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The X Factor is the Answer



Spiritual Rx draws upon the hundreds of books, movies, and audios reviewed by our media editors, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, to offer a toolkit of resources for your spiritual practice. Spiritual Rx is a book (Hyperion, January 2000). In this exclusive preview, Fred and Mary Ann look to some of our most profound contemporary spiritual writers to discover guides, companions, and teachers for the journey into the blessings of unknowing.

This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.

The Best Practice

To be spiritual is to have an abiding respect for the great mysteries of life — the profound distinctiveness of other souls, the strange beauty of nature and the animal world, the ineffable complexity of our inner selves, the unfathomable depths of the Inexplicable One. The wisdom traditions challenge us to live within a cloud of unknowing.

The first step in this practice is to cherish the baffling, curious, hidden, and inscrutable dimensions of your existence and the world around you. Live with paradoxes. Give up the idea that you can always "get it." Be suspicious of all the "ologies" that try to explain everything — from astrology to psychology to theology. Whenever you are honestly stumped by the existence of evil, injustice, or suffering, resist the temptation to ask "Why?" And never be afraid to admit "I don't know."

The practice of mystery enhances our understanding of the complexity of reality. It is an affront to the modern need to have answers to every question and our tendency to create tidy systems with a cubby hole for every problem and aspiration. Of course, some people simply ignore the mysterious because it lies outside the hallowed precincts of reason and logic. The antidote to these reductionist approaches is to rest in the riddle o f not knowing. If you sometimes think that answers are wisdom, it is time to try practicing mystery.


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

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

When we trust "Don't know" we do not cling to the past. We do not hold onto old points of view and stagnant opinions. When we trust "Don't know" we are open to being in process, with many possibilities and alternatives. We do not force things to happen. "Don't know" waits and explores, searches and considers, examines and trusts. Joyce Rupp


In India they use the term "old soul" to describe someone who is ripe enough to experience the deepest mysteries. It applies to our teacher of mystery, bestselling author and psychologist Robert A. Johnson. In Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations (Harper San Francisco, 1998), Johnson, writing with Jerry M. Ruhl, recounts the amazing twists and turns of his spiritual journey. His encounters with what Mircea Eliade called “the Golden World" have given him a great respect for the mysteries of ecstatic experiences.

Johnson's spiritual mentors have included Jiddu Krishnamurti, Fritz Kunkel, and Carl Jung. Throughout the book, he reflects upon the significant dreams in his life as pathways to discovery and personal renewal. He also ponders the important role India, friends, active imagination, music, and Eastern and Western religions have played in his quest for understanding. Johnson is a great exemplar of what it means to cherish the mysteries.

Traditionally, mystics are the ones who tutor us in the art of being moved by that which we can never fully comprehend or control. In Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Life (Harper San Francisco, 1995), James P.Carse reflects upon happenings in his life that have been "bounded by the boundless." The author, who teaches literature and religion at New York University, battles with his false self, which is always looking for attention and acclaim. On the other hand, he finds moments to celebrate when the soul shows through and the ego is "naughted." He fondly recalls a night watch on a schooner in Lake Michigan when he felt at one with the boat, the stars, and the water. And in the title essay, Carse lauds the ability of the one-legged owner of the Victory Luncheonette to so lose himself in what he is doing at the counter that it is no longer work but sheer flow. He concludes with a paean to mystery: “It is one thing to see something remarkable appearing inexplicably in the world. It is quite another to see the world itself as remarkable and all of existence as inexplicable.”


The English Patient (Miramax). Great movies often bring us into the presence of the inexplicable mysteries of the human heart. The English Patient is an enthralling Academy Award -winning film about the violent upheavals of World War II and the healing power of love. A badly burned patient is taken to an Italian monastery by Hana, a Canadian nurse. Her spirit has been shattered by the deaths of two people very close to her. In the silence and solace of this holy place, the text of the dying patient's life is slowly unraveled. A morphine addict turns up and develops a keen interest in his story. Another arrival on the scene, a Sikh bomb-disposal expert, falls in love with Hana.

The monastery turns out to be a divine milieu where the healing balm of confession, compassion, forgiveness, and personal renewal are administered. Lives are changed but the reasons why and how are never quite explained. The English Patient pays homage to the mysteries of the human soul and its great powers of resiliency.

Household Saints (Columbia TriStar Home Video). One of the characters in Household Saints says, "You think you know how the game is going but you never do. At any moment God can deal you a wild card."The wild cards are mysteries.

This quirky and offbeat drama revolves around a lucky butcher who wins his wife's hand in marriage in a card game. They live with his pious Catholic mother and raise a very devout daughter, Teresa who wants to serve God like Saint Therese of Lisieux. Then one day while ironing shirts she has a vision of Christ. She tries to tell her parents about it, but they send her to a Catholic institution for having, as one nun puts it, "temporarily lost touch with what we call reality." But yet another wild card is dealt. The upshot of Teresa's spiritual journey is that God moves mysteriously in our lives to work miracles while we are dealing with such seemingly in significant matters as making sausages, ironing shirts, and scrubbing floors.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Columbia TriStar Home Video). Movies can transport us to a place where awe and wonder are the only appropriate responses to mysteries beyond our ken. One of the most impressive films of the modern era in this regard is Close Encounters o f the Third Kind.

Roy Neary, a power repairman in Muncie, Indiana, has a series o f close encounters with UFOs. As he tries to work out his feelings about these experiences, his life is completely upended. Alienated from his wife who can't understand what he is going through, Roy teams up with a widow who has also seen UFOs and is looking for her missing son. The third major figure in this thriller is Claude Lacombe, a French scientist who is leading an international investigation of UFOs.

