As a teenager, when I first began to seriously think about Catholic doctrine, I asked my religious education teachers a lot of questions; oftentimes the answer I got was “it’s a mystery”. I found this to be frustrating and annoying. It seemed to me that my question either exceeded the knowledge of the teacher or there was no answer to my question. In either case, it seemed like I came up against a brick wall, a dead end to my search for something to really believe in.
I now understand the word “mystery” differently in regards to the mysteries of our faith. With the help of Frank Sheed’s modern classic Theology and Sanity I learned that a mystery is not something we can know nothing about; rather, it is something that the mind cannot wholly know. In other words, there is a lot we can know about the truths of our faith which we label “mystery;” it’s just that we cannot know everything because our minds are finite and the truths are infinite: the truth of the Holy Trinity for instance.
Instead of thinking of “mystery” as a dead end or a dry well, Sheed suggests that a mystery is an invitation to the mind: “For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind’s thirst.”
Mystery, Sheed argues, is two truths we cannot easily reconcile. We cannot grasp how God can be Three if He is infinitely One; or, we cannot readily comprehend how Christ can be wholly human and wholly God at the same time.
Sheed points out that this apparent conflict between two truths, which on the surface, appears irreconcilable is something we live with every day. “All life is a tension of apparent opposites,” he says. For instance, “our freedom is made perfect by obedience; thus a man is free to live if he obeys the laws of nutrition.” Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24). Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Lk 17:33).
Although we have great difficulty mentally reconciling these apparent opposites, we experience them. For example, a saying attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola, “pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you,” captures the lived experience of apparent opposites.
“Thus, a mystery is not to be thought of as simply darkness: it is a tiny circle of light surrounded by darkness. It is for us to use our own powers and God’s grace that the circle of light may grow. It means praying for more knowledge, and using the knowledge one gains to enrich one’s prayer.”