One of my more memorable confessions occurred several years ago when I confessed to my Franciscan priest that I felt like a Christian poser. After reading the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ I realized I didn’t really love much like Christ calls Christians to love. He couldn’t have known how difficult it was for me to admit or how much I abhorred myself. Where I come from, a poser is like a coward, a traitor, a turncoat. It meant you were fake, disloyal, hypocritical, shallow-hearted and without courage. You looked the part but lacked substance.
Then I received the most unexpected and colorful penance I’ve ever heard. “You want to become real?” the priest asked. “Then go home this day, shut your door, get on your knees and read,” he continued. “Read what?” I asked, expecting something from scripture, the saints or some pedagogical theory.
To my surprise and in the sternest voice he could muster, the priest said, “I want you to read The Velveteen Rabbit!” I roared with laughter. “The Velveteen Rabbit? Are you serious?” “Fortunately, yes!” he said with a smile.
Later that day, as I read the beautiful words of that classic children’s tale, the tears fell.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but 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.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or 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.”
When I close my eyes to wonder and meditate on what the expression on Jesus’ face must have looked like as he agonized up the ‘via doloroso,’ his shoulders overwhelmed by the wood of the cross and the weight of the world’s pride like the shoulders of a homeless man, I come face to face with real love. As the blood from the crown of thorns begins to blur his vision, he stumbles. And then He slowly rises again. The scene here isn’t clean and organized, it isn’t systematized or logical. It’s violent, it’s shocking and it’s real.
Whenever you encounter and receive real, unconditional love from another, like a planted and watered seed under the sun, it cannot help but give birth (often painfully) to a new realm of personal freedom and expression. This new freedom is what allows us to become our true selves, to express ourselves without the fear of judgment, rejection or ridicule from others. Finally, we are then free to love others with that same unconditional love, thereby helping set others free from the very chains with which we were once enslaved. Unfortunately, this unbridled expression of true freedom can often cause friction or even alienation from those who have yet to recognize their own delusion of self-righteousness, lack of forgiveness, and coldness from the invisible prison in which they live, as they become jealous of your joy and envious of your freedom.
This is the “good” in the ‘good news’ or gospel–that God loves the real you and refuses to have a relationship with your best foot forward. You don’t have to (and are frankly unable) to clean yourself up before approaching Him. Virtue is the fruit of faith, not the generator of it. The reactions or opinions of others no longer have the same power over you because God’s still, small voice has broken through, and His word alone is all that matters. His banner over you is love. Can you hear Him? “Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).
When you consider who or what is real in your life, you may notice that the real things are a bit weathered. It takes a long time to become real. Like the voice of Johnny Cash or Van Morrison. I think of the rugged coastline in Big Sur, California or the withered, rough hands and face of Mother Theresa, or a few friendships I’m blessed to have. They’re not perfect. You may also notice that in everyday life, there is a higher cost for what is real: A fine steak, aged bourbon or scotch, genuine works of art or the sacrifices required for a good, real marriage. The price is high but the experience so much richer.
In our shallow pop culture, I fear that real people (and real music for that matter) are endangered. The Devil doesn’t want us or our love to ever become real because he knows the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He tells us to simply be polite, politically correct, to not get too deep, to look out solely for our own interests. We’re encouraged to live as comfortably as possible, to medicate whatever pain we may experience, to justify breaking our marriage vows if necessary, to sanitize our neighborhoods of the poor and the homeless, to hide our elderly in nursing homes, to abort our babies when they’re an inconvenience or deemed ‘unhealthy’ in the womb. The world doesn’t want your faith to ever be realized in this life. This is why Jesus and the Church place such an enormous emphasis on manifesting and incarnating the love of God to the ‘least of these’ through sacrificial acts of mercy, compassion and kindness (Matthew 25:40).
Once you develop an appetite for what’s genuine and sincere, it’s almost impossible to be content or find much satisfaction in what isn’t. I guess this is why I’m a follower of Jesus or a Catholic for that matter. I’ve yet to encounter or experience anything that comes remotely close to the real love and truth I’ve found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I still have a long way to go.
So what about you? Have you experienced the real love of God? Is that love increasing the level of risk you’re willing to take in being vulnerable in your relationships with your spouse, your kids, your enemies, friends and family? Are you experiencing the joy of your freedom for which Christ died for you to enjoy? (Galatians 5:1). What fears or hesitations keep you from being your true self around others in the Church?
Becoming real is, in my book, what discipleship is all about. It’s the crucible by which God extracts the precious from the worthless in our hearts and souls–the Refiner’s fire by which we are purified and made real.