Today we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than in Christian antiquity, to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In today’s brief post I’d like to review that idea and then add a new insight I gained 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 thus the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. In the typical mystery novel, some event (usually a crime) takes place and it is the job of the hero to discover the perpetrator of the crime or the cause of the problem. And if he does not do so he is considered 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 if, in the TV series House, M.D., Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery—ratings would drop rather quickly.

But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Mystery is that which opens up the temporal meaning of an event and gives it depth. It also introduces a vertical dimension to an event and thus makes it a time of revelation, of unveiling. (Fr. Francis Martin says more about this in the video below.) In this sense, mystery is something we are meant to discover, thereby appreciating the depth and richness of both things and people. Because of this, mystery should be savored, respected, and appreciated.

However, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful as well as prideful. Though we are meant to discover and appreciate mysteries, we must remember that much more remains hidden to us than is understood by us. The claim that we can “solve” mysteries of this sort implies that we are capable of seeing them in all their fullness. This is prideful and, frankly, rude.

Why is this so?

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

Further, in the Christian view, some or even most of what lies hidden ought to be respected as hidden and appreciated rather than solved. Surely we can seek to gain insight into what is hidden, but, we must do so respectfully. And we dare not say that we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For even when we think we know everything, we seem to forget that 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. Certainly your physical appearance is revealed. There are also aspects of your 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 physical nature are hidden. For example, no one sees your inner organs. And as for your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth are mostly hidden. 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 of yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.

Now part of the respect that I owe you is to respect the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to appreciate 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 on my part. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have each other figured out.

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

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

So a mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to “get to the bottom of.” Rather, mysteries are to be appreciated, revered, respected, and accepted, humbly, as real. Some aspects of them are revealed to us but much more is hidden.

That said, neither are we to remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is deeper penetration into the mystery of who we are, the mystery of one another, the mystery of who God is, and the mysteries of creation, the Sacraments, and Holy Scripture. To be sure, as we grow spiritually we gain insights into these mysteries. But we can never say that we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever-deeper meanings that we should respect and revere.

In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin explains how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see or what our other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things.

Fr. Martin gives the example of  a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets another man, Jones, with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shake hands; so what? But what if I tell you that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah, now that is significant! Knowing that the handshake has an inner dimension to it helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular gesture. To the average observer this inner dimension is hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery revealed to us, we appreciate more than what appears on the surface. But still we cannot say, “Ah, I have fully grasped this!” For even knowing this background information, we have grasped only some of the mysteries of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner  lives of these two men. Mystery has a majesty all its own and we revere and respect it best by appreciating its ever-deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God Himself.

Here is a video in which Fr. Martin speaks about mystery:

9 Responses

  1. annaincalifornia says:

    Monsignor Pope,
    Our parish’s retired priest always talks about life being a mystery that should be embraced. Your post sounds identical to his sermons. :-) I love your posts! I learn so much. They help me meditate and think of things in different light.
    Your little lamb, who hopes to meet you in heaven and continue to learn from you,
    Anna

    PS. Jas, blessings to you!!

  2. Jas says:

    Wonderful! My folks said, when I was about 4, one question I kept asking was “when will Grandpa get his new body? Will he be at Grandma’s house waiting for us?” LOL @ myself! Thanks, Lord, for patient parents! But, I remember some adults saying when we die all will be known. This never made sense. My Dad taught me to appreciate the Holy Mysteries by example, let God be God, let Him lead us in all things, enter in and ask His will. Now I know (pretty sure) at the Resurrection, in Eternity we will live in wonder and awe of God in His Glory, Who alone knows all, and of one another, still mysterious.
    Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints, now and forever! Amen

    P.S. Thanks, Anna, for you prayers and God bless!

    • Jas says:

      Oh, I just thought, what the elder folks were trying to explain was from 1 Jn 3.
      “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
      But still, only God can know fully Himself and us, always beyond our understanding, no?

  3. Christaain says:

    Mystery? Was it Mithraism or Ba’al that posited so many “mysteries”? I guess it was both.

  4. Jorge Contreras says:

    Thank you for your article. It helps to understand the human nature, and to think in a different manner about current things happening in our actual society.
    Sincerely

  5. MT says:

    The modern mind, steeped in rationalism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, practicality and efficiency, cannot grasp the Catholic concept of mystery. The tendency to rationalize every mystery has had a negative effect on human happiness. Without some connection to eternity, to a sense of immortality, happiness is rationalized and becomes mere enjoyment for the sake of the moment. Surely we can enjoy things in passing moments, but we cannot truly love things for the sake of the moment. We can experience pleasure in the moment, but real love demands a sense of mystery, which extends the moment beyond the temporary. Mystery fills moments with eternity, making them joyful because they no longer seem momentary. Real love is always connected to something that we think can never end. To rationalize happiness or love or religion is to remove the sense of the everlasting, and thus to destroy them.

    “Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized. …Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant.” (– GKC, ‘Omar and the Sacred Vine’)

  6. Al says:

    One wonders whether this is only a problem of the “worldly” interpretation of
    “mystery” or whether various languages translate this concept to different degrees of
    accuracy. This is fresh in my mind given the recent controversy over
    the language changes in the English liturgy.

  7. Gitanjali Sudhir says:

    Perhaps one need not juxtapose modern mind against ancient mind. The better approach would be to marry the concept of mystery to the contemporary isms. In fact that is what great luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, Merton and Sheen accomplished. What is unfortunate is that we either ignore the challenges of the new and bury our heads in the past or totally forget the past and embrace the giddy new, all along refusing to anchor ourselves in the Lord, who is ever yesterday, today and tomorrow. GITA – CHENNAI – INDIA

  8. CS says:

    said no Dominican ever

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