The Catholic religion is full of mystery — the mystery of God. This mystery is not a human puzzle that a Sherlock Holmes can “solve” by the force of brilliant deductions. Nor is it the type of enigma that can be understood only by an intellectual elite. The ancient world was full of “mystery religions” of that type. But the Church has always understood mystery in a very different way.
The Christian idea of mystery is that God makes Himself known in certain ways (primarily through natural science and the truths of faith) but that He is so beyond our limited human powers of understanding that we will never comprehend Him fully. Therefore, we can say that our religion is “mystical” but not that it is a secret, mystery religion. There is a great need for reflection, study and prayer in penetrating this mystery, but there will always be something “hidden” in Catholicism that can only be revealed or, better, unveiled by God through the power of His grace.
The Mystery is Veiled
The idea that a mystery is hidden behind a veil is confirmed in various ways in our life of faith. The tabernacles in our parishes hold the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ – the greatest and most profound of all sacred mysteries. These tabernacles are usually veiled, aren’t they? A parish tabernacle reflects a more ancient veiled structure that accompanied the Children of Israel on their journey through the desert: that Tabernacle was said to be the place where God made His Presence known to the people (cf. Ex 25:23-30). When the Jewish Temple was built, it was constructed in such a way that its inner recesses could only be entered by passing through several successive chambers, each covered by a curtain or veil (Heb 9:1-10), symbolizing the concept of gradual revelation that is essential in coming to understand a mystery.
And here is the true meaning of religious mystery: it is something real, something that can be studied, something knowable to a great degree, but yet unknowable in its fullness.
Children Can Grasp Mystery
That lesson came home to me while teaching a catechism lesson to 7th graders some years ago in my parish. We were reading the story of the Annunciation and meditating on the mystery of Mary’s Yes to God. Mary’s faith and trust allowed God to enter the world in a new way. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” says the Prologue of John’s Gospel, to put the mystery in succinct terms. But I found it hard to explain to a group of adolescents how the divinity could enter a woman’s body and become a pregnancy. Largely defeated in that effort, I moved on to the following story of the Visitation where Mary leaves her home and travels across the hill country of Judea to bring this message of salvation to her cousin, Elizabeth.
That was when the mystery leaped out at me, so to speak. We know the story. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk 1:41-42).
The Mystery Unfolds
Inspired by a flash of insight, I challenged the kids to tell me how many people there are in this biblical scene. One girl raised her hand immediately and said, “Two. Mary and Elizabeth!” She was thinking only of the adults in the story. “You are only partially right,” I told her. “Keep looking.”
Another girl raised her hand and said, “Three! The two women and the baby who jumped in the womb.” I applauded her answer because she recognized the unborn child as a person, but she was still only partially right. “Don’t forget that John the Baptist is not the only baby in this story,” I chided gently. That caused a slew of hands to go up and generated a consensus opinion was that there were actually four people in the picture, Mary, Elizabeth, the unborn John the Baptist and the unborn Jesus! “Bravo! You guys are really smart,” I said. “But unfortunately you are still missing something.” I was pleased, though, that the mystery was gradually opening up for them.
The Mystery of Persons
The kids settled down from their momentary triumph and tried to grasp what I was saying. They were thinking too materially, as kids do, so I tried to expand their understanding a bit. I spurred them on with a clarification. “Let’s suppose,” I said, “that instead of using the word ‘people’ I used the word ‘persons’. How many ‘persons’ are in this biblical story? Would that change the picture for you?”
One kid got it. “If Jesus is there, then the Father and the Holy Spirit have to be there too, right?” Bingo. Mystery revealed.
Through our reflection on the biblical evidence, we discovered a total of six “persons” in the scene of the Visitation: Our Lady, her cousin Elizabeth, the unborn John the Baptist, and the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Second Person of Whom was present as a human embryo. I could have pressed the issue by identifying the invisible Guardian Angels as other persons at the scene, but that would have derailed my discussion into too much mystery at once. We left the correct answer at two mothers, two babies, one of Whom overlapped with the three Persons of the Indwelling Blessed Trinity. That seemed to work for a gaggle of seventh graders, who now seemed slightly more engaged in their faith.
The Hiddenness of Babies and the Mystery of God
The discussion that followed was equally revealing. Pedagogy is an art, which I certainly have not perfected but which sometimes develops spontaneously from the subject itself. Suddenly I found myself on an excursion with the students from the visible to the invisible in a matter of minutes and all the essential truths of faith and life came pouring out like a river of light.
Through the Visitation story the students were able to “see” that unborn babies are actually persons and that they count in our world as legitimate members of the human family, even though they are hidden. The unborn, unseen John made his presence known through his prophetic “leap” in his mother’s womb and John’s leap was itself a recognition that the even tinier unborn Jesus was there, deeply hidden, a full Person in His own right despite His size.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Nowadays we put a great deal of faith in medical “signs” – pregnancy tests, ultrasound scans, etc. – to manifest to us things that we cannot see with our eyes, and we tend to automatically accept the scientific evidence as proof of the invisible. It occurred to me that the lesson about a human being who is so small as to be invisible to the naked eye but who is really, really there will serve them well in a world that dehumanizes babies in the womb with deceptive terms like “fetus”, “blob of tissue” and “product of conception”. That day the students learned that certain things of great value can remain hidden in plain sight.
The lesson then moved on from scientific truth to spiritual truth where literally everything is hidden. We learned that wherever Jesus was physically present in His human nature, the entire Trinity is present in Person, so to speak. That truth led to a discussion of Mary as the “first tabernacle” of the Eucharist, as Pope John Paul II called her in his 2002 encyclical Rosarium Virginis, and an appreciation of the role that the Virgin Mary played in our salvation, which, we concluded, was far from marginal. She was the first person in history to hold God in her body, and for that she received the title of “God-bearer” from one of the earliest Church councils. I noted that she was the first but not the last person to receive Christ into her body: we do it every time we receive Communion at Mass – another “aha” moment for the students.
Mystery Further Unveiled
The river of life and light flowed on and it seemed to me that the kids were getting a condensed version of a dogmatic theology course in one catechism class. How delightful! Our discussion ranged from the Incarnation to the Indwelling Trinity to the Hypostatic Union and the Theotokos (“God-bearer”) without having used any of those terms. In one short lesson a bunch of seventh graders actually deepened their understanding of a world that would be incomplete and hopelessly flat, colorless, and dismal without its spiritual dimension.
For a brief hour we plumbed a great mystery layer by layer. The two mothers were visible and verifiable to our senses. Both of the two babies were unseen but still identifiable to a deeper inquiry. And three Divine Persons, the most real of all the persons in the story, were totally invisible and unverifiable except through the light of faith. I asked each of them to decide at what level of reality they wanted to live – superficial, partial, or full reality. It is a question that even most adults have not asked themselves.
A Deeper Mystery
We had finally achieved a level of engagement rarely witnessed with adolescents apart from their Instagram accounts. Then the bell rang. We had to stop short of seeking answers to the deeper mystery of God’s infinite love for us. But it was okay to leave the discussion open. I was grateful that the students learned much and went away with even more to ponder.
My takeaway from the class: our religion can teach us a great deal about God and His world but we can never know everything. It is one way that God humbles us before His Majesty. Yet, when we take the time to look at the mystery with the eyes of faith – lo and behold! All of reality is teeming with hidden life.