Mystical Certitude

From C A & C, newsletter, today the 20th of May

Truly, you are a God who hides, O God of Israel, the Savior. —Isaiah 45:15

Father Richard closes this week’s meditations on how God is encountered not through words but through humble “not knowing”:

I want to point out that there are two different kinds of certitude: mouthy and mystical.

Just for the sake of alliteration and cleverness, I call the first one “mouthy certitude.” Mouthy certitude is filled with bravado, overstatement, quick, dogmatic conclusions, and a rush to judgment. People like this are always trying to convince others. They need to get us on their side and tend to talk a lot in the process. Underneath the “mouthiness” is a lot of anxiety about being right. Mouthy certitude, I think, often gives itself away, frankly, by being rude and even unkind because it’s so convinced it has the whole truth.

We have to balance mouthy certitude with “mystical certitude.” Mystical certitude is utterly authoritative, but it’s humble. It isn’t unkind. It doesn’t need to push its agenda. It doesn’t need to compel anyone to join a club, a political party, or even a religion. It’s a calm, collected presence, which Jesus seems to possess entirely. As Jesuit Greg Boyle writes, “There is no place in the gospel where Jesus is defensive. In fact, he says, ‘Do not worry what your defense will be’ [Luke 12:11]. Jesus had no interest in winning the argument, only in making the argument.” [1]

Those who know always know that they don’t know. That’s the character of the mystic. The very word “mystical” comes from the Sanskrit “mū,” which was associated with being tongue-tied or hushed to silence. This Indo-European root shaped the words “mystery,” “mystic,” “mute,” “mumble,” and others. It’s when we come before what the scholar Rudolph Otto (1869–1937) called the “mysterium tremendum” [2]—the tremendous mystery of God—and we can’t find the words. All we can do is mutter, because we know whatever just happened is beyond words, beyond proving, and beyond any kind of rational certitude. Our present notion of God is never it, because if we comprehend it, it is not God. If you happen to have the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues, it is a physiological experience of the ineffability of true spiritual experience. Maybe we all need to pray in tongues!

The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest. This is traditional Christian doctrine and is, in effect, the maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without those two qualities—humility and honesty—we just don’t grow. If we try to use religion to aggrandize the self, we will end up just the opposite: proud and dishonest. Humility and honesty are really the same thing. A humble person is simply someone who is naturally honest about their own truth. You and I came along a few years ago; we’re going to be gone in a few more years. The only honest response to such a mystery is humility.

[1] Gregory Boyle, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2021), 130.

[2] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), 12.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010).  Available as CDDVD, and MP3 download; and

Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 120.

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