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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reflections on Reflections

(Shocking disclosure, in case you hadn't picked up on this already: I'm a Catholic.)

I was saying the rosary a couple of weeks ago, and I noticed the shadow of some of the beads on the pew. In a generous estimation, I think I'm maybe at a 2% successful meditation status for the rosary; this day was no different. I started looking at the shadow because it was so pretty. I was really good at focusing on that shadow. There was something attractive, or, shall we say, entrammeling about it. I spent the next little while going over it in my mind, and trying to figure out why I liked the shadow so much more than the rosary in my hand. Because really, though I say it myself, I do have a be-yoo-ti-ful rosary.


This question prompted other questions.
  1. What's the deal with shadow puppets? and other shadow games?
  2. Why are we obsessed with taking pictures?
  3. Why do babies like mirrors?
  4. Why do children play make-believe?
  5. Why do we like books, movies, or other forms of art?
  6. What are the troglodytes focusing on inside Plato's cave?
 (Maybe one of these days I'll start thinking about, you know, Mary and Jesus when I say the rosary. Here's hopin'. . .)

People are all about imitation. That's certainly part of it. There's a fruitfulness, a richness, and a reminder of the power of creation (which is, mind-blowingly, a partly human power) in every copy of something real. As for kids playing make-believe:
Notes on Imagination

There must be a reason to children's building
castles out of blankets,
a reason they're the masters of all
they see, without self-conscious
inhibitions.

Are they bridging a vast native gap
as they scale imaginary forts, or is it
merely a blanket, held
down on a rocking horse with a heavy book
they can't read?
I have a special place in my heart for that poem; it was the first thing of mine I ever saw in print for distribution, and it has a great back story (thank you, Joshua Neu). I bring it up now, though, because I think it gets right to the heart of all these questions.

We are powerful. We are the privileged of all God's creations. And men and women are beautiful creatures, physically and spiritually. And that spiritual part, that part we can't disect and touch and put band-aids on, that part we can't fully understand and that sometimes scares the you-know-what out of us, is a good enough excuse for us to try to hide from reality. Shadows, excessive pictures, escapist novels and grown-up make-believe can all become and often are a way of hiding from real life. Some plausible answers to that list of questions:

1. What's the deal with shadows?
I should have been dwelling on the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption of the world. But instead, I was looking at the poor copy of beads that help me count to ten, because I can't even stay focused long enough to do that five times on my own. Way to go, Ellen. Now, more seriously, we're fascinated with them because they are a reminder of our creative power; our shadows can't exist without us, and they'll copy every single thing that we do. And they keep us company all the time. They must really love us, right? So we love them. Just ask Peter Pan.

2. And pictures?
How many times have you heard: can you please just put the camera down? Or have you been to a wedding where you were asked not to take pictures during the ceremony? Too much of the time, our efforts to record reality end up distracting us from reality. We see through a glass dimly.

3. And mirrors?
 Usually I take a baby to a mirror when he's crying. I show him my hand in front of the mirror, and then hold up his hand, and let him see how his mirror-hand and my mirror-hand mimic our real hands. Almost without fail, this stops him from crying, makes him forget about whatever made him upset, at least for a little while. But fascination with mirrors is a dangerous thing, isn't it? Don't forget Narcissus, or the mirror in the Harry Potter books that destroys men with longing and divorces them from reality, or, for that matter, the mirror of Snow White's wicked stepmother.

4. And children's games . . .
Children playing make-believe is a good thing. Stretching their imaginations, learning to think of ways and possibilities outside of their immediate reality, and sometimes connecting their own selves to great archetypes that they'll learn to follow and live up to, all help them to be better people. But even children can use their imaginations to escape from reality in less than innocent ways (yes, I'm talking about lying little mischief-makers). Eventually, though, children grow up, and they'll have to stop living in a world of make-believe, steady the rocking horse, and find out what the heavy book says.

5. Books and movies.
Grown-ups (?) who live in novels and movies, even if they're good ones, are living in a fabricated world. They are the children who never figured out what the imagination is actually for. Imitation of something real is good, but only if it makes you think about the real thing in a new light, not if it's such a paltry or misused imitation that it makes you forget, or wish you could forget, what is actually real.

6. The Troglodytes.
So, Plato's cave-dwellers, chained and watching those images, divorced from reality, thinking they know what is real, unwilling to hear that what they see is a shadowy imitation and not the real article at all, well, that's us, isn't it. They're focusing on what they wish were real, on what they have convinced themselves is real. But if they want to be grown-ups, one day they're going to have to break the chains, stop fooling themselves, and actually come face to face with real truth. A lot of things look real enough, are vague enough and ill-defined enough that we can make of them whatever we need to be comfortable with them. But they're only weak, insubstantial and paltry imitations of what we're really made for.

Reflections, games, books, stories, pictures and art are all good things, oftentimes beautiful things, which is why we like them. But they're not it. They're copies. So don't stop there. Stop when you find out what they're copying, and, more importantly, why it's worth being copied.

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