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: