PERSON, PLACE OR THING

    Is a person a thing? I don't mean just any old thing; I mean a very special kind of living thing. Or are persons so special that you cannot properly call them things at all? Still, “You poor thing!” we say to people (and not only children) when we are filled with pity for them. They are not insulted by our choice of words; they are often consoled. But on the other hand, try treating people as things - pushing them around, or ignoring them, or throwing them out - and you get a very different reaction indeed. So, why can’t we make up our minds: are we things or are we not?
    I'll come back to that. What if we were to think of persons as places? I listened for hours to a person of very strong will who was in constant trouble (with himself as much as with other people) for that very will-power of his. I had the impression of a small ball of steel. From that steel core he had been trying all his life to impose his plans on the world; and when it was not plans it was expectations, which are just as bad. Suddenly I thought to say to him, “Why not think of yourself as a place, instead of a thing?” He was very surprised: this kind of talk was not according to any plan of his!
    I'll come back to him! There are precedents for calling people places. St Paul called us “temples of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6). A temple is a place. The Litany of Loreto is like a museum of titles for Mary. We can scarcely imagine what kind of worlds they came from or what some of them once meant. In it Mary is called an ark, a house, a vessel, a tower.... All these could be described as things, of course, but they are just as truly places. Think of yourself as a place where God is at work, and you will be less tempted to think that the world’s salvation depends on you and your plans.
    The word ‘room’ (and its German cousin ‘Raum’) means ‘space’. But we build a room and then proceed to fill it with clutter, making it the opposite of a room. There is a need for empty space there; if there were no empty space it could no longer be called a room in a proper sense. It is the same with us: the essential is to get rid of the clutter in our lives, our hearts, our minds; the essential is to make room.
    The trouble with clutter is that you become so used to it that you think you cannot do without it. In that sense you become identified with it. This is even more true of inner clutter. You become identified with your work, your ideas, your plans; and if you were ever to be deprived of these, you would feel that you scarcely existed any more. But of course you would exist, and you would be more yourself than before. You would be identified with yourself rather than with your clutter. You would know the indestructible beauty of emptiness. You would be a place where God was at work.
    Rooms have walls. So have we, walls of some kind: boundaries, limits (and limitations), ways of being private. These walls are not so stout as the ones of stone or brick; with one word someone can breach your wall, and with a bit of sustained effort they can knock it to the ground. This is a disaster if you have identified yourself with your clutter: it is all exposed to view, it looks so petty and embarrassing - as household things always do when a wall is knocked down and they become visible from the street. But space itself is inviolable. And when all your walls fall down in death your identity, you believe, will not be dissipated. In some mysterious way you will be more yourself than ever before, and there will be no barrier between you and God, nor between you and others. Then the Spirit will blow where it wills and you will be rapt up in a mystery beyond imagination. Meditation is when you sit for an hour or so and live with that detachment from clutter, and you try not to care so much about your walls: you open your mind and heart to God and the world.
    In that attitude fear lets go of you, fear that usually makes you feel small and cornered. It unties its traps and releases you into a wider world.... Whenever you want, you can go back to being a thing! Physicists (a race of people, I think, who dislike ambiguity more than most) have to live with ambiguity: they cannot settle the question whether light is particles or waves, so they work with the understanding that it is either, or both. Why should not a Christian (who inherits a profound wisdom about symbolism and language) think, and live, sometimes like a thing and sometimes like a place? Even the steel man, I later discovered, has begun to attempt it!


[Extract from I Remember your Name in the Night, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications (Dublin) and Twenty-Third Publications (CT) 1997]

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.