July 11, 2015

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 12, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Photo of Eight-burst Nebula, Courtney Seligman 
(Click here for today’s readings)

One of the members of my La Salette religious community is Father Joe, who just turned 87. We get together often for an afternoon of “tea and computer.” He tells me what, in his insatiable curiosity, he needs to know, and I look it up on my laptop. But the first thing is always a visit to NASA’s website, APOD, i.e. “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” Fr. Joe loves science.

Not rarely we find something like this (from June 7, 2015). “The Eight-Burst Nebula… originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun… Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes… are well understood.” At which point Fr. Joe will say: “In other words, they haven’t got a clue!”

We are meant to understand. That’s why we have a mind. Even children eventually come to realize that “because I’m the Mommy” isn’t a proper answer to “Why?” Things need to make sense, and there are few things more calculated to disturb our peace of mind than not understanding what is happening in our lives. The last answer we want to hear to our questioning is: “It’s a mystery.”

Today my attention has been captured, taken hostage, if you will, even to the exclusion of the Gospel, by a phrase in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “In all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor.” St. Paul often uses the word “mystery,” seventeen times in seven Letters, six times in Ephesians alone.

Usually we say that “mystery” means that we can never fully understand, that we can always go deeper into what is classically known as the “Cloud of Unknowing.”

Some people think science and religion are in conflict, that we have to choose between them. But science and religion have something very important in common. They are both fascinated with mystery.

Science is drawn to mystery. It analyzes, it explains, with the ultimate expectation of eliminating the mystery.

Religion is drawn to mystery for its own sake. Mystery is “made known” or “revealed” as mystery. Yes, theologians and biblical scholars also analyze and explain, but their goal is not to eliminate but illuminate, to help us see the wonder of it all.

It’s not unlike the distinction between prose and poetry. Both can be beautiful, both can be straightforward or “mysterious.” But poetry has the ability to illuminate the truth it expresses in ways that prose simply cannot. When e.e. cummings wrote, “i am a little church(no great cathedral)” and “i am not sorry when sun and rain make april,” he was saying things that could certainly be expressed in prose, but in a way that captures the imagination and takes it well beyond the communication of information, into the realm of… well, mystery.

In the Mass we speak of the “sacred mysteries.” Originally that meant the “secrets,” in particular the rituals practiced by Christians. In the early days of Christianity there were various “mystery religions” in the Roman Empire, and what they had in common was that outsiders were excluded from participation in and even knowledge of their rites. They were like what today we would call “secret societies.” Even in the Knights of Columbus—not a secret society—the “ceremonials” are never to be divulged to non-members.

The term “sacred mysteries” no longer has that exclusive sense, except insofar as, for example, those present who are not Catholic may not (with few exceptions) receive Communion. But for us Catholics, it means precisely that through the Liturgy of the Eucharistic we are admitted into God’s presence in a mysterious way, a way that used commonly to be expressed by the word “ineffable,” usually rendered in modern English as “beyond all telling.”

In a very specific, non-biblical context the Greek word for mystery can be translated as “the heart of the matter.” This brings to mind St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where we read: “And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries… but do not have love, I am nothing.”

The same anonymous English author who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing in the late 1300s also wrote The Book of Privy Counseling. Here he writes, “And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest."

Mystery and the “sacred mysteries” are not about understanding. They are an invitation to experience, to enter into the heart of the matter.

As mentioned at the beginning, people can get annoyed when the best answer we can give to the deeper questions of life or faith is: “It’s a mystery.” They look at you as if to say, “What kind of explanation is that?”

Actually, it’s a good one.

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