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‘Life Is a Dream’


Two thousand years ago, some brave soul scratched the rough image of a fish into a cave wall and had the nerve to say, “This means Christ.” The magnificent Christ of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is an infinitely more refined piece of carving, but as far as sheer artistic courage goes, that little fish is hard to beat.

Creating new images of God is risky business. No one knew that better than Jesus, who paid the ultimate price for a lifetime of creating such images. But the need to speak the unspeakable in the limited language of one’s own time endures, and despite the risks, the necessary images are found.

I saw one created the other night, and it took my breath away. And until I saw it, I didn’t realize I had been looking for it my entire life.

It occurred during a rare staging of a dusty, long-ignored, previously untranslated 1687 Spanish liturgical drama, “Life Is a Dream.” Originally produced by Marquette University, the production was invited to New York by Jay Wegman, canon for arts at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where this “Dream” played its all-too-brief run in the main sanctuary.

“Life Is a Dream” is a liturgical allegory, and it comes with all the tired baggage of allegory, including a cast list right out of a grammar school pageant. Sharing the stage with God in this retelling of the fall and redemption are Man, Free Will, Understanding, Grace, the Prince of Darkness and the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

A ‘Dream’ in the cathedral

On the face of it, it sounds like a long, if edifying, evening. But as written by Calderón de la Barca (Spain’s Shakespeare and a Franciscan priest), directed by Jesuit Fr. George Drance and lovingly performed by a remarkable cast of Marquette University students, this production more than shakes the dust off this “Dream.” It carries us deep into God’s infinite love for poor, fallible Man, whose first appearance - nearly naked and looking exceedingly vulnerable in the vast vault of the darkened cathedral - is only one of the many heart-opening images of this endlessly surprising production.

Man (Brian Sheridan) travels a long journey, transforming from charming innocent (“What sounds I hear … if this is hearing?” are his first words) to brutal tyrant (“No one oppose my fury or all will tremble at my fury!”). His blind vanity leads him to eat the apple (no Eve to blame in this version) and become enchained by the Prince of Darkness and his Jungian sidekick, Shadow. Only the intervention of God, who becomes human and takes on Man’s chains, can save him.

This deeply traditional story is told with extensive use of puppets - a stately trinity of larger-than-life icons for God and a very funny, much smaller-than-life wise guy for the Prince of Darkness - supplementing an engaging young cast that tells us the story as if for the very first time.

The major revelation of the evening comes when Man, profoundly grateful for his redemption, slowly kneels in adoration before his God. This act, tremendously moving in itself, is made doubly so, for when Man faces God in this production, he is facing a woman.

Solving an ancient riddle

I have known since fifth grade that committing to a male/female relationship in the Catholic tradition meant entering into a sort of second-class citizenship. The catechism with its matching pictures of a man and a woman getting married (labeled, “This is good”) and men and women taking religious vows (labeled, “This is better”) made that abundantly clear. And then there was the gospel itself, which even a child can see is mostly a male-dominated story. Mary and Mary Magdalene, though wonderful roles in any passion play, are both largely non-speaking parts, while Jesus and the apostles have all the good lines. By the time I grew up, knowing that most attempts to add gender balance to the tradition seem forced (for example, female crucifixion sculptures) and knowing that “The Last Temptation of Christ” is, after all, only a temptation, I had resigned myself to living with this imbalance.

And then some brave soul comes along, carves a fish in a wall and suddenly I am seeing the unimaginable. A man and a woman face each other and symbolize in their persons, in their bodies, the essence of the mystery of redemption - not as a stunt, not as argument or polemic, but as the necessary and effortless result of all the rigorously traditional material that had come before.

The key to this miraculous moment is the fact that “Life Is a Dream” is not a passion play, not a reenactment of actual events. It is an allegory - a kind of poetic theology largely abandoned with the advent of modern scriptural scholarship. Calderón based his “Dream” on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s contemplation of the incarnation in his Spiritual Exercises, which in turn is based on Ludolph of Saxony’s meditation in which God, with the aid of the allegorical figures of Truth, Peace, Justice and Mercy, considers the creation of Man.

