Real

by Jessica Hickey (c. 2011)

Wednesday, 16 January 2011

"I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met."
(Rainer Maria Rilke)

"Center of Ages, it is towards You that they converge, towards You that creation hastens from all parts."
(St. Gregory Nazienzen)

From childhood, I have loved the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, introduces the reader to a plush rabbit, given to a boy on Christmas Day.

"In the beginning," the tale runs, "he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen." Within the child's nursery, however, the Rabbit finds he is held in low regard by the more sophisticated toys, who look upon him with hauteur: "[They] were very superior, and looked down upon everyone else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real."

The Rabbit's one friend was the Skin Horse, who had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others: "He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out . . . He was wise." More than this, the Skin Horse, unlike the others, was real. "What is REAL?" the Rabbit asked him one day, and the Horse explained:

"Real isn't how you are made. . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, really loves you, then you become real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt . . . . It doesn't happen all at once. . . You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

After a time, the Rabbit became the Boy's favorite plaything. He was taken everywhere, given rides in the wheelbarrow, and spent his nights in the child's arms. Eventually, he grew shabby and worn, but cherished the hope that, at last, he was Real. Then one day, when left outdoors, he was approached by two live rabbits, who examined him suspiciously

"Can you hop on your hind legs?" asked the furry rabbit.

That was a dreadful question, for the Velveteen Rabbit had no hind legs all. The back of him was made all in one piece, like a pincushion. He sat still in the bracken, and hoped the other rabbits wouldn't notice.

"I don't want to! he said.

But the wild rabbits had very sharp eyes. This one stretched out his neck and looked.

"He hasn't got any hind legs!" he called out. "Fancy a rabbit with no hind legs! And he began to laugh.

"I have!" cried the little Rabbit. "I have got hind legs! I am sitting on them!" . . .

[The strange rabbit] came so close that his long whiskers brushed the Velveteen Rabbit's ear, and then he wrinkled his nose suddenly, and flattened his ears and jumped backwards.

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all. He isn't real!"

"I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

The Rabbit was left with the sense that his Realness had not truly come to be, though he was real in the eyes of the Boy.

Weeks went by, and the Boy became ill. It was the Rabbit who, crushed in the feverish child's embrace, stayed by his side. "The Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes rolled over on him, and sometimes pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe." The Boy talked in his sleep, and his body was so hot that it burned the little Rabbit. People came in and out of the nursery and a light burned all through the night. The Rabbit hid under bedclothes, for the Boy needed him, and he was fearful of being taken away.

At long last, the Boy was better, and could leave the house, and the room was to be disinfected.

"Nana caught sight of him.

"How about this old bunny?" she asked.

"That?" said the doctor. "Why, it's a mass of scarlet fever germs!--Burn it at once!"

The Boy was given a brand-new Rabbit to play with, and the shabby Velveteen Rabbit was left in a sack, atop the burn-heap, thinking over his time with Boy, of the love he had tried to give and his sad ending. However, as in all true fairy tales, a higher and more benevolent justice intervenes, and as the story ends, the Rabbit finds himself transformed into a real rabbit, the creature he had always wished to be.

This concept of being real, of attaining to a state of existence which is higher--impossibly so-- and yet more right, is quite satisfactory to the mind of a child. I think accepted it without reserve. It can be more perplexing as we age, yet I think a pretty analogy could be drawn (and in fact has been drawn by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christanity) to our supernatural destiny, and the perfection of our nature through grace.

We become real in the sense of attaining to our true self, crafted in the image of God, the genuine self that we were meant to be. And in the metaphysical sense, our being is substantially raised to a new level when we reach our potential, achieve the perfections right for our nature, and beyond this, even take on abilities and characteristics which belong by right to God; for example the supernatural virtues and gifts which He shares with us in the Sacraments. Pope John Paul declared at WYD XIII:

“When the risen Christ makes himself present in people’s lives and gives them His spirit,
They completely change, although they remain, indeed fully become, themselves.”

So perhaps the story of the Velveteen Rabbit holds some lessons for us. Two things from this child's tale have always stayed with me. Firstly, that are some who pretend to have become real or who believe they have attained this when it is not the case. The second is that it is love which makes us real.

I think of this story this week, having just read, as some of you may have done, of Said Musa, a 45-year-old Afghan who worked at a Red Cross clinic as an orthopedic therapist. He is currently imprisoned in Kabul, pending execution for having converted to Christianity. Musa, a father of six, can secure no legal defense, as possible representatives fear reprisals. In an impassioned plea to the leaders of the West, handwritten in broken English, Musa describes his persecution:

"About four and a half months before by security force of Afghanistan I [was] captured, due to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.