This extraordinary film asks us to reimagine the vastness of the universe and our small place within it. The drama affirms our impulse to believe in cosmic unity and downplays the idea of Earth chauvinism. But the main message of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is this: Openness to the unknown is the best policy; there are surely many more mysteries yet to come.

Spiritual Exercises and Rituals

Rituals help to reinforce a spiritual practice by using heightened concentration, special settings, and symbolic objects. This is especially true for the practice of mystery. The Christian sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, for example, are based on a belief in a mysterious activity of God through the ritual toward the individual and the community. Create a simple ritual in which you yield to "unknowing" and welcome the Mystery of God.

  • Black is the color of mystery. It reveals no particular color but absorbs all others. Wear all black for one day this week to signify your devotion to the manifold mysteries of life.
  • Stop reading astrological, numerological, and other such forecasts that try to take the mystery out of the future.
  • Find an artist in any creative medium whose work helps you deepen your sensitivity to the mysteries of the human soul, the natural world, your inner self, and God. Go to this spiritual resource whenever you feel the urge to try to explain everything.

Prayer or Mantra

This prayer is suggested by Joyce Rupp in her book of meditations The Cup o f Our Life.

Breathing in: O Mystery… Breathing out: Alive in me.

Imagery Exercise

This exercise on being in the presence of the Mystery was designed by Colette Aboulker Muscat of Jerusalem, Israel. It gives you practice living with paradox.

Close your eyes and breathe out three times.

See yourself standing and kneeling at the same time.

Breathe out one time. Sense and feel your silent cry going out of yourself.

Breathe out one time. See and feel yourself dancing and standing still at the same time.

When you are finished, open your eyes.

Journal Exercises

  • Reflect upon the things you just can't explain in your daily life, especially ones that you are having difficulty leaving alone. Describe the mystery but don't try to add an explanation.
  • Write about an experience that opened your eyes to the fact that we can never really know the heart of another person, even those who are closest to us. Express the feelings that come up when you accept this idea.

Discussion Questions, Storytelling, Sharing

  • Monks and nuns of all traditions have been called caretakers and preservers of God's mysteries. Who else performs that function today?
  • So much has been made of the mystery of evil. Who or what has taught you about the mystery of good? For instance, how was this mystery revealed in the movie Schindler's List?
  • Talk about what religious educators and spiritual teachers can do to insure that young people have a proper respect for the limits of reason and the bounties o f mystery.

Household, Group, and Community Projects

One of the best ways to practice mystery is for adults to model accepting it in the home. This means that parents, grandparents, and other significant figures in the lives of children make room for "not knowing" in their responses to difficult questions. Not everything can be answered or explained simply and quickly. Here are some common situations when "not knowing" would be appropriate.

  1. You see survivors of a natural disaster on television expressing their gratitude that their property was spared, while others lost everything, and a child wants to know who deserved what.
  2. One of your child’s friends, a parent, or a pet dies and your child wants to know why this happened.
  3. Somebody wins the lottery and your child wants to know if that could happen to you.

Volunteer to work in a hospital, a hospice, or a rehabilitation center where you will come face to face with suffering and death. Don’t try to make rational sense out of what you witness.

One of the best ways to practice mystery is for adults to model accepting it in the home… “Not knowing” in their responses to some difficult questions.

Spoken-word Audio

Novelist, poet, and essayist Ursula K. LeGuin has fashioned an elegant and lyrical interpretation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (Shambhala, 1998). In her audio reading of this ancient spiritual text, which is the most translated book in the world next to the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, she conveys the feminine spirit of the Great Mystery that holds all things together. In addition, she emphasizes Taoism's respect for paradox — the use of opposites.


Listening to music is a subjective experience; it speaks to us in mysterious ways. Just the sound of music can set in motion a complex series of responses that have just been awaiting activation. Moreover, the activation may be immediate, delayed, repressed, or even unrecognized. The mystery of music is the way it works us over and, on some occasions, connects with great power directly to our souls. One of the best descriptions of this phenomenon is "Music" by John Miles on his album Rebel (Poly). This beautifully orchestrated five -minute masterpiece celebrates music as the magic that helps pull us through.


The world is immersed in mystery, and the most spiritual approach is to revel in it rather than analyze it. That certainly was the approach of Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings honor the unknowable in human nature, in the natural world, and even in simple objects. In A Pair of Shoes (1886), van Gogh conveys the sanctity of these dirty, worn-out tools of his working life. His respect for the mystery of the human personality comes through in portraits of a postman, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, and a physician, Portrait of Doctor Paul Gachet. Two of his most powerful paintings pay tribute to the wild unsystematic energy of nature: Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom salutes new life, and The Starry Night vividly conveys the awesome quality of a turbulent sky.

Daily Cue, Reminder, Vow, Blessing

  • Sorting clothes and wondering what happened to my other sock is my cue to practice mystery.
  • Passing a funeral parlor or a cemetery, I am reminded to contemplate mysteries.
  • Whenever I hear someone applying a system of explanations for good fortune or illness, I vow to respect the complexity and mystery of life.
  • Blessed is the Creator of the Universe who lurks in mystery.

How will we EVER figure life out?

(We won’t)

Learning to embrace mystery may become our most graceful and grace-filled practice in the next millennium.

Give up the idea that you can always “get it.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat were this magazine's media editors in its early days, and the authors of Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (Touchstone). 

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