It’s Advent now. Yesterday it wasn’t, and today it is. Time is passing quickly. We’re stepping into Gospel readings that reflect the time and season. Stay awake. Ready yourself with eyes wide open, watching and waiting for the Lord’s Christ to appear. You might not notice him, small and unassuming that he is. So we must cultivate wisdom and be attentive.
It occurred to me that we, as Christians, must live this way not just in Advent, but all year round. We must pay attention and discern the truth of what we see and hear, what is going on around us, and also be awake to the wiles of the world, the flesh and the devil, who are trying to trip us up with as much subtlety as they can muster. The more attentive we can be, the better, most especially when it comes to our culture. Things are never as cut and dried as they seem.
I came across this ad campaign for a Kentucky Catholic all-girls college-prep academy recently and as I read through the different ads this school has adopted for their ladies, my brain said “true” and my spirit said “false”. The campaign features ads that say, “Life’s not a fairytale”, “You’re not a princess, but you can still rule the world” and “Don’t wait for a prince, be able to rescue yourself”. Their point, I suppose, was to get the young ladies attending Mercy Academy to kick their inner “princess” to the curb, and step up to ready themselves for “real life” through the solid “performance task-based curriculum” which I’m guessing will prepare them for every eventuality.
Ok, I’ll admit that there is a bit of veracity to their claims. For those who see princesses as spoiled, sassy, dramatic, selfish, know-it-alls – well then, I agree. Ladies, stop being that. (But I wholeheartedly object to calling that a princess.) I can also agree with the thought that we can’t live in fairy land (it doesn’t actually exist), we must live in the truth of the created world. And I also agree that hard work is necessary to accomplish what needs to be done in life. Yet, if that was the point of the ads, they probably would have said something like, “Work hard because reality hurts if you don’t”.
That isn’t what they said - there’s something amiss on a deeper level.
Canadian author Michael O’Brien once quoted J.R.R. Tolkein in an article about fairy tales saying that they “…contain rich spiritual knowledge. The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe. The metaphors found in the literary characters are not so much random chimeras as they are reflections of our own invisible world, the supernatural. Whether in dreams or conscious imagination, the powers of the mind (and one must see here the powers of the human spirit) are engaged in what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”. By this he means that man, reflecting his divine Creator, is endowed with gifts to incarnate invisible realities in forms that make them understandable.”
In other words, fairy tales and storytelling are important because we figure out ourselves, and our world, by the magic that is contained within them. Everything around us is simplified and clarified: good is good, evil is evil, we strive for the good, we fight the evil, forever and ever, amen. And poof, that which we can’t see, can be seen for what it really is and we can make sense of it all.
So what does the fairy tale say about the reality? In this case, the princess is the archetype for the quintessence of the feminine, just like the prince or the knight is the same for all things manly. All girls, no matter their age, if they’ve not been wounded, want to be who they were made to be: beautiful, graceful, shining ladies made for an adventure bigger than themselves. They want to love and be loved, be honoured and respected and fought for, and mostly, they just want to be happy – which is what happens for the princess, if she is true and good, in the end of the fairy tale. This consistently includes others – whether it is a prince, family, friends or even pets. In the end, she’s surrounded by a community that loves her.
Every girl, teenager and then woman strives for that perfection. She instinctively knows that the ideal exists and does what she can to bring her heart’s longing to fruition. Princesses in fairy stories (and I mean the real stories, not the truncated and twisted Disney stories) represent to every girl, teenager and woman the best and most beautiful ideals of femininity. Why would anyone encourage a girl not to be a one then?
Perhaps because the ad creators and the academy people believe that striving to be a princess (ie. striving to be truly feminine) is incompatible with being real and living a good life? In which case they would be wrong. The two are perfectly compatible, and life is, in fact, much better when a gal can live fully her own nature; be the best rendition of herself with no reservations.
But there’s more. The slogans encourage girls outright to say goodbye to that integral part of themselves - their femininity – as if it was something a girl could actually stop being or worse, something of which she should be ashamed. Also, life without the ‘fairy tale’ suggests, in essence, that there is nothing beyond our senses; that which we can see, hear and taste. It suggests that the only reality is the one we make for ourselves and that there are no great and wonderful things beyond the material world. There is no spiritual realm or magic or miracles or joyous spontaneity or worse, no Love Incarnate. There is only cold hard fact and reality.
Bu-bye. Good luck.
And with that, they’re out the door into the “real” world, finishing Catholic school up with both feet planted firmly in agnosticism, or worse, atheism.
Now perhaps the powers that be at the Academy didn’t mean it this way. Perhaps they have a group of drama queens who needed to hear the message to quit acting like spoiled little brats and hopefully the girls who needed to hear it, heard it. But it does not change fact that the real danger is the deeper message, the insidious directives that at first are only sensed and can’t be fully appreciated until they are pondered and discerned. Some of those young ladies might never get it, living their whole lives with the shoddy ideals that they need to stop aiming to be beautiful and virtuous and feminine, that men should never ever be “waited for” and that God isn’t real if I can't see him. For shame, Mercy Academy, for shame.
Be a princess: Strive to be everything that is good, true and beautiful.
Wait on the Lord, your prince: He will show you the path of life.
Trust deeply in that which you cannot see: Live the fairy tale that is your life to the fullest.
Because if Tolkein and O’Brien are right (which I think they are) then nothing is more exciting than stepping out your front door every day. Who knows what could happen?
“Most of us do not learn about the nature of reality through theology, philosophy, or higher mathematics. But all of us readily grasp the language of a parable drawn from the universal human story. The forms may be dressed in elaborate costumes and enact impossible dramas, but they enable the lover of tales to step outside of himself for a brief time to gaze upon his own disguised world. What is the value of this temporary detachment? It is an imaginative withdrawal from the tyranny of the immediate the flood of words and sensory images that often overwhelm (and just as often limit) our understanding of the real world. A rare objectivity and insight can be imparted regarding this world's struggle for spiritual integrity. In the land of Faerie, the reader may see his small battles writ large in the wars of titans or elves and understand for the first time his own worth. He is involved, not in a false or spurious world, but in the sub-creation of a more real world (though obviously not a literal one). I say more real because a good author clears away the rampant undergrowth of details that make up the texture of everyday life, that crowd our minds and blur our vision. He artfully selects and focuses so that we see clearly the hidden shape of reality.” ~Michael O’Brien, Just a Fairy Story