Sitting with Mystery

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January 1, 2019 by lucieromarin

People keep posting soundbites about God not being responsible for the evils in the world, and how stupid it is that people who blame God for bad things don’t attribute good things to Him and realise that human beings have free will. The latter point is particularly dismissive of traumatic pain. Of course people have free will, but a father who sat next to his little child while she was assaulted and didn’t lift a finger to help her would be imprisoned along with the rapist. It is no consolation at all to the traumatised girl to be told that the God whose miracles you enjoy describing chose not to work one for her because of His respect for the free will of her rapist. The question, “Where was God?” is, in plenty of cases, neither stupid nor shallow.

We tend to assume that if something doesn’t make sense as a Divine choice it can only be because it wasn’t a Divine choice. If a given situation doesn’t make theological sense, that’s either because God doesn’t exist or because He wasn’t really properly involved in it (just waiting in the background to bring some good out of it).

The assumption underlying both approaches is that God’s decisions must be comprehensible to us to be known or accepted as His. So, the response to incomprehensibility is the erasure of God, either by the denial of His existence or by the denial of any responsibility on His part/the expectation of His obvious presence. This expectation of immediate comprehensibility is what drives some to the relentless search for God’s purpose in the smallest event, because we cannot sit with mystery – we have to see that purpose right now. This assumption is also what makes some Christian apologetic so grating. Why does the same person praise God for finding her a parking spot, and then chide you for a lack of faith when you ask for evidence of His presence in the lives of the children lost to the Shoah? Why does the same person share stories of miracles in the confident expectation that you will convert to her faith upon reading them, and then say ‘Tsk!’ when you ask her why some situations get miracles and others don’t? The answer is that she works from the same assumption as you do (that God’s actions must make sense in order to be real) but she deals with the situations that don’t make sense in a different way.

The thing to remember is that this assumption doesn’t come from God. It doesn’t even come from Christianity. It only comes from some Christians. Very often, it comes from Christian women with a history of scrupulosity. A man will describe his efforts by posting, “Thirty hours working on selection criteria paid off. Interview next week! Deo Gratias!” The woman will write, “By the grace of God alone I finished the selection criteria today and in His mercy He granted me a job interview.” The man does thank God, but he doesn’t deny that he has contributed to his success. Only the woman does that. The man will write, “Found my wedding tux for fifty dollars! Op shops rule! Looking forward to a blessed wedding day.” The woman will write, “God has blessed me with a wedding dress for only fifty dollars! He really took care of me. I’m so blessed.” She won’t mention that she made the same effort to drive round the op-shops as her fiancé did. The man and God are kind of working together, whereas woman was ‘taken care of’ as a helpless dependent. Now, I’m not saying that God didn’t find the wedding dress; it is my habit to think that He did. I’m also not saying we shouldn’t thank God for everything – I myself scurry to my home altar and thank Our Lady for my op-shop finds every time, and I can vouch for gratitude as a rewarding practice. I’m talking here about how we interpret God’s providence, and how we express it to others, and my point is that the specific phenomenon of “Praise-God-for-my-parking-space-but-don’t-question-God’s-role-in-world-peace” is not from God or from Apostolic teaching. Rather, it’s specific to women trained in a) fearing to take credit for anything and b) finding self-worth in male approval, in this case manifested by the blessing of a parking space as a reward for her total dependence. This is why, in situations where things don’t seem to make sense, the same woman has to work so hard to prove that God was not to blame. She, like her atheist interlocutor, has not stopped to ask whether or not God is being blamed for breaking a promise that He never actually made.

In fact, the only times God has anything to say about His actions, His message is quite strongly to the effect that things will never, ever make sense. The entire Book of Job is about the horrible fickleness of fortune, the unrelenting horriblenesses that will happen to you as a believer, and the promise that, if you do ask God for an explanation, His answer is going to be, “Did you make the universe out of nothing? No? Then don’t expect me to explain anything to you!”  You may recall the story of the angel disguised as a child who told St Augustine that trying to understand God was like trying to fit the whole beach in a bucket. You can believe or not believe the story as you like, but the message is pretty clear.

