Remaining Alive to the Enigma of Life

“I WOULD NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, WANNA BE YOUNG AGAIN!” – So goes the refrain of a song that I cannot quote at length on a family-friendly website. But that lyric will suffice; at any rate, it sums up my own feeling about having turned 30 last October. I do not lament getting older, or long for the past. I am frankly glad to be done with it!

That is, of course, just one side of the coin. I am grateful for my youth, including the years I spent as a fairly strong atheist; for there is grace, somehow, in everything (even if we are blind or resistant to it at the time). I am grateful for the conversion that brought me to Christ at age 21, and for the years in which I began to learn his ways. I am thankful for the friends I have kept from my younger years; and thankful, too, even for those who are estranged: for we remain joined, somehow, and one may hope that anything truly good and beautiful, even if it came to grief in time and history, will exist in some form in eternity.

All of this, however, does not prevent me from feeling pleased with the thought that I am now not so much a “young man” as simply a “man.”

And yet, there is at least one part of my youth that I feel compelled to hold onto and keep alive. It is something difficult to describe: a feeling, a sense, that dominated my adolescence.

This singular feeling is twofold: on the one hand, one experiences a sense of deep mystery and elusive significance, which is extremely strong but has no clear origin or end-point in the objects of immediate experience (all of which prove to be at best partial-fulfillments, and clues pointing “elsewhere”). And in response to this sense of mysterious significance, one feels a great eagerness and curiosity: an enthusiasm that takes many forms, but is never exhausted by any particular interest or subject-area.

This may seem complex; but I am describing a common experience: the experience of being engaged and drawn by “the world’s mystique” (as an artist of my acquaintance has aptly called it). It is as though the world held a great secret, and were perpetually on the verge of revealing it. And one wants – though perhaps not fully consciously – to live for the sake of chasing after this secret that is everywhere suggested and nowhere disclosed.

*

This sense of life is not exclusive to the young, though we often experience it most vividly in youth. My adolescence was difficult, but it was also a time when I encountered the world as an immense, intriguing mystery.

I chased after the world’s mystique: in music, books, films; in friendships, infatuations, romances, garage-bands; in subcultures, ideologies, traditions. In the bazaar of Western consumer culture, I wore and discarded successive outward identities and inward self-concepts that seemed to reflect this Great Secret. And I fought against anything that seemed to obscure it: for was it not, even in its quicksilver-elusiveness, the very meaning of life . . . ?

The story of these searches could be summed up simply: I found the object of my desire everywhere, and I never found it at all.

In a certain sense, I have chased “the world’s mystique” all the way to the monastery I have joined, though I have no illusion of capturing it here. I know now that you cannot capture it; it is, if anything, the other way around.

But I intend to hold onto this sense of mystery and intrigue – because it is not just an adolescent fantasy, or a relic of my previous unbelief. It is, in some sense, a response to how the world actually is.

Though it is perhaps seldom discussed, this experience of “the world’s mystique” is not rare. It is universal – so much so that it may even be regarded as our most basic orientation and desire, and the underlying reason why anyone experiences the whole of life as meaningful or worthwhile.

In one sense, this finite, passing world cannot contain its own comprehensive meaning: “The sense of the world must lie outside the world,” in Wittgenstein’s words. Yet in another sense, this meaning cannot be absent from the world, if it is truly to be “the sense” – the all-encompassing Logos – of that very world. Rather, it must be understood also as omnipresent within the whole and every part.

This is part of what one affirms when the Sanctus is sung in church, as we profess that even the earth is “full of God’s glory.” And it is also what one affirms, albeit very differently, by simply getting up in the morning and attending to one’s duties – trusting that they are meaningful in the fullest sense (and not only subjectively), in spite of everything.

All of this is so, because God – the absolute Mystery, always more unknown than known – simply is the world’s meaning, and not merely the extrinsic, “external” source of what meaning it happens to have. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). The world does not exhaust God’s infinitude; yet God is ever-present in the world – precisely as the world’s deepest, most incomprehensible significance.

Life’s mystery and its meaning are thus the same reality, considered under different aspects. And to encounter life’s meaning and mystery, even dimly, is to encounter God. This is so even if one does not realize it, or cannot relate his experience to the idea of “God” as he understands it. It is likewise true even when a person’s idea of God is flawed in some way: God remains the ultimate meaning – and the inexhaustible mystery – of such a person’s life; and the encounter with his life’s authentic significance is still an experience of God.

I made many mistakes in my youth. But I know I was also seeking the Great Secret: that secret which is the true significance of one’s own life and of all life, the Ultimate Reality and Meaning who “dwells in unapproachable light and yet is not far from each one of us.”

