Learning to be humbled by mystery

Humility in the face of mystery seems to me to be the beating heart of an authentic God experience.

Yme Woensdregt

When I was younger, life seemed to be so much simpler. Every question had an answer. Every paradox could be solved. Life was less ambiguous and more certain. It reminds me of the sign you see from time to time: “Teenagers! Tired of being hassled by your stupid parents? ACT NOW! Move out, get a job, pay your own bills … while you still know everything!”

Sound familiar?

Now, many years (many decades) later, I know life is more complex and complicated. Many questions don’t have an answer. Paradoxes abound. Life is ambiguous and filled with contradictions. Our journey through life is a matter of doing the best we can with what we know. We struggle to make sense of our experience in our world.

From a spiritual perspective, this is known as mystery. One of my guides in the land of mystery is a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr. He writes, “My very belief and experience of a loving and endlessly creative God has led me to trust in mystery.”

I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know many different people from different traditions. As I’ve made my journey through life, as I’ve struggled to make sense of my experience in my own tiny world, I have learned to love mystery more deeply. I no longer feel the need to change it or make it un–mysterious. This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.

In my journey, my faith and belief has made me more comfortable with ambiguity. “Hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot would say. At its depth, life is filled with both beauty and pain, with both joy and sorrow at the same time, that I have become suspicious of any easy answers.

As Rohr puts it, “I often spend the season of Lent in a hermitage, where I live alone for the whole 40 days. The more I am alone with the Alone, the more I surrender to ambivalence, to happy contradictions and seeming inconsistencies in myself and almost everything else, including God. Paradoxes don’t scare me anymore.”

While I am not able (or honestly, not really willing either) to spend seven weeks in a hermitage, I often seek times to be alone with the Alone. (How I love that phrase!) I seek times of quiet and contemplation, away from my computer, tablet and phone, away from other people, away from the noisy distractions that are all around us.

When I was young, I couldn’t do that. I could never imagine being alone for longer than about five minutes. I couldn’t tolerate ambiguity. My education trained me to have a lust for answers and explanations.

Now that I’ve reached 61, it’s all quite different. I no longer believe this is a quid–pro–quo universe. I have spent too much time with hurting and broken people. I have worked with too many failed marriages. I have spent time with too many people addicted to something — whether it be alcohol, drugs, or work. I have faced my own dilemmas too many times, and I have been loved gratuitously after too many failures. The universe is not a place where we get “something for something” (which is what quid pro quo means). It’s not a tit–for–tat world, even when we try to make it that way.

To continue with Rohr, “Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say ‘only’ or ‘always,’ someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories.”

Too many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite. We are called to trust, not certainty.

“People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.”

This kind of humility in the face of mystery seems to me to be the beating heart of an authentic God experience. Sadly, it is absent from much of our religious conversation today. My growing sense is that seeking and resting in the depths of Mystery ought to be not just the very task of religion, but at the heart of a fully human life.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook