Readings on Mystery

The point of religion… is to celebrate the unfathomable mystery of creation.”  Chet Raymo

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” Annie Dillard

“[Life] began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies between.” Diane Ackerman

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.
Albert Einstein

 I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.
Alice Walker from The Color Purple


We never “catch up with” reality itself. The real nature of mystery always evades our attempts to conceptualize it, and escapes the nets of our language and symbolism. Its depths are never plumbed. Mystery is always linked to passion, enthusiasm and all great emotions, in short, to life’s deepest and greatest impulses.
Leonardo Boff in Ecology and Liberation

I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.
Richard Feynman

 Mysteries, Yes
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
Mary Oliver

In other words, mystery, from the Greek word mysterion, is not about what we can solve but about what astonishes us in splendor and horror: that part of creation that can be experienced but never completely explained. This spiritual understanding of mystery is quite different from our common, everyday understanding of the term. Mysterion is about experiencing mystery as awe, not just as something secret and hidden.
Stephen Kendrick in Holy Clues


The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reasons for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
Edmund Burke

I believe the universe is one being; all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole … The whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine.  Robinson Jeffers

O Mystery
O mystery beyond my understanding,
Voice in my heart answering to the earth,
And light of distant stars!

O wonder of the spring, leading the seasons on:
The dewdrops sparking on the web at sunrise,
And unseen life, moving in depths and shallows of the brook,
Trembling in raindrops at the edge of eaves,
Whisper to me of secrets I would know.

O Power that flows through me and all that is,
Light of stars, pulsating in the atoms in my heart,
Whether you are mind and spirit

Or energy transcending human thought
I cannot know, and yet I feel
That out of pain and sorrow and the toil
Through which creation springs from human hands
A force works toward the victory of life, even through the stars.
Here on the earth winter yields slowly, strikes again, and hard,
And lovely buds, advance guards of the spring, suffer harsh death,
And pity moves the heart.
Yet life keeps pulsing on.
The stars still shine, the sun rises again,
New buds burst forth, and life still presses on.

O mystery!
I life my eyes in wonder and in awe!
Robert T. Weston, Seasons of the Soul, 1963

We misconstrue mystery when we think of it as a “black box,” something opaque and impenetrable that we must either avoid or manipulate by main force. Mystery is a primal and powerful human experience that can neither be ignored nor reduced to formula. To learn from mystery, we must enter with all our faculties alert, ready to laugh as well as groan, able to “live the question” rather than demand a final answer. When we enter into mystery this way, we will find the mystery entering us, and our lives are challenged and changed.
Parker Palmer

“The beautiful and terrible mystery that soaks creation, diminished by any name we give it.” Chet Raymo

Longer Texts

From the UU World archives, this piece from the Rev. Forrest Church speaks about the mystery of God.

Seamus Anthony writes about mystery and the journey in this piece about spiritual seeking.

Essayist Scott Russell Sanders explores the intersection of science and faith in his upbringing in this thoughtful essay Immersed in Mystery.

Naturalist Barry Lopez reflects on how gaining knowledge only leads to a greater sense of mystery in this essay about learning a river.


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