Remember Algebra class and "solving for x"? A puzzle. An Unknown. A math mystery. Turns out, math and the spiritual life are not so far apart. In fact, in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy, x is a symbol for "The Mystery" — the spiritual home for the great mystics and a vital part of every spiritual journey. Mystery, or the "Great Unknown," invites us to make room in our souls for mystery, intrigue, and the ineffable "more-ness" of the spiritual adventure. But like math class, could part of that lavish landscape of spiritual unknowns include not only sacred mysteries, but very worldly ones as well?
To be honest, if I were given a word association test with the word, "Mystery," I would surely blurt out "Agatha Christie!" As an avid fan of classic Whodunnit mysteries, I sometimes wonder if these entertaining books about clues and suspects and puzzling out the truth are contributing anything to my spiritual life. Does the murder mystery sleuth and spiritual sleuth have anything in common?
On the surface they seem at odds, one focused on religious or spiritual experience, the other on knives sticking out of chests and the faint smell of poison in the hot chocolate. But every mystery kindles a fire within our psyche — at least the part that longs for truth and justice and happy endings. Both classic and modern Whodunnits are more than mere puzzles for the mind. The solving of a mystery represents the triumph of justice, the righting of wrong, the restorations of harmony in a community, and sometimes a profound transformation of characters.
Perhaps that is why I am so drawn to the BBC Father Brown Mysteries, a whimsical series which touches on the more spiritual and moral aspects of sleuthing. When a harmonious village is suddenly thrown into chaos by a dastardly murderer, Father Brown solves the case, restores equilibrium — with a dash of progressive moral insight — and reassures us that the good within us can outwit the worst. Similarly, In Masterpiece Mystery's Granchester, an Anglican priest is not only on the hunt for a murderer, but for justice itself, often demonstrating that justice demands sacrifice and compassion, and is often heartbreaking and ambiguous. In both series, the community is transformed because of the courage and tenacity of the sleuth.
Sleuths know how to pay attention; they are keen observers and notice things others miss. The spiritual sleuth, too, gives her attention to the moment; she listens and notices the world around her, seeking God in the world through opening up her mind and heart to the present moment.
In most classic mystery yarns, observation and "deduction" play a huge role, but reason never works alone. The sleuth has a special gift for intuiting connections that everyone else misses. These sleuths show us that reason and empirical evidence are vital, but not all there is. Likewise, the spiritual sleuth may love to puzzle out the Big Questions with studies in philosophy and theology, but he instinctively knows that there is more than our minds can understand. Still, the questions themselves entice us to wrestle and imagine and hone the reservoirs of curiosity within us.
As one who is devoted to puzzling out both murder mysteries and the Big Questions, I have come to realize that at some point we must let go to the intuitive and ineffable aspects of the spiritual life. When we do, we are like the gifted sleuth who suddenly experiences an "aha!" moment when doing the laundry or some other mundane task. The deeper connections only come to us when we let go of our need to figure everything out.
Letting go to The Mystery is not a cop-out for avoiding intellectual struggle, but a legitimate spiritual path — one traversed by the great mystics like Meister Eckhart and Rumi and St. Francis — and open to us all. As with the famous sleuths, intuition and reason need each other. One complements the other, the yin and yang of spiritual detection. Of course, mystery and logic often collide into a spiritual crisis. The narrow mind is then forced to stretch and deepen as a result. This adds beauty to the soul, for within the struggle, the inner life widens out into something rich and complex. Shallow harmonies are let go of in favor of intense harmonies which are less judgmental and open to other forms of knowledge and different ways of knowing.
Of course, unless you are a fundamentalist, spiritual mysteries are not precise and unquestioned like "solving for x" in Algebra; they are not neat and tidy endings as in a Miss Marple mystery. But even Miss Marple would be nothing without another mystery to solve. And another. Without the continual intrigue of mystery in our lives and in our faith, how dull the spiritual life would be! It would be like a world without music, a journey with no surprises, or a friendship with no more secrets to reveal.
May we never think we have God or the Universe all figured out! Spiritual sleuthing for treasures of the spirit gives life zest and keeps us on our toes. It satisfies not only our curiosity, but our yearning for truth, justice, and the restoration of harmony. Spiritual sleuthing harnesses the imagination alongside the intellect, luring us into a world of unimaginably fresh experiences. Most of all, it keeps us humble in this vast and unfathomable Universe.
Practice: Next time you get the craving for a Whodunnit mystery, take your inner spiritual sleuth along with you. Get into the mind of the sleuth and notice your own inner quest for truth, and your deep yearning for justice as you empathize with the protagonist. What larger questions does this practice create within you? What mysteries do you want to probe in your own spiritual journey?