Fact & mystery

The world is full of questions to which the answer must be, “I don’t know.” Perhaps this is especially so for the world of Christians, not in spite of faith but because of it. Through Scripture and Tradition, God has revealed as much of Himself as we are capable of assimilating, and provided the keys, the first opening, to many bottomless Mysteries. These are different in kind from the mysteries of the ancient pagan cults — Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Orphic mysteries; the cults of the Pythagoreans and neo-Pythagoreans; of the Cabeiri; of Isis and Osiris; of the Thracian sky-god Sabazius, of the Phrygian mother-goddess Cybele, of the Persian Mithras, and of the farther “mysterious East”; of various other gnostic and phallic worshippers, alongside the official Emperor cult. For these people had mysteries that only the priests knew, and guarded jealously, creating elaborate and “mysterious” rites of initiation.

Consider for instance the Boeotian cult of Trophonius, about which we read in Pausanias — the Baedeker of Greece in the second century. He who would consult the oracle took a cell in a building sacred to the spirits of Good Luck. He would purify himself with ritual cold baths in the river Hercyna, and make frequent (possibly cash) offerings to Cronus, Apollo, Zeus, Hera, Demeter and so forth; living off the leftovers of sacrificed meat. Eventually he would sacrifice a black ram of his own, into the pit of Agamedes. The priests would examine the animal’s entrails for indications of whether the supplicant should proceed, or go back for an additional shakedown. Finally, after drinking successively of the spring of Lethe, and the spring of Mnemosyne, he was sent into the cave, with instructions how to crawl through its various narrow and complicated passages. Something loud would then happen to scare him out of his wits; and if he managed to make his way back to the surface, he’d be sat or, if necessary, tied on a chair, so the priests could carefully transcribe his ravings. They would then call his relatives, to take him away.

Those first attracted to our Church, must often have assumed our mysteries were like this. As the latter part of the Mass excluded the unbaptized, they could freely imagine what went on there. Rumours are always rife, and malignant rumours always get a hearing. It was some work, explaining to the ancient pagans, what Christianity is all about; and in particular, the nature of our Mysteries, different in kind from those of the religious competition.

For we have Mysteries that anyone can be told, and rites that are explained in every missal. Once apprised, the gentle reader may spend the rest of his life contemplating these Mysteries of the Faith, theological in the sense that they are revelations of our Triune God, and of His Incarnation. They are things we know that we could not have learnt by rational empirical inquiry — such as that we are Loved, and must Love in our turn, truly and with utmost chastity.

Those who live entirely by the light of their own reason, refusing instruction in the Mysteries of the Faith because they can figure out everything themselves, were dealt with at e.g. the First Vatican Council:

“If any one say that in Divine Revelation there are contained no mysteries properly so called, but that through reason rightly developed all the dogmas of faith can be understood and demonstrated from natural principles: let him be anathema.”

This is an aspect of the Catholic teaching of which even Rome needs reminding from time to time: that we do in fact have dogmas, and that we have through the centuries in fact anathematized those who put themselves above them. And so we do for their own good, in the hope they may correct themselves before God corrects them.

Yet many of the straightforward moral teachings — similar to the teachings of all other civilized religions — can be reasoned through, with intelligence and patience. And they have been reasoned through, and the results of the reasoning have been confirmed again and again, in the face of innumerable challenges. For the kind of mind that puts itself above the mysteries of Divine Revelation, also tends to set itself against received instructions on the differences between good and evil.


The Family Synod is now meeting, and will be for the next three weeks. It strikes me that the agenda for this, and the rules imposed in the last few weeks, will provide the faithful with mysteries of a quite irreligious sort. For in the past, such meetings — whose purpose was not to discuss Catholic doctrine, but how to apply it in present circumstances — were quite open. We could learn, if we were curious, exactly what our bishops had said and were thinking. Our faith was not, or rather, is not, a mystery in that pre-Christian sense, subject to revision by oracles. The Holy Spirit is not a pagan god, who tells us new and startling things each time we go down into the cave.

Indeed, my beloved, deeply learned Benedict XVI — who since he retired has been praying for us — went repeatedly to trouble, to explain the foolishness of the idea that the Holy Spirit intervenes in all synods, councils, and conclaves, to steer the participants to the right result. An elementary acquaintance with the history of the Church will show us that bishops are quite capable of coming to decisions that no loving God could have countenanced.

Men, a species that includes bishops, are left with a certain radical freedom, which constant intervention by the Deity would cancel. We have been already provided with what we need to know in the Deposit of Faith. There is nothing that Christ absent-mindedly forgot to tell us. Our task is not to supply what he overlooked or failed to anticipate, or to “update” the teaching for a human condition which does not, itself, change. Nor is it to murkily redefine terms long since clarified. Neither popes nor bishops are above that Revelation.

It has become extremely obvious that, once again in the long history of the Church, fools and self-servers and very evil men are operating in the Vatican at the highest curial level. And since we are not going to be told, plainly, what is going on, or what will happen next — only tweets and sound bites of an oracular nature, addressed as if to children — our task is reduced to a simple one. We must fast and pray.

I mentioned Benedict because he was — again, I think very obviously — a good and reliable pope; a man of sound mind and habit, who could be trusted. He happens, in the course of “mysterious” events, to be still with us in this vale of tears, and to my mind we should pray consciously with him. And too, struggle to withhold our judgement, as he would, on things we cannot know, and cannot change. And thus, accept the pain that goes with not knowing what our shepherds are discussing and planning — like the pagan priests of old — behind our backs, as they did behind Benedict’s back.

We have a terrible, shameful, mess in Rome. But the chaos of this world is passing, and we can know that in the end, Christ will prevail.