When Reality Gets in the Way of Our Dreams

Seeing Christ in every encounter

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Father Michael AckermanWhen I was a teacher, I often had to interrupt students who were dreaming, either because they were truly asleep (and drooling) or staring off into space. I imagine that lectures on ancient history were not terribly exciting for them, and the classroom did get unusually warm in the afternoons. If we are being honest, many of us have been tempted to daydream from time to time. Perhaps we have done so because we are bored with the present, or maybe because we are trying to avoid something that we would rather not address. Ecclesiastes offers some great wisdom on how to engage with fantasy and frivolity: “As dreams come along with many cares, / so a fool’s voice along with a multitude of words. / When you make a vow to God, delay not its fulfillment” (Eccl 5:2-3).

Finance-council meetings are admittedly not my favorite aspect of ministry, and several of our meetings have been known to go into extra innings. Once, as we entered the third hour of budget discussions, I could tell that our business manager was nearing the end. His eyes began to droop, and when he was awake, he kept staring at the ceiling. One of the members asked him a question, and he became very quiet. “Ten,” he replied. “I believe it’s 10.” We all looked at him quizzically, because the question was whether or not we had paid an insurance bill. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he finally retorted. “I am having a really hard time paying attention, I was somewhere else.” Although it was embarrassing to him, I found it very relatable. Sometimes, it is easy to wander off in hopes that what we discover will be better, but it seldom is.

I surmise that all of us have had times when we dreamed we were elsewhere. I have turned, at times, in the other direction or ducked into a closet, or even acted as though I was on the phone, to avoid a difficult person or event. Maybe we have even complained about someone or something, imagining that things could be different or that we would be relieved of a certain burden.

In doing some Lenten reading, I found an answer to these problems in a work by Blessed Columba Marmion. He writes: “We are sometimes tempted to believe that if we were entrusted with this duty, or if we could be relieved of that employment, or could be freed from the company of some irritating person, we should make more rapid progress in the way of perfection. This is a great illusion. In principle these imagined obstacles are intended to be transformed into ladders to lead us up to God” (“Christ the Ideal of the Priest,” Ignatius Press, $24.95). The trick is to ensure that we see Christ in every encounter, especially when those encounters are not part of our dreams.

A priest of our diocese used to be involved heavily in formation work and even taught at several seminaries around the country. I remember him lamenting one time that some of his seminarians were dreamers. He was not upset because they had dreams of serving God and the Church, but rather he was upset that they refused to accept the reality of things.

“They spend so much time dreaming about changing everything,” he said, “that I wonder if they really know whom and what they are signing up to serve!”

He had a very valid point. It is easy to succumb to our ego, and I bet at times we wish as Frank Sinatra would say that we could do things “My Way.” However, we are invited to live according to God’s plan and that takes sacrifice, effort and a hard dose of reality.

I am not suggesting that we give up on our dreams. Dreams and plans for the future are an essential part of serving the People of God. The Scriptures are full of God communicating in dreams. However, those dreams cannot avoid the present situation and must be rooted in prayer, charity and humility. “If you are daydreaming during practice,” I remember my baseball coach saying, “how will you ever know how to contribute in a game?” Reality will often test our resolve, but if we raise our eyes toward heaven, we can confidently pray that God’s dream may match our reality.

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the pastor at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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