On Mystery

In November, Jack and I made our second pilgrimage to Tintern Abbey. Like the William Wordsworth poem inspired by the ruins suggests, Tintern reminds us of how we have grown and the spiritual tonics we need to flourish in the world. During our visit, the Abbey was wrapped in autumnal mist. It was a day of cool British weather, which I have learned soothes the soul. Sunlight rips days open, but fog offers refuge.

The museum was nearly empty, which gave us time to wander the grounds slowly hand in hand, imagining what life had once inhabited each section of the monastic ruins: the medicinal herbs in the former garden, the remnants of the kitchen fire, what old books might have lined the library shelves, the monks at morning prayer.

I could not help but look over my shoulder every few minutes, as though the ghosts of the devoted departed were watching and blessing us from the Abbey’s stone corners. As we moved from former room to former room, it felt as though the veil between this world and the next was as thin as the mist, as though wisdom could be grasped and held.

The wet, cold air formed cocoons like auras around us, and within the few hours we spent roaming, the Abbey revealed its yearly gift for us: this time, a reminder of the comforting, ever present mystery that pervades our beautiful, messy, deeply human lives. Tintern is holy ground, consecrated by centuries of prayers whispered by many kinds of pilgrims.

Our task-laden lives make seeing the mystery of life difficult. Coupled with rushed commutes, endless barrages of screens, and “truth” valued narrowly and concretely, it is easy to become trapped in thinking there is nothing real beyond what we can see, touch, and measure. We can easily forget to find the stillness that begets clarity and the quiet that makes seeing the presence of mystery possible.

Contemporary culture makes mystery the enemy of progress and progress the Holy Grail, which can leave us feeling lonely and empty. Questions that confront temporality, mortality, and suffering, joy, meaning, and love, are left unanswered and unexplored. The discoveries of medicine, physics, and technology are to be celebrated, sometimes cherished, but pills, epigenetics, the Boson particle, cryptocurrency, and facial recognition software do not provide answers to the most pressing and most ancient questions. These discoveries often instead highlight the limits of modern thought and challenge the absence of virtue in public life. We develop technology before we are collectively ready to handle it and before we have considered its consequences.

We live in an environment that edges out mystery to make us feel comfortable, but by doing so, makes us numb. We pave concrete over mystery. The light of buildings is so harsh it draws curtains over the stars. In a world that seems like everything can be made by human minds and hands alone, we do not have to reckon with our smallness or our temporariness. Modernity offers alienation as comfort, but alienation freezes us in fear, stunting the individual and collective possibilities for spiritual flourishing.

Since coming to divinity school, I have been pushed to confront beliefs I had wrapped around myself like a warm blanket. I had become so accustomed to the temperature, to coping with a barrier around me, that I hadn’t realized what studying philosophy, theology, and ethics intensively would do to my sense of spiritual safety and certitude. From the second week of class, it proved impossible to take certain moral and spiritual claims for granted. Belief as comfort evolved into belief as raw material. Faith became like clay to be cut, manipulated, or scrapped. Theological questions now frame my life purposefully, a mix of doubt and intuition. The melancholy doubt casts as its shadow will lift sometime soon, I hope.

When I arrived at Yale for orientation, a professor advised me, “By design, divinity school will deconstruct your worldview. It will be up to you to build your foundation again.” This was sage advice, but it is easier to think about the deconstruction of faith than to experience it. On the days when I am in New Haven, and I find myself in conversations that split hairs about biblical history or go on for hours about epistemologies that are simultaneously radically evident and yet non-existent, I feel untethered. My thoughts spin until I am too tired for further spiritual renovation.

There is a principle in the Eastern Orthodox tradition that God dwells in darkness, meaning not that God inherently dark, but that God appears to be shrouded in darkness to humanity. It stipulates that human beings cannot grasp God’s true nature or the nature of reality itself from within human thought structures.

Spend an hour questioning the possibility of eternal life or the existence of the soul or the intersection of God’s omnipotence, creation and providence, and the question of evil in the world and life will feel edgeless. The scope of the universe will feel overwhelming, and the world will feel threatening, unknowable. Suffering will feel painfully specific. However, sitting with questions grown from contradiction bloom into nuance.

Revisiting Tintern Abbey provided a block in the new spiritual foundation I am building. Breathing the crisp British air and imagining the whole world that existed in the Abbey hundreds of years before, I thought, Oh my God. Life is so much more mysterious than we remember. When life is quieter, when I slow down enough to notice beauty and mystery, I begin to feel a presence, a sense of love on the other side of the veil, an inexplicable grace waiting to flood material life. Mess and mystery bleed into one another. The Abbey reminds me of the inheritance of lives well considered. When the veil between heaven and earth feels thinner to me, I remember what gives life meaningful dimension.

The architecture of our modern lives is crumbling because we forget the lineages, not just of our ancestors, but also of all the human beings who have led simultaneously common and extraordinary lives. We forget the people who came before us, who had to reckon with their limits, who looked at the natural design of the universe and were perplexed, who woke early in the morning to the alive hills and wondered about the nature of their existence. We forget the thousands of years of people who loved in the face of uncertainty, who tried to live kindly, who were steeped in imperfection, and who sought wisdom and inspiration on the other side of the veil.

We exist, like our foremothers and forefathers, within the contingency of mystery. We cannot kid ourselves, with our big dreams and plans for artificial intelligence, that we can cheat mystery. Designed unknowns are baked into the subjective, unique, radical yet unimaginable, experience of living a human life. It is a return to mystery, not a transcendence of mystery, that will lay the foundation for greater wholeness, fulfillment, and purpose.

Wisdom is only gathered through the wilderness of the unknown. Call this speculation, revelation, or hope, but wisdom itself is grown from the soil of humility and tended by careful understanding. At the end of every day, even after hours of theology classes, there is always more that I do not know than what I do understand, but I resist the notion that everything that is seen (even under a microscope or through a telescope) is all that there is. The mystery of my own existence is not feelings caused by neurons. It is the love lit by faith.

With Jack standing beside me, I watched the mist hang on the Welsh hills, and I understood for a moment that the mystery that is always present, no matter how much we read or endlessly debate, can be comforting, if we allow people to hold the mystery with us. “It is…it is just everything at once,” I said to Jack, feeling the Tintern drizzle move closer toward my bare face. He sighed and squeezed my hand. “Yes. It really is.”