I know this sounds kind of chilling at first, but it actually makes a lot of sense when it’s thought through. For a start, true faith accords with reality. It’s a pretty clear reality that a lot of the time God’s choices do not make an obvious or immediately-graspable sense. Therefore, a religion in which God plainly states, “You’re never going to understand this,” is a lot more truthful than one in which you need to see the secret message buried in every confusing thing, and, moreover, to tell people in breathless terms that you found that secret message and it all totally made sense, so please keep going to church. “It will be too much to grasp in this life” is not a comforting promise, but it is definitely a true one. Second, this is a lot more consistent with real relationships. Forget God for a moment and think about your relationships with human beings. If you’re married to a psychologist or counsellor, you have to accept that your spouse’s conversations in private practice will always be kept from you, so that the very mother or father of your children will have professional secrets in which you can have no part. People who have been married for forty years get surprised by things their spouses suddenly do.  Work with a toddler for a few months and you will be constantly surprised by the workings of that child’s imagination and the pronouncements that come out of his or her mouth. The tonne of research done into why some people crack under immense psychological pressure and become torturers while others don’t is precisely because we don’t know why any of this behaviour is so. Where is the obvious explanation for your bosses’ grandiose narcissism? Relationships are not completely opaque, but they are constantly surprising, changing, developing, and by turns illuminating and obscure. If our own spouses, children, neighbours and co-workers are thus why would we expect any less of our relationship with God? If I have no idea why my husband, after forty years resisting the wearing of hats, suddenly went out and bought a hat, why in Heaven’s name would I pronounce authoritatively about God’s thoughts on world peace? I am completely dependent upon my landlords for my apartment, and I know that they exist – yet I don’t even know how they look, much less where they live, if they have family, if they’re happy, what their plans are for this property I rent, what kind of health they’re in and how that might affect my renting, if they have holiday or retirement plans, or if even if they’re still working. Understanding God’s actions in the lives of others? I know so little about my own life! There’s no shame in this. Our Lady, who was perfect, was closer to Our Lord than any other creature ever would or could be, and who raised Him, was still surprised by His choices in His twelfth year. She didn’t guess first off that He would go to the Temple. Why, then, would we expect to understand His choices?

A large part of that frustration, then, comes not from who God is, but from false expectations given to us about Him. I do not mean that we have to always stagger about in blindness or stop believing in reality or objective truth. I don’t even mean to deny that He found you that parking space. I do mean that it’s better to approach a relationship with Him as it really is, rather than as false piety would have it. St Paul tells us that we see through a glass darkly. In other words, we are told that the relationship in this life is not entirely opaque, but we are also explicitly told that it is never going to be entirely clear. I don’t offer this as comfort. I don’t have the faintest clue where God was when you were being abused. But I also don’t think He’s is going to give me your answers, a) because He’s already told me to expect to be baffled, b) because I think He wants a relationship with you just as much as He wants one with me, and whatever those answers are, they are the privilege of your relationship with him, not mine. Mystery and reality aren’t opposed. To decide that it’s okay to sit with the mystery is a real choice.

Like my landlords, God has given me a home, a country, a world, a reality, which is full of holes.  (Seriously, never mind the bloody trauma; I don’t even know where the fruit-flies in my kitchen come from). Like my landlords, He sometimes fixes things straight away and sometimes leaves them broken for a while; sometimes asks more rent of me and sometimes blesses (yes, I said it!) me with a bit of breathing space. My landlords communicate with me when it suits them to do so; He is the same. Like my landlords He is more mystery than anything else, and yet, from that mysterious relationship has come every beautiful moment that I’ve shared here with friends, or alone with the Office or with hook and thread; from that mysterious relationship has been given the space for study, for much-needed sleep, for creative work. I can’t imagine how many decisions were needed how far back in time for my flat to be available when it was. I don’t even know when it was built. I don’t know who planted the dying roses in the car-park but I do choose to tend to them. And I also don’t know why some children were abused and some people die in a mudslide and some escape North Korea while others don’t. In summary, I don’t know why anything happens, but I know that my great Counsellor must necessarily have some secrets from me. I also know that I don’t have to lie to Him when that hurts. Seriously, God isn’t your mean dad or your narcissistic boss. He can tell when you’re covering up your true feelings to please Him. He wants a real relationship, not a fake one. Be honest with Him! He can take it!


ps I just had a liturgical thought. Is this expectation of the comprehensibility of God’s actions more common in the era of the New Mass, when immediate comprehensibility of the vernacular in worship was supposed to help us understand Him? In the ages when people worshipped in Latin and didn’t expect to know what all the worship meant, were they also more okay with God’s mysterious behaviour in this life? How do Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox compare on this point? I imagine the answer would be mixed in with the influence of the Protestant vernacular on Western Christian thought. It would be interesting to find out.


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