Even When He Tells You, It’s Still a Mystery

5 Oct

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.14).

1528CorregioNativityOn the way to Mass last Wednesday for the feast of St. Thérèse, Nick and Katharine were in the back seat having a debate about God’s relations.

“God doesn’t have a mother,” Kath lunged, apparently in response to something Nick had said.

“Yes, he does,” Nick parried. “Jesus is God, and Mary was his mother.”

Not bad for a ten-year-old, and pretty much the reasoning of the Council of Ephesus. In 431, the Council confronted the Nestorian heresy by adopting a Marian title proposed by St. Cyril: TheotokosMother of God. Really, it’s a name that boils down to a simple syllogism: (a) Jesus is truly God; (b) Mary is Jesus’ mother; (c) thus, Mary is God’s mother. Q.E.D.

“I meant God the Father,” eight-year-old Kath answered Nick, unwilling to yield. “God the Father couldn’t have had a mother because then he wouldn’t be God.”


In fact, Katharine’s objection is a fairly common one, and it summarizes very neatly a complicated philosophical argument against the “Mother of God” appellation. It’s an argument that involves differentiating between function and ontology, and it requires a grasp of formal logic that is beyond me and, presumably, way over the head of my two grade-school theologians sitting in the back seat…or maybe not.

In any case, I diplomatically affirmed both children, and praised them for their acumen and orthodoxy. They’re the youngest of our seven children, and they’re the best of pals. They play and fight, giggle and argue, but even when they disagree, there’s an amiability between them that serves as a constant bond.

That’s good, because they live in a household full of big ideas, loud opinions, and strong personalities. Nick and Kath’s friendship provides them with an oasis of mutual support and age appropriate interaction amid the maelstrom of a domestic environment otherwise populated by teens, pre-teens, and aging, cranky parents.

Yet, despite the intense and sometimes conflicting messages regarding school and work, politics and religion, and just plain living, I’d like to think there’s an underlying framework of faith that connects it all, even when it doesn’t always macyrilke sense. It’s not a forced framework  it just is, even when we disagree with it or rebel.

That my youngest children have at least integrated this idea somewhat was made clear when Kath made her parting shot as we arrived at church. “It’s all a mystery anyway,” she observed. “You can never figure it out, because even when he tells you, you’re going to get confused.”

Ah, yes, that standard aphorism of Catholic apologetics: It’s all a mystery. It’s also a parenting expedient I don’t know about you, but we trot that one out pretty regularly with our kids. “But, WHY?!” comes the plaintive cry of the rebuffed adolescent suppliant. “It’s all a mystery,” I’ll sometimes reply, especially when I’ve tired of the standard, “Because I said so.”

I should be more careful, I suppose, because “It’s all a mystery” is also the conclusion of many a dinner conversation that drifted in the direction of convoluted doctrinal conundrums. “How can God be outside of time and still become incarnate?” It’s a mystery. “Why do we pray if God already knows what we’re going to say?” It’s a mystery. “If God really all good and all powerful, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?” It’s all a mystery.

My Protestant students also get used to hearing this phrase once they find out I’m a practicing Catholic and they get up the courage to ask hard questions: How can Mary be sinless if the Bible tells us that everyone is a sinner? What about purgatory and indulgences – what’s the point of praying for the dead if they’re already destined for heaven? And do you really believe that wafer is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Really? How come Catholics don’t act like they believe it?

All good questions my students are a smart bunch and I do my best to explain, but more often than not, I’m forced to come down to the old stand-by: It’s a mystery. It’s never satisfying, of course, and they roll their eyes as do my teens. But, look, all of us who profess any kind of religion get to the same place eventually, right? Even if you limit yourself to Christianity, consider the biggies we all hold in common  Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, the Blessed Trinity. They all require a shrug in the end, and a demurral that, ultimately, they’re matters that are beyond our human understanding. In essence, that’s exactly what Katharine voiced: You can’t know everything, so don’t expect to.

But it’s faith, after all, not math. There’s always a leap involved, as Kierkegaard insisted, and there’s no guarantees that we’ll figure it out this side of heaven.

And perhaps it’s no mistake that I overheard Nick and Kath’s exchange on the feast of St. Thérèse the Doctor of the “Little Way.” As Monsignor later explained in his homily, “The essencelaundry of St. Thérèse’s Little Way is this: Let God love you, and let God love others through you.” Should we devote ourselves to theological inquiry? Should anyone invest time and energy in deciphering the mysteries of God? Yes, to be sure, but not at the expense of adopting the childlike surrender of Thérèse. She wrote:

I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice, and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.

Anyway, Nick and Kath and I arrived at Mass, found our seats, and waited for God to appear. There, up in front of the church, the lector would enunciate God’s word, and then, after that, the priest would turn bread and wine into the Bread of Life. This is all a big mystery; we can never figure it out; we still get confused.

And it’s alright.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

5 Responses to “Even When He Tells You, It’s Still a Mystery”

  1. Nancy October 6, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    “And do you really believe that wafer is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Really? How come Catholics don’t act like they believe it?”

    There is the biggest conundrum for Catholicism, right there. Maybe your young theologians have some thoughts you can share!

    Give them hugs from us!

    • Ryan M. October 11, 2014 at 8:55 am #

      I like thinking about the mystery of the Eucharist as one wrapped up in the mystery of God’s ever presence- God, who is existence itself, and who fills the universe, and anything else that exists- became a man on our very small planet, which when compared to the sun (as an orange) is the size of a grain of sand. (I’ll pretend that’s a sentence) Just as the concept of time is not applicable to God, neither is the concept of size, as illustrated by the Incarnation. The Eucharist is the ultimate example of this concept in terms of smallness.

  2. Doug October 13, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    Interesting post. In fact, your Protestant Trinitarian colleagues have one great failing IMO: they don’t recognize the syllogism you present. It is absolutely ironclad as to its conclusion. IF the two premises are factual.
    You correctly identify the complexity of the question. Even leaving alone William of Ockham and his famous razor, do you notice that the contrary view is older than Ephesus and easy to understand? Yahweh is the name of the Father, Jesus is the name of his son (two separate people already), and the Holy Spirit has no name in scripture (or dogma, as far as I know). Certainly that weakens the first premise.
    “It’s a mystery” is indeed unacceptable to a believer in Christ but a non-believer in the Trinity. One statement of Jesus that I recall is at John 17:3, “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” NJB, Catholic Online.
    Notice that the simple relation of father and son is used, and that the promise of life depends on our ‘knowing’ both. How can this be if “Even when he tells you, [He’s] still a mystery?” Notice also that “God the Son” [a phrase found nowhere in scripture] calls the other person “the only true God”. This, said while he was still on earth, jibes perfectly with his situation now, in Heaven: Rev 3:12, where he refers four times to someone he calls “my God”. Also with Rev 14:14 ff.where he is described as sitting outside the [heavenly temple’s] sanctuary, waiting for instructions from inside; when he gets those instructions he obeys.

  3. Christian LeBlanc November 7, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    You sound like me in catechism class: It’s…a…mystery! Ya never gonna understand it!


  1. Even When He Tells You, It’s Still A Mystery | One Thousand Words a Week - October 5, 2014

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