Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Giving Up Hamlet

I have trouble with Lenten fasting, perhaps because I try to give up too much. I have already violated my fasting plan on a couple of—well, OK, on several—occasions, all of which occasions seemed special. But I just awoke from a dream involving a different kind of sacrifice, one that I have kept. In the dream, I gave up playing Hamlet.

The quick back story is this: I was a teenage actor, college-age actor too, who like every serious young “juvenile lead type” dreamed of playing Hamlet. I was really no different from a high school athlete dreaming of being Super Bowl MVP.  Hamlet is the young star quarterback on Team Shakespeare. At the time of my youth, Laurence Olivier was still alive and still the paragon. That’s him as Hamlet with Yorick’s skull in the photo. He looks creepy now, but he didn’t then. Fashions change.

Sometimes our dreams don’t change, though. It’s possible to carry impossible conditions, preconceptions about happiness, through one’s entire life: I will not be fulfilled until I play Hamlet. (Or King Lear. There does come an age, and I’m well past it, when a man looks stupid in tights, especially playing a college boy come home to Elsinore. So Lear now, instead of Hamlet—but it’s still the same precondition.)

My dream involved a longstanding contract between myself and a summer playhouse, under which I would play Hamlet at the end of the season. In the dream, as in my life, I had not done any serious acting for many years, but somehow I still had a reputation. I contacted the playhouse and told them I would not be able to honor my contract. Then I had a conversation with my one high-school friend who did go on to a serious acting career, Jack Gilpin, and I told him about giving up the chance to play Hamlet. In my dream, Jack was aghast. By contrast, I was relieved. It felt to me like all real sacrifices: you give up something lesser, to receive something more. In the next scene, I was walking with my wife through a green summer landscape. It was a vision of contentment.

My life has been a constant conversation between dream and reality—between inner preconceptions that assume certain conditions of happiness (having to play Hamlet, having a certain level of income, etc.) and the outer reality of my life as it is given to me, day by blessed day. Just in the past three years (since becoming a Catholic) and even more vividly in the past 24 hours (since returning home from a retreat at the Dominican House of Studies), I have known a contentment with the ordinary dailiness of my life, the facts as they are given to me by my Creator. 

I credit Communion and Liberation with helping me come to this perspective, this contentment. Without the Catholic Church, of course, CL would not exist, so my first debt is to the Church that took me in after 40 years in the wilderness. CL, though, keeps a focus on reality, and for looking for Christ, for meaning, for fulfillment right here. Happiness is not something I have to find, according to certain impossible preconditions. Happiness, another word for the Kingdom of Heaven, is here and now. As I wrote in my last post on the Dominicans, happiness for me is “my wife, my work, my church, my chair”—with Christ for companion.

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