. . . Since that time I am in jail. The authority and prisoners in jail did many bad behaviour with me about my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, they did sexual things with me, beat me by wood, by hands, by legs, put some things on my head, mocked me ‘He's Jesus Christ', spat on me, nobody let me for sleep night and day. Every person spat on me and beat me. Also the prosecutor wrote something wrong against me. He told from himself something wrong against me on my file.

. . . . I agree with long imprisonment about my faith even for long life. Because I'm the sinnest person in the world. . . Sometimes I tolerate the persecution but immediately I acknowledge my sin before Lord Jesus Christ: ‘Don't refuse me before your holy angels and before your Father.' Because I am very very weak and sinful man.

. . . . I am alone between 400 handlers of terrible values in the jail like a sheep. Please, please, for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ help me. Please send a person who should supervise my document and my file, what I said in it. . . . I agree with the sacrifice [of] my life in public, I will tell the faith in Lord Jesus Christ son of God and other believers will take courage and be strong in their faith. Hundred percent I am stable to my word."

[Letter is reprinted in full, transcript and facsimilie, at http://www.barnabasfund.org/Said-Musas-handwritten-letter.html]

It is hard to read the words of Musa without feeling humbled by the magnitude of his conviction. Though some diplomatic protests have been lodged, it is unclear whether they will be heeded, or whether Musa will follow in the footsteps of the martyrs, as he has stated his willingness to do.

Suffering for the sake of justice, suffering in the name of Christ, he may attain to that higher state which in our story was called becoming real, and in our theology called sanctification. His case reminds us of those hard truths told by the Skin Horse in the fairy tale: Love alone makes us real, yet becoming real can hurt.

One cannot help but contrast the situation of Musa and other brethren in the same situation, with the situation of Catholics in our own culture. A recent article by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington gave me much to think about in this regard. Mrgr. Pope wrote of the widespread problem he calls “arrested spiritual development,” the symptoms of which sounded sadly familiar:

Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.
Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.

Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. . . . He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get. Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. [http://blog.adw.org/2011/02/on-the-problem-of-arrested-spiritual-development]

Why, wonders Msgr. Pope, did no one (his parents, his catechists, his parishioners) notice his failure to develop & thrive spiritually as he passed from year to year? When he was failing math, his parents quickly hired a tutor. But nothing was done to when he failed to make spiritual progress.

Essentially, it is obvious that people’s spiritual expectations for him were absurdly low, and the things stressed to him as being most important for life were temporal success and well-being. They never really believed that he was meant to become Real.

Thus, he remains spiritually an infant, with none of the traits of spiritual maturity, which Msgr. Pope lists as follows:

• To be constantly growing in our faith.
• To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
• To go from being young students to mature teachers.
• To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
• To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
• To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
• To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.

Far more strange and sad than the 5-year old lying in its crib is this soul, whose growth and development has been neglected, who has become stunted and feeble.

Msgr Pope concludes: “Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end, arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues . . . . Only what you do for Christ will last. “

In the medieval play “Everyman,” the voice of God declares:

I perceive here in my majesty,
How that all the creatures be to me unkind,
Living without dread in worldly prosperity:
Of ghostly sight the people be so blind,
Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God;
In worldly riches is all their mind,
They fear not my rightwiseness, the sharp rod;
My law that I shewed, when I for them died,
They forget clean, and shedding of my blood red;
I hanged between two, it cannot be denied;
To get them life I suffered to be dead;
I healed their feet; with thorns hurt was my head:
I could do no more than I did truly,
And now I see the people do clean forsake me.

Here echoes the continuous call of the Church to repentance, to conversion, to newness of life, to growth in holiness. How important is this call for each of us, to those over whom we have care: our families, our students, our friends.

Without this call to see and know God to the fullest, the danger is that of the wind-up toys in the Boy’s nursery, who were “full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real" but never even came close to being so, never truly knew what that meant, never loved and knew love, never sacrificed a thing. They were the tin soldiers that never became men. These “unhatched saints” may be thick on the ground, deeply in need of the truths that will motivate them to desire that higher reality.

God love the saints among us, our Holy Father and our brethren like Mr. Musa, who in our times are the wild rabbits bursting upon the scene, showing what it means to be Real, the Skin Horses reminding us just how much it matters.

This week, let us take heart from their example. Let us lift their causes up to God, and at the same time, let us raise our expectations for our own sanctity and that of fellow Christians, that we might all together become as holy as God wishes us to be.

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