Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Virtue of Mystery

NASA's Hubble Universe in 3-DImage by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via

Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom, for true wisdom has two sides.

Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

"Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave —what can you know?
(Job 11:5-8)

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Duet. 29:29)

Pouring the Sea into a Hole

Augustine labored for 15 years to write his book about the nature of God (On the Trinity). After he had completed it, one day as he went for a walk on the shore of the north coast of Africa, he came upon a boy. The boy was filling his bucket with seawater and then pouring it into a big hole in the sand. Augustine asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m pouring the (Mediterranean) Sea into the hole.” Augustine said, “My dear boy, what an impossible thing to try to do!” Then Augustine realized that his book was like the boy's effort: to write a book on the nature of God was too vast and his mind too small.

One writer advised that when one is at the ocean, don’t be preoccupied with the vendors, the crowds, the amusements on the boardwalk, but rather, look to the mystery of the sea

“The mystery of the sea is only the most obvious example of the mystery of all nature. For not only the sea but all nature contains a mystery: why does it fascinate us so?” (Peter Kreeft, “The Sea Within”)

A mystery is something that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding. It’s an enigma. I’m finding it important in my life and ministry to savor the mystery. One part of delighting in mystery is giving up the control that I desire.

The Mystery of the Universe

I have recently enjoyed an interview with two Jesuit astronomers. Guy Consolmagno is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory and George Coyne, is president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. They are the only two living men who have had asteroids named after them. I was caught up at they reflected on the vastness of the universe and it’s meaning to their religious faith.

“In modern times . . . in just the past two decades, we knew the universe was expanding. We marveled at the fact that it was expanding at just such a rate that it was on the borderline or expanding forever or collapsing. Just on the borderline. That itself is a marvel . . .. Of all the possibilities it was right on the edge. Within the past ten years, with very accurate observation of distant quasars we now know very well that the universe is not only expanding, but that it is accelerating in it expansion.”

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? — Job 38: 31

Because 13 billion years is too large for humans minds to appreciate, George Coyne made a chart of history of the universe reduced to one calendar year.

In one of his lectures, Father Coyne talked about the Hubble photographs, and how they expand our knowledge of the universe.

There have been three different Hubble project. The first was HDF (Hubble Deep Field) in the northern hemisphere and the second was HDF in the southern. The third was the HUDF (Hubble Ultimate Deep Field), which is the deepest image of the universe ever taken and it will be used to search for galaxies that existed between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang

The field imaged contains over 10,000 objects, the majority of which are galaxies,”

"Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?

They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave —what can you know?”

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” --Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The vastness of the universe is cause for awe and greater appreciation of the mystery of the universe. Guy Consolmagno spoke about the humbling awareness of our ignorance: “To the point where 75% of the universe, we now calculate, is made up of stuff that we didn’t even know existed years ago.”

With the vastness of the universe comes it uncertainty. George Coyne comments: “From the very uncertainty principle, there is built into the universe a certain uncertainty.” He speaks about he calls the “virtue of ignorance.”

“It’s exciting to be ignorant. I think our ignorance in pursuing science has something to do with the whole idea of the uncertainties involved in a relationship with God that I call faith . . . Every morning I wake up I have my doubts; I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow, because faith is love. Love … is not something that there once and for all. Ignorance in doing science creates the excitement in doing science. Anyone who does it knows that discoveries lead to further ignorance.”

Guy Consolmagno adds: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” We know that out understanding of the universe is incomplete, and we know that our understanding of God is incomplete. (So then, theology is faith seeking understanding.)

Professor of Mathematical physic at Cambridge, John Polkinghorne speaks of the wonder of the universe:

“ . . . those who investigate the cosmos are given the experience of wonder at the marvelous patterns revealed to them, a gift that comes as a reward for all the demanding labour of research.” (“A Scientist looks at the Epistle to the Hebrews,” John Polkinghorne, Queens' College, Cambridge, p. 2)

George Coyne: “The Universe participates in the mystery of God.”

Whoever has made this universe has a great sense of humor, because you are constantly being surprised by what you find. All these agree that realizing that we do not know is something to take delight in. If we had all the answers we would have nothing left to do. It would be a terrible universe, as Guy puts it

“In the presence of this mystery, we are no longer in a position of control where we can manage or master the subject . . ..” (Seamands, p. 103)

In our ignorance or limitation we can enjoy the awe of the mystery of life.

The Mystery We Are

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13,14 ESV)

Andrew Solomon (author of “The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression): “It seems to me that who other people are is always mysterious. What I realized in the wake of depression is that who I am is fully mysterious to me. And since I don’t fully know it, I can’t fully comprehend it, there has to be some kind of mystical element in it and some element that’s obviously present and yet beyond my comprehension.”

Solomon was able to cope with depression on some level by valuing what he could not understand in himself as part of the mystery of life. It may be as Oscar Wilde writes: "The final mystery is oneself."

I recently attended a teleconference on “Living with Grief” one of the speakers shared that we as caregivers engage the awe of death. We, as companions, participate with the dying and their families in something that is beyond our understanding.

I’m impressed that life and faith are not about the degree of knowledge or certitude I possess. It is not about my capacity to repair. It is about respecting others in grief, joy, pain, and life journey. There in the struggle I have been surprised by the mystery – where I touched something greater than myself.

The Mystery of God’s Love

. . . to know this love that surpasses knowledge – Eph 3:19

One of the greatest mysteries is the love of God. This imponderable love is expressed to us in many ways. It is most clearly expressed through Christ who in mercy forgives and heals us. God expressed his love for us so profoundly when he sent His Son to be our Savoir. I find the love of God in Christ a wonderful mystery – like the wonder and awe I experience looking up at a starry night.

Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin. – Job 11:6

I was asked by a parent to talk to his two little about their grandparent’s death. They asked me what happens when people die. They asked me what Heaven would be like. I felt inadequate for their questions. The questions they asked were bigger than me. How do I explain the vast mysteries of God to such hungry little hearts? But I could find virtue in ignorance and uncertainty. I still could speak about awe and mystery. I told them I don’t exactly know what happens when people die because I have never died before. However, I shared some of the beautiful places I have seen on the earth. I then asked them to think of the most picturesque place they have seen. Then I offered my guess: that if the next world was anything like this one, so filled with awe, beauty and wonder, it would be a wonderful place, filled with splendor and mystery. Together in our questions we found virtue and comfort in mystery.

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