Real Presence and the Image Consciousness Fairy

Sep 27, 2007 |Greg Spencer

Part of what gives us the courage to practice an inside-out consistency is the knowledge that Jesus already knows what is on the inside.

You've no doubt been "caught" as I have. You call a friend on the phone and hear "Hello." You say, "Hi. How are you? I just called to say — " Then you are interrupted by your friend's voicemail recording: "You've reached my phone. Leave a message." "Grr," you say, "tricked again. I thought the voice was real!"

None of us likes to be tricked, but in our culture, with all its posturing and false fronts and physical vanity, it is difficult to tell the real from the faux-real. In the first two articles in this series, "Authentic Phony" and "Being Real is a Real Problem" I discussed our longing for the genuine and how the Gospel of Sight inhibits sincerity. What can we do to move toward greater authenticity? To me, the rich phrase "Real Presence" provides good guidance. In Roman Catholic tradition, it refers to the miraculous way Christ becomes present during the Eucharist. I want to adapt this idea so that we think of real presence as a way of being fully, sincerely in-the-present, modeled after Jesus' way of being with His disciples.

Practicing Real Presence before God. I wonder how different my life would be if I really believed God was truly with me at all times. Too often, I catch myself doing or saying something that I would never do if a "real person" were in my presence. Although God is the Real Person who is there — this is what I say I believe — His presence is not always enough to influence my behavior. This disturbs me, and I worry that these choices are the truest measure of my faith.

So, I am encouraged when I read David's authenticity in the Psalms. He tells God just what is on his mind. He doesn't "pretty things up" with pious phrases and empty Godtalk. In Psalms 42:3, he says "My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'"

Walter Wink characterizes this way of expression: "Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous. It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the churches." These perspectives embolden me to state my doubts and unchurch-like thoughts genuinely to God. He does not appear to expect uninterrupted blissful worship. He knows better.

Even so, I struggle to be honest with God. Sometimes I find my prayer journal writing to be phony, as if I am more concerned about who might discover it and learn how I really think. Or worse, I write for posterity so that my journals will be read as a book for earthly audiences. But there I go again — showing that I'm not quite sure that God is part of my earthly audience.

Let us practice authenticity in his Real Presence. We should feel free to cry out to God in all our agony. We can use all the words we would use with a best friend. Our Best Friend can take it. He's heard it all before.

One idea is to follow the structure of a Psalm, filling in the categories with our own thoughts and feelings in the moment. Here are a few suggestions drawn out of David's Psalm 42. "These things I remember as I pour out my soul" (4a). Boldly state the issues, accusations or crises that you can't get out of your head. "Why are you downcast, O my soul?" (5a). Explore the nature of your discouragement. "I say to God my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?'" (9a) Be direct, wholly truthful as you talk with God, expressing the depths of your doubts. "Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God" (11b). End with your authentic hope.

Practicing Real Presence before the self. At first blush, it makes sense that the person I would be least likely to fool with my own insincerities would be my very own self. When I look into the mirror and say that I should be a star in the NBA, I know that I'm just dreaming (unless that Internet-purchased growth hormone kicks in!). But not all of our fantasies are so easily recognized.

The phrase "delusions of grandeur" exists because of our capacity for self-deception. Some of our delusions are harmless fantasies — as long as we don't obsess over them. Then again, some of our delusions are downright lies. We have convinced ourselves we are the envy of all romantic lovers or that we are despicable little worms. To be authentic before the self, we probably need to check our self-perceptions with others' perceptions of us. After all, "the heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9a).

Most of the time, when my friends divulge their dreams to me, I try to be affirming. Then there are those other times. How about the friend who moved to Vail, Colorado, to become a ski instructor — even though she had never skied in her life? After one day in the snow, she gave up and moved to a different city, where she bought a grand piano because she was going to become a concert pianist — even though she had never played the piano. To this day, no concerts have been given.

Follow your dreams, yes, but don't reject all reason along the way. Students who barely pass my classes tell me they want to pursue doctoral work. Terrific writers say they can't put two sentences together. Non-stop talkers say they are careful listeners. We can be remarkably unskilled in knowing ourselves. Perhaps this is why Bernard Haring says, "Sincerity forbids not just lies, but every form of deception (including self-deception) and whatever contradicts honesty."

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, we need help bringing real presence to ourselves. I have two suggestions.

First, we should seek solitude on a regular basis. This means more than turning off the radio on the way to work. It means being alone in an intentional way, without music or television or conversation, without busyness of any kind. It means living in silence long enough to hear that part of ourselves that we work so hard to cover up.

