A few years ago I spent some Lenten days alone at our summer house, on retreat and cleaning out the attic. I found there boxes of letters and diaries from my youth. (I was a prolific letter-writer in those pre-email days.) Reading through them filled me with melancholy. I didn't really like the person I found there—so much self-absorption and sentimentality!—but I sympathized with her. She was sincere in her unreality, poor thing. I accepted that she was me, and that I'd had a lot to learn in the years since. I thanked God for all He has taught me, in His goodness and mercy. He had meted out reality in a measure I could manage, surrounding me all the while with love and friendship and consolations of every kind, so I wouldn't sink in the pain and bitterness of the disillusionment.
Then, I burned the lot and moved on psychologically.
In Holland this spring, my mother-in-law handed us bags of letters she had found in her attic and wanted us to sort through. They included letters Jules and I had written to each other during our courtship, cards and letters from friends, and letters and journals I had written during our engagement and first year of marriage.
This was an even less pleasant encounter with the self I used to be—partly because I was unprepared for it and partly because, in my memory, that had been such an exceptionally happy and carefree time of my life. I had felt so blessed. I had Jules's love, and complete confidence in God's plan for us. The future was full of promise.
Now when I read back, I squirm with embarrassment. My faith was sincere. My love for Jules was true. My attraction to philosophy was genuine. But I was so wretchedly naive and full of illusions—mostly about myself.
In the pile, I found a letter from Alice von Hildebrand, dated January 20, 1989—six months before our wedding.
I am very sorry to hear that you are having inner difficulties. Dear Katie: HOW I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A LONG TALK WITH YOU. Alas, we must still wait another four weeks. I have no idea what your difficulties are all about. But I have a very strong feeling that God, who has so clearly called you, wants you to experience your own weakness to such an extent that, from now on, it will not only not surprise you when you fall into your mistakes, but you will rejoice so that God's grace can triumph in you. You should meditate on "Without Him I can DO NOTHING" combined with "I can do all things in Him that strengthens me".
We all have so many illusions about ourselves, and I find it a great blessing that yours are falling by the wayside BEFORE you marry your dear one.
Twenty-five years later, though, I'm still dealing with them. She has reminded me many times in the years since that none of us will be finally done shedding illusions until death.
By now I know—not just theoretically, but existentially—that the pain of disillusionment, accepted under grace, like the pain of childbirth, is simply nothing next to the joy of the reality that comes in its wake.
Even so, in my humanness, I still shrink from it. When I discover a new layer or pocket of unreality in myself, I am severely tempted to discouragement. "Will I never come to the bottom of my illusions? Will be there anything left of me, when this purification is done, or am I unreal through and through?"
It's a faithless thought, I know. I try to banish it. "God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me."
Jules reminded me the other night of two images from C.S. Lewis' fiction. One (from The Great Divorce) is of a soul arriving from Purgatory on the outskirts of heaven and finding it hard. The light is unbearably bright; the grass hurts his bare feet. The escort who has been sent to lead him further in assures him that, in time, he will grow in substantiality; his soul will become accustomed to the weight of Reality.
Truth hurts. Illusions are much more comfortable for the flimsy ego. But they fail to save and satisfy. We are so constituted that only the Truth serves to set us free and makes us into real persons.
The other is the central theme from Lewis' greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. I have just been re-reading its final, overwhelmingly beautiful and mysterious chapters, and tears are streaming down my cheeks.
THE complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
And then there is the motto Newman had inscribed on his tombstone:
Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem
Out of the shadows and fantasms and into truth.
Earthly life is all about becoming real—about letting God render us real. The task will only finally be accomplished in eternity. The main thing in the here and now is to say "yes" to the painful process.