In Calderón’s play, the dialogue takes place among the divine attributes of Power, Wisdom and Love. Since it is Wisdom who volunteers to become human to effect the salvation of Man - Wisdom who is one of the few female personifications of God in our tradition - it is entirely fitting that it is an actress who steps out of the body of the majestic Wisdom puppet to become Wisdom’s human incarnation. Monica West, the gifted young actress who plays Wisdom, makes the distinction clear when she says of her role, “I’m not playing Jesus, but I am playing the part of God who came down to save Man.” Because the language of allegory has been so well-established from the start, we no more confuse Divine Wisdom with the historical Jesus than John the Baptist was confusing Christ with livestock when he announced the arrival of the Lamb of God.

Yet there she stands, a stunning image of God, not as an invader from some foreign tradition, but as a presence that has always been within our own, patiently waiting for someone to recognize her. With this production, her moment has come.

To see Man and God facing each other in the persons of Sheridan and West is to feel yourself in the presence of the solution of an ancient riddle. For once, man and woman are no longer defined by the bickering of Adam and Eve. For once, all proclamations about the importance of women are embodied. For once, the loving relationship between man and woman seems an essential component in the story of our salvation. It is a necessary image, and its power is overwhelming.

When I asked Sheridan what was the hardest part of the performance, he answered with a laugh, “Is there a part that isn’t hard?” Then he amended his answer to say that one part that comes effortlessly is the moment when Man faces the human form of Wisdom. “Having all that power come to you, toward you, you almost have to back up.” When I ask whose power - West’s or Wisdom’s - he paused and said, “Both.”

Trying not to fall over

One reason this production is so persuasive is that it makes no effort to persuade. When director George Drance describes the goal of his work, he doesn’t talk about gender roles, liberation theology, creation spirituality or any other of the modern issues the finished work addresses. He speaks simply and unpretentiously about forgiveness and the love of God, especially in the context of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Drance first made the 30-day form of the Exercises some 15 years ago as a 21-year-old novice in St. Paul, Minn. Walking by a stream after the overwhelming Contemplation to Attain Divine Love, Drance jumped into the water and stood under a waterfall. “Standing there in the semi-polluted run-off to the Mississippi, I felt the universe come alive,” Drance said. “I could see how simple it all was. I could see the source. The truth was that God loves us.”

The same openness and lack of pretension inform the acting in the production. When I asked Sheridan what he was thinking and feeling during Man’s perfect gesture of adoration, he said, “I’m trying to do what George asked. I’m counting to 25 and trying not to fall over.”

As I watched the play night after night, I was reminded of the best of the church of my childhood, when nightly devotions allowed us to slip easily into the mystery of God and experience all that was old as new again. “Life Is a Dream” does all of that and perhaps more wondrously, it makes all that seems so new, even revolutionary, feel old again, rooted deep in the very best of our tradition.

It is my hope that other churches, cathedrals and universities around the country (and beyond) will follow the lead of the Cathedral of John the Divine and open their doors to this production. Certainly more than the privileged few who saw it there should have the chance to experience the final sequence - when Man, restored to grace after Wisdom’s sacrifice, is left alone in the sanctuary of the cathedral. No longer the wide-eyed innocent he was at the beginning of the evening, he turns to the high sanctuary where he sees the huge cross of Christ in majesty that hangs above the main altar. He kneels reverently, and after a long period of silent adoration, quietly exits, leaving us in the presence of God, in whose heart we have been living for the past two hours. It is another stunning moment. What response can we make?

Personally, I found myself counting to 25 and trying not to fall over.

Bill Cain was co-creator and head writer of the Peabody Award-winning TV series “Nothing Sacred.” He is a priest of the New York province of the Society of Jesus.

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000