From chapter 4 of Dodging Angels on Saturday, by Graeme Garrett.
Published by the Australian Theological Forum in hand with Charles Sturt University, 2005
There is a French philosopher called Gabriel Marcel. He had some fascinating things to say on the difference between big ‘M’ mystery and little ‘m’ mystery as I have called it. Marcel preferred to use the word ‘problem’ for the sorts of mysteries I’ve described with small ‘m’ – stories, flights, lost keys, scientific puzzles and so on. ‘A problem,’ says Marcel, ‘is something which one runs up against, which bars the way. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery, however, is something in which I find myself involved, whose essence therefore, is not to be completely before me.’ A problem (my small ‘m’ mystery) blocks the way. I can’t find the car keys and I have to get to work. It’s urgent that I solve it or trouble will follow. I can’t figure out who the murderer is in the thriller I’m reading, so I am keen to get on with it to find out. We wonder what the other side of the moon is like. So we work to devise a space rocket with appropriate detection equipment on board and send it off in orbit around the moon to find out.
A problem is something that sits there in front of your nose and begs you to find the solution. But Mystery is different. It has this in common with the problem. You don’t know the answer to it. You haven’t ‘solved’ it as we say. But there the similarity ends. A genuine problem has a possible answer which in principle we can ‘find’ even if for the moment we haven’t found it. It might be extremely hard to find. It might take building a rocket to go to the other side of the moon. But it is there to be discovered and by us. Mystery by contrast isn’t ‘in front of us like a void to be filled out. As Marcel puts it, ‘I find myself involved’ with a genuine Mystery. Of course I can be very involved with the problem of finding the car keys, or writing a brief for the barrister, or making sure the auto cue is working for the news read, in the sense that the effort involved to achieve these things is important to me.
But that’s not the sort of involvement that Marcel has in mind. He means that my whole being, myself, as a human person is caught up in and even made possible by the reality he calls Mystery. This reality, the Mystery, isn’t something which I might decided to be interested in, or then again I might not. Rather Mystery is that ‘something’ out of which my whole life, lock, stock and barrel, emerges in the first place. I can be interested (or not) in a problem like the brief or the auto cue because I am already a going concern as a human being. I am a thinking, feeling, deciding person. Btu what is it that enables me to be that? Eventually I might hunt out the conditions under which the car keys become visible. But how can I make visible the conditions that provide for me to be me? Or in your cases, for you to be Catherine and you to be Jane in your respective and unique individualities?