The word ‘explanation’ comes from the Latin planus, meaning ‘flat’.  To explain something is to flatten it out as you would a scroll.  If I demand an explanation for everything, I am setting out a dead flat mental landscape.  Explanations are nearly always banal, with no height, no depth.  Nobody would go to see a flat landscape, because there is nothing to see.  To have everything explained would be the ultimate boredom: you would be satisfied, yet unsatisfied (the mind knows that particular feeling just as well as the stomach does).  Instead, look at life and death as you would look at a real landscape: death, the inescapable, is a breath-taking precipice, God is the soaring sky above it; everything else is mountains, hills, slopes, rivers, dark forests, individual trees.... How silent we are able to be in the presence of nature!  We may like to have some knowledge of the origin of mountains and rivers, yes, but such knowledge never takes the place of the real mountain or river.  Likewise it is possible to be silent in the face of our life’s great contours  -  and also the lesser contours: the details, the texture.... Anything can bring your mind to silence if you pay sufficiently clear attention to it. 

Because theology has been for so long a business of explanations everyone is offering them, and these become more and more banal till in the end our Faith is no longer a way of wisdom, an initiation into the Holy Mystery, but only a more and more complicated story, with little life in it any more.  How good it would be if we stopped explaining everything and learned to look instead, to contemplate....  We need to return, as so many have been telling us for so long, to the mystical reality of our Faith.

It works in every area of our life.  Try looking at your friends as you would look at landscapes.  If they are normal people they are not perfect in every way: they are limited in many ways, weak in others, and wretched in some; they are three-dimensional beings, like landscapes, not flat formulae.  If you care for them only for the sake of certain qualities they have, you are disrespecting their full reality.  They are what they are, they are not ‘explained’, they have heights and depths in them, inaccessible mountains and cliffs, places they dare not even think about themselves.  They are simultaneously good and bad, strong and weak, brave and fearful.  In fairness to us, we don't expect our friends to be perfect; sometimes we love them for their very weaknesses, and we certainly don't require them to be two-dimensional paragons of anything.  Beneath all the beautiful qualities of some friend you get a glimpse of a blind, selfish, animal instinct to live and succeed.  Is this less worthy?  Does it disqualify the person in some way?  Is the very existence of basic instincts shameful? 

What have we been feeding on that we have difficulty in accepting the reality of one another... and of ourselves?  We have ideals, models, standards, principles, patterns, images and examples and God knows what...but all of these are a kind of violence if we don't also welcome the full reality of the struggling person before us.  Yes, a person is a kind of landscape.  You can look at their reality as you would trace a skyline or the veins of a leaf.  There is a ‘factuality’ about a person that comes before all judgments of good and evil; call it by as many names as you can, so as to mark the place well and the different roads to it: call it thisness or thusness; in the Middle Ages Scotus called it haecceitas, which is equivalent to those.  Or call it suchness, “thus it goes”.  It is not tolerance; tolerance is sometimes a self-regarding attitude that says: there are things about you I don't approve of, but I am so broad-minded that I won't mention them. This other attitude is directed entirely beyond the personality, it has nothing to say about good or bad because that is a different matter: that is about ‘should’, and comes much later, while this is about ‘is’. 

Well, if we are able to have this approach to our friends, why not to everyone and everything?  The mountain does its work by being huge, by being there; the flowers by being beautiful and short-lived; you and I by being... human... and short-lived....

Thus it goes.  

Donagh O'Shea


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