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 solve it, to get to the bottom of it, or to uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle or “whodunit” 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 situations 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 away 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 eye. This is mystery: something hidden, something that is accessible to those who know, who are initiated into the mystery and have 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).
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 appreciated 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:
7 Replies to “Mystery Is Deep and Yet Vertical – A Brief Meditation on the Christian Meaning of Mystery”
Four perspectives of mystery, and possibly five:
a) God’s perspective,
b) observer’s perspective,
c) passive instrumental revealer’s perspective,
d) active instrumental revealer’s perspective,
e) perspective of God’s agent, helper or angel who prepares the instrumental revealer.
Perhaps the most important perspective ( besides that of God) is that of the observer from whom some positive response or “fruit” is required.
Mystery has a purpose and its metered release is based in a good reason.
Thank you for this profound teaching! As a new Catholic, when I was an ex-protestant, becoming Catholic, 2 years ago, I still remember the electrifying response I had when I first heard the words in the Eucharistic prayer, “the mystery of faith’. Let me NEVER forget that first response!
I learn these things from reading Msgr Pope’s blog
“This is mystery: something hidden, something that is accessible to those who know, who are initiated into the mystery and have come to grasp some dimension of it..”
The mystery of the Holy Eucharist has been unveiled:
“He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” – John 6:55
And the mystery of The Tree of Life is unveiled FOR the conversion of the whole world:
“But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the WISDOM of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:24
“But the author of LIFE you killed, whom God hath raised from the
dead, of which we are witnesses.” – Acts 3:15
“And we are witnesses of all things that he did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed, hanging him upon a TREE.” – Acts 10:39
“Wisdom is a Tree of Life…” – Proverbs 3:18
For a prophecy in the form of a riddle was written:
“The fruit of the JUST MAN is a tree of life: and he that gaineth souls, is wise.” – Proverbs 11:30
“He will search out the hidden meanings of Proverbs, and will be conversant in the secrets of parables.”
– Sirach 39:3
When pushed to jump to an over early conclusion is the pushee being sidetracked from the mysteries? Does the victim then substitute healthy speculation with grandiose (often accompanies obsessive/compulsive) fantasies? Do worldly authourities endorse by saying that the person has a “rich fantasy life” so as to endorse the wheels spinning inneffectively on the side track while keeping results of their harm as a much lesser mystery?
If I understand St. Thomas Aquinas correctly these are the two biggest Christian Mysteries: “Wherefore the first distinction in matters of faith is that some concern the majesty of the Godhead, while others pertain to the mystery of Christ’s human nature, which is the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16).”
A mystery is an abundant overflowing of God’s Life, Light and Love!
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