Cultivating Mystery in a Confessional Culture

The prospect of meeting up with an old friend whom you have not seen in quite some time can take one of two turns.  Either it is someone you’ve kept in regular contact with, and you are not going to have to play a huge amount of catch-up, or it is someone whom you have not spoken to with any frequency, and you have some choices to make.  It can be difficult to decide whether you plunge in and share everything that’s happened since you last saw each other, or whether you hold back since you are not that close anymore.  However this is not just an individual problem each of us has from time to time, but rather something which at present troubles society as a whole.

Paradoxically, we live in an age when no one feels the need to seek the sacrament of confession with any regularity, and yet everyone feels compelled to confess the most intimate details of their lives on social media.  This is something which used to be the almost exclusive purview of insecure entertainers, who could not be certain whether or not they were alive unless they were on-screen, on stage, or in the papers.  Now, this desire for personal glorification is everywhere.  It may once have fueled the plots of classic films like “Sunset Boulevard”, but it is now demonstrated among the untalented and ordinary by the inexplicably long-lived careers of the various members of the Kardashian clan.

That being said, there is still a place – a very important place – for moments when personal moments or thoughts are revealed.  We can think of the beauty of revelation demonstrated in C.S. Lewis’ classic “Surprised By Joy”, for example, or the often melancholy works of Frederic Chopin.  Cancer survivors learn from one another’s experiences with coping through books, talks, and support groups.  New parents learn from been-there-done-that parents in pre-natal classes and videos.

Yet even when there are revelations in such incredibly personal and intimate areas of human experience as these – faith, love, illness, birth – there must also be some element of restraint.  It is deeply regrettable that we have lost our old appreciation for mystery, in favor of throwing everything into the harsh glare of the klieg lights.  For it is in celebrating mystery that the imagination of mankind created its wonders.

An obvious instance of this is in how Western Christians worship God.  At some point in recent history, God stopped being viewed as the Almighty: mysterious, powerful, and benevolent.  Instead, he started to be seen as our peer, who would overlook anything we did wrong so long as we loved one another, under whatever definition of love one preferred to adopt.  There was to be no more fuss, no more muss, and the prayer shifted from, “Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, a sinner,” to “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  This seismic shift from God as God to God as drinking buddy was reflected in architecture, music, art, and the like.

Similarly, when women decided to “liberate” themselves from actually being women, and when men rather stupidly agreed to go along with the excesses of this and stop being men, this change was reflected in numerous ways.  It was shown in the types of films produced, for example, where the man is little more than a bundle of uncontrolled stimuli looking for an intelligent woman with vast amounts of previous sexual experience to get him under control.  It was reflected in how each of the sexes dressed, to the point where now in many cases the runways are full of garments which are completely interchangeable with no difference between them.

When there is no mystery, no “otherness”, there is no wonder.  When we share everything about ourselves with just about anyone who will listen, we cheapen ourselves and our experiences.  And much as I appreciate your readership, gentle reader, there are certain aspects of my life to which you will not be privy unless you happen to be a close friend (and perhaps not even then), for the simple reason that they are none of your business.  That is admittedly a counter-cultural attitude to take in the present day, but given the lack of culture in our present day it is in fact the only possible and sensible attitude to take.

So tonight when I have cocktails with my old friend, it will be good to catch up, and share stories of what has been going on in each of our lives.  Yet at the same time I have no intention of using the hour or two we have in each other’s company to create some kind of tawdry news bulletin about the myriad of things I have experienced since last we saw each other.  For some things, in the end, are better kept to oneself – a fact which, regrettably, contemporary society does not seem to understand.

“St. Peter Martyr” by Fra Angelico (c. 1441)
Museo di San Marco, Florence

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