Skip to comments.Mysteries Should be Appreciated and Lived More Than “Solved”
Posted on 07/30/2014 2:31:54 AM PDT by markomalley
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 todays brief post Id 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 mysteryratings 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 Gods 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 isnot 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:
(video at link)
Msgr Pope ping
Without disagreeing with the Msgr., how does Proverbs 25:2 fit into the discussion?
... how does Proverbs 25:2 fit into the discussion?
With ease, in my opinion. Msgr. Pope is not saying that people shouldn't investigate mysteries, whether they are natural mysteries, personal mysteries, or spiritual mysteries. He is saying that only God has ultimate knowledge of all these, and therefore men should approach them with humility, expecting to gain knowledge and insight, but not a "solution."
Consider Isa 55:9.
When people try to explain, in the terms of human understanding, the things of God, they, in some ways, minimize those things.
Take, for example, the resurrection of Christ. If an (atheist) scientist attempts to explain it using only the terms of physical science, he can't. Therefore he either denies that He rose from the dead or he explains that He really didn't die in the first place.
Even if this scientist does not deny that it happens, he is limited to explaining the resurrection through the effect of the action of God; any attempt to define or quantify the action of God itself will be fruitless.
JIMHO, at least.
My take is that we shouldn’t let ourselves run on te expectation to solve every mystery in a short time frame. I have found that I don’t have to know everything to be happy; I feel happy where I am honest to myself as to what I do or do not know.
Everything we learn in the sciences simply opens up new realms of mystery.
I like the way this is going :-)
Two thoughts, presented quickly and over-simply.
First, I go back to Chesterton's The Ethics of Elfland, where he points out from God's viewpoint what Hume points out from ours, that correlation does not equal causation, and that there is no rational basis for anything to occur--why, to use Chesterton's example, should trees bear fruit, and not golden candlesticks or tigers hanging by their tail--so everything around us is a mystery: the correlations can be documented and people by faith can act based on them (I expect by faith that my tangerine tree will bear tangerines), but the reasons for the correlations' existence, and the nature of their existence, cannot be documented.
Second, God from time to time has given commandments that, at the time of their giving, seem meaningless or nonsensical, but which reveal their sensible-ness upon further research. One of my favorites is the passage concerning mold on the wall in Leviticus 13-14: why should God care whether mold is growing on the wall, and establish such elaborate means of removing the mold from the wall? 3400 years ago when Torah was being tabulated, it would have made no rational sense, and 3300 years later it still would have made no rational sense. But today we know that 1/4 of the population does not have the internal mechanism to flush mold toxins out of the body, and there is evidence that many of our autoimmune diseases may be either caused or exacerbated by mold toxins in the body. God knew that 3400 years ago, and 3,400,000,000 years ago; why mold toxins exist as toxins is a mystery, but that they exist as toxins is no longer a mystery, because it is the glory of people to search out a matter. Which is why, among other examples, I can trust God's prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18 when the commandment may seen nonsensical to the rational mind ("Why can't people love whom they love?"), knowing that many other commandments that have seemed nonsensical have been proven to be sensible.
Those are both excellent points. I will think about them while I’m at the gym, and maybe have a thoughtful contribution when I get back ;-).
“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. Frank attributes this to some French philosopher. Did anyone catch his name?
As an aside, I remember a priest giving a talk at a retreat. He spoke of a woman who came to him complaining that God was not answering her prayers. After careful thought and listening to the woman for several minutes. The priest says, He will answer but you have to give him a chance to talk. :)
Your two thoughts seem to contradict, but in the spirit of the article, they actually reinforce one another. Chesterton is correct that there is “no reason” apple trees shouldn’t produce iPods ... and yet they do not. They produce apples, and we can clearly observe the mechanism by which they do this, every time.
In the same way, we must affirm, if we’re faithful to Scripture, that the universe is sustained in its existence each moment by God. However, at the same time, we can study the laws of physics by which this occurs.
Now on the other hand, your second example starts from our capacity for observing and describing reality (what we call “science”). I hadn’t thought of the mold example, but in many other Levitical regulations, we can also see the practical benefit: avoiding carrion-eaters, washing regularly, laws of sexual purity that maximize the chance of conception.
However, the “good science” part of this doesn’t take away from the spiritual reality: that holiness, the observance of Halakha, is an end, rather than a means of earthly betterment.
(Did that make sense at all? I have to go to Walmart now ...)
Isaac Newton gave the child on the beach analogy. What was unknown was pretty small in relation to what was known.
And it still is. Each answered question in science leads to multiple additional questions. It's a fractal thing, as Mrs. Don-o recently observed.
What was known was insignificant in relation to what was unknown.
I’m going to defer comment until you come back from Walmart. I always like to pencil in a few moments from time to time where I actually think.
You can’t think at Walmart?
Not that I blame you ... when I start to think, the kids sneak expensive stuff we don’t need into the cart!