In solitude, we learn what Blaise Pascal meant: "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room." When truly alone, Pascal says that we discover our "wretchedness," and therefore our need for a Savior. In these speedy, noisy, overwhelming times, we need to be a "real presence" to ourselves, to take off the masks of pleasantness and perfection, and see who we are. We are not especially good at this discovery, which brings me to my next recommendation.

Second, we need an image-consciousness fairy. Just what you were expecting, right? In an all-college variety show years ago, the master of ceremonies made his grand entrance from the back of the audience, crooning like a second-level lounge-singer. He winked. He preened. He pointed at lovely ladies in that arrogant come-hither way. As he made his way to the stage, cheerleaders came on. Gimme a "D!" Gimme an "A!" Gimme an "N!" "What's that spell? Dan!"

When the emcee's full name lit up on the wall at the back of the stage, I appeared at the side in pink tights, fairy wings, and an unlit cigar. "Dan?"

He ignored me and kept schmoozing, drawing his finger under the chin of a cheerleader.

"Dan!" I said.

"Yes, this is Dan. Who's talking to me?"

"I'm the Image Consciousness Fairy."

"What?"

"The Image Consciousness Fairy. My job is to cut through the all the posturing and remind you."

"Of what?"

"That you are not the center of the universe."

"I'm not?"

"In fact, you are not even the center of this show. You are the emcee. You are supposed to draw attention to the other acts, not to yourself."

"Oh."

I am convinced that we would all be more authentic if we each had an Image Consciousness Fairy in our lives. And we can have one — if we ask a friend to play this role for us. Whom do we know who will speak the truth about us to us? Are we willing to give another person the freedom to challenge and confront us? Proverbs 9:8 says, "Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you." Do you love being rebuked? What a crazy question! Who would invite admonishment? Proverbs says that "the wise" do this.

An authentic approach to the self takes considerable courage. Genuine solitude can expose some dark places we'd rather keep hidden. Once they are in the light, what do we do with them? An Image Consciousness Fairy might tell us things we don't want to believe about ourselves. As the "parent virtue" of authenticity, courage helps us deal with the realities of this kind of real presence. As Joseph Pieper says, "To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound."

Practicing Real Presence before others. On one level, all three of my articles on authenticity have focused on practicing an inside-out consistency before others. We are to take the risks of gracious honesty and artful translucency. The idea of real presence adds a few things here.

In an age that favors "second-hand presence," we should lean toward "first-hand presence." When we need to talk with the person whose office is right next door, how often do we opt for e-mail or voicemail? "But e-mail is more efficient," we say. Indeed. Human interaction, true communion, is messier and slower. So what? What's the rush? Do we have so many friends that we should disregard opportunities for deeper communication? That's not what I hear. Quite the opposite. Loneliness pervades, not gross inefficiency.

As silly as it sounds, we might improve authenticity by counting the number of human senses available in our communication — and "lean toward" the choice with the higher number. Face-to-face has the potential to include all five. A video phone call loses touch. A regular phone call loses sight. Voicemail loses hearing. E-mail loses tone of voice. For all its benefits, e-mail has been the cause of untold confusion and conflict. Real presence understands that we are sensory creatures. The likelihood of misunderstanding grows exponentially with each sense lost.

Living genuinely before others inevitably requires the spiritual discipline of confession. Jesus says, "How can you say, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person's eye" (Matthew 7:4-5). As we admit immoral or unwise decisions, we come clean inside and out. When we "come clean" in confession, we also "become clean." We are liberated esse quam videri, "to be, rather than to appear." We wash away the dirt that keeps us from being real with others — and it feels so healing.

Confession calls for courage. We have to trust someone to listen well, not condemn us, and to be responsive with forgiveness and encouragement. It's a significant risk. But the alternative is also risky: to keep our failings buried inside where they can eat away at our soul. Better to put them on the table so they can be taken away. Where to begin? A trustworthy peer? A pastor? A parent? God? By his grace, we can find the courage to admit our sins, even that we enjoy our sins. Do you enjoy revenge? Admit it to your Brother Jesus. Do you take pleasure in pornography? Ridicule? Perfectionism? Tell the truth to Someone and someone.

In our culture, being authentic is both a mystery and a challenge. Part of what gives us the courage to practice an inside-out consistency is the knowledge that Jesus already knows what is on the inside. He knows what we are made of and who we are becoming — and He has chosen to walk beside us anyway. We can imitate His integrity, His sincerity, His genuineness. Esse quam videri.

Copyright 2007 Greg Spencer. All rights reserved.

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