Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Valentine's Day Fantasy

I came across a Google blurb today that was ready to tell me what this day is about, in case I had forgotten.  It read: "Valentine's Day is about fantasy and romance."

On any other day, I might have moved on quickly.  Not today.  Today, an echo of Rowan Williams and the desert mothers and fathers bade me linger.  Call it an occupational hazard.  But if "fantasy" is that fanciful imagination for the unreal, our desert parents want with all their hearts and wisdom to remind us that this is not a phenomenon reserved for romantic and sexual realms.  Many of us live in perpetual states of fantasy, many of which are revealed by our fears and worries.

For example, I recently observed in a sermon on love and knowledge that
There’s an old and funny saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  But believe it or not, most people are too self-centered to be out to get you.  I know it’s a blow to all that you’d like to believe about yourself, but most of the time, they’re not thinking about you.  Maintaining defensive knowledge like this kind can be pretty exhausting.

These less-than-sexy fantasies are humbling and wearying.

So in his book Silence and Honey Cakes Rowan Williams writes:
The desert means a stepping back from the great system of collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am, sometimes to persuade you to tell me who I am (in accord of course with my preferences), sometimes to use God as a reinforcement for my picture of myself and so on and on.  The 'burden' of self-accusation, the suspicion of what the heart prompts, this is not about an inhuman austerity or self-hatred but about the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal.

Quoting Henri Lubac, Williams adds: "It is not sincerity it is truth which frees us...To seek sincerity above all things is perhaps, at bottom, not to want to be transformed."

How does one tether the heart to the truth? 

Prayer, for sure.  Spiritual direction - the help of holy friends.  Engagement in the community of faith, God's Church.  But daily, I find another tool essential to honesty in all of these other things.  Before I say what it is, let me share how I discovered my need for it.

Last November, I set a goal to walk 10,000 steps each day.  In order achieve the goal, I discovered that I needed to walk where I had previously used the car.  I started walking the short trip from the office to the house for lunch.  I enjoyed the exercise, but loathed the mental strain.  It seemed I would use the eighteen minutes to cook up lists of things to do and worry over.  Visits to make.  Services to plan.  Meetings to arrange.  Phone calls.  Contracts.  Financial issues.  By the time I was back to the office, I was swamped and deflated. 

So I set a modest goal: think only about the walk itself, and check the time when I first noticed that I had become distracted.  The next day, over the course of two eighteen minute walks, I never made it longer than two and a half minutes.  This confirmed my suspicion that I was all but handed over to fantasies: focused on the 'unreal' and not present even to myself.

In order to step back from "the great system of collusive fantasy", I began talking to myself in order to put a leash on the wandering mind - I think faster than I can speak.  Next, I made an eighteen minute covenant to only speak true things about my immediate and visible reality.  I wasn't very good at this at first.  I started simply: blue car, unkempt lawn, flag pole, etc.  But after a few minutes (maybe two and half?) I began noticing my reality in greater and greater detail.  The house with no cars and the front porch left on.  The boat left out for cleaning after yesterday's fishing expedition.  The teachers wrangling up the children on the playground.  In all of this, I prohibited myself from ascribing motivation or intention: what is actually happening?  Strangely, if you do this long enough, you ending up sounding a lot like Garrison Keillor.

I share this mostly because I find myself constantly needing to call myself back to it, the practice of being present to what is.  For most of us, responsibility is far more likely than Valentine's Day to lead us into the world of fantasy.  But just because it's stressful doesn't mean it's real.  Some fantasies are subtler.  For some reason, maybe their subtlety and false appeals to self-importance, I find myself preferring even these fantasies to "the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal."

But God, when I see those words, and God, when I'm honest, I want that.

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