to describe their work – such as translating one of Bohrs’ comments into, “If you don’t hate it you don’t understand it” Later translations claimed that a more accurate translation would be, “If you aren’t confused by it you don’t understand it” Hate is so much more attention getting and re-assuring than not understanding as it leads toward prejudice in implying inherent evil in what one is merely confused about. This re-assuring away from the honesty about not understanding a mystery can be so very tempting.
    Thus, I can be tempted into idolizing exceptional people like Einstein, Bohr and Descartes and, thus, forgetting that they’re still people and, while logic has a lot of value, it may not be completely evolved.
    I was pleased to read (in my favourite physics blog) that one aspect of quantum physics (wave and particle duality) was recently resolved by creating a molecule with 36 atoms so that it was easier to measure and that newly introduced expansion lead to new measuring which revealed that nothing is wave or particle but part of each. We didn’t see the wave portion/aspect of things on our scale because it’s so tiny and we did’t perceive the particle portion/aspect of things on the sub-microscopic (in the use of visible light due to defraction rendering it un-usable) because that particle aspect is so tiny. Now, there’s even a consistant equation to handily calculate the degrees of wave and particle in any object.
    I mention this because, it took over a hundred years to resolve only one confusing aspect of the puzzle of quantum, namely wave/particle duality and – also took a newly introtroduced item to the logic. A newly made and unusual molecule.
    A hundred years may seem like a long time on our personal scale but is miniscule on the cosmic scale. So, when someone proclaims that they have relatively quickly formed the one and only interpretation of a biblical, or spiritual, mystery and offer a few bits to back the claim – I have to overcome the boredom of experiencing yet another apparent shortcut. I do look and consider but; am rarely, if ever, impressed.
    If I feel like resolving a mystery I try to look at all mysteries as beautiful challenges, rather than a problem to be got rid of by rushing so much to say something that one forgets to say something accurate.
    I went to noon time mass and prayed for guidance on this reply and, felt moved to compare it to growth. We grow spiritually, as well as physically. From conception to birth is normally 9 months. Then years until formal schooling starts. More growth for other things. We need to wait for growth to get closer to the mysteries.

    • one anonymous says:

      When mysteries are reveled to us from God (revelation), we are getting “knowledge” right from the source, the One Who KNOWS. We, on the other hand, do not know and (in our own efforts) can only open doors to a better understanding, but we are finite and very limited (so it is no wonder it is a hundred years to “resolve” something only to encounter many many new mysteries). But God is infinite, He can and will revel to us something that no amount of searching or calculating can give us, not even in a hundred years, that is because He Loves us and Loves to give us Himself. It really is like a child, parent relationship where the parent is much more knowledgeable and will revel to the child more and more knowledge as he sees the child is able to understand and grow, except God is Perfect and knows us Perfectly, much more than our natural parents. Trust in God and He will revel Himself to you.

      As an example (not exact of course): It is like a child trying to unlock his seatbelt, try and try as he may he can’t figure it out and the parent will not show him because the parent knows the child is not ready to “know” that. But when the child is older and the parent feels the child is ready, he will show him how to unbuckle the seat belt so that the child may have more responsibility and grow and learn. The key to this is an important one… that the child be obedient to the parent and so the parent knows the child is ready to “learn”. If the child wanders off, will not listen, or is continually rebellious, will the parent trust him with the knowledge to take off his own seatbelt? No, he will not. So it is with ourselves and God, if we will not do the Will of God, we limit what God will revel to us and He will even discipline us if we are His, only and always because He LOVES us!! So many scriptures refer to this, for example: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child” (Luke 18:15-17)… ” I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)…, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4)…, “want to give our children good gifts how much more does God want to” (Matthew 7:7-12)… just to name a couple. God wants ONLY Good for us!!

      • Peter Wolczuk says:

        While I see this as a criticism, it appears to be a very positive criticism – especially in that it reminds me of Judges 7; especially verse 3; where over thirty thousand showed up for Gideon’s call to arms and – God had Gideon trim the numbers down, in stages, to three hundred because otherwise, “or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’
        The three hundred was shown as an elite force but, even such an elite could not be credited with vanquishing the numbers of skilled fighters which the Midianites had in their army.
        Even Einstein, even after his genius and great achievements were revealed, continued to give credit to the One True God.
        Recently I noticed how the power of Truth being revealed by Light seems involved.
        The band whom Gideon commanded revealed their light to the enemy camp and, when the jars broke and revealed the light the Midianites and allies so feared the light that they proceeded to kill each other and ran from the light.
        A lesson to me not to claim credit for the benefits of the Father Who sent us the Light and to stop fighting fellow victims of darkness.
        Thank you for your reply.

        • one anonymous says:

          Thank you. What you say reminds me of JOHN 3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

  10. one anonymous says:

    Silly me! I meant to say “You were!” not “You where!”… that doesn’t make sense!! Sorry for the error!

  11. profling says:

    Mystery is the Greek equivalent of sacrament. But the sacraments are no longer mysterious in the West. We have a vernacular liturgy, mass versus populum, cameras, TV masses (whereas doors were once closed to catechumens), non-consecrated people in the sanctuary, etc. At least the Eastern churches have tried to retain the mystery of the sacraments.

  12. jude says:

    Mystery is a beautiful experience / encounter one must enjoy while meditating and not to challenge and get more confused losing the plot and you end up being an aethist.

  13. David says:

    The mysteries of the faith are infinitely knowable. We shouldn’t say (and you didn’t Msgr) we can’t know them. They are infinitely knowable. Press on!

  14. TeaPot562 says:

    We lose something in our culture because we live in cities well-lighted at night. For those living in deserts, whether the Sahara or otherwise, a night sky may display several planets and many stars. Other than the sun, the brightest “fixed star” in our sky is Sirius, which is some fifteen light years (ninety TRILLION miles) away.
    Even these created items can raise awareness of mystery. Why did God create these? So many, of various masses, colors and properties? Why did He create eyes for us, capable of discerning these creatures of His on a clear night? Why did He give us the ability to create optical magnification through microscopes, telescopes, etc., to better appreciate these things?
    And why, in so many species in the animal kingdom, is cooperation of female and male needed in order to bring forth new life? Those who claim Evolution as the answer to things are unable to articulate a reasonable answer to the question of Sex.
    Mysteries are not limited to theological matters.
    TeaPot562

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