I had a synchronistic moment in a bookshop in Sheffield this summer. I had a book token and was browsing. I noticed a book by an author I’d recently enjoyed and thought I’d get it, but continued browsing and having picked up a couple of other books went back to the one that had first caught my eye and picked that up too. It was only after I’d left the shop that I realised I’d actually picked up a different book! One that had also caught my eye but not the one I’d intended.
I’ve done this sort of thing often enough over the years, and have learnt to take seriously what others might consider a silly mistake. I don’t pretend to know quite how this works but I’ve learnt that it does and that, not to my surprise, the book I’d actually picked up was exactly the one I needed to read at that moment and had been looking for without knowing quite what it was that I wanted.
It’s entitled ‘The Path: what Chinese Philosophers can teach us about the good life’, and its by Professor Michael Puett of Harvard University. I warmly commend it. It begins with some practical ideas of Confucius. One of them is the importance of often quite simple, ritual actions. For Confucius “rituals are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered. For a brief moment, we are living in an “as if” world…[having] entered an alternative reality in which [we] imagine different sides of [our]selves.”
‘As if’ moments may be very brief encounters. A handshake implying a level of equality in a relationship; an offer of tea or coffee to a visitor suggesting a degree of welcome; a hug or a smile, the catching of an eye with a complete stranger, communicating a recognition and connection that can lift the spirits.
But its quite easy to think of more substantial examples. When we go on holiday or visit somewhere unfamiliar, we are free of our usual constraints and behave differently. The circumstances allow sides of our character which don’t usually get much space, to appear and to blossom: for a time we are slightly, sometimes very, different people. The key is for us to know that we are in a way pretending, that we this is not how things are in our normal everyday world and that it is just a temporary arrangement which will not last. But it’s a safe enough place for us to relax and behave differently. Watch the way adults behave when they accompany their children to a play area, or a theme park and revert to being children again for a while.
Children, of course, do this sort of thing without batting an eyelid. When they play at killing each other they are fully aware that this is pretend, and by pretending they are able to step outside how they usually are & experience who they might be; they learn to manage fears & anxieties or play the role of rescuer and hero, all in a safe environment of their own making. Adults do something similar in the games we play or are spectators at. We all do it when we watch a play or a film or read a novel.
Liturgy does this too: taking us into a different world where different assumptions apply. We are invited to act ‘as if’ we are in God’s Kingdom and do all manner of things we’d otherwise never dream of doing: to act ‘as if’ we know that we are all forgiven, loved and equal;: to sing together, pray together, pretend there are no serious animosities between us, exchange peaceful greetings, and kneel to be fed of exactly the same food and drink. Once we have left the building the camaraderie may fade, but if we go regularly we may slowly find ourselves and our attitudes changing.
Spiritual direction, or any therapeutic encounter needs to take place within a ritual ‘as if’ space. It has to feel like a safe enough space for people to be real and honest, knowing that they will be accepted and not judged, and if we go there regularly, we may find that the person we can be when we are there, becomes stronger and more self confident, and is able to appear outside of that ‘as if’ environment.
Prayer can do much the same thing, indeed that’s its very purpose: to take us into a space where we can be naked and wholly honestly ourselves before God and know that we are accepted and loved just as we are.
These ‘as if’ moments are both more common than we might have thought, and have the capacity to change the way we behave. Used discerningly they can help us to become happier and more contented, fulfilled human beings: to release the ‘image of God’ in us.
But I suspect that there is more to it than that. My experience walking along the towpath which I described in ‘an ‘other’ world ’ is of a piece with many of my other ‘as if’ experiences, and is certainly of a piece with what I sometimes experience in prayer. If I put them all together they seem to suggest the existence of a parallel world in which I find myself from time to time, and which I can consciously seek to be a part of as often as I want. A parallel world in which I feel most truly alive and myself. A parallel world that seems more real than the world I inhabit the rest of the time, although paradoxically, its not wholly apart from it.