Much of life is rather mysterious. I recently found myself rummaging around an old mahogany desk in my family home. It is the kind of desk one stores old documents in, documents that were important at one time, saved and then forgotten. As I began sorting through things, I reached into the very back of a dusty drawer and, suddenly, I felt something. It seemed to be an old envelope, wedged in the back. I eventually extracted it from the desk and what a surprise it became.
In my hands were my late mother’s tax returns from when she was a young woman in the late 1950s. Stuck in the back of a drawer, they had simply been lost and then forgotten. But in my hands now was a window into the hidden early life of my mother that I knew very little about. I paused before I opened the envelope.
For most of us, the lives of our parents before they married and had us are shrouded in mystery. What was our father really like in high school? What did our mother do with her friends in college? Our experience of our parents is inexorably tied to the fact that we are their child. Questions asked by us of our parents about their early life are often met with claims of no memory, a telling look or an evasive change of the subject. Perhaps this is as it should be — sometimes it is best not to see what is behind that door. However, many of us still wonder.
We live in an age of instant answers to our questions. Answers to how many pints are in a quart, who was vice president in 1820 or the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow are at our fingertips. We are neither as clever nor as intelligent as we sometimes claim to be today — we just know how to push the right buttons. And yet, when we come upon the mystery of our parents or ancestors and their past lives, we are forced to pause.
The popularity today of genealogical research I think speaks to this reality. Often unattached to the closeness of kin, we must look to the past to find a way to understand ourselves. The desire to meet long lost relatives, birth parents, or stepsiblings all speaks to this innate desire to belong. But try as we might, we inevitably come face to face with the mystery of the unknown. There are facts from our family’s past that we will never know. And perhaps this is as it should be.
Approaching the things of God as we all must, we are faced with the same reality. The mystery of the Trinity, the wonderfully curious tenacity of God’s mercy, and the stubborn problem of sin and evil in the world all speak to this. Theological study and, in particular, fervent prayer can get us about halfway to the answer. But, in the end, God is God and we are not. Is it any wonder, then, why the Mass is called “the sacred mystery?” We understand what the Eucharist is, but it still remains mysterious. Can we accept the presence of mystery in our lives and the fact that some things cannot be known — about God and about ourselves? There can be great freedom in making peace with this reality.
Carefully, guardedly, I opened the envelope containing my mother’s old tax returns. I quickly discovered that, as a blond, California girl of 20, she worked in a factory that built military aircraft and guided missiles. She lived very near the beach in a tiny apartment. And she financially supported her local parish. I was surprised and somewhat relieved by what I found. Mystery solved! But then came the follow-up questions. Why did she …? The tax return didn’t provide any further answers. And I was right back to the mystery again. It’s a good place to be, really. Because in the mysteries of life, we often find God.