G.K. Chesterton said, “Mysticism keeps [people] sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery, you create morbidity.” Mysticism—mystery—is the main ingredient in what feeds the soul. But what exactly is mystery? J. Hampton Keathley explains that mystery, in a spiritual context, “refers to truth which [people] cannot comprehend by experience, trial and error, testing, or by [their] own reason or human philosophy.”
Scripture uses the term “mystery” to describe the deepest revelations of God, such as the divine redemptive plan worked out before the foundations of the world were set. That plan resulted in the means of salvation for every person who would receive it, and those souls are initiated into “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”
Another “profound mystery” that Scripture speaks of is the relationship between Christ and his church. Human reasoning cannot define how we have become the bride and the body of Christ. Yet it is in this mysterious body that our souls are fed with the word and fellowship.
A Feast of Mysteries
Mystery can be found everywhere in God’s creation, and in the sub-creation of God’s creatures. Sometimes it sneaks up on us. But more often than not—especially in this busy world—we have to be deliberate about looking for it and experiencing it. For me, there are three specific examples of mystery that contribute to the nourishment of my soul.
Ceridwen Dovey, writing on the effects of bibliotherapy in The New Yorker, describes her desire to prepare herself for facing the death of a loved one and the grief which would inevitably follow. After reading a series of books, both nonfiction and fiction recommended by her therapist, she writes, “The insights I gleaned from these books helped me through something entirely different, when, over several months, I endured acute physical pain. The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through fiction often is—but therein lies its power.”
She goes on:
. . . [reading fiction] is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
One of the earliest reports on “bibliopathic” tendencies (from 1916) states that books “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.” Reading is one of the most accessible ways to feed the soul.
Most people enjoy art, but few take the time to truly experience the mystery it often bears. In a recent article, New York Times columnist David Brooks describes his long friendship with the Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura. Brooks says that Fujimura, who is also a Christian, “advised me to stare at one of his paintings for 10 to 12 minutes. I thought it would be boring, but it was astonishing. As I stood still in front of it, my eyes adjusted to the work. What had seemed like a plain blue field now looked like a galaxy of color.” How often do we pause to let artwork impact us beyond a surface acknowledgment that it is good art? How often do we gaze at beautiful things long enough to let their deeper layers of meaning travel past our minds and into our souls?
Beautiful art is not for the eyes only. It is also for the soul, for it is the soul alone that can sense its deeper meaning and discern the truth it bears. Brian Volck, in commenting on his viewing of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion at a museum in France, wrote that we must receive beauty “in silence and stillness, patiently attentive to a revelation that defies our categories, our words, and all our well-meaning attempts to plumb the bottomless abyss of the mystery we call God.”
There was a time when, if I was forced into circumstances where all I could do was sit still, I would immediately become restless and desire something to occupy my mind, eyes, and hands. In my mind, if I wasn’t in motion, I was wasting time. But, over the past few years, I have learned to value the solitude of early mornings and late nights when my little world is quiet. Now, silence is attractive. I no longer need to be ceaselessly busy. Work is good. But rest is good too.
I can identify with Joy Clarkson who describes her discovery of the value of silence over the course of a “boring” summer better than I could:
In the quiet emptiness of that stale room, I began to perceive a freshness and a fullness. I sat for long, empty hours that bourgeoned with quiet, abundant meaning. These were the stumblings of a young soul onto the threshold of mystery. To the casual observer, not much happened that summer. A freckled fifteen-year-old wiled away the summer by playing the guitar badly. But as an adult, I know my time in that summer lair was pivotal. That summer I discovered my interior world, and it has been precious to me ever since.
It’s easy to shun silence. Social media, the news, the expectations of family and friends and co-workers, not to mention our own stray thoughts, keep our noses turned full-tilt into noisiness. But our souls will not grow without silence. In silence, we listen. In silence, we receive.
Books, art, and silence are just some of the food available for our souls. Mystery also lies in the notes of song, the rhythm of music. In the communion of friends and the transcendence of Scripture. It sits even in the cuddled folds of a puppy’s fur. In the quiet gleam of a star-lit night. In the nectar-laced breeze as it wafts past on a sunny day. And in all this, we can’t neglect feeding our souls.
Cover photo by Kate Williams.