Perhaps, many of you have done some acting either in High School or College. I did quite a bit of it in school and in the seminary. In all, I probably had a part in over 20 plays, but easily the most memorable ones were plays in which we majorly screwed up.
In 1961 my Christian Brothers high school put on a huge production of the life of Christ. The climax was the crucifixion scene with a real cross, perhaps ten feet tall on stage. Jesus was impaled by two huge nails which he was actually gripping between his index and middle fingers as he rested his feet on a tiny wedge-shaped platform which was about four feet off the ground. I was the centurion and my job, once Jesus had breathed his last, was to jab my spear into his side where a bag of tomato juice was taped to produce the requisite blood. For the first few nights, I was content to dispatch him in this fashion, but by night four it was getting kinda boring, so while he was still communing with his heavenly daddy, I started tickling his underarm with the tip of my spear. He began wriggling, lost his footing and tumbled onto the stage. There was a gasp from the crowd and immediately, the curtain came down and one of the Christian Brothers rushed on stage and beat the crap outta me. Jesus suffered a bunch of bruises and sprained his ankle. So much for the Thespian blessing, “Break a leg!”
One of the plays we did in the seminary was “Hadrian IV”. It was the story of the only Englishman – Nicholas Breakspeare – to be elected pope. He ruled from 1154 to 1159. The lead role was being played by Billy Kennefick, a late vocation who had been, for many years, a member of Cork’s Shakespearean Company. He was a first-rate actor. The local community was always invited to these productions which typically ran for a week.
In the seminary we had to make all of the props ourselves including the “flats” – the angled sidepieces that allow actors to enter and exit the stage without the audience being able to see what is backstage.
The climax of the whole play is the funeral procession of the deceased pontiff. Four of us – cardinals – are shouldering the stretcher bearing the dead pope with great solemnity across the stage. The problem was that the flats hadn’t been ready during the dress rehearsal, so we are encountering them now for the first time. As we attempt to exit stage left, it quickly becomes obvious that the stretcher, with two guys on each side, won’t be able to pass through. There’s only one solution, the two of us at the rear of the stage tilt our side up while the two at the front of the stage tilt their side down. That does the trick; we are now able to squeeze through. Only one problem, Billy Kennefick rolls off the stretcher, hits the ground with an almighty thump, his false teeth get ejected and land in the lap of a lady in the front row!
So, in this essay, I want to use drama and screw ups as a metaphor of incarnation.
- Incarnational Actors
My three favorite psychologists of all time are the Buddha, Jesus and William Shakespeare. These guys really grokked the human psyche. And Shakespeare, the master playwright, said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages…”
I believe we are like a Shakespearean troupe. We enter incarnation in cohort groups dedicated to creating a play which affords each of us the opportunity to develop our acting skills. By that I mean the opportunity to learn that the only thing that works is love. We make Pre-conception contracts with other souls to provide the plays that can stretch us into enlightened beings.
From incarnation to incarnation, we travel with the same group of players; though, in response to very different dramas, we may change genders, ethnicity, socio-economic status etc. And, before we incarnate, we know the track record of each of the other players. At the soul level, we fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of all the players.
But there is one huge difference, life is Improv – there is no script and no plot, just players parachuted into a pre-existing world and tasked with moving it towards Christ Consciousness. And there are two rules to Improv Theatre. Number one, you can’t reject a line your partner offers you. Ever! If you do, the whole play will fall on its face. And the second rule is, it’s your job to offer your partners lines that make them look good – and vice-versa. If you try to strut and impress by diminishing the others, once more the drama will collapse.However, there is another huge caveat. You must never identify with the role or even with the play. You are not the role you are playing; and the drama itself is not ultimate reality. You are a spirit in a spacesuit – the spacesuit is not you; the spirit is. Play your role brilliantly but realize that your human body and its mind and emotions are simply costumes you put on in the Green Room just for the play of incarnation.
Actors who can’t leave the role at the final curtain call are destined to carry these pseudo-ID’s into their home relationships and into the world. They are the ones who get fooled by maya – and think that fame or wealth or power are the object of the exercise.
Things get compounded when the directors and producers of these life dramas – religious and political leaders – insist that you play your part in a closely-circumscribed fashion. They want to hand you a script and force you to follow a pre-determined plot. So, I would add a third great rule to Improv Theatre: when you and your fellow actors have learned how to play to each other’s strengths, then stretch yourself and them. Otherwise the way you play Hamlet becomes indistinguishable from the way you played Macbeth.
Ultimately, you must be able to say, as Jesus did, “When you see me, Philip, you see the father.” In other words, if I really know how to act, you should be able to see beyond my costume into my soul; beyond my spacesuit into my spirit; beyond my lines into my love. For all of us are simply God-in-drag.
- Feedback from Screwups
The essential features of learning are repetition (e.g., riding a bike or typing) and feedback. So, we can learn as much, or even more, from the ‘mistakes’ we make as from our successes. In the New Testament, the Greek word for ‘sin’ is taken from the sport of archery. Sin is merely missing the mark, which gives you instant feedback on how to adjust your aim. So, it is intimately connected to karma – which is not a punitive mechanism but simply cause and effect. You do A and B happens; if B is good, keep doing A; if B is not good, do something else instead of A.
And ‘perfection’ (‘telos’ in Greek, from which we get teleology) is not about a stainless-steel sinlessness but is the commitment to the purpose for which you incarnated, no matter how many times you miss the bull’s eye.
Here are some thoughts on feedback:
- Consciousness Examen
Different from the old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ is the practice of a ‘consciousness examen.’ The objective of this is to live as mindfully as possible. I used this technique very successfully in my psychology practice. I would ask the client – as a kind of ‘morning offering’ – to pick one issue for a full week, set the intention about being really mindful around that issue all day and, then before going to bed that night, grade – on a scale of 1 to 10 – their performance. I found that, if they were faithful to the exercise, any issue or habit could be healed.
- The Feedback Loop
As I said, the essential features of learning, are repetition and feedback. Repetition builds both cellular and mental memory; and feedback allows us to adjust our aim. Firing arrows at a target which you cannot see is unlikely to result in hitting the bull’s eye with any regularity. And there are several kinds of feedback. The first one, I’ve just mentioned above; it’s feedback from the consciousness examen or even the examination of conscience. It is self-generated feedback. Next comes solicited feedback. It can be from a friend, a spiritual director, a therapist, a coach – somebody who’s in your corner and agrees to be a collaborator in your development. Finally, there is unsolicited feedback which can come from many quarters – family, friends, or ‘enemies’. Even this is valuable, if you can separate the gold nuggets from the coating of anger, schadenfreude and exaggeration. Weeding – the cruel plucking by others of your faults – can be even more valuable than fertilizing – the loyal love you get from the gentle appreciation of your gifts.
Here are two other things I learned during my acting career. First, never try something on the performance night that you haven’t practiced during the rehearsals. It may blow up on you, and it’s not fair to the other actors who have crafted their own performances to dovetail with yours. Such changes typically come from self-glorification, an effort to stand out. If the drama implodes, that’s all the critics will remember – not that you gave a stunning performance but that you punctured the play for the other actors.
And, second, make sure that all the props have been completed and tested by dress-rehearsal night. Don’t roll the pontiff off the stretcher.