Front St. Arts
Preface & Reader Response
One experience shared by most adults is an intensely intimate knowledge of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an influential teacher who is long absent, perhaps due to death.
The Persistence of Influential Personalities
by Jerry Murley
My parents tell me that when I was a small child I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Mitchell. At my insistence, my mother sometimes set a place at the dining table for Mr. Mitchell. Though invisible to others, Mr. Mitchell was an important friend for me. Apparently I needed such a friend at that time. The fulfillment of that need certainly did no harm to me or to others. And who would want to deprive a child of that small joy in the adventure of growing up?
When everyone around me acknowledged Mr. Mitchell, there was no difficulty. Problems arise when someone is unfamiliar with an invisible companion and doesn't know how to relate to the concept. Then the question arises as to where error lies: Who is disconnected from reality? Who is excluding whom? Is the Mr. Mitchell crowd a bit touched, or do the don't-see-'em-at-all folks lack sufficient imagination?
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A potent example of imaginary companions is commonly experienced by those who are old. People throughout time and from every culture have experienced the persistence of an influential personage long after separation. Imagine how we clearly see a very familiar face in a fuzzy, scratched, or faded photograph lodged in our memory. Far from immaterial and lifeless, the image of such a remembered person – a gently moving presence – is retained and active in our mind even as commonplace outlines blur. We feel the presence at the slightest hint of such a person, especially in particular circumstances which the person once inhabited with us. And that person has weight, sometimes persuasive substance, even though gone and invisible to others.
We associate physical things with our departed friends: a chair, a photograph, a book, a cozy place where a remembered conversation took place. When our loved one is gone and unlikely to return, there is a presence. There is clearly an afterlife of people in the mind of those they influenced. That is how we recall them; that is how they linger. My wife says that "things they made or gave" to her help her hold fast to the departed.
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There is an essential religious point of view founded on a personal relationship with such uncommon companions. It is perhaps more difficult for commonsense people with little religious experience to comprehend. We shall test whether men and women of open minds can even tolerate a discussion of that point of view.
Speaking of the joys associated with the story of Jesus, I left out a significant component of spiritual joy: the comfort of constant companionship – the presence of something special but unseen. The omission was not an oversight; I did not neglect this feature carelessly, because I know it is the component of faith that most fulfills countless Christians. No, I put it aside in part because it deserves unique treatment and in part because I wanted my exploration of joy in a religious context to appeal to a broad range of skeptics. To be truthful, there was another compelling reason: I did not want to be seen as verging on lunacy. Joy in itself is somewhat akin to lunacy, given the facts of everyday life. But heartfelt and deep relationships with invisible friends are uncommon companionships for adults in our modern culture – and they require a lot of explaining.
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Perhaps my experience with an imaginary friend – as well as my habit of welcoming continued strong attachments to cherished individuals long departed – has bearing on my willingness to periodically reconsider a sustained sense of spiritual companionship. I am unsure how many people have imaginary friends during childhood. But it occurs to me that an early ability to imagine and accept an invisible friend may dispose one to casually accept the notion that a part of divinity could be an invisible friend. Actually, spiritual companionship is much easier to accept, because there are palpable signs of intervention – there are near-miraculous stories that grownups want to accept that make the whole idea less...strange.
When someone claims to have a personal relationship with God, it can be off-putting to skeptics and the uninitiated. First of all, such a claim seems egotistical and boastful – and at worse, sanctimonious. We have all witnessed cases where the assertion of such an intimacy with a deity seemed to border on smug elitism if not full-blown dementia. Even as someone who has slight experience of spiritual companionship with the divine, it can seem downright spooky if talked about extensively.
For skeptics who view this whole discussion as being more than a little eerie, I reach for analogies that approximate what people sense when they experience and talk about spiritual companionship. I grasp for commonsense descriptions that demand less of credulity and call more for level-headed psychological analysis. If not for over-simplicity, a single, soft-spoken guardian, or a chorus of friendly voices, might be said to reside in what is termed our conscience – were that realm to serve open dialogue more than incessant, rigid nagging. Most religiously inclined people who feel spiritual companionship do think there is something special but also commonplace about this dimension of their life – something that makes it normal to them and tailored to their own mind and body – as natural and suitable to them as science, aestheticism, or hero worship are to others.
One experience shared by most adults is an intensely intimate knowledge of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an influential teacher who is long absent, perhaps due to death. The absent person's personality and significance in life is burned into the mind and make-up of the left-behind in a visceral way. I am not personally able to know what a phantom limb feels like after an amputation, but I think a fair analogy could be drawn comparing a phantom limb with the loss of a primary figure from one's life. I surmise that the persistence of attachment in the latter case is even stronger, deeper, and more long lasting. Great loss seems inexplicable, but the personal aftereffect of influential entities is hardly beyond comprehension.
Now there is a leap to be made between a lost loved one and routine proximity to God. But suspend judgment for a moment and consider this. What if, as in my case, you were surrounded by stories, Biblical readings, and adult conversations about prayer and visitations with God in childhood? What if that exposure continued steadily for years and years during and past the early developmental stages of your life? Well, sir, you might start to make Jesus or God a member of your mental family. The divine could practically become a part of your social group. The deity could become an invisible friend that is there all of the time. And the companionship could be magnified because you have been schooled to think that this friend is mighty powerful in mysterious ways.
Remove the church and familial – the cultural – environment and the psychological relationship sticks. That repeated familiarity works like a granary to store and nurture the relationship. It might be kept at bay for long periods at a time. Jesus might take a long trip abroad or get lost in all the stuff in your attic, but in a time of great difficulty, it would not be entirely beyond the pale to expect a knock at the door because you need a special homecoming. Perhaps the new relationship might be a little different and based on new terms, but it would not be hard to get back into it without abandoning acquired counterarguments and critical thinking gained during intervening years of education, practical life experiences, and maturity.
