I had been talking around it for weeks. My spiritual director, on the other hand, was ready to get to the point.
“It sounds like you just really want her,” he said.
His voice lingered on the words really and want to make it clear that he was talking about sex. It’s a bold move in spiritual direction to call out somebody’s libido and that’s exactly what he was doing. And he was right. He was right and he wasn’t finished. “It sounds like you want her,” he continued, “but now she’s back home with her boyfriend and you’re here, alone, with your imaginary friend Jesus.”
I froze in a moment of bare recognition. Yup. That’s exactly what it was like. I felt a mix of humility and freedom as he pulled away the cover on what had been holding me back for weeks. “You’re right,” I said. “That’s exactly right.”
I had recently moved to a new city and was struggling to get my bearings in a new job. I felt depressed and disconnected, uninterested. During my previous assignment I had, almost without knowing it, fallen in love. I had been working closely with a person I really enjoyed: a supportive friend, a good fit, in every sense a very attractive woman. I didn’t think too much of it. I had no intention of abandoning life as a Jesuit or running away with her (nor she with me) but there was a strong connection, a mutual affection, and enough uncertainty in both of our lives to allow, well, you know…feelings.
She was moving on about the same time I was and as we departed it became clear to us both that we would miss each other very much. Her move involved reconnecting with family and an old boyfriend. Mine, just another assignment. Just me and my imaginary friend Jesus.
We often want for things we don’t possess. We long for relationships that aren’t ours or a life we’ve never known. Surely there are desires that call us, motivate us, and move us, but there are also habits of fantasy that distract us from the reality of our lives, from our commitments and our real concerns. There are some longings that leave us depressed and unavailable to the people we live with every day. When we only want for what we do not have then what have is never enough. And if all we have is fantasy then our love is never real and we are profoundly alone.
The love we seek, the love we all deserve, must be real. Romantic fairytales are full of neatly reconciled longings — a dramatic first kiss, a well crafted epilogue, a choreographed dance or a musical montage as the credits roll and we all go home happy. But real love is complicated — the timing isn’t what we’d want it to be, the cues aren’t always so obvious, and then there’s the whole part about commitment and sacrifice, self-giving and the promises of vows.
Real love wants for truth. Real love accepts the beloved as they are and where they are. Real love offers itself, as it is, in return. Real love has less to do with what we want to be true than with our capacity for acceptance and generosity in the face of what is.
Real love is honest.
When my director said those words — ‘your imaginary friend Jesus’ — he wasn’t suggesting that we both jump ship on the Jesuit life; he was simply helping me to be honest. I was lonely. That is exactly how I felt and it was exactly how I was living. As if I was alone. As if love wasn’t present. As if the most important relationships in my life weren’t real.
He helped me to name a reality and to get back in touch with it. I was really lonely because I really wanted someone who was now really far away. Until I accepted this, the truth of our relationship, the reality of our love could remain only a fantasy. Moreover, until I brought the reality of my grief and loneliness to God, Jesus too would remain just an imaginary friend.
The real loss was my inability to love the life I was living, to love the people I was with, and to share myself, even in grief, with anyone, imaginary or otherwise. In my depression I was unable to recognize the love all around me. My want of a relationship that was no longer (or at least no longer as it had once been) drew me away from the real relationships right in front of me. My fantasy of intimacy (I just want her) had made real intimacy impossible.
Honesty opened a door in me. As I accepted my loneliness somehow God felt present again. Instead of denying how I felt, and thereby shutting out all feelings, I accepted the complexity of the truth. I wasn’t lonely all the time. There were moments of laughter, attraction, disgust, and satisfaction. I turned to the people around me, paying attention to the new colleagues and community I was now living and working with. I became capable of generosity again. I became capable of accepting the truth and beauty of the life and love I’m given.
I felt lonely and yet I wasn’t actually alone, the love of Christ in that moment wasn’t imaginary at all. I just wasn’t available to it. I wasn’t accepting it. I was grieving the loss of a good friend and companion — something the real Jesus understands very well. She was gone and I just wanted her close; and that was alright, for a while. But I was glad to turn again to the truth because, in love, the real thing is always better than the ideal. Not always easier, but better.
They call it falling in love for a reason; it’s involuntary, awkward, sometimes painful. And when we live in love, falling is inevitable. But I’d rather fall in love than in fantasy. I’d rather live in love than in want.
The cover image, from Flickr user Geraint Rowland, can be found here.