An Evangelical friend of mine we’ll call Tom, was engaging me in debate some time ago, and whenever he raised an argument he thought particularly convincing he would ask me to explain and add, “But maybe it’s just a mystery.” So, for example, he’d say, “Tell me Dwight, how do you explain the use of indulgences? Can a Catholic priest really take away a certain number of years from purgatory for a dead person, or is it just a mystery?”
It was hard to debate with Tom because his basic assumptions were so un-Catholic to start with. First of all he was assuming that indulgences could not possibly have a rational explanation because they were a non-Biblical Catholic invention. Secondly, he was operating with some pretty deep and negative assumptions about the Catholic priesthood itself. Thirdly, he was, at base level, suspicious of any kind of sacramental system at all, and finally, his mindset simply couldn’t allow for mystery. Because Tom was a thoroughly Protestant modern man, conditioned by the assumptions of the ‘enlightenment’ he assumed that everything ought to have, should have and could have, an explanation.
Tom was annoyed by the Catholic reliance on ‘mystery’ almost as if we used the concept on purpose to slip out of any arguments that got too close for comfort. When he pressed a Catholic on say, transubstantiation, and they finally said, “Well, in the end, it’s a mystery.” Tom felt cheated. His quarry was within his grasp and the slippery fellow pulled out a secret trick and got away.
But of course ‘mystery’ is a deeply Biblical term for the faith. In Romans, but especially in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians St Paul speaks of the ‘mystery’ that is hidden from before the dawn of time that it revealed in Christ, and is unlocked by the Church. From the beginning the word ‘mystery’ was also used by the Church to speak of the sacraments. We still speak of the Eucharist as ‘the Holy Mysteries’.
Instead of being a vague way for Catholics to slip out of uncomfortable arguments, we mean that a mystery is something greater than we can explain. Someone has said, “A mystery is something that can be experienced, but not explained.” For the Catholic the greatest things about the faith cannot be explained with a theory or a watertight dogma. The words we have and the rational concepts we use are never more than indicators and feeble explanations for something far greater than we can explain.
The best analogy for our understanding of ‘mystery’ is Love. Try to imagine that an alien creature has no concept or understanding or experience of Love. Then try to explain what Love is, and try to get him to understand that Love is the most sublime thing in the universe, indeed, it is the only thing worth living for and the only thing that will last forever.
I guarantee, you will be tongue tied. You will also begin to understand what we mean by ‘mystery’.