Sunday, November 25, 2012

Surprised by the Joy of Reality

The voice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven."  There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy - that is, to reality.
Thus speaks George MacDonald to the narrator in C. S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce. 

Throughout this strange and insightful story, one of the main motifs is that Heaven is more real than earth, so real that the grass and flowers of Heaven hurt the feet of the ghosts who trod on them.  The ghosts are souls who have not yet let go of their selfishness-and-sin enough to enter into Heaven fully, to become as real as the saints who have.  The ghosts are insubstantial; the saints are Real.  Throughout The Great Divorce, the closer you get to Heaven - the more you become a saint - the more substantial you become; the more real you are.

Blessed John Henry Newman says of this reality, "Before Christ came was the time of shadows; but when He came, He brought truth as well as grace."  And he adds of those superficial believers and non-believers among us, "They have never got beyond accepting shadows for things."

MacDonald also tells the narrator in Lewis' story that those who cling to the Unreal, those who refuse to serve in Heaven and instead opt to reign in Hell, have plenty of handy rationalizations at their disposal.  He gives here a short litany of the Excuses of the Damned ...

One will say he has always served his country right or wrong; and another that he has sacrificed everything to his Art; and some that they've never been taken in, and some that, thank God, they've always looked after Number One, and nearly all, that, at least they've been true to themselves.
"To thine own self be true" being the most modern and most wrong-headed bit of advice that ever gained currency.  Why?  How can such a platitude send us on the road to Hell?

Because if our country is god; if our Art is god; if protecting our vulnerability is god; if our self is God - we are idolaters.  We are worshipping either ourselves or gods that we have fashioned ourselves.

As Scripture tells us: "For the worshipping of idols not to be named is the beginning, the cause, and the end, of all evil.” - Wisdom 14:27.


I have tried to describe this notion for a long time now on this blog.  That idolatry is the setting up and worshipping of the Unreal; that we prefer shadows of our own making to the painful reality of the Kingdom; that even in the Church - in fact, especially in the Church - you find devotion to the Unreal the primary hallmark, expressing itself in pop psychology homilies, bad architecture, and gay guitar music.  What you rarely find is the Painful Reality of Jesus Christ.

Newman acknowledges that being Unreal is, to an extent, the lot of every man.  He points out that Christ spent much of His earthly ministry warning us of the great threat of Not Taking Religion Seriously, from "count the cost", to "you do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink of the cup that I drink of?", to "you are lukewarm and I will vomit you out of my mouth", and beyond - and especially in His emphatic condemnation of hypocrites.  And yet, as Newman notes, we are all hypocrites; for the fullness of Faith is something we grow to.  We are always bound to profess more of it than we actually own, believe, or understand. 

It is not this unreality of the "hypocrisy of our fallen nature" (as you might term it), then, but the deliberate choice to replace the Real with the Unreal, to substitute the shadow for the thing, to choose the comfortable half-truth over the jarring whole-truth, that Newman criticizes, and that George MacDonald speaks of in Lewis' afterlife. 


One odd symptom of this is the Catholic Bubble-Wrapped Syndrome.  I have known more than one Devout Catholic young woman raised to a life of virtue in a Devout Catholic home (i.e., "bubble wrapped"), intent on Chastity (or at least on as much Chastity as can be mustered), who, while saving herself for marriage, is driven - especially in today's Culture of Desire - into the most peculiar and Unreal notions of what love is, what men are, and what marriage might be.  Unwed by 22 or so, these gals are convinced that they're old maids, and that true happiness is only a glance away, especially from the acne-faced bus boy at the fish fry, who's not sure he has a vocation to the priesthood, and whose virility has probably been compromised by holding that video-game device on his lap for so many years, but who is the only guy to have taken her on dates without expecting raw sex after two or three dinners.

Contrast this with most normal guys and gals.  Granted, the "hook up culture" has destroyed almost any capacity for love by the time most of these kids get out of college; still and all, Fornication (i.e., "the F word"), sinful as it is, can be more Real than the Unreality of the Bubble.  Now the F word brings its own Unrealities in its wake - sex without babies, sex without love, sex without happiness - as all sin does.  This is why the cure for the Bubble Wrapped is not the F word, the cure is somehow realizing that the Reality of Christ is about all the Facts of Life - the hard things that disturb us and not the soft things that please us.  For reality is hard; it has edges.  "To thine own self be true" is soft; we can make of that what we will. 

And the F word, in contrast to the soft glow of false romanticism, requires at least something that's not soft. 

But we like softness.  Most of us had rather worship in the Church of the Amoeba - that shifting formless blob that becomes whatever we want it to be - than the Church of Christ.

But we do so at our own peril.

And to our own misery.  For, as I quoted to begin with, "There is always something they [the lost souls] prefer to joy - that is, to reality." 

For it is only in Reality - that is in God - that we find true joy.


For more on Newman and Unreality, see this post from two years ago.

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