My friend Kevin O’Brien over at Waiting for Godot to Leave, has kindly given me permission to cross-post his excellent essay “Approaching what is Real: Don Quixote, God, and the Rest of Us.” I have covered the here the differences between true and ephemeral chivalry before. But it is extraordinarily important and I very much appreciate Kevin’s perspective. Reality is our friend as much as it hurts us to admit it.
For they had bartered the reality of God for what is unreal, and had offered divine honors and religious service to created things, rather than to the Creator–He who is for ever blessed. Amen. (Rom. 1:25)
As we drive around the country performing murder mystery dinner theater shows, my actress Maria Romine and I listen to audio books. We’ve lately been listening to Don Quixote, the unabridged version, read very well by George Guidall.
It’s a 40 hour long production, and we’re only about five hours into it. But we’re listening to parts that I’ve never read (my printed version is abridged).
We’ve come to the “pastoral interlude” where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are spending time with some shepherds. We are beginning to learn that Don Quixote is not the only madman who’s a bit too idealistic for his own good. While Don Quixote has been inspired to become a knight errant, a group of well-fed suburban yuppies have been inspired to become shepherds and live out a kind of pastoral romance while not at the shopping mall.
In this interlude, we hear Don Quixote wax eloquently on the “golden age”, a mythical era of chivalry that sounds as if it is set in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Then we hear one of the yuppies who’s living as a shepherd wax eloquently on his “lady”, the disdainful woman he’s pursuing, whose scorning of him leads literally to his death. We also hear from the pursued lady herself, and while Don Quixote bravely rushes to her defense, her own idealism – a kind of haughty virginity, a sort of smug isolationism – is as strained as the rather contrived love of the yuppie shepherds who dote on her. Their romance is not quite love and her celibacy is not quite purity.
And that’s the way we often are, even when we’re at our best. The reason this novel is brilliant is that it examines the complexities of idealism and cynicism. Don Quixote, the yuppies, their lady – all are really quite mad in a way, and yet all are following ideals – ideals that they can’t quite seem to make work in the real world. (Kind of like all of us!) And somehow everyone around them gets sucked in to the yarns they’re spinning – and yet this is not entirely a bad thing.
What does this have to do with the Faith?
I write a lot on about Unreality. This is my word for our proclivity to live a lie, a comfortable and apparently controllable lie, rather than living the truth. We know what it means to “get real” with someone; getting “unreal” is just the opposite. Unreality is marked by things that are contrived, artificial, and somehow dishonest or untrue. Examples are Oregon Catholic Press music at Mass, bad art and architecture in the churches, the extremely artificial and contrived weirdness of “Christian Courtship“, the false camaraderie of certain groups, cheesy literature and drama (such as Hallmark movies and certain self-consciously Christian films) – and also so much of what we see in the secular culture, especially our favorite fantasy that sex and gender are whatever we choose to make of them, our insane insistence that sex has no correspondence with nature or with reality – and our illusion that meaning has no correspondence with life, that meaning is imposed on life, not discovered in life, etc.
This is all dreadful stuff. And in a way, Unreality is simply a word for sin. Indeed, the Laws of Morality and Faith that God has revealed to us are simply the roadmap to Reality (and Heaven) and the Commandments are the “Do Not Enter” signs to prevent us from taking the road to Unreality (and Hell).
Adultery, for instance, is an example of an act that’s dripping with Unreality and that always, somehow, leaves a bit of Hell in its wake. Love and sex between a man and a woman are designed in such a way that sacramental fidelity and self-sacrifice over the long haul bring untold contentment as well as new life. Fidelity leads to Reality (and, in a way, to Heaven) because God has made Fidelity at the heart of what is Real. Therefore cheating, though fun, will end up in shipwreck and misery (in other words, Hell) – for someone, at least, is bound to suffer the consequences of the Unreal – even if it’s the innocent children who are caught up in it all. In other words, something like adultery is our way of denying the way things are actually made (Reality) and asserting our own fantasy against it (Unreality), and the pain we suffer (the Consequential) is simply the symptom that we’ve been doing things wrong, going the wrong way down a one-way street. God’s “judgment” is simply the consequence of denying the Truth and Living a Lie. Unreality is always, then, a form of sin; and sin is always an assertion of a kind of Unreality.
But, as the book Don Quixote shows us, we are made to spin yarns and to imagine great things that never were, like the golden age of chivalry. If we were all “realists” or cynics, we would all be materialists and atheists, for it takes a kind of poetic vision to see the reality of God and of His Kingdom. Our capacity for Unreality may be the misuse of our creative and imaginative function – but without that capacity, we would not be able to apprehend the image of God: not because God is Unreal (He is, on the contrary, the source of all that is most Real), but because our imaginative function is our spiritual “nose” as it were, our ability to sense that which is beyond the immediate.
Fiction is made to lead us to Fact. But as fallen men, we often misuse our fictive function, for we’d rather become gods than serve one.
Indeed, we often misuse the three major gifts that God has given us that separate us from the beasts – Will, Reason and Imagination. This trinity of gifts – Will, Reason and Imagination (by the term “Imagination” I mean to include what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”) – this trinity of gifts corresponds with the trinity of reality: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. It is the business of our Will to conform what we do to what is Good; it is the business of our Reason to conform what we think and understand to what is True; and it is the business of our Imagination to conform what we dream and desire and make to what is Beautiful. All three functions support each other, since the objects toward which they are designed are inextricably interconnected. What is True is always Good, what is Good is always Beautiful, what is Beautiful is always an aspect of what is True, etc. We are not ourselves designed to negate this design. We are not made to use our Will to assert ourselves against the nature of morality, nor are we made to use our Reason to misunderstand the truth that surrounds us, nor are we made to use our imaginations to invent things to fulfill the desires of our hearts that are merely shortcuts or sops, things that give us passing pleasure but that are untrue, unreal. God gives us these gifts – Free Will, Reason and Imagination – to be ordered to Him – for even though we may misuse them, without them we cannot truly serve Him.
So let me sum this up by speaking in a quixotic manner – and I think, perhaps, I am speaking for many of you.
Sometimes in pursuing my most ardent ideals, I find that I am merely tilting at windmills – or worse, I am hurting others by holding them to the impossible standards that I myself cherish, but that I myself fall shy of, too. In addition, I waver between cynicism and idealism. I am often tempted to see my steed as a broken down nag, my lady as the more or less compromised streetwalker that she is, my daily devotion to theater as the rather sordid performances in wineries for drunks and rednecks that these performances often are; or vice-versa, I see in my broken down nag the steed she really is; I see within the streetwalker a hidden lady of dignity and glory, and I see in my drunken audiences immortal souls being lifted up in laughter, being raised for a moment a slight bit closer to the One who made them. And somehow all of this is true – the dreary reality on the surface and the stunning Reality behind and within it.
And so we pray
Dear God, may we always long for You as the hart longs for water (Ps. 42:1), seeing in You the source of the living water for which we truly thirst (John 4:10). Do not let us fill ourselves with that which is unreal and which will not sustain us. Show us our sins that we may repent of them and turn toward You. Give us the grace “to turn from these unreal things, to worship the ever-living God” (Acts 14:15) – for thy Kingdom is always more real than the false and haughty man-made towers we build (Gen. 11:1-9). Purify our Will to do what is Good, our Reason to see what is True, and our Imagination to desire what is Beautiful and holy. And always remind us that the world we are tempted to love too much is also a bit less than fully real, that all of creation is but a “shadow of the things that are to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17).