Foundations: The Mystery of God
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him,”
God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
(1 Corinthians 2:9-10)
Mystery is a concept that is largely absent in our current secular cultural and its intellectual climate, yet it is a critical ingredient to forming true culture. This foundational post will explore what God’s mystery is, what it grants to the faithful Christian, conditions that are necessary for contemplating God’s mystery, and finally how it is exemplified in the Rosary.
Mystery is how we begin to understand divine revelation. It is knowledge which God reveals through faith rather than the mind comprehending it through the power of reason. Like all things in the faith-reason dynamic, mystery is not unreasonable or anti-rational, but is rather beyond the horizon that reason alone can see. Faith is required to peer over the horizon and bring knowledge of the truth back into the realm of reason for our minds to consider.
Mystery is often communicated through symbols. These act as doors or gateways into the more expansive details of a truth that may be more difficult to communicate or elucidate. Examples of symbols that reveal the mystery of God are that of the garden, the tree of life, the sacrificial lamb, water, keys to the kingdom, bread and wine, and so on. A comprehensive list of all theological symbols would be too large to list here, but these examples are likely recognizable symbols to most people. The necessity for symbols is simple. God, who is eternal truth, cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind, but has to be continually returned to in prayer. Mystery allows us to explore in time God’s eternal truth, beauty and goodness. Theological symbols are an important aid in achieving this.
Mystery, however, is not abstract, relegated to the realm of ideas only. Mystery has as its proper end a deeper knowledge in order for a person to realize a fuller relationship with God. It is not mere curiosity concerned with present novelties or passing, fashionable trivialities. Curiosity like this can be hazardous to the mind and heart. Rather, mystery is concerned with a full knowing.
To fully know as a human person, we must know in both the mind and body, taking account of each part’s proper dimensions. God achieved this perfect revelation of mystery for humanity when He assumed in the divine person of the Son a spiritual and incarnate human nature. Vatican II gives perhaps the most eloquent and distilled synthesis of this truth in Gaudium Et Spes 22:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.
It goes on to say:
By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning….Pressing upon the Christian to be sure, are the need and the duty to battle against evil through manifold tribulations and even to suffer death. But, linked with the paschal mystery and patterned on the dying Christ, he will hasten forward to resurrection in the strength which comes from hope….Such is the mystery of man, and it is a great one, as seen by believers in the light of Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us. Christ has risen, destroying death by His death; He has lavished life upon us so that, as sons in the Son, we can cry out in the Spirit; Abba, Father.
Mystery takes up not just the truth of God, but the very truth of ourselves. We cannot know ourselves fully apart from God, and we cannot enter fully into God’s truth apart from mystery. To answer the question, “Who am I?” will answer the questions, “What must I do?” and “How must I live?” Mystery, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, takes up all the serious questions and experiences of human life – good and evil; suffering, pain, violence, and tragedy; relationships; and life and death. Not only is Christian Mystery concerned with these major events, but it also takes upon all the minor and ordinary events of daily life. The contemplation of God’s mystery encompasses every aspect and circumstance of human life.
Knowing the definition of mystery is an important first step to living Christian Mystery in our lives, but it requires more than just knowledge for us to incorporate into daily routines and habits. Living a life of mystery requires cultivation and work, much like a garden requires good soil, water, and light to produce its fruits of beauty and provision. There are at least three conditions that are important in gaining ready access to God’s mystery. They are humility, purity, and silence.
According to Matthew 11:25, access to God’s mystery is given to those who are humble like children and not to those who esteem themselves by their own intellectual powers. Thus mystery is not limited to those who are learned, accomplished, or credentialed. The simple minded, the humble, and the child all have access to God’s eternal mysteries. This is not to say that contemplation of God’s mystery cannot be greatly aided by knowledge and the sharpening of the intellect. Deep calls on deep, and refining these attributes of our person will grant a greater access to God’s mystery if we are also humble. “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble'” (1 Peter 5:5).
It is The Beatitude of meekness which grants us an inheritance of the earth and all the creatures that dwell on the earth. So often God’s mystery is found in creation as the events of our lives converge with our encounters with the created order. In fact, this is the basis of Jesus’ use of parables to teach the crowds. He also used natural phenomena in his conversation with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:8-12). Jesus as teacher knew how to communicate the eternal truths of the Father in language and experiences that even the simplest mind could understand.
