As a graduate student specializing in western medieval mysticism, I became most interested in the fourteenth-century English visionary, Julian of Norwich. A recluse who had a near-death experience, Julian was the first woman to compose a book in English.
In her book, A Showing of God’s Love (sometimes referred to as Revelations of Divine Love or just “the Revelations”), she describes seeing Christ and receiving sixteen distinct teachings about the surpassing love of God. Some of the teachings or “revelations” were very clear. However, she says that some of the teachings she received were shown to her “full mistily.”
Medievalists are unsure exactly how to translate this Middle English phrase. Is “mistily” a scribal mistake for “mystically”? Or did Julian really mean that her supernatural experience was like mist, hard to describe or pin down? Certainly she means that at the time, she did not understand what she saw.
Years later, I was asked to participate in a regional retreat for Orthodox Boy Scouts in New England. The theme for the retreat was advertised as “Christ is in our mists.” At first, I was puzzled by this, and only later realized what it was supposed to be.
No doubt the organizers originally intended for the advertisements to read, “Christ is in our midst.” This is the phrase which a bishop says to a priest, or a priest to fellow priests or the deacon, during the Divine Liturgy. Whether the change was intentional or not, however, it seemed like a brilliant idea. Theologically, Christ really is in our mists.
Orthodox theology has always spoken of God as Mystery (Greek, mysterion). In fact, everything about our faith is mysterious: the Holy Trinity, Creation, the fall into sin, the Incarnation, the role of the cross, Jesus’ resurrection from death, the ascension, Pentecost, and even the sacraments, which in the Orthodox Church are known as “mysteries.” Not only this, but Orthodox saints insist that Christ is most present to us in those things which we understand only mistily. Truly, “Christ is in our mists.”a
There are many examples of this in the liturgical hymns of the Church. In the pre-Nativity hymn, I parthenou symeron (“Today the Virgin Comes”), we sing that the Virgin approaches a cave to give birth “in a mysterious manner” to the God Who is the Creator of all. The surrounding hymns in the Orthros and Vespers during this period emphasize that in fact, we do not understand anything about the Nativity of Christ. The entire idea of a God being born of a virgin mother, in the poverty of a cave, is unreasonable—in short, a mystery which is beyond understanding and which will never make sense.
Every Sunday, the priest is reminded of the mist which surrounds Christ. At the end of the Orthros prayers, and again during the Divine Liturgy, the priest rehearses a central mystery of the Resurrection: that Christ was “in the tomb bodily, but in Hades with the soul as God, and in paradise with the thief, upon the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit, filling all things.” Christ, Who is boundless, is beyond our understanding.
The Gospel of John tells us that on the day of Christ’s resurrection, the women disciples went to the tomb very early, before sunrise. There, in the pre-dawn mist, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus. In the darkness, she did not recognize Him. Supposing Him to be the gardener, she asked where thieves might have placed Jesus’ body. She only knew who Jesus was when He spoke to her, saying simply, “Mary.”
St. Paul writes that, like Mary’s encounter with Christ that mysterious morning, all of Christian faith is something we experience only mistily: “For now we see in a glass, darkly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The Greek reads, “as in a mirror, enigmatically” (mistily?). Such is the entire Christian experience; but we await the time when we can see Truth—the face of Jesus Christ—clearly and eternally.
In the old Latin Mass, there was the moment when the priest invited the people to recite the “mystery of the faith.” The people replied, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” This short sentence, embracing past, present, and future, was one of the earliest of the Christian creeds or statements of faith. In the Eastern Church at this moment, the priests embrace and say, “Christ is in our midst,” and the answer is, “He was, He is, and He always will be.” In both the Western and Eastern expressions of this mystery, we see all of time encompassed in the moment of the resurrection, in a way which we cannot understand.
Christ is present to us tangibly in the Lord’s Supper. But even this physical presence is mysterious. No one could explain rationally, or scientifically, or in a court of law, what it means when we say that this bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. Yet the faithful experience it as true, even if only “mistily.”
Outside the sacraments, we may also experience the nearness of God in ways we cannot explain. The English writer C. S. Lewis called this the experience of the “numinous”—a kind of strange encounter, as in the mists, of the all-powerful God. All people have experiences like these. Atheists and agnostics may try to ignore them, but the fact remains that we do at times experience what we cannot understand, and our hair stands on end.
Finally, there are times when we think that God has abandoned us, or that life is hopeless, or that we will never understand even the most basic things. This is, I believe, when Christ is nearest to us. In the Gospels we see that Jesus preferentially spoke to those who were most desperate. He healed the woman with an infirmity, who for eighteen years could not stand up straight; He pulled the paralytic to his feet and told him to carry his bed; He raised the only son of a widow from death. It is specifically at these times that the love of God draws closest to address us.
If we want to understand everything around us, or even ourselves, we will end up frustrated and foolish. No one—not even, or especially, scientists—can grasp the mystery of all that exists. We do not even know how we came to exist, or who we are, or—most important of all—what love really is. But we can ask for the presence of the risen Christ to surround us with His divine love. Then He reveals Himself “full mistily.” Truly, Christ is in our mists.