Pithy sayings have a way of ringing true but also of needing distinctions. Here is one I ran across recently and just a few thoughts on it.
I’m not young enough to know everything – Oscar Wilde
I remember that, as a young priest in my late twenties that I was extremely confident of what I knew. Frankly I was fed up by the older generation, especially of priests, who sounded a vague and uncertain note in the pulpit. And who will follow an uncertain trumpet? I was also convinced that the generation of adults prior to mine was a generation lost to moral relativism, skepticism, and antinomianism (a theological and philosophical notion that is skeptical of law based on a flawed notion of grace).
I am not willing to say that I was wholly wrong. For indeed we have come through a bad period that arrogantly cast off the wisdom and learning of the past and, in a slothful way, liked to claim that we should be tolerant and open to just about any claim to truth. And while they marched under the banner of tolerance, I am still largely convinced that what that generation called a virtue was really more a form of laziness that, having denied there was a real or lasting truth, dismissed themselves from any duty to find and defend the truth.
But I must admit that I, as a young man, over-corrected in this regard. For, while there are eternal truths which, by faith, I can be certain of, our same Catholic faith holds that God is “other” and that mystery must often be held and appreciated, rather than be explained to death. Sometimes I was far too certain in my explanations of things that really cannot be wholly explained (e.g. the problem of suffering and evil, and many questions related to God’s nature and being).
Having met God quite personally in my mid thirties I was quite astounded by how far beyond our feeble words He really is. That does not make our feeble words, as revealed by faith wrong, just very incomplete. I became more content to hold the mystery of his breath-taking beauty and majesty in reverent silence, than attempt a blizzard of analytical words. For as Scripture urges: “Be still and know that I am God.”
A kind of serenity has enveloped me now, in my middle age and I am more content not only to hold the mystery but accept the Catholic insight that one truth is often held in tension with another truth (e.g. that God is sovereign and we are free). Not everything has to be resolved or explained perfectly.
I have come to understand what St Augustine meant when discussing mystery (in this case, time), and he said, If you ask me, I don’t know. If you don’t ask, I know (Conf 11.4). Words and human categories just sometimes get in the way. Somehow it is enough, having met God, to know that God knows. And knowing God, and knowing that He knows, somehow we “know” his mysteries. But this way of knowing is not in an intellectual way. Rather, more in a trusting and serene way, beyond words, deep in the heart. Some how in admitting there are many things we do not know, we know something deeper, a kind of knowing that only comes with humility and childlike trust which accepts that it is enough that God knows the things beyond us.
When I was younger, I needed much more in the way of certainty and clarity. And thus I often insisted that I knew much more than I did. Now I can say, with Oscar Wilde, I’m not young enough to know everything. And it’s alright. I do know many things by faith, but that same faith draws me ever deeper into wordless mystery, ineffable truth, silent contemplation.
This song speaks of prayer and quiet trust in the face of suffering and affliction: