CHAPTER I — MYSTERY AND MEN
MUCH of modern effort is dedicated, in one fashion or another, to the eradication of mystery. This book, with its three predecessors, advocates and champions mystery. It is all very well to laugh off mystery, to banish it sternly, or to strap it to an operating table for purposes of dissection. Mystery, nevertheless, remains a decidedly attractive thing precisely because it does not cease to be mysterious. And man will have his mystery even if he has to bootleg it.
The attraction of the mysterious: Natural witnesses
Mystery is as natural to man as breathing; and nature is not easily changed. The child’s world of fantastically beautiful mystery, marching alongside of grotesquely fearful mystery which turns out to be merely amusing because so obviously a toy to be used or discarded, is a thoroughly natural world. Later on in life we dispense with the Cinderellas, the fairy godmothers, and chivalrous knights, though the wicked princes are more difficult to banish; but we insist on retaining mystery. The child’s absorbed delight in mystery is only one of many willing witnesses to the naturalness and attractiveness of mystery. Among others, mention might be made of the rich folklore of primitive peoples and the delightful, often delicately beautiful tales so faithfully preserved (and, indeed, still composed) by the Irish.
Oddly enough, many of the denials of the mysterious are in reality protestations of it. A travelling salesman once assured me, with benign tolerance, that in a few years science will have completely cleared up the mysteries of Scripture, particularly the mystery of alleged miracles. The very magnitude of the statement intrigued me; and, of course, encouraged the salesman. He rushed on to drive his point home with a crushing example, the miraculous collapse of the walls of Jericho. The Scriptural account traced the sudden denuding of the city to the miraculous power of the trumpet blast of the besieging Israelites. That was, he explained, much too old fashioned; the real explanation lay in the cleverness of the Jewish trumpeters. Just as the right note on an organ will shatter a wine glass, so the right note on a trumpet will crash down walls; quite simply, the trumpeters had struck the right note. The whole thing was thrown back into the realm of the mysterious when the solver of miracles was asked: What note was it?
He resented the question; it seemed somehow unfair. By it, he was made to see that he had unconsciously given testimony to the inevitability of mystery and of the infallible tendency of the human mind to ferret it out and rest in it; even, indeed, to create mystery as a resting place where mystery does not exist.
There is nothing unreasonable about the attractiveness of mystery, however high above reason a particular mystery may be. Rather, behind that attraction is a profound reason, a reason with its roots buried deep in the nature of the heart and mind of man. Our human thirst for knowledge is not to be quenched by eight years of schooling, or by eighteen; by a year’s investigation, or a lifetime’s. That thirst is for infinite truth and infinite goodness. Clear knowledge of a thing, or an aspect of it, merely serves as a starting point of a new race for knowledge, the jumping off point for a deeper plunge into truth; it is a mark quickly put behind us as we rush on to new, and equally unsatisfying, goals. Only when we can see an object worthy of the unlimited capacities of our powers do we approach the happiness for which our whole being cries out. Such an object is mysterious.
This is not theorizing. It is a common experience in the hectic life of that very humble purveyor of truth, the lecturer. Let him mount the platform armed with a lecture that bristles with practical problems and immediate applications; the audience will yawn him down. If, on the contrary, his intellectual wanderings touch on such things as the essence of an angel, the intellect of a man, or the foundations of the universe his audience will be straining at the leash like a hound eager to be off after the hare; they are impatient for him to end only insofar as they are eager to get into the argument themselves.
By way of confirmation of this, there is the fact that a priest need never be lonely; indeed, that he has little chance to be alone. The collar he wears is a public proclamation: “Here is a man who deals in mystery.” There is no class who can resist the invitation. Consequently the priest is constantly engaged in intriguing conversations with bootblacks, taxi-drivers, porters, university professors, lawyers, and children. And he is learning all the time. He should not be too surprised when the ticket agent at Grand Central holds up an impatient line of travellers while he pushes a Bible under the grating and demands an explanation of an Old Testament prophecy. He must learn not to be impatient when the cleric behind the information desk at Chicago’s Union Station greets him with questions instead of answers. He is, and always will be, a fascinating conversational target, no matter what nature may have done to his nose or time to his clothes; for he s a man of mystery.
The appeal of science
This appetite for mystery is so keen that it leaves a man restless, bored in the face of the obvious; but eager, straining forward to get at the unknown. If men were, with complete unanimity, to embrace scientific knowledge as the one and only valid knowledge and scientists were to succeed in making al1 the details of this knowledge transparently clear, a tidal wave of despair would sweep the world. Scientists would be lined up before firing squads by the dozen every morning before breakfast, and newspapers would carry headlines announcing the executions of these public enemies.
For it is the infinite detail and the technical obscurity of science that has given it its tremendous prestige un the eyes of the layman. Its advance has been too rapid and too technical for him to grasp its findings. If it ever gets to the brevity and clarity of a philosophical or theological definition, it will become as dull as the process of sweeping the floor or washing the dishes. Not a few modern authors have capitalized on an insight into this truth, producing best sellers that have neither mystery nor technical detail but only obscurity to recommend them. Apparently the ordinary man, finding himself beyond all doubt befuddled, is expected to conclude that he is facing mystery; obviously, a good many do just that. In contrast there is the perfect, though extremely brief, definition of sin given by Thomas: “actus humanus malus,” — “a bad human action.” Theologians and washwomen will be savoring that until the end of time, clear as it is, brief as it is; it embraces the double mystery of the humanity of man’s actions and the evil of his sins.
The mind of man must have mystery because the mind of man must have intellectual food. Since it must have that food, it will not starve to death in quiet patience; it will revolt, will search out its mysteries where it can find them, even though the search take it to the secret chambers of hell.
Mystery and the mind of man: The three thirsts for knowledge: 1) For the solution of problems
Modern scholastics have changed the figure to underline the fact that the mind of man has a triple thirst. The least of these three is the thirst for the solution of problems, for the answer to the question how; this is the thirst of the mechanic. It is a conceptual affair, a matter of order between man’s concepts and the workings of the world. Progress in this line is a horizontal pushing ahead accomplished by the correction of past mistakes; by it a man leaves the intellectual home of former days and forges ahead along bright but indefinitely winding roads. Inevitably there is in all this a tragic air of constant beginnings and no permanent ends, of the countless failures upon which its success is builded. It is a vagabond progress, whereas man was made to live in a home.
For the penetration of natural mysteries
The second, a philosophical thirst, is for reality, for being, for a knowledge of the thing in itself. In this knowledge, progress is not horizontal but vertical, had by deepening knowledge already possessed, not by the correction of past mistakes. For this a man does not rush down the high-road leaving his house behind, but rather, as Chesterton has it, he builds up the towers of his own castle, beautifies his gardens. This is the knowledge of mystery, of metaphysics, of philosophy. In absolutely everything in the world there will be the element of mystery because there will be the element of being; and never will the knowledge of the mystery be exhaustive. This is why we find every man a philosopher, even every scientist, though so few men are scientists. For here, in mystery, man is at home. His mind was made for being, for things in themselves; which is no more than saying that the mind of man was made for mystery. In contrast to the knowledge of problems, the knowledge of mystery is like the full bottle of warm milk compared to the infant’s pacifier. Only on the nourishing food of mystery does the intellect of man increase in wisdom and strength.
For the penetration of divine mysteries
If the mind of man is at home in metaphysics, it is much more at home in theology which deals with mysteries above all other mysteries. The mysteries of theology are, indeed, the fare upon which those giants we call the saints were nourished. Above all else, the mind of man is made for God, made for the infinite horizons of limitless truth; this is the object fully and adequately worthy of his powers. Man is at home with God, at home with the supernatural; there he is a native basking in the long sought warmth of his native sun.
A world without mystery: A modern tragedy
Without mystery man is homeless, discontented, despairing, destructive, even animal. He is a vagrant; the longer the vagrancy endures, the more bitter he becomes. The modern tragedy consists precisely in turning all men out of doors to wander on the roads of the world, making vagrants of men by robbing them of mystery. Rather, the modern tragedy consists in theattempt to pull down the walls and roofs of the homes of men. Such an attempt could not succeed. Men, of their very nature, will fight for their homes. Actually the attempt to make the mind of man homeless s being defeated by the nature of the mind of man.
The attempt itself has given men some grounds for despair. If it could succeed, men would always have to look down, for there would be nothing to which they could look up. In spite of their intimate knowledge of personal pettiness, personal limitations, they would be forced to see in themselves the fullness of intellectual perfection: reason enough, God knows, for despair. Yet, strangely, we have tried today to turn all this into ground for pride and presumption. Remembering only that we are moving horizontally, that there is nothing above, we look down from our superior height like worms sneering at the dust through which they move.
The attempt has given men ground enough for boredom, for men have been presented with a threadbare world and asked to become excited about it. They themselves are the patchwork of the centuries, the queer result of a meaningless jumble of elements, not to be fooled by illusions of beauty, of truth, and of goodness. They themselves, these men, are old, cynical, tired, stretched out under a sky moth-eaten with dying stars line bedridden patients staring at a fly-specked ceiling.
The attempt has given men sufficient grounds for destructiveness, viciousness, animality. Gangsterism, national and international, is not a passing phenomenon in such a world, but a natural development. Why should men not hate such a bitterly disappointing world, why should they respect the persons, the ideals, the hopes of such a bitterly disappointing humanity? Why should they not hate their very selves for the tortured existence they are forced to live?
The tragic modern escape
Men could not live in such a world as this. The attempt failed; the mind of man, starving, has called up mysteries of its own as a dying man in a desert calls up from his own diseased brain mirages that but add to his tortures. The modern man’s escape from intellectual homelessness is perhaps more tragic than the vagrancy to which his leaders had condemned him; for he has gotten into a house surely other than the house of God. The monsters called up in a kind of streamlined devil worship now threaten to devour the modern man: the cloak of mystery has been thrown over a machine, a party, a class, an appetite; incense has been burned, hosannas sung, and the gods have turned on their worshippers to destroy them.
This is by no means a wholesale condemnation of men and things. Rather it is a statement of conditions under which human life is intolerable; yet it is a condition embraced by thousands of men and women today. Moreover, it is understandingly embraced. Men shy away from mystery, when it is precisely mystery which will save them, not because they scorn that salvation but because that mystery has been so badly misrepresented. There is something honorable in a man’s refusal to be frightened by what he considers unworthy of fear; there is strength in a man’s refusal to take a path he considers merely an escape from the labor of thought. Today the mysterious is looked upon too frequently as an insult to man’s intelligence, to his courage, to his willingness to work. Actually, of course, it is none of these things.
The reasonableness of modern unreason
It is true that mystery exceeds reason; but this does not mean that man cannot know the mysterious, naturally or supernaturally. It is an insistence that there is still more to be known, a challenge to his courage, his humility, his persevering labor. The smallest insight into the mysterious is more satisfying than all other knowledge, it is much more of a perfection of the mind of man. It gives some answer to that persistent “why” which it is man’s unique privilege, in this material world, to ask. To expect satisfaction with anything less is to demand that a man be happy playing with the toys of children.
Really there is no need to argue this point. It is openly acknowledged in our distinction between a wise and a learned man, it is canonized in the saint. We admit that an ignorant woman may be very wise, while a learned professor may be very stupid indeed; we salute the wisdom of Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” in spite of the beloved characters’ blissful ignorance of the language which he speaks. Man has, by such an insight into mystery, accomplished a little, by the ultimate insight into the ultimate mystery he has accomplished all, of that for which be exists. He has grasped something of reality, has produced the supremely human act at the peak of his intellect’s potentialities reinforced by divinity — the highest act of his highest faculty. So he has something of the independent, all-embracing view of God: independent of time, place, matter, politics, wars and family squabbles. He has, in a word, the viewpoint of wisdom; and wisdom has never been the reward of the sluggard or the coward.
