“Sin and grace and forgiveness and love and mercy and hell and heaven are all mysteries. If they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding.”
I love those words by the great American writer, Flannery O’Connor. They speak to me about the role mystery plays in matters of faith.
We live in a culture that has grown uncomfortable with mystery. We are rational people and we want answers and certainty. We want everything explained. Even things that are advertised as mysteries aren’t, really. We may enjoy reading a mystery novel, but in the end, we want to know who did it.
Mystery has never much bothered me. Maybe it was early exposure to Alfred Hitchcock and "The Twilight Zone" as a kid, but I like the mysterious. I don’t need all the questions answered. Sometimes friends will express their frustration to me about a book or movie that ends without a tidy explanation, one that ends in mystery. “I hated that ending!” they’ll say. “They didn’t tell us what happened!” Me, I’m okay with it.
I didn’t really understand for a long time, but it was the absence of mystery that kept me away from organized Christianity for many years. Like people often do, I left the church in my late teens – pretty sure that I was the center of the universe.
By my mid-30s, when it started to become clear that I wasn’t, I began to feel a spiritual pull back to my Christian roots. I tried lots of different churches and denominations, but I was a poor fit. I often got the feeling that churches wanted me to profess a certainty about faith that I couldn’t give. It felt a bit like an arranged marriage to me, like I was being asked and expected to fall in love, and declare that I was, with someone I didn’t really know.The possibility was there but I needed some time to get acquainted. Coming to faith, it seems to me, is like falling in love – you can’t will it to take place. There is mystery in it, and people didn’t seem to want to give me the space to let mystery happen. Eventually, I gave up looking for a church, but I didn’t give up looking for God.
It has been said that sometimes we may not find God until we end up in the wilderness. Driving by Church of the Holy Communion one Sunday evening in 2004, that’s where my life was, deep in the wilderness. Some heartbreaking events had recently occurred for me that I felt powerless to control, and I was on the brink of despair, driving around, wondering if life as I knew it was over. As I happened to pass by the church, a church I’d gone by hundreds of times without noticing, I saw a sign out front that read “Celtic Evensong Tonight at 5:30.”
It was shortly before 5:30 and, for reasons I can’t explain, my car turned into the church parking lot. I knew nothing about the Episcopal Church. I didn’t know what Evensong was, but I got out of my car, went into the church and sat down in a pew, waiting in the quiet for things to begin.
If I could really explain what happened next, it wouldn’t be a mystery, but I will describe it this way: Sitting there in the candlelit silence of that service, with its beautiful Celtic music and contemplative prayers, I was overcome with a sense that I was in the presence of something profoundly sacred. I felt, for the first time in my life, the absolute presence of God, a presence that filled me with a peace that I had never known before – a peace that told me that somehow, everything was going to be okay.
When the service ended, I sat in the pew for a long time, washed over by a sense of calm. As I was getting ready to leave, I read some words in the church bulletin that were transformative: “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, we’re glad you’re here.”
Those were exactly the words I needed. An invitation to a church where I wasn’t expected to be in the same place spiritually as everyone else, a place where no profession of certainty was required of me in order to worship there, a place where I could simply rest my soul, a place with space for mystery. I knew from everything that I had just experienced, that I was home.
So life as I had known it was over, and thankfully so. My wife, Kendra, and I have called Holy Communion home since that evening 10 years ago and our lives have not been the same since. We found a church community that has helped us grow in our Christian faith, individually and together, in ways we could have never imagined in our previous lives. We thank God each and every day for the mystery and grace that brought us to this place.
There’s a song by singer/songwriter Iris Dement that I’ve loved forever. In it, she describes the anxiety and need for answers that people have about life’s big questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? She sings that people have come up with all sorts of possibilities, but she thinks it’s folly to try and know for certain. She is comfortable not having all the answers and simply tries to live a life guided by love:
“I believe in love and I live my life accordingly – I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”
Amen to that, Iris.
Robert Propst is a personal trainer, a runner, a reader, a movie-loving music man, a Christian, a sinner, a traveling lover of food and the St. Louis Cardinals, who is saved by Grace and fortunate enough to be married to a beautiful woman named Kendra.