Saturday, March 30, 2013

Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension



It's a grey, overcast day – cold, damp, and dismal; a fitting state, it seems to me, for Holy Saturday, when we remember that space of time between Jesus' death and when he was seen, touched and experienced once again by those who knew and loved him.

I don't like imagining what his friends and disciples were going through during this space of time. The feelings of loss, grief, disillusionment, and emptiness must have been overwhelming. We know from the gospel accounts that the disciples were also fearful. How separated they must have felt from their lost friend to be now living in the exact opposite way he'd so often urged them to live. Indeed, the memory of Jesus' call to "Be not afraid" must have felt like a mockery to his friends in their current state.

Of course, in commemorating the events of Holy Week we hear a lot about "God's will," with the implication being that the suffering and death of Jesus were all part of God's plan, that God willed these terrible things to happen. I've always found this way of thinking problematic. I think what God wills for each and every one of us is that we experience abundant life; "life to the full," as Jesus said. I don't think of things like earthquakes, cancer, and tragic accidents as being God's will. Neither do I see the selfish and destructive ways that some choose in order to prevent others from experiencing fullness of life – greed, racism, sexism, war, torture, murder – to be the will of God.

But can't good come from these terrible things? Might they not be capable of being used by God in some way beyond our comprehension? Without doubt we are free to choose how we respond to the events of our lives – including those that are difficult and painful. And I firmly believe that God's transforming presence deep within us and mediated to us through the loving words and actions of others is capable of helping us cope with difficult and tragic events. Inspiration can definitely be gathered from the way that many have embodied this presence to overcome adversity or to simply get through a difficult time without becoming embittered. But to say that God willed the adversity or tragedy in the first place is something I cannot accept.

These types of adverse and tragic turn of events are part of life. And God's place and role in them is ultimately a mystery. For me personally, it's simply not helpful to expend time and energy on trying to figure out God's complicity, if any, in things like natural disasters, tragic accidents, and the actions of individuals or groups resulting in atrocities of one type or another. I'd rather focus on how God's loving and healing presence can be embodied and experienced in the midst of the whole spectrum of human experience.

These thoughts I share this Holy Saturday remind me of that part of Albert Nolan's book Jesus Today that focuses on the reality of mystery in our grappling with different ways of thinking and talking about God. Holy Week for me is the great season of mystery. And Holy Saturday, the day when we're invited to place ourselves within that strange and empty state of suspension between death and resurrection, is definitely mysterious.

And so I continue The Wild Reed's 2013 Holy Week series with a fourth excerpt from Nolan's Jesus Today, an excerpt that explores the mystery that is God.


Mystics speak of God as unknowable. . . . [and] the word that has always been used to speak of God . . . by theologians, mystics, and spiritual writers is the word "mystery." A mystery is by definition unknown and unknowable. It can never become an object of knowledge without ceasing to be a mystery. But that does not mean that what we call a mystery is not real. We know that it is, even if we d not know what it is. This is precisely what we would want to say about God.

What matters is not how much I know about God or whether I can anything at all about God. What matters is whether God is real to me or not. A mystery can be more real to me than any of the things or people I think I know well. Experienced as mystery, God can be more real and more present to me than anything I can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.

. . . God is not a mystery – one among many mysteries. God is the mystery – not just the holy mystery or divine mystery. That too would make God one among many mysteries, albeit a very special mystery. God is in a sense the mysteriousness of all things. You and I are part of the mystery. "Part" is not a very good way of describing what one wants to say here. To put it negatively, I m not outside the mystery of all things looking at it like some kind of observer. I must include myself in the mystery that we call God. As Paul says, "In God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

I experience myself as a mystery too. We all do. The more we try to understand who and what we are, the more we face the unknown and unknowable, the mystery of you and me. . . . The appropriate response to mystery of any kind is wonder. We see how children can be rendered spellbound by the wonders and marvels they encounter. Wonder is a form of consciousness that is without words or images or understanding. When we recognize God as mystery, our spontaneous response is wonder and awe.

Somewhere at the heart of Jesus' spirituality is the awareness of God as near, very near. His use of the intimate family word abba implies that God was unusually close to him. Is that not also why he could speak of God's kingdom or reign as close at hand? One of the most important changes that Jesus introduced into religious thinking and spirituality of his time was the conviction that God was not far away. God's kingdom does not belong to the past or the future, and God is not high in the sky. The mystery of God is "in your midst." Jesus recognized God's presence in the here and now – in his present moment.

The nearness of God to everyone, irrespective of who or what they are, is basic to the teaching of the mystics. The Sufis say: "God is closer to me than my jugular vein." . . . The challenge then is to grow in awareness of God's presence and closeness. In other words, we must become more conscious of the presence of mystery in us and all around us. The mystery is very close to us. In it we live and move and have our being. Our experience of God begins as an experience of wonder and awe in the presence of mystery, here and now, in everything – including ourselves.

– Albert Nolan



NEXT: Part 5



For the previous installments of The Wild Reed's 2013 Holy Week series, see:
Jesus: The Upside-down Messiah
Jesus: Prophet and Mystic
Jesus and the Art of Letting Go

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Passion of Christ – Part 10: Jesus Among the Dead
When Love Entered Hell
A Wretched Death, a Wretched Burial

Related Off-site Links:
Holy Saturday: The Reality of Death – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, March 30, 2013).
Between Death and Resurrection – Susan Stabile (Creo en Dios!, March 30, 2013).
Searching for the Meaning of “Good” Friday – Sherry (Walking in the Shadows, March 29, 2013).
Lent, Easter, Jesus and the Victims of History: A Meditation – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, March 30, 2013).
Crucifixion Helps Make Meaning of Pain in Church and World – Jamie L. Manson (National Catholic Reporter via The Progressive Catholic Voice, April 22, 2011).
Pope Francis Presides Over Trimmed Easter Vigil Service – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, March 30, 2013).

Image: Australia dancer Paul White in choreographer Meryl Tankard's The Oracle.


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