I knew an old man who used to say habitually, regardless of context, “That’s the way!”  When you met him his greeting was always, “That’s the way.”  When you told him some piece of news, good or bad, “That’s the way.”  And when you parted, “That’s the way.”  I remembered him today in connection with an exotic word, .  It means, more or less… that’s the way. 

There is more to life than explanations.  Understanding is a broader notion than explanation; and really to understand is ‘to become one with’.  The word ‘explanation’ comes from planus, meaning ‘flat’.  To explain something is to flatten it out as you would a scroll.  Now, if I demand an explanation for everything, I am demanding 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, that inescapable koan, is a breath-taking precipice, God is the soaring mountain above it; everything else is hills, rises, slopes, rivers, dark forests, individual trees.... How silent we become in the presence of nature!  We may like to have some information about mountains and rivers, yes, but such information never takes the place of the real mountain or river.  Likewise it is better to be silent in the face of our life’s great contours – and also the lesser contours, the details.  Anything can bring you to silence if you pay sufficiently clear attention to it. 

When theology has been for so long a business of explanations everyone begins to offer explanations 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 unlikely story; it is last year’s nest, with no life in it any more: God becomes a conservative philosophy, or Jesus becomes just a moralist – his death loses its sting, his resurrection is reduced to a bland rule of optimism.  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.

Look at people as you look at nature.  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.  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, 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: ‘this-ness’, or haecceitas, a word that Scotus invented for the purpose; or the Buddhist term tathagata, ‘suchness’, ‘thus it goes’, or ‘that’s the way’.... It is not tolerance; tolerance is quite often a self-regarding attitude that says: there are things in you I don't approve of, but I am so broad-minded that I won't mention them. The other attitude is directed entirely beyond the self, it has nothing to say about good or bad because that is a different matter: that is about ‘should’, while this is about ‘is’.  

The mountain does its work by being huge, by being ancient, by being there; the flowers by being beautiful and short-lived; you and I by being...human...and short-lived....

That’s the way.

Donagh O'Shea


Donagh O'Shea

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