Here's something Flannery O'Connor said,
"What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them."
The "concrete" is the spiritual embodied. "What-is" is the consequential, the actual limitations of reality around us, not the Unreal make-believe that we think we can get away with living in.
But we religious folk don't usually understand that. We think religion is a fine feeling we get on a Sunday, or a certain thrill we feel watching "Matthew Kelly on a headset" (as a friend of mine puts it). Christopher West might make a tingle run up our leg, but his version of Theology of the Body has nothing to do with the ups and downs of sacramental marriage as it actually exists and is lived out day to day.
Much of my life story (which I will be writing) has to do with my coming to terms with this what-is. Much of my life story has been a story of traveling from Unreality to Reality, out of shadows and images into the truth, as my blog's motto and as Cardinal Newman put it. This is a hard thing for anyone, especially for anyone who makes his living off of his imagination, as I do, to understand.
But if Unreality is a way of describing the Anatomy of Sin, then What-is is a way of describing the shocking Presence of God in our midst. What-is is the source of humility and wonder. What-is shows us the Judgment that is present even in time. What-is is the key to sanity, to all right philosophy, and to the Incarnation.
What-is is the Cross of Christ.
But what is what-is?
Here are three of many possible examples.
- A suburban couple lives beyond their means. Their creditors start to harass them. They demand as much as 33% interest per year from the couple on their credit card debt, which is equal to or more than their annual income. The couple struggles to keep up. Eventually they either have to go bankrupt, downsize, or settle for a fraction of what they owe. The Unreality is the bubble, the treadmill, the panic of trying to satisfy creditors with make-believe money, with money that isn't there and that never will be. The reality is what-is.
- The homosexual agenda is pushed in the world and in the Church for decades. You befriend a young homosexual and are shocked to discover that his "same sex attraction" is not something that is limited to his bedroom activities (or to his public bathroom or highway rest stop activities) but is a symptom of a broader psychology that colors everything he does, making him a very difficult person to trust and relate to. You have no idea why this should be, and you assume there's something wrong with you and that you're being "judgmental" - but, dammit, that's what-is - and you deny it at your peril. Sex is never segregated from the wholeness of who we are as persons, physically or spiritually - and, even though the whole world and most of the Catholic Church now denies it, that's what-is.
- You want to provide for your family and make a name for yourself in your chosen field. You work non-stop 80 hour weeks and you finally have a heart attack or a "nervous breakdown". Your kids don't know you, your wife is neurotic, and the porn you've been using to ease the pain no longer helps. Welcome to what-is.
There are some forms of art that tell stories that are Lies, stories that deny what-is and that prop up what-isn't. This kind of shallow propaganda is never recognized as great art, or even as good art. For good art entails grappling with what-is. And so does true Faith.