What Lies Beneath

[Still not really here! We survived two nights in the wilderness and one day at the ocean. Aquarium today.  The teenagers are revolting – even more than usual, I mean – so we may cut our stupid vacation short. In the mean time, here is a post from May of 2009. It originally ran at Inside Catholic, now Crisis.]




I had a fleeting desire to see the movie Watchmen, until I heard that it was yet another in the genre of “let’s peel off the facade of the world and get down to the truthiest truth underneath, which is, of course, stench and corruption.”

This must be an awfully old theme. Older even than The Matrix, I imagine. In that movie, the hero is invited to take a blue pill if he wants to persist in the pleasant and elaborate illusion that is human life — or a red pill if he wants to wipe it away forever. If he chooses the latter, he will be doomed to live henceforth in a brutal and dangerous reality — but it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the Truth, you see.

In any age that prides itself (justly or not) on intellectual rigor and sophistication, this must be one of the chief temptations: to imagine that freshness and innocence are always the illusion, and corruption is always the reality, the core. (This theme is brilliantly dissected in John C. Wright’s journal here.)

But it’s a temptation. Not one perspective on life, not a valid point of view, not an interesting theme to explore. A temptation, also known as a lie.

Ransom, in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, battles directly with this lie when the Un-man, pursuing him on shattered limbs through the pitch-black caves of Venus, courts him horribly with the myth of life as a thin crust, an outer rind. The tempter says:
Picture the universe as an infinite globe with this very thin crust on the outside . . . . We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it. When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe –He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in. . .
All the things you like to dwell on are outsides. A planet like our own . . . Or a beautiful human body. All the colours and pleasant shapes are merely where it ends, where it ceases to be. Inside, what do you get? Darkness, worms, heat, pressure, salt, suffocation, stink.
It took me many years to realize that I believed this myth, emotionally if not intellectually, and had done so since I was little. I am sure that many young people do. Happily, in my late 20s, I gradually got an easy reprieve: God saw fit to shower me with so many hints and breaths of eternal happiness that only a willful, intentional twisting away from the light would confuse me for long.
But there have been some times of confusion. Recently I suffered a spell of crushing misery. Things that I never even questioned had turned out to be shaky. Where I turned for consolation, there was perversion and malice. It didn’t even feel like a trial, because I didn’t know that the verdict was yet to come: It felt like the end had come, and there I was in the dark cave, and that was it. I had found the truth at last.But (O Lord, thou pluckest me) I came out. The darkness was answered with a spell of otherworldly happiness. The world was shining all the time. Angels leaped and rejoiced from every surface, basking and frolicking like otters in the glory of God-in-the-world. You will have to take my word for it, if this has never happened to you. I’d never seen anything like it, before or since. It lasted about three weeks.
The super-rational joy, the passionate interest I felt in the world didn’t last, but it was too real to forget or deny. One day, I was driving home from adoration. Now, I’m a typical crummy catholic who unwillingly drags herself there twice a month, so this day was unusual in that I had truly enjoyed my hour. I felt God’s presence in the chapel as substantially as I feel my husband’s presence when he walks in the door in the evening. We were there together, Christ and I, and it was fun.
So after my hour was over, I was headed home, hauling the car around the roundabout, idly watching out for clueless pedestrians. Tired snowbanks, blackened with exhaust, leaned into the road, and no birds sang. “Echhh,” I thought. “Well, that was very nice for an hour . . . but now back to the real world.”Then I thought, “Just a damn minute.” (At this point I think I actually put one finger up into the air like a stern lecturer.)
“That was the real world. Back in there, in the chapel. The gold. The almost audible affection and consolation. The unmistakable Presence. That was the real world. And I hereby repudiate that stupid other idea!” And, thanks be to God, the stupid idea slunk away.
Let’s just say it: Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are real. Everything else is not.Now, driving home and feeling better that particular afternoon is one thing. But repudiating this stupid idea every day in every way — rejecting utterly, without reservation, the temptation of the Matrix sensibility — is a matter of life and death.Why? Because we are still waiting for the truth to take up arms and vanquish the enemy once and for all. Yes, we know and believe that it will happen at the Second Coming — that then there will be no temptation, no mistake. Whichever pill we take, Christ the Warrior will be standing in front of us: good, beautiful, victorious, and unmistakably true.But right now?
The Beautiful is an anencephalic baby who somehow lives for three weeks and longer. The Good is a Host desecrated on You Tube. The True is the voice of a chubby DRE who preaches chastity to a handful of hardened, sarcastic teenagers.
In other words, for some reason, God is vulnerable. He has made Himself vulnerable in this world. I don’t know why.
The one thing we can do about it is to remember that this weakness, this darkness, this tired, dried up, worn out world — this is the illusion. This is the temporary state; this is the crust. Underneath it all is not darkness, heat, and stench.
Underneath it all, deep down, is the living water.
We must drink of it again and again, and we must offer it to each other, and remind each other that it is there. It will keep our heads clear until there can be no more confusion, once and for all.
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  • Tom

    The format is all messed up, but it might just be my computer.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    Thank you for reposting, both because I wasn’t following you in 2009 and therefore missed this piece, and because I needed to read it today.

  • anna lisa

    I remember the first time I read this. It struck a deep chord. I like it when you write like this because it communicates a sense of *urgency* for revealing the truth–a *living* truth, which is more translatable to the sights and smells of real life.

    Articles about Christian living can almost be a scandal for those on the outside looking in. They can sound so safe and sanitized, in the safe and sanitized shows/newspapers/magazines that cater to all things safe and sanitized. They lose this sense of what kind of a battle for light and darkness we are really in. I don’t blame young adults from rejecting insipid messages. This subject touches upon why so many people dislike the Pope. He does the same thing that you do, and it freaks people out. They want him to speak like an angel on earth, and angels on earth don’t become “impregnated with the smell of the sheep”. They don’t want to fight or suffer for anything deeper. He rocks their safe, sanitized and nearly faithless world.

  • richard

    There is a tropical storm heading up the East coast. You can expect stormy waves at the beach.

  • Angelie Roth

    I need to comment on this, as I didn’t back when this was reposted: Yay!!! And double-yay for referencing Robert Frost’s Directive.