*

Of course, to speak about one’s youthful – and atheistic – encounter with “the world’s mystique,” is to prompt the question: “For the adult who has come to believe in Christ (and thus, in the Church, and in all her dogmas), does such a feeling still even exist? Is the world still really so ‘mysterious,’ for the man who professes the Creed?”

But here I must insist, as strongly as possible, that faith in Jesus Christ does not abolish or “tame” the mystery of life. The world’s mystique persists – and it will not disappear in the world to come, nor should we want it to.

In this connection, we must recall that faith – even a faith in harmony with reason, the kind of faith the Church insists uponis still faith in a Mystery, faith in the God who transcends all finitude. It must be emphasized, too, that the created world bears a resemblance to its knowable-yet-unfathomable Creator, and that this world is always experienced by us (consciously or not) as a revelation of his Mystery.

Many Christians – especially in our age of intellectual confusion – are reluctant to speak of God’s Mystery, and of the world as a mysterious realm that reflects the nature of its Creator. Understandably, they prefer to focus on the ways in which God has made himself known: above all, in Jesus Christ, “in Whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead” (Col. 2:9). They prefer to speak, likewise, about the ways in which the world is intelligible – particularly in its moral order.

All of this is true; and yet, even the Incarnation does not extinguish the Divine Mystery. Christ’s humanity and divinity are as distinct as they are united; and while the latter is known through the former, the Divine Nature still remains “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible” (as the Byzantine Liturgy reminds us). God can be known, through reason and revelation; but this knowledge is the initiation into an ever-greater field of mystical un-knowing. “For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them” (Lateran IV).

For some time after my religious conversion, I made the mistake of living as though the world were no longer mysterious. I put the world’s mystique behind me, focusing on what could be known about the world through reason and Catholic doctrine.

However, without changing my beliefs, I was forced to change my perspective. In a time of darkness, I realized that my younger self – despite his ignorance and immaturity – had some important things right. My interest in the world’s mysterious beauty, in the strange evocativeness of things, in life’s inexplicable harmonies and dissonances: that was not wrong.

I had misconstrued the enigma of life, as an atheist; I had sought illicit and false forms of initiation into that mystery. But my fundamental interest was valid: it was not simply a product of my lack of faith, nor did it need to disappear with the advent of that faith.

Even when it is seen accurately – in the light of reason and faith – the world is an unfathomable mystery, a labyrinth of never-fully-decipherable signs and symbols.

At times, this is a hard truth to bear. On a deeper level, however, it is a beautiful and hopeful fact. The world’s mystery is a creaturely reflection of the supreme, infinitely greater Mystery, the Holy Trinity.

If we truly saw God in all things, and all things in God, the things of this world would not simply gain coherence. I think they would appear to us as both more and less comprehensible in different respects – in some ways, more radically incomprehensible than even my former Nietzschean atheism could have posited. “For all knowledge of what can be fathomed is simply a clearing away of hindrances that block our view of the unfathomable, incomprehensible mystery” (Fr. Karl Rahner).

In one sense, we will (thankfully!) never be “young again.” But the source of an eternal youth is always with us – because the Great Secret of our existence reaches out to us continually, drawing us into His mystery, silently posing the question: “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15).

“I’m the world’s mystique, I am the words you speak
I am language, I am hidden memories that you seek
I am the sun before you see me rise – I burn still when you close your eyes
I am the soul that never dies when flesh is weak

I am inside of you, in spite of you,
With strength and sacred grace
But for all you do, I’ll carry you now
From this bitter place.”

(ThouShaltNot, “Inside Of You, in Spite of You”)

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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  • Louis Oliver Bruchez

    An excellent and wonderful piece! This poetically, beautifully, philosophically, etc. captures my mind, narrow as it is, and is still at work within my heart, hard as it is. Thank You, Brother Ben!

  • chrisb

    This is a profound and beautiful reflection. It reminds me of the journey of Holly Ordway in “Not God’s Type”, in which she tries to move from atheism to Christianity and eventually to Catholicism through the use of reason alone, but experiences an overwhelming sense of “the Other” during this search for truth. Many thanks, Benjamin, for this and for your other fine writings.

  • noelfitz

    When one reaches 30 is one no longer young? I may have retarded development as I am 75
    this year and I am trying to learn what it is all about, but I hope I am
    enthusiastic about learning and advancing.

    My path was science. This is perhaps a better way to get to the mystery of things than the arts, including
    literature and music. Perhaps the best way of all is through religion.

    I agree there is a mystery in things. Was it St Thomas Aquinas who
    said we cannot know what God is, only what he is not? Is there not great agnosticism in St Thomas?

    “Great is the mystery of our religion”.

    PS: Chrisb, I do not think one can reach Catholicism by reason alone, without God’s grace. NF.

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