Someone has said, “Life is a not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” I sense that most of us find ourselves experiencing “problems” in our lives rather than “mystery.” We are able to confront, attack, resolve, or decry problems, and in this way, feel we are in control. But mysteries, except those in TV series like Murdoch Mysteries, find us wrapped in unknowns, in holy darkness.
To understand Mystery we would do well to watch a child of three years exploring the world. Taking a child on a walk on a summer day in a park can take a very long time; every bug and leaf is a fascinating mystery, one to be gazed at, admired, enjoyed. No rush, no problem, just wonder. If only I could approach life as a child does, as a mystery to be contemplated.
As Christians, we often speak of Christ’s mysteries – his life, death, and resurrection – and of God as Holy Mystery. We understand our lives to be a share in the mysteries of Christ. Yes, even our messy, mundane lives are where Holy Mystery abides. Our ups and downs, our very selves, are the dwelling place of God: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
My spirituality of scripture teacher at university used to say that “If God is, God is in this time and place.” Jesus said it this way: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The mystics of every age knew this profound truth and experienced it in personal ways. Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who died at age 26 in the Holocaust, said in her diary, An Interrupted Life: “That is how I feel, always and without cease, as if I were lying in your arms, O God, so protected and sheltered and so steeped in eternity.” Even a concentration camp is not outside God’s reach. Etty added, “…life is one long stroll with God.”
What could possibly convince a person deprived of freedom, witnessing human suffering, up close and personal on a daily basis, that God is protecting, sheltering, and strolling along with her? Here we find ourselves in the realm of mysticism, the realm of mystery.
Mysticism is the lived belief in the existence of realities beyond our intellectual understanding and sense perception, which are central to being and accessible by personal experience. It is the conviction that there is more to this life than “meets the eye.” Mysticism, at least Christian mysticism (and there are mystics of all religious traditions), is the awareness of, and relationship with, the Divine through Christ, which expresses itself in love for self and others in the concrete realities of one’s circumstances.
Etty Hillesum found God in Westerbork and in the suffering prisoners around her, like Thomas Merton who said in The Seven Storey Mountain: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…”
These two examples show so well, I believe, the power and beauty of mystery welcomed. No problem is solved, but meaning is abundant.
During the days of Advent, as I write, Christians anticipate again the celebration of Word made flesh, the Incarnation, the greatest Mystery of all. With eyes of faith, we recognize God with us in the guise of a tiny, helpless (Divine) Child.
To be sure, mystical experience and consciousness is a gift. We cannot earn it or manufacture it. We can, however, dispose ourselves to receive it. The silence of nature in this season models for us the receptive silence and stillness required to notice the still, small voice; the bleakness of winter encourages hope in unseen life waiting for its time. Appreciating the goodness and beauty of daily life’s small miracles cultivates the mystic soil, and the simple black and white landscape invites us to notice inner and outer movements.
Mystics-in-the making, rejoice.
Mary Coswin, OSB, MA (Formative Spirituality) is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery and currently Director of St. Benedict’s Retreat and Conference Centre.