A book of mystery — The Summa Theologica
The three preceding volumes of this set made a close examination of a book of supreme mystery — the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. The Summa has always been a book of mystery and will always so remain; for it is a book of theology, a book about God, the supreme reality and so the supreme mystery. The readers of those volumes can no doubt testify that this book of mystery has not been a lazy man’s escape from the labor of thought; that it has not evoked fear but courage and love; that it has not been a childish attempt to escape reality but rather a divine insistence on it. These readers are excellent witnesses to the nourishing power of the intellectual food which is mystery, to the actual growth it promotes, to the substantial progress of the mind which, while satisfying the intellect, does not glut it but rather sharpens its powers.
It will have been noticed, too, from the preceding volumes, that the diet of mystery is not only satisfying to the intellect but also to the will, to the appetite. It is always true that the heart can go no farther than the head; an imprisoned mind means an imprisoned heart. Only when the gates of wisdom are swung wide can the heart of a man sally forth to the object of its desire.
This last book of this set, completing the study of the Summa, does not fall short of its predecessors in its subject matter. As a preparation for the long journey into mystery which it proposes, it may be well to take a quick glance at what has already been done to familiarize us with mystery.
Surely one thing that has been apparent throughout these books is that the Summa of St. Thomas is satisfyingly about God, satisfyingly about the supreme mystery. The Companions, starting with St. Thomas, investigated God’s existence and in so doing looked at the roots of the order, the origin, and the truth of the world. Then, hardly waiting for a deep breath, they set out on that audacious expedition into the very nature of God.
The mystery of God The Beginning: Of God in Himself
The readers of the first volume will remember something of the beauty of God’s simplicity, the purity of His perfection, the desirability of His unutterable goodness, the sweep of His infinity, the comfort of His unchanging Being, the startling intimacy of His omnipresence, the long vista of His eternity, and the peace of His perfect unity. All of these mysteries were seen, not passingly, but with the fixed glance of deliberate, penetrating study; because He encouraged us, we could be rude enough to stare at God.
There was no hesitation in examining the knowledge of God, in scrutinizing the vision of Him Who alone can freely walk the corridors of our hearts and minds, knowing, indeed causing, the details of the most minute actions of the most insignificant nature. We dared to look at the ideas of God and at the Truth which is the root of all truth.
That “we” of the preceding sentence may be a little surprising It has been dodged for pages, but can be dodged no longer. The fact must be admitted that the readers and the author of these books are not at all in the position of disciples and master; that atmosphere of a family discussion, so characteristic of Dominican Houses of Studies for seven hundred years, is inevitable when men settle down to the study of St. Thomas. Here it is completely obvious at once that there is one master; all others are students who never finish their learning.
With that comforting assurance of fellowship in learning, then, we saw the will of God in its freedom, its efficacy, its beneficence. We were charmed by the love that does not discover goodness but rather creates it; we were a little astonished by the close alliance of mercy and justice, seeing mercy at the root of all justice and truth behind both. There was, too, the providence of a Father joined to the power of God, a providence reaching in a special way to us because of all creatures we can share in the life of God.
We even went so far as to peer into the happiness of God; farther still, into the inner life of the divinity, that subsistent knowledge and love that makes up the Trinity of persons and here we got a vague insight into the unceasing yet unchanging activity of God.
Of the world proceeding from God: of angels; of the corporeal world
All of this was the mystery of God in Himself. Mystery did not disappear when we went on to consider the procession of creatures from God, for we were still considering God, God as the principle or origin of all else. The consideration of the beginning and duration of the universe left no space for boredom, while the angelic world was a gold mine of mystery. Their infused species were an unfavorable contrast to the drudgery of our school days; their love, a realization of the ideals buried in human heart. With such knowledge and love, their sin and punishment presented mysteries worthy of the steel of our minds.
A quick, but detailed, examination of the seven days of creation allowed us to hurry on to that world that is a little less than that of the angels and infinitely above the world of matter, our own human world of men and women. Here everything was before our eyes in a glance at ourselves. Yet there was no dearth of mystery in the study of the human soul, its union with the body, its powers that make of man a cosmos including the wonders of the plant world, the animal world, something of the angelic world, and even something of the divine. We saw our ability to bring all of the universe into our minds by knowledge, and the corresponding ability to go out to all of the universe, even to God, by our love.
