If you ask a naïve child: “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” he replies “Yes!”
If you ask a bright child the same question, he replies “No!”
However if you ask an even brighter child, he replies “Yes!”
– – Ronald Rolheiser in Forgotten Among the Lilies – –
Not long ago, my partner and I had one of the worst moviegoing experiences of our lives. We went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The movie itself was quite good. The audience, however, was atrocious.
Parents, who apparently had never uttered the word “no”, brought throngs of ill-mannered adolescents who kawkawed through the entire movie like a murder of crows. As we entered the theater, two of them ran up from behind us and attempted to shove us out of the way in order to get prime seats. (My outstretched leg halted their progress.) The gossipers seated behind us provided a cacophonous secondary soundtrack, and with one exception, none of these urchins every said “please” or “excuse me” during their repeated foot-trampling escapades in and out of our row. By the time the movie was over, we were eager to enter the whole lot of them into a Hunger Games lottery.
We were particularly eager to see this movie because we had enjoyed reading the trilogy. In our heads we had conjured a complex, virtual reality of characters, districts, the topography of the games, the ambience of the capitol…a vibrant and fluid mental landscape inspired by the books. If we had seen the movie first, our imagination would have been narrowed to the vision of the film’s director.
This struck me as an analogy for the spiritual path. We start off taking things literally as we have been spoon fed them. We naively believe in a literal Santa Claus. This is fine as the starting point in which we first learn the stories, but eventually we have to throw off this limited literalism that denies the reality in which we live (or we become rigid fundamentalists). Eventually, we no longer believe.
Then, at some point, if we are lucky, we realize there is a deeper truth beneath these stories, myths, scriptures and dogmas. It’s not the stories themselves which were important, but the Ultimate Reality to which they point, which is, after all, a Mystery. While we may no longer believe that a rotund philanthropist trespasses across the threshold of every household and is then whisked away by airborne caribou, we do start to believe in the spirit of generosity, altruism, good cheer and kindness. We can once again say with integrity that we do believe in Santa Claus.
What it requires is that we release those “film interpretations” that narrow our perspective without losing The Story itself. We read both sacred texts and the sacred scriptures of our own lives side by side. Imagination sparks. Hope inspires. Compassion exudes. Otherwise, we’ve missed the point. Even the Christmas story itself needs to pass through this dialectic of belief, unbelief, and then deeper belief that rhymes with the holy experience of our own lives.
Perhaps if those adolescents at the movie still believed in a literal Santa Claus, we could have threatened them with lumps of coal for Christmas. While Santa won’t literally shaft them with lumps of coal, I do believe it will happen in a deeper sense. Soon enough the smartphone or Wii given at Christmas will seem like a lump of coal when it is tossed aside as obsolete.
We all get to the point where life feels like a bag full of charcoal briquettes. In those moments will we keep grasping for new toys to distract us? More lumps of coal in the making? Or will we choose to believe in and embrace the Essence of Christmas…a human heart broken open by compassion…awe-filled eyes that see the Sacred Presence everywhere…satiated gratitude for the simple goodness of being alive…in this body…here and now.
Do you believe?