This evolution doesn't have to start in childhood. I know people who have faced a crisis and gotten involved with a religious group and begun reading the Bible – not just reading it but studying it over and over and over again. They want to talk about the lessons. They want to discuss its meaning. Well, over time, after living with those stories of Jesus and Old Testament characters and praying with all their might to be rescued or assisted in their life crises, they come to sense the aura of an invisible friend in the living room of their life.
How do repeated Bible stories apply to a godly relationship? When you have traveled with a figure, such as Jesus, so many times in so many situations, in exalted language, that somehow makes those stories more vivid and familiar. Biblical lands and events seem to have a physical presence to you as well – as familiar as the local grocery store and the ups and downs of hometown people. The characters in the Book are now in your head for life – and they've got things to say about your modern life as well.
A spiritual companion travels with the faithful wherever they go. And that friend doesn't steal from them or cheat them or turn ugly on them; that friend remains ever agreeable and helpful. After a while, such people don't need to see that friend to be certain that something is there at their beck and call. And in truth, dear skeptic, if you found something that was very helpful to you and seldom if ever harmful, what would you do – even if it seemed a bit touched in the head and there was no way that you could prove it was or wasn't there, while the world around you ridiculed your imaginary friend, or more than likely paid no mind to the concept at all because really it could never be seen on TV or a computer screen or a gaming device, it could not be heard on an MP3 player? It is not standing out on the grass or sitting on the couch. It can't lift the far end of that oak plank that you need to move but can't handle by yourself.
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For those jazzed up on godliness and spiritual jargon, it is enlightening to consider the effect you might have on others. They may see your behavior as self-absorbed, obsessive, out of touch, and even feeble-minded – which is what I bet a few of my friends and relatives think of my sudden discussion of religious topics and experiences.
Dear faithful who have had an intense religious experience, what do you think your skeptical friends, loved ones, and neighbors think when your spiritual companionship leads you to give all your money to some flimflam man at the church or to avoid exercising your body or eating right or to abstain from attending to family affairs appropriately or to take political views that would lead your community into the ground in no time? I'll tell you what they think: they start to think that your imaginary friend is lunacy itself and that your relationship is not very healthy for your life and family and community – and that it is a poor example for anyone else to adopt. And in even less extreme cases, they think that you are self-satisfied, insincere in their attentions, manipulative, preoccupied, detached, ever distracted like an artist pondering a new project or a writer in search of a theme or the right word. They see you as perpetually scheming how to convert them like "kill" notched on a hunting rifle. They rightly see you as distant from your social surroundings and duties: absolutely ungrounded.
If the only thing that religious people can say to others is that they are praying for them or that God's doing this and that or wills this or that, their neighbors and loved ones start to feel left out of serious consideration by their overly holy fellows. That kind of relationship with loved ones, friends, and neighbors, the ones that you can see and who do care about you and come to visit you and who call you, is not helping you, others, or forwarding the caring outreach of your God.
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Companionship of every variety withers without exercise. Frequent prayer and remembrance refresh an uncommon companionship. Even relationships associated with deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, and repeated failure can partially escape extinction with selective focus and practice, but they do not flourish. With a beneficial uncommon companionship, despite intervening years when more details of the bigger story – and the taller tales – come into question, the relationship may continue undiminished but refined.
With age, I have even come to think that many "real" friends become uncommon companions as well, though not always invisible. We don't see one another frequently, but we converse in my thoughts, in my perpetual "monologue" whether awake or dreaming. How pleasant it is to have these companions to think with when you are alone or concerned or fearful or simply celebratory and grateful. These companions are always there and eager to join the topic of the moment, even if the actual friends might not be.
Something else that the two share in common – spiritual companions and so-called real friends: there is always an unfulfilled yearning to connect more completely. The urge is seldom realistic or wholly prudent but it persists; it is part of being human, individual, always separate. The longing for deeper connection in a more rhythmic machinery is like perfect fuel in an exquisite, German-built engine: it helps it purr flawlessly and constantly. Whether the engine is my soul, my mind, or my body, it is always working, always needing nourishment, always producing results based on the combination of fuel and the state of attunement of my mental and emotional instruments.
My companionship with my wife, my full-time partner, is the most fulfilling of all my relationships. My relationship with my son has grown into a steady, respectful friendship that is only an airline ticket, an instant text message, or a phone call away. Both are the least invisible friends of all, but the strongest influences and companions when we are parted. Our discourse and options are more global in terms of ways in which we can connect. Uncommon companionship co-exists with these most tangible relationships – they fuel one another to perfection.
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Regarding most religious topics, and this one in particular, there is a fine line to walk for both sides of the religious divide. The first step to a eyes-open journey along that border is to see the line. The second is to seek adaptive insights over that line well into the other camp: to view things as they view them and understand that there may be very sound reasons why they don't, and perhaps never can, feel the same way as you do.
God fearing and dogmatic (even atheistic) certainty just don't cut it anymore when the principal purposes of religion and philosophy are comfort, assistance, guidance, explanation, coherence, and companionship. Uncommon companionship comes in many flavors and guises. Faithfulness to visible friends, departed friends, spiritual guides, and imaginary friends alike is not the exclusive purview of a few select individuals graced by acceptance of the "right" or "correct" religion or ideology – or by the "true" deity. It is a human need and ability common to all that is fulfilled by big hearts and expansive minds. Uncommon companionship is as real as common sense and vital imagination.