There was, of course, the inevitable human contradiction of appetites that can sink lower than the animals or soar higher than the angels. Above all, we spent considerable time in the study of that prerogative of intellectual nature, that instrument of mastery that distinguishes our every action from the world in which we live — our free will.
To complete the picture of humanity, two other considerations were essential. Consequently we considered the knowledge of the separated souls, such as the saints in heaven; and the first appearance of human beings on the face of the earth – – the first man and the first woman. Understandably there was some nostalgia in the consideration of the life that might have been in the garden of Eden if the image of God had not forgotten what manner of man he was.
Returning to the wider view, we looked at the government and conservation of the universe, a breath-taking panorama worthy of the eyes of God. We saw the government of the physical and of the angelic world; in the latter, surely one outstanding marvel was a variety of beauty that leaves the human mind staggered. In the government of the universe creatures have a part to play, for God is no terror-stricken dictator who dares not share His power. We studied the part played by the angels, by men, and even by corporeal creatures.
All this was the work of the first volume: the study of the God of things as they are and of the world of things as they are. Throughout it was a study of substantial realities, which means, of course, a study of mysteries; yet, from first to last it was a study of God, the supreme reality, the supreme mystery, God in Himself and in the world of creatures proceeding from Him. It was, throughout, a matter of seeing things as they are not as suspended unintelligently in an unintelligible vacuum, springing from nothing for no purpose, but rather as ordered. Each thing was in its place and, seeing it there, understanding its relation to the whole, we were enabled fully to know the thing itself. There was none of the underestimating, none of the overestimating, none of the grotesque mistakes that come from losing one’s head in the clouds or burying it in the mud. We took the view of wisdom, the composite, all-embracing, serene view of eternal truth.
The mystery of God The Goal: Of the goal of man
In the second volume we passed from the world of things to the world of action. After all, substance exists for function, things exist for a purpose and the achievement of purpose is action — nor will action suffer any other explanation. The world of action, then, is above all else a world of goals. It is a world hardly to be appreciated by our times for such a world is meaningful, a world where the final cause tower, above all else and sheds the rays of its goodness on all that thereby becomes desirable. Or, to put it as Thomas did, the first volume was a study of God as the efficient cause; the second, a study of God as the final cause.
Of human action
We were, of course, primarily interested in that complex, sometimes comic, but always significant world of human action. No doubt the real edge of that interest was faced towards our particular human actions here and now. At any rate, we had the undeniable fact of action as a starting point; and, since there is action, there is a goal. Human life is nothing more than a race to the goal; so our first task was to determine what that goal was. This was done by a painstaking examination of every possibility, concluding to the supreme mystery of the eternal vision of the essence of God.
The everyday actions of men are the steps to that goal. Here we were furnished with constant mysteries; in fact the rest of the second volume was spent in the analysis of these actions of ours. The extrinsic principles of them, with which the volume closed, were easy: law as the guiding factor directing men to their end, and grace by which the smallest acts were given an eternal significance. As for the intrinsic principles, well, we exposed the passions, refusing to pass them by piously as something base and at the same time refusing to bow down before them as awful divinities. We saw them for what they are: movements of the sense appetite in man, an appetite that was designed to be regulated by season and, so regulated, to play a great part in the working out of a man’s life.
The rest of the story of that volume is the story of habits. The story of success was the story of good habits or virtues — a privilege and an absolute necessity of man. Here we saw such personal habits as fortitude and temperance keeping order within the passions; the social virtue of justice for our relations with others; the divine virtues of faith, hope and charity freeing our minds and hearts for the enjoyment of friendship with no less than divinity itself. At the apex of this successful building there was the divinely mysterious beauty of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
The story of the bad habits or sins was the story of human failure. After the investigation of their inner nature and tragedy, we tried to trace their causes in ignorance, passion and malice; we looked to see what part God, man, or the devil had in the mistakes of men. We stood appalled at the terrific effects of sin: the utter marring of the beauty of the soul by sin’s stain, the irremediable, irrevocable, eternal punishment of it.
