The first time I experienced the Grand Canyon, I stood back from its precipice in child-like awe stunned by its vast beauty. Reds, golds, grays, blacks, chalk whites mingled in impossible hues. Vertigo swirled. My toes clung to the rock path through my boot bottoms. I was fearful the Canyon’s profoundness might reach up and snatch me away.
Mystery hung over the miles-long canyon in a haze. I breathed it in. I had reached the edge of the earth, where knowledge and imagination falter. Crows glided over its jagged gash and disappeared. Clouds were swallowed. The air was different. Sound changed.
The Grand Canyon is a gaping metaphor for the nature of life. Paradox lives on its lip. I felt minuscule and mighty at the same time. Here life is more than it seems. More than I can grasp. Wonder enveloped me.
Receiving the Mystery
In Leo Tolstoy’s Grand Canyon-like novel War and Peace an unnamed priest tends to the dying Count Bezukhof. Eventually the priest congratulates the Count on having received the mystery. Bezukhof dies.
Not being Russian Orthodox, I was unclear what this meant. But the phrase struck me. I read the sentence several times. I eventually understood the Mystery is how the Orthodox name the Eucharist or Communion. The Count had received Last Rites.
Of course death is a mystery. And to die is receiving the mystery. Yet the phrase hinted at more.
In 2015 when the EKG was spraying wild lines across the screen and my heart was seizing and my wife Dee Dee was praying in the corner of the clinic and the doctor was medicating me and the nurse was calling 911, I lay on the verge of the void. I clung to life, vertigo, pain, and colors washed over me. I thought, I believe I know what will happen if I die. I know Christ holds me. Beyond that I’m not absolutely sure.
To Live is to Receive the Mystery
Today death is still a mystery. Thank God. Yet as I read Tolstoy, receiving the mystery seemed a phrase not only for Last Rites but for distilling life. To live—not just to die—is to receive the mystery. To receive the mystery is to say in the midst of life, “I believe I know what will happen. Christ holds me, beyond that I’m not absolutely sure.”
It is to stand awestruck on the edge of the void and not have all or many or any of the answers. It is to let life’s profoundness reach out and snatch you away into a place only God can fill.
This is the void we enter when we ask if we will graduate school, or if we are accepting the right job, or believing the truth, or if our marriage will survive or our parents or children or grandchildren. Then there are the soul-deep questions: what will happen when people discover the pretender I know I am? Does God in truth love me?
These doubts, this void, is me at age eleven day after day waking up after my dad died of a heart attack, hoping it was a nightmare but knowing it was not and wondering how I would survive. People made promises. But even I knew they could not keep them.
Jesus too entered this void when he kneeled alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked the Father to take this cup—death on the cross—from him. Silence. Not even his friends stayed by him. He had knelt and prayed alone before. For forty days in the desert. On mountain tops. On the edge of the sea. And the Father had often spoken to him. “This is my son with whom I’m well pleased.” But not that night. Jesus received the mystery. Into the void he uttered: “Not my will, Father. But yours.”
Again Tolstoy from War and Peace: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”
God Lives in the Mystery
Why, Leo? Because that is where God lives. In the crack between finite and infinite. Our greatest questions about life stand on the finite side shouting across the infinite. But we cannot hear the return echo.
Why should I pray if God already knows? Are we free or predestined? What happens after death? Why does God allow life to be so cruel? Is there a God at all? What is the meaning of life? Why is flatulence funny? (Sorry, I had to lighten this up a little.)
Finite cannot reach infinite. Mystery is the gap between us and God. So Infinite reached across it to us. And in response we often remark: “Did you hear something? Did you see something?” Then we describe what we saw or heard knowing full well the story has gaps, canyons maybe.
Instead of receiving the mystery we grasp for control. We turn human knowledge into a hammer and pummel our doubts. We simplify things that cannot be simplified. We turn Christmas into Santa, religion into rules, and Easter into bunnies. We cannot fathom God Incarnate living as a servant among us, dying as a sacrifice for us, and rising as a promise of us.
Often our relentless quest for knowledge and understanding disguises our fear of mystery. We believe knowing will deliver peace. But if this were true, then—based on the vast knowledge we own today—anxiety, worry, fear, and anger would be things of the past. Instead they are epidemic. The more we believe the myth of control, the farther we move from the truth that peace comes—in part—from not knowing, from receiving the mystery.
Receiving the mystery is accepting human limits and trusting God and life, even when we can see neither clearly enough to articulate that faith.
And in our desire to control and know absolutely we scrabble and grapple and wrestle never gaining what we need. Peace.
And we think peace comes from knowing all the answers, waving out hand in the back of the class grunting, “I know. Choose me!” Then we learn the answer we thought we knew was wrong or only leads to another question.
But peace comes in growing a faith that receives the mystery. That lets loose of control and rather than explaining the beauty of the canyon, wonders at it. Peace stands on the edge, toes gripping boot bottoms, and smiles at the incomplete questions and answers the canyon calls up. And we lean into that canyon and see the outline of God’s hand, the shape of God’s heart, and hear God’s whisper congratulating us on receiving the mystery.