Essay: On Mystery

My friend Charity Singleton Craig invited me to participate in her “In Your Own Words” series. Here’s my essay . . .

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woman praying:cryingmys·terynoun \ˈmis-t(ə-)rē\

: A word first used in English in the early 14th century to mean “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth.”

: It came from the Old French mistere, conveying “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” and from the Latin mysterium, meaning “secret worship.”

: It was used—in the Greek—in the ancient Septuagint compilation of Scripture (in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC) to mean the “secret counsel of God.” (Information quoted and adapted from The Online Etymology Dictionary.)

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Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane. Mma Ramotswe. Inspector Maigret. Kurt Wallander. Erast Fandorin. Sister Pelagia. Carl Mørk. Flavia de Luce. Father Brown. Sherlock Holmes.

This odd band of detectives—peopled from various nations, languages, and eras—have been my dear literary friends through the years. Some of them smoke, drink, brood, and languish. Others write, pray, study martial arts, or collect antique books. But they all question. They all seek. They all discover.

Alongside the mainstay genres that populate my bookshelves (fiction: classical, literary, international; spiritual writings: theology, spiritual formation, classic texts), you’ll always find a mystery novel on my nightstand. Detective stories and murder mysteries: What place do they have in my life? In my life as a Christian? Why am I drawn to these lords and priests, gumshoes and opium addicts, arm-chair philosophers and chemistry prodigies? Why does this genre hold such sway over me?

While certainly there’s nothing overtly (or even covertly) theological in most of the mystery series I love to read (save the inventive murder mysteries penned by theologians Dorothy L. Sayers and Gilbert K. Chesterton), there is a link between mystery itself and the questions that resonate in my soul.

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 The first audience reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories lived in the fin de siècle—a time when the Western world was changing rapidly. When new, shocking ideas from Darwin, Nietzsche, and others bolstered a popular questioning of—even rejection of—the common notions of meaning, of origins, of humanity, of divinity. A time when (shock! horror!) some “new women” dared to ride bicycles, wear pants, and even cut their hair. A time when—and I can only imagine how strange this shift must have been—streets that used to be dark at night began to be lit by strange bulbs, aglow with wires harnessing electricity.

And so Holmes’ stories became wildly popular for many reasons, including entertainment value, but at an essential, deeper level, in situations that didn’t make any sense, the lanky and arrogant Holmes somehow made sense of it all. In a world ringing with unanswerable questions, Holmes represented for his devoted fans the idea that answers, if sought, could somehow be found.

And this is one of the appeals of the mystery genre for me, too: the idea that hidden behind all the details, the red herrings, the apparently disconnected and seemingly random events of this life and this world, there is meaning. There are clues that point us toward a lasting truth. There are answers to the eternal, human questions. What appears to be chaos actually masks a grand, narrative arc.

But it isn’t just the end of the mystery that appeals—when all whos, whats, wheres, and whys have been uncovered and explained. It is the mystery itself—the in-the-middle, before-the-conclusion, grasping and searching and discerning that draws me.

Because my life often feels a lot like that.

Our life—our common, shared human experience—is a lot like that.

For even in and among the answers and truths we find in God, in faith, in the created world, in the Word of truth . . . are the questions. The haunting questions. The persisting questions. The questions that drive us to hunt, to search, to discover. The questions that may drive us to tears. The questions that may drive us to our knees.

And the questions that, ever unanswered, draw us into wonder.

Faith without questions is dull, formulaic, unappealing—suggesting, somehow that we have all the answers. Presenting God neatly defined in a tidily wrapped box.

But faith with questions still intact—faith interwoven with mystery—draws me. Sustains me. Invigorates me. It’s the faith of the questioners, the skeptics, the wonderers, the criers-out who populate the ancient book. This is the kind of faith that holds sacred the capital-A Answers while tenderly holding the questions, the paradoxes, and the mysteries in balance. It’s a faith not afraid of tension or contradiction or complexity that cannot be easily delineated or summed up in a five-bullet-point sermon. It’s a faith that both intimately knows, and doesn’t even begin to know, our awesome and mysterious God.

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I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately. And I’ve also been dwelling in a place full of faith-related questions lately.

 Some are deeply painful: Why does our young, vibrant friend have cancer? Why are so many suffering in this world? Why are the evil and corrupt given power to control and destroy?

 Others are soul-searching: Where is God showing up in my life right now? When does God seem distant to me? How might I connect with God in ways that are alive and invigorating, rather than stale or rote?

And, of course, there are always the big questions, the grand mysteries. The ones that are both awe-full and awful, tremendous and terrifying. The mysteries of galaxies and black holes and quarks and beating hearts. The mysteries of biology, astronomy, philosophy, and even of theology. The parts of life and thought and love that are shot through with “secret, mystery, hidden meaning.” And the God who, as the hymn writer aptly understood, is “hid from our eyes.”

And so I love mystery. I love to read it, and I love living it. We are all living it. It can be beautiful, engaging, and satisfying. It can be confusing, discouraging, and frightening. But it draws me—it draws us—into something sacred. Into something True. Into the Story we’re crafted to live.








One response to “Essay: On Mystery

  1. It’s refreshing to read a post on the “inner life.” Thank you. I feel like there’s a trend happening right now (or at least I hope so) for bloggers to tell their small stories in light of the One Big, Mysterious, Confusing, Gentle, Redeeming Story. As Frederick Buechner says in his book Telling Secrets: “Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

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