Living in Mystery

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Whether it was me as a kid looking through my parents’ closet trying to find the presents they got me for Christmas, or the horror movies I watched where the protagonists decided to curiously read a book or enter a room in which inadvertently released some horrid evil into the story, or even so far back as Adam and Eve curiously taking a bite of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, we are all averse to mystery.

It is not to say that we do not enjoy the Mystery genre, of course, who does not appreciate the likes of Sherlock Holmes or Scooby-Doo? Even Stephen King would say that the mystery of not knowing is a vital factor which drives us deeper into a story. However, we want that mystery to end at some point. We must know how Holmes did it, and we must know who is behind the mask of the villain. We can not let ourselves sit in the mystery for too long. And if we must sit for too long in the mystery, we often attempt to find reductive and cheap solutions to our own unknowing and lack of control.

We do this often. Whether it is the miracles of Jesus being blotched away by the hand of Thomas Jefferson, Job’s comforters offering rationalistic answers to Job’s suffering, my nearly neurotic and anxious attempts at figuring out what my future will look like in five years, or our need to reduce every human behavior down to a machine-like system that we can comprehend, mysteries are only okay just as long as they make sense to us or do not leave us in the dark—which sadly and unfortunately robs them of being mysterious.

Surely, there is something deeply good in the search for a suitable mystery’s end. When I was reading Lord of the Rings, I was eager to know how and if Sauron would be defeated, I wanted to know if Sam and Frodo would reach Mt. Doom, and I really wanted to know why the Ring had no control over Tom Bombadil. I would take a gamble too that most of us wish we knew our friends, our parents, our children, or our spouses in an increasing amount as Eugene Peterson once wrote, “People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored.” There are certainly mysteries we are called to enter into.

There is a big difference however between entering into a cave to explore it and entering into a cave arrogantly expecting to find a random, unmarked exit. I would say mysteries are similar. Of course if we know that there is a marked exit to the cave, we should explore it and possibly try to find it. And I am sure wisdom would dictate that there are some diabolical caves we dare not enter. But our mystery-aversion comes in the form of not being able to enter a proper cave that is not promised to have an alternate exit. Even if we do enter, we may make our way miles and miles in, set off dynamite to close off the remainder of the cave, and dig our way out to convince ourselves that there is nothing else left to explore of the cave. If we can not solve the mystery, we are often repelled by it.

It takes something profound to enter into the harder mysteries. Like the cries etched throughout the Psalms and even our own lives, the mysteries of God’s seeming absence amidst suffering and grief are mysteries we feel wary to enter. It often seems far less painful to avoid entering that mystery and far safer to coldly analyze it from a distance. Yet we lose something of significant substance, similar to what G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Introduction to the Book of Job, when we refuse to enter that particular cave:

“Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

This paradoxical cave that Job found himself in was one that seemed to lack both an entrance and an exit. Even though Job’s situation was resolved, he was still left without the understanding of “why” he was ever in the situation to begin with. Yet Chesterton concludes with saying that “It is the lesson of the whole work [of Job] that man is most comforted by paradoxes.”

In some of the caves of my own life, I have experienced and still experience the weariness of wandering alone in the dark and cold of those endless mazes. I have often attempted to rationalize my way out, or given up, or just blown my own way out, but I have found that in the deepest pits of those caves is where I am sometimes met with a mysterious tenderness and an abiding, divine embrace. I am averse to entering into mystery, yet it is often in those caves that I find something better than the exit I had originally sought. 

 

Stargazing and the Dark Night of Dostoevsky

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I finished Crime and Punishment this last year, and although it took me a little less than an eternity to actually get through it, I’ve got to say, I haven’t appreciated a book like it in a long time. I was intrigued by the dread of sitting inside the mind of a neurotic. I was startled at how well the human heart was conveyed. I loved the slow but realistic redemption that takes place over the book’s pages and the lingering grace and loyalty of a certain character. But all in all, I ultimately loved that I could come to understand Fyodor Dostoevsky through the dialogue and content of the book. Here’s two of my favorite lines:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

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“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

If you’re anything like me, then you will know that I tend to enjoy books once I understand a little of the author’s own life. If I can relate to them, chances are I will resonate with their books, so it’s a treat for me in the event that I read a book and feel as though the author has bled his own personal narrative into the words and pages of that novel. Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment is one of those instances.

Having read it, I was intrigued into what kind of life Dostoevsky must’ve had. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant one, but I knew the novel didn’t end in despair so maybe his life hadn’t. What I found between the book and his own life were some stark similarities in theme. Both contain extreme anguish, doubt, suffering but also, however ironically, a glimmer of hope.

His life didn’t kickoff pleasantly. Dostoevsky was son to a cruel father and to a mother who died of tuberculosis while he was young. In the two years following his mother’s death, his father passed away due to an apoplectic stroke. Also around that time, Dostoevsky’s first signs of epilepsy, that would plague him his entire life, had appeared.

In the following decade, amidst his declining health, eventual resignation from the military, and his pursuit of a life of writing, Dostoevsky was imprisoned and exiled for political reasons. It seems like something straight out of one his novels, but there came a moment that Dostoevsky was lined up in front of a firing squad which was stopped by a command from the Tsar apparently moments before the execution.

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After this point, Dostoevsky spent about another half-decade as an exile in a prison camp in torturous conditions without anything but his copy of the New Testament. Between all that’s been said already, the death of his first wife, the loss of his firstborn to his second wife, and his eventual agonizing death to epilepsy, Dostoevsky’s life seems to me nothing short of a nightmare.

But what I’ve found so interesting is not just the darkness of Dostoevsky’s life. No not at all. Though, I do think what is remarkable wouldn’t be as remarkable as it is without the darkened backdrop.

What’s truly intriguing to me is Dostoevsky’s clutching to the light of the stars amidst all the horrible darkness *. While doing some research on him, I stumbled on this quote which has resonated with me in more than a few ways:

“I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

I don’t know if I’ve heard of such honesty and such faith in the words of a man, words that seem reminiscent of the man in Mark 9 who declared “I believe Lord, help my unbelief”.

Two things strike me in Dostoevsky’s words. One is his immense doubt that would lead him to declare that he would die “longing for faith”, and yet still he finds moments of peace in which “I love and believe that I am loved” – a statement which implicitly assumes great faith. And second, he doesn’t trust his own faith, but the one in whom his faith takes hold. The man seems captivated in these words. Christ has captured his greatest desires, “nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect”. It seems his head and heart are torn. When the rational doubts pull him one way, he knows on a desiring level that “there could be no one [else]”.  As Saint Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I’d like to think Dostoevsky tasted that rest and knew he’d never find it in anything else again, as much as his doubts nagged him otherwise.

I’m not surprised that the bold portion of that passage came last. Between the reasonable doubts that plague us because of the suffering, death, anguish, and darkness in this world and the faith granted to us that sets our eyes upon the beauty of Christ even in it all, Dostoevsky decidedly found rest in the latter. Like looking upon a midnight sky to discover the stars shine brighter only when the night is darker, Christ meets us in the darkness with his penetrating vibrancy, which had turned out for Dostoevsky [and myself] far more true and far more captivating than the darkness itself.

* Apparently, Dostoevsky would literally stargaze to combat his doubts.