All this work of the second volume was really an exposition of the general principles upon which the living of human life is based. These were the basic principles behind the pursuit or abandonment of happiness. Certainly this is a most important affair for us. In fact, it is so important that all of the third volume was consumed in an exhaustively detailed examination of these habits of happiness which are virtues and the habits of unhappiness which are vices. This third volume was a study of freedom, of fullness of life: for the mind by faith, for the will by hope and by charity’s participation of divine life and love. In justice we analyzed social life; in injustice, social anarchy. We saw religion as justice towards God laying the foundation for a divine social life. We looked into the mystery of courage; of greatness of soul; of the self-mastery of temperance; of the truth of humility. We studied modesty, play, and miracles and enjoyed ourselves with all three. The volume ended by the solemn comparison and evaluation of the two ways of life open to men: contemplation and action.
All this busy medley of human living, of human action, is because God stands at the beginning and the end of it, calling it into being by the desirability of His infinite goodness. Again we are back to God.
This is what human life means, whence it comes, to what goal it goes, and the steps by which it reaches that goal. Yet this does not exhaust the mystery of a Christian life. There is mystery enough, God knows, in God. We can lose ourselves easily in the surpassing beauty and mystery of the Trinity. There is mystery enough in life; in the angels; in the world; above all in men. But there is not yet an end of mystery. There still remains the road along which we run to the goal and the light by which we avoid stumbling; both furnished by the Truth Who is the Word of God and the Son of Mary. This will be the subject matter of the present volume.
Of God the Way: Of the Incarnation and life of Christ
In this volume, then, we come to the climax of mystery and so to the climax of satisfaction of both mind and heart. For in the very next chapter of this book we must plunge into that mystery which is a stumbling block and a foolishness to the unbelieving: the mystery of the Incarnation, of God made man. Bethlehem will always be a rallying point, not only for the hearts but for the heads of men; the mystery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity clinging to His mother’s breast will not be exhausted through all of an eternity.
We shall not only consider the fact; we shall actually penetrate into the very heart of the mystery from what vantage points philosophy offers once the mystery is revealed. We shall go through all of the hidden life of Christ, into the full meaning of the union of humanity and divinity in one divine Person, into the life of Mary the Mother of God. For Christ the Truth Who, in His own words, is “the light of life,” the “light of the world.” We shall follow the truth, then, follow every mysterious, frightening, comforting step along the path He has marked out for us; every staggering step to Calvary’s drama of the death of God, and on to the glorious resurrection which is the death of death.
Of the sacraments; of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell
Finally, as a climax to the mysteries of this volume, we shall see that continuation of the life of Christ which is the sacramental structure He instituted: a steady, burning light of sacramental care watching over every phase of a man’s life; his birth, growth, food, drink, his mistakes, his love, his sickness, and death. We shall, in a word, follow the truth — even through the last things a man faces to the goal which is an eternal beginning, or an eternal end without end. This final mystery we shall spend an eternity enjoying or an eternity regretting.
The Summa, an invitation home
This volume closes the set of a layman’s edition of the Summa Theologica! It is eminently fitting that this study should be carried on to its conclusion while the Summa itself remains unfinished; for the Summa is a very great book, too great for one man, or, indeed, for one age. Its very incompletion is an emphasis of its character of a wayside shelter for men on their way home. It is not a permanent home for the minds or hearts of men; but rather an inviting insight into and a foretaste of the comfort of the enduring home to which it speeds the hearts and minds of men. It smacks of home precisely because it is steeped in the mystery without which the mind and heart of a man are vagrants bemoaning the empty futility of their existence.
The Mother of men; The home of men
Down through the ages the Summa has been the peculiarly favored instrument of the Mother of men on earth, the Catholic Church. For that Mother has been convinced, and history has borne her out, that the man who can be induced to read the Summa, rather than read about it, will find it hard indeed to wander the aimless roads of sterility and error. Just as the Summais a wayside station for travellers, so the Mother of men is a Mother of pilgrims. Men are not at home in the Summa, they are not at home in the Church; but they are on their way home. For the home of man can only be in the supreme reality, the supreme mystery, the only God.