Last week I stood in a holy place, a building where worship has happened for more than sixteen hundred years. I came face to face with mystery. And it was beautiful, though I cannot describe just how or why. And I don't want to try.
Candles flickered. Incense smoked from a censor. Ancient chants enfolded the space. But they were not in themselves the manifestation of "presence." No, that was invisible, yet very real.
From the perspective of my protestant background, these expressions are foreign at best--unnecessary at worst. Yet--as the years roll on, and I journey along the path of faith; I sometimes feel bored with the pathway. It is so well lit with bright incandescent bulbs, and swept clean of any ritual. It is safe and explainable. I can stand with a couple reciting wedding vows, or in the waters of baptism or at the table serving communion and tell you exactly what is happening, reciting which things are symbols of what realities. But in my heart I know that I am standing in the midst of the unexplainable, misrepresenting what I know...and don't know.
Is there no longer any patience or room for mystery in our Christian world? Must all be clearly explained, sung about and performed with precision? Three points to learn or eight reasons why or seven sins to avoid. All things so tidy, so complete, so concise...and so grossly inadequate.
I struggle with how we wrap up the almighty into such trite and mundane formulae. If God is anything, God is mystery. And our desertion of that mystery has made God seem inane and unnecessary to the souls around us.
We need mystery. We need the unexplainable. We need God, not a definable idol. Bishop Kallistos Ware speaks of this reality in The Orthodox Way, a book which has probably impacted me over the past ten years more than any other. He says something like this:
Moses first saw God in a burning bush. Bright and clear.
Then he saw him in both fire and cloud. Bright and dark.
Then he met him in thick cloud of unknowing. Dark and unclear.
Is it possible that spiritual maturity could be marked by decreasing spiritual clarity? Isn't it plausible that in our relationship with God, the closer we get, the more mysterious God is to us?
Loved and dear, but so very distant and longed for.