Another Beatitude – that of purity of heart – enables us to see God. Vision and knowing go together. The Beatific Vision is the term associated with our life in heaven and the eternal joy, peace, and satisfaction of our desires as we gaze upon the glory of God. Purity is important for mystery because it prevents the corruptions of sin and death from obscuring and clouding our intellect, and thus clouding our vision of the truth we must know and the good we must do. Purity takes effort to maintain, and is much more than mere sexual purity. Purity means simply an undivided heart that loves the Creator and not just the creation. The materialism that saturates our own age is concerning, because its obsession with material comfort, pleasure and power distract the mind and heart from seeing the source of the goodness in these things – God Himself. As Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Thou have made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in Thee.”
Along with purity and humility, silence is a necessary condition to enter into God’s mystery. Silence safeguards mystery. The world with its noise, conflicts, and anxieties threatens to always disrupt our dialogue with God. Silence produces a rich interior life that bears abundant fruit for the spiritual life.
Robert Cardinal Sarah writes in his incredible book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise:
Never before has the world spoken so much about God, about theology, about prayer, and even about mysticism. But our human language lowers to a paltry level everything that it tries to say about God. Words spoil anything that surpasses them. Now, mystery is by definition that which is about our human reason. In his Mystical Theology, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that, confronted with this reality that is beyond everything, confronted with the mystery, we are led to the “dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence … surcharging our blinded intellects with the … invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty ” (p. 125).
“Words spoil anything that surpasses them.” Beauty especially reveals God’s glory, but noise and too much chatter in our lives will obscure our ability to behold God’s mysterious beauty. Silence on the other hand enhances our soul’s sensitivity and capacity to beauty. On the toxic effects of noise in our world, Cardinal Sarah writes:
Often I wonder whether the sadness of Western urban societies, filled with so much depression and moral distress, so many suicides, does not come from the loss of the sense of mystery. In losing the capacity for silence in the presence of the mystery, people cut themselves off from the sources of joy. Indeed, they find themselves alone in the world, without anything that surpasses and supports them. I know of nothing more frightening than that (p. 125-126).
There are perhaps no limits to the modalities we can encounter and enter into God’s mystery. The fingerprints of God are found in every aspect and attribute of His creation. However, there are certain ways to receive the mystery of God that take primacy over others. The first and foremost are Sacred Scripture and the Sacraments. These reveal Jesus to us and allow us to receive Jesus not just spiritually, but bodily as well. As Jesus states in the Gospel of John, “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:9-10).
The Rosary is an outgrowth of these two primary modes of access to mystery. It deals with the primary events of Jesus life and enriches sacramental devotion and scriptural study. It incorporates all that has been discussed so far – symbols, the Incarnation, humility, purity, and silence. The twenty mysteries of the Rosary are the guide posts for the Christian pilgrimage through life. They accompany us in the events of our life, and allow us to overlay these events onto the events of Christ’s life, granting us wisdom, solace, peace, strength, courage, and perseverance in the moments of need.
The simplicity of the Rosary is its strength. Simple things do not require much practice before they become habit. Simple things also are readily accessible. When crisis, trauma, or necessity strike, the Rosary is always near. Whether a family member is ill or near death, a friend is suffering a financial or relational difficulty, or there is a cause for celebration and thanksgiving, the Rosary gives a way to unite our life with the life of Christ. Through the Rosary Mysteries, we have access in time to the eternal and mysterious presence of God.
I can remember many such instances of this in my own life, but one in particular stands out. My wife and I were pregnant with our third child, Judah. It was early in the pregnancy, and the trauma from losing our first son Caleb to stillbirth was punishing us in a particularly painful way. The possibility of having to bury another child dominated our minds and created intense anxiety. The fear was so debilitating that my wife was going to visit the doctor just to hear his heartbeat and be reassured he was still alive. Before this appointment, I was walking and praying my Rosary. I do not recall the exact set of mysteries I was meditating on (likely the Glorious if I had to make an educated guess!), but I heard clearly the voice of God in my mind say, “This child will live.” The sense of assurance was so profound that it became the battle cry for us the rest of that pregnancy. As a subtitle, God revealed in prayer that, “In the dead of winter, we will bring forth new life.” It was the Rosary that provided me the opportunity to hear specifically what God wanted to say to us in that moment of our life.
Pray the Rosary often – I suggest daily. You will see the integration of your life with the life of God begin almost immediately, and you will begin reflecting the light of the Mystery of God in Christ Jesus.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
“Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).