What Does the Christian Tradition Mean by the Word “Mystery”?

milky-way-916523_1280In the secular world, a “mystery” is something that baffles or eludes understanding, something that lies undisclosed. And the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to solve 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 situations that extend beyond their visible, 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 straightaway to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both of his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” Puzzled, you ask, “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 meets the eye. This is mystery, something hidden, something 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 to mystery. Le Croix added the following to the definition 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, is 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. 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 a video of Fr. Francis Martin speaking briefly on mystery:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does the Christian Tradition Mean by the Word “Mystery”?

4 Replies to “What Does the Christian Tradition Mean by the Word “Mystery”?”

  1. Following the first few pages of Genesis, perhaps the greatest mystery is that of the human person. Here the concept person points toward the mystery of God, and the concept human points toward the mystery of Creation, with all of its mathematics, natural history of astronomical, geological, and biological phenomena, and the ethics of human society. Then, according to Genesis, sin, death, and evil is a mystery that needs some kind of explanation, as a kind of absence of God in the human being. In other words, everybody is born into mystery, to seek God, and to live.

  2. It is of interest to look back on the theology of our dawning millenium, with three popes already, one blessed, pope John Paul II (1978 – 2005), one emeritus, pope Benedict XVI (2005 – 2013), and pope Francis (2013 – now). Especially, three books, one by each, all point to our time’s need for wonder (as the Latin word mysterium translates into English). Pope John Paul II gave his so called spiritual testament in the book, Memory and Identity (2005). This book is very personal and penetrates deeply into John Paul II’s Christian existentialism, with growth in holiness formed by tragedy of WWII. One may say that this book, published after his death, reaches out to the transcendent God, as Creator, Saviour, and Consolator of the human being. On the other hand, pope Benedict XVI, in his book, God and Reason, 2007 (Gott und die Vernunft), reaches out to the absolute God, to establish Reason as common human ground for our religious liberty to seek God. Then, pope Francis, in Praise Be To You, 2015 (Laudato Si’), reaches out to the immanent God, with practical advises to improve on our Life on Earth.

  3. I am sorry, but I just did a blunder : the Latin word : mysterium has the exclusive meaning of : religious initiation (which are two other Latin words !)
    It is the Latin word : miraculum that translates into English : wonder.

  4. For me a (religious) mystery is not something we do not understand; it is something that we do not understand completely. It is like a rosebud opening up to expose the petals within. As we begin to understand them, they fall off. Then when we are down to the last few petals, we see a new rosebud emerging. Then the process begins all over again.

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