Reality Dwarfs Fantasy
An amusing look at Snow White and the seven deadly sins
Discernment sometimes is a matter of comparison — for example, a young man might compare priesthood to marriage. The word “compare” comes from the Latin com par or “with parity” — that is, with equality. Therefore helpful comparisons match things that have parity or equality, at least in the sense that both are based in reality rather than fantasy.
Unfortunately the young men in our parishes always seem to imagine their future wife fantastically: She’s always beautiful, holy and loving — a Catholic version of Snow White. And then they compare that fantasy to the reality of us priests, and we look like the Seven Dwarfs. Grumpy before our morning coffee; Happy when our Metamucil kicks in; Dopey when it comes to technology; Bashful about our age; and by 8 p.m. we’re Sleepy. Who’d want to choose us dwarfs over Snow White?
While no priest can or should live up to anyone’s fantasy, and while all of us should accept certain realities, we could consider our public persona. How are we witnessing to the real joys — as well as the inevitable struggles — of the priesthood? Our witness to discerning men might be more difficult than Disney fantasies, but it also is a reality more likely to lead to the kingdom of God than the Magic Kingdom. It may help us to look at the seven deadly sins that seek to deform us into spiritually diminutive dwarfs — and to the repentance that conforms us to Christ, whose spiritual greatness we desire.
Sneezy may have been glutinous, as gluttony can contribute to allergies. Spiritual wellness, like physical wellness, requires periodic abstinence if we are to learn detachment. As souls grow great, they break free from attachments. Refraining periodically from alcohol, tobacco and sugar is a healthy check upon any creeping dependence. If we discover we can’t abstain, ask: Am I enslaved? Do I want to be a slave? Where might I find help? This may require us to confront the fantasy that we priests should be above the average slob who falls into addiction or obsession, but the reality is that God knows of what we are made, and it’s not angel dust — just the dust to which all flesh returns. It’s OK to recognize when we’re hurting and ask for help. Some of the finest priests are recovering alcoholics, and they would all agree.
Doc was bossy and prideful. Would any of our parishioners ever say we sometimes can act as if the only Immaculate Conception in which we believe is the conception we have of ourselves? When we’re stressed, rushed and overwhelmed it’s easy to ooze irritation on staff and volunteers. Nobody expects perfection — especially today with larger parishes or the problems of pastoring multiple parishes; no, people simply hope for progress. It’s easier to rationalize than to apologize, but eventually that easy choice habituates us to the fantasy that our sacerdotal sacrifice merits exceptional treatment. The humbling reality is that our priesthood is a gift from God meant to serve others, which sometimes means the witness of a humble apology.
Being happy would seem to be a virtue, but sometimes a happy façade masks envy. Are we envious of other priests’ relationship with the bishop or reputation in the community? Envy is a fossil fuel, as it fuels a fossilized heart. Gratitude, however, is a renewable source of energy. Envy arises from the fantasy that we deserve something we don’t have; gratitude is the recognition that all we have is a gift.
|‘To Not Be Tempted’|
“One thing is clear:
Temptation is always
present in the life
of Simon Peter, and
temptation is always
present in our lives.
cannot progress in
faith. In the Our Father
we ask not for the
grace to not fall but to
not be tempted.”
— Pope Francis to
priests in Rome on
March 2, 2017
We might consider Sleepy slothful, and in today’s world intellectual slothfulness is especially dangerous. Do we sometimes speak as if our every opinion comes with a lifetime warranty? If so, we’re not lifelong learners. Technology makes it easy to become comfortable in an information echo chamber that only reinforces our opinions and never challenges our cozy assumptions. It takes intellectual diligence to distinguish fake news from reputable reporting and alternative facts from objective reality. Any ideology is a fantasy because it fails the rigorous test of reality. Remember Jesus’ warning about everyone agreeing with you and speaking well of you? Any priest delights in being beloved; however, everyone agreeing with us describes a fan club, not a community. People who really love us are not yes men, but men and woman who support our “yes” to God.
Dopey covets kisses. Perhaps he’s greedy. Greed subtracts from everyone and adds to no one. Generosity, however, blesses both the one who receives and the one who gives. Greed is based on the fantasy that all goods are limited and, therefore, each must grasp for his share. The reality is that God’s goodness is unlimited, and the more generous or roomy our hearts, the more of God’s goodness may enter.
Bashful might represent lust; after all, what makes priests blush if not lust? Sex is a force of nature; lust is a freak of nature. The reality is that our bodies and our sexuality are good, and celibate or not, we all have intimacy needs. The fantasy is that lust meets our need for intimacy. We all hunger for love, but too many of us are content with only the husks of lust. A healthy appetite for the affection of family and friends makes us more avid for the reality of love and more averse to the fantasy of lust.
Grumpy represents wrath. Have you known a priest who punctuates each phrase with disapproval, as if a grimace were good grammar? Or one who has frowned for so long that his stiff upper lip is frozen and every syllable he utters harps sharp and cold like ice off of a scraper? Wrath often is our reaction to the fantasy of perfectionism — anger at everything wrong with the world. But if the world was perfect, it would not lead us to God — it would be God. Serenity accepts reality as it is, not as we wish it were, with faith that Christ uses even imperfection for our good when we surrender to his grace.
No Priest is Prince Charming
Surrendering to God’s graced reality is far better than any fantasy for which we can ask or imagine. The reality is that God created us like Adam — free men of full stature. But sin misshaped us into a dwarfish distortion of the divine image. Because we were distorted by our desire to become like God, God himself contorted to become man. Our divine life could be restored only by the very real death of Our Lord.
Fantasy might be fine for Disney, but not for the priesthood. A fearless examination of that dwarfish, distorted part of ourselves not yet conformed to God — who contorted himself for us and for our salvation — is a healthy act of humility and trust. Reality is our friend because it is a creation of God; fantasy is our enemy because it is only the wispy creation of ourselves. The fantasy is that there is a wicked witch and a Snow White whom she is harming; the reality is no priest is Prince Charming. But there is a Prince of Peace before whom on our ordination we prostrated because he first bent low to call our sinful selves to him. And that is no fantasy.
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The fact is that as we enchant God with our humility and honesty, God beguiles us with love and mercy.
FATHER KENNETH G. DAVIS, OFM Conv., is a visiting professor of spirituality and spiritual director. He has published widely on issues of prayer and priesthood.