A Catholic Monthly Magazine

About Mystery

Fr Tom Ryan

Let’s start with a brief exercise.

  • Look back over your life and recall a time (or times) when you found yourself overwhelmed by a sense that you were part of something much bigger than yourself
  • or that something happened to you that was like a gift coming from beyond yourself
  • or an ordinary event briefly uncovered a world beyond the everyday

When we look at these experiences, we find that they can be positive or negative (or healing or painful). The positive ones bring a sense of fullness, or feelings of well-being, joy and expansiveness in life, in oneself and points towards a richness, towards a horizon beyond ourselves. For example, the birth of a child, watching the beauty of a sunrise or of the power of the sea, an act of creativity, a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation, the company of good friends, the close warmth of lovers.

These moments can also be painful. We come face to face with a sense of our own limitations and of the limits of human existence. Such things as death of a loved one or a friend, a time of serious illness, times of loneliness, of feeling exposed and vulnerable, occasions when we feel empty, confused, lost. Sometimes we can’t get through the pain barrier. A person protects themselves from it and can become rigid, bitter and even cynical. More often, however, in such experiences, we find that we are taken through them beyond ourselves. We become bigger, better, more understanding and compassionate for ourselves and others.

When we ponder these times in life, they are experiences of mystery. They are moments of unexpected ‘grace’, of deepest knowing and loving, often occurring at the core of what is more human and personal for us. They are experiences of what is beyond the self, namely of transcendence. But we can also experience the mystery beyond us as a strong, nourishing and supportive presence in our deepest self, namely, an experience of immanence. Over history, people have tried to describe this sense of presence, e.g., as ‘the other’, ‘mystery’, ‘God’, etc.

We need to remember that mystery is not a problem to be solved but something to be lived. That means that we have to adopt a contemplative stance, to affirm that

“...mystery can indeed be known without being solved. Mystery can be experienced, sensed, felt, appreciated, even loved, without being understood.”(Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology. San Francisco: Harper Row, 1987, 30).

Seen this way, mystery is a substantial, vital and integral part of ordinary life that constantly surrounds us. As May says (1987, 30):

“It can be found in all aspects of nature, in the feelings and actions of other human beings, in the silence of our own minds, in every bit of the universe. One need not even ask the ultimate questions in order to sense it. All that is needed is to become aware of the existence of one’s own consciousness.” 


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