The Gospel According to Velveteen, pt 4: Tears upon Ashes

Today marks the final in my series on The Velveteen Rabbit. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, and 3. We’re finishing this MF’er today, so buckle up.

The discussion surrounding deconstruction has been difficult for me.

Not because I’ve never questioned my faith and morality and worldview, nor do I lack interest in people’s journeys—quite the opposite. I’ve never struggled with the fact that people are questioning these foundational aspects of their humanity. Rather, the disconnect comes with the idea that someone once was not asking questions and now is; that at one time they were blissfully ignorant of their doubts, questions, fear, and past steps.

Many speak of deconstruction as a thing that happens to them, a semi-structured, passing season of change in which the walls holding up a life’s house are torn down, then (hopefully) reconstructed with almost entirely new materials.

But how do you speak about an entire life characterized by this breaking and rebuilding?

What if the concept of questioning, doubting, reforming, and rehashing are so second nature that it never occurred to you some people were once not doing those things . . .

then began doing them . . .

and look forward to a time when they can stop doing them?

How do you talk with people who find the whole affair frustrating and anxiety-inducing while you, the metaphysical masochist, actually enjoy it?

The last two years in which I’ve been out of church-specific ministry have been a school in humility in this regard. At first, I believed myself ahead of the game: broken by circumstance, sure, but philosophically and theologically prepared to do the work. I was ready to start a new job as a social worker, ready to plan for the next iteration of my ministry in the Episcopal priesthood—ready to be healthy for my family and community.

Only I wasn’t.

I was doing everything right: going to therapy and receiving medication, working out and spending time with family and friends, but nothing could break through the malaise.  I fell deeper into dismissal of the Divine. Before, I had been able to question-and-answer myself through difficulty–had been able to buckle down and read or talk my way through change. Only this time it wasn’t working. I was still as depressed, hopeless, and lost as the first night in Bloomington, when I ate pizza and set up IKEA furniture with my dad, accidentally drilling holes in the wrong side of my dresser.

And I was confused AF.

I mean, I was a thinker. I was one of those unique few who didn’t have to worry about being surprised by doubt because I (supposedly) welcomed it, invited it home to dinner and thanked it for its time. I bathed in the blissful dreariness of questioning my existence. Yet here I was, just like all the other deconstructionist chumps, asking basic questions about God’s existence and wondering if it was any good going to church or even living at all. Didn’t I know better? Hadn’t I already defeated this and become, in our Velveteen parlance, REAL?

I came to believe my faith would be an ongoing process, but the transformation would be once and final.

But then you find yourself waking up in the cold light of an early dawn, dreading the daylight and all it brings––the work, the doubt, the despair—and you realize you’re just another no-name waiting their turn on the burn pile. Like Velveteen, you realize you had never been REAL but had in fact been a disposable mechanism in someone else’s machine. Your god was weak: he had come down with scarlet fever and things would never be the same.

Or maybe…

Or maybe you were in fact REAL all along and had been unable to see it. Maybe you had begun to mistake the destination for the path; had believed you required another’s affirmation in order to validate your REALness. Maybe you’d begun believing that becoming had a definite terminus. What if you found yourself on the burn pile of life, looking back on all the time you had wasted fretting over whether or not you were something that you always had been and always would be in the process of becoming? What if Velveteen needed neither Skin Horse, nor The Boy, nor the wild rabbits to declare his worth?

Yet still here he was, sitting atop the trash heap, waiting for the End. What was it all for? Was he REAL or not? Was he loved or not? Had he become, was he becoming, or was it all rot in the end?

The sack had been left untied, and so by wriggling a bit [Velveteen] was able to get his head through the opening and look out. He was shivering a little, for he had always been used to sleeping in a proper bed, and by this time his coat had worn so thin and threadbare from hugging that it was no longer any protection to him. Near by he could see the thicket of raspberry canes, growing tall and close like a tropical jungle, in whose shadow he had played with the Boy on bygone mornings. He thought of those long sunlit hours in the garden–how happy they were–and a great sadness came over him. He seemed to see them all pass before him, each more beautiful than the other, the fairy huts in the flower-bed, the quiet evenings in the wood when he lay in the bracken and the little ants ran over his paws; the wonderful day when he first knew that he was Real. He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? And a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby velvet nose and fell to the ground.

In the midst of his doubt, as our friend Velveteen sits atop the ashes of other toys who once believed they were loved, his very real tear tear falls on the dewy earth and something magical begins to happen. A flower grows and blooms and reveals a tiny creature, the Nursery Magic Fairy, who cups Velveteen’s face in her minuscule hands and explains that she appears when it is time for toys who have “been loved and forgotten” to be taken and “turned into Real.”

Suddenly, he finds himself carried to a nearby clearing, the Fairy answers the obvious question of what about The Boy?, explaining that while he was indeed REAL to the one who loved him, he would now be Real to everyone: The Boy, Nana, the doctor who condemned him to the fire, even the wild rabbits. She set him down, kissed him, and commanded he run and play. But like so many of us, he failed to believe the glorious, terrifying Truth of his freedom until he accidentally moved. Then, as his newly-minted hind leg scratched his actual flesh-and-blood ear, he found that he was indeed be REAL: “a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.”

He had been REAL, but there was work to do. Now he was REAL in yet another, bigger sense. But still there was work to be done. He must live the life of a real, wild rabbit.

The first time I read this as an adult, my infant daughter on my lap, I wept.

It’s the moment of apotheosis we all so desperately long for: the fool’s hope that our tears and the tears of every mother’s child weighed down by troubles large and small might water the soil of our collective restoration. That we might be raised from the ashes by impossible magic and find the truth of all that we had most hoped for.

Maybe I am a fool—maybe there is no Nursery Magic Fairy to kiss our ragged, tear-stained faces—but the hope keeps me going. The hope that the faint music I hear behind the darkened hills bears the message of our transformation. The hope that I might even be a singer in that divine chorus, bringing the kisses that make others REAL not just in the hereafter, but in the here-and-now.

May we all take courage on the journey to becoming REAL. May we receive the gift of life and become the bringers of restoration amidst tears and joy.

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