What Does the Christian Tradition Mean by the Word “Mystery"?
Jan 10, 2019
Community in Mission
In 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: