Early in my monastic life, the novice mistress assigned the novitiate a curfew. Mostly this was to ensure a quiet sleeping environment in the dormitory with its thin walls and creaking floors. It was my custom to keep a night vigil after Compline when I could have the chapel to myself. (Most of the other sisters kept their vigils in the early morning before Lauds while I was still sound asleep in my bed.) By the time I had finished praying and tied up the loose ends of the day, the curfew would be dangerously close at hand. At some point, I don't remember anymore quite when or how, I developed the habit upon entering my cell of saying to myself either "The angels are rejoicing in heaven because of my obedience" or "I have not given the angels cause for rejoicing tonight." I am afraid the angels did not have cause for rejoicing last night: I did not go to bed until 4AM! What was it that so engrossed my attention and energies as to make me completely miss any semblance of a reasonable bedtime? I was writing about Tillia.
I used to poke fun at myself in the monastery by referring to Tillia as my imaginary friend, but that was not quite accurate. Tillia started as an image of myself, became more and more like the blessed Mother and finally ended up simply becoming her own self with her own world, and quite a wardrobe!
Over the course of a few years, what had started as playing with an image that caught my fancy one day while walking alongside the cloister wall developed into a story. That story developed into a world with its own history, geography and fairytales. Various characters wove in and out of each other’s lives. Houses were carefully designed and furnished. Economic systems and complex methods of plumbing and lighting in the absence of electricity developed. ... If you have not realized by now, I am a degenerate daydreamer.
I wrestled with this tendency no little bit in the cloister where everything is conducive to contemplation, and thus also to daydreaming. On a natural level, contemplation and daydreaming are remarkably similar activities! Tillia and her ever more elaborate world could become so consuming a distraction that more than once I suspected her of being a demon! At one point, I violently killed her off ten times in a row trying to regain control of my wayward imagination. The violence of my interior story telling ebbed and flowed, even quieting completely for long periods. Sometimes a different story would slip in for a while. But Tillia always returned. The story flowed of itself, something of a cross between reading a good book you never had to set down and writing a journal.
And in a sense it was a sort of journal, my monastic journey in fantasy form. Whenever I came out of a daydreaming pit, I would spend the next few days or weeks reclaiming all the insights and emotions that had been woven unconsciously into its fabric as I had moved through my real life. A surprising effect of looking at the world through the lens of a consuming daydream was to become keenly aware that many events in life that look very different are really one. I cannot explain it better than that. But this and the other fruits of my stories came too often at the cost of withdrawals and negligence resulting from my mind being so much engaged in a fantasy world. My often uncontrollable daydreaming was a real cause for concern - a psychologist told me I have slight tendencies toward obsessive thinking, anxiety and depression, which play off one another and grow. Later a caring psychiatrist confirmed the stories were a sort of anti-depressant. Yet in the course of my struggles, I became more and more convinced that my vivid imagination was also how I processed what was going on in and around me. It even became a part of my prayer. I spent long periods of adoration sharing my stories with God, sometimes telling it to Him and sometimes it was more like we were sitting in the room together and I was watching a miniseries. My daydreaming was not always good or prayerful, but God accepted it nonetheless. He began to speak to me through it. Actually one of my darkest daydreams concluded with one of the most profound spiritual insights I have ever had.
In a grace-filled moment, early this year, I was given a unique clarity and control to use Tillia’s world to interpret exactly what was in my confused heart. At this same time, I realized that as wild as my variations had become, a certain pattern remained inviolable: Tillia sought refuge as Lord Durrat's gardener. She fell in love with and married his top-ranking slave and secret heir, Thomas. At one point or another, she always left the garden and took her place with Thomas as Lord Durrat's adopted children. What struck me most was that she always left the garden. This last point served as the confirmation that it was time to for me to leave the cloister. Tillia’s story stopped altogether after that. I had tried many times to hurry her story to a natural conclusion, hoping it would then stop of its own accord. But it was not until my own monastic story came to its proper ending that Tillia finally slipped permanently into memory. Her story has not returned since to plague or grace my imagination. To be honest, at first when she was gone, I missed her and I had to resist the urge to resurrect her world.
So why have I allowed Tillia to keep me awake for the last two nights? What prompted me to call up her memory? I recently had the pleasure of reading a fantasy novel written by a very dear friend. And as is often the case with me upon encountering something good or beautiful, I desired to imitate it. I already had it in mind to write a bit of fiction, and the fantasy world of my friend’s novel was particularly beckoning me. Don’t I have one of my own, after all, that I could write about? Maybe I simply gave into a temptation. But I don’t think so.
I have had fantastic stories running off and on in my head for so long, stories I stopped trying to share long ago. My fingers could never keep pace with my inner voice resulting in flat texts and forced dialogue. The stories were doomed to remain trapped within me. But after the initial run of Tillia's story, about three years ago now, I determined to attempt once again to write. To my delight, in a few weeks I had filled a notebook. The door had been unlocked at long last. Writing one of my stories gave me such energy and joy. But I had done most of this writing during the free hours of a week-long retreat. When daily duty’s resumed, writing necessarily slowed. Before long, in a dull moment, my impatient imagination proposed a tiny alteration to a pivotal moment midway through the original storyline, which turned out to have drastic implications. The new storyline pushed far beyond where the first had concluded consuming my inner story-teller for months. It often consumed my time and energy for writing as well as for everything else. Some time after that second variation had at last concluded on a religious note, I started my novel about the Blessed Mother. This was a much more balanced experience. But the editing and typing fell behind my racing imagination. While I tried to catch up, Tillia's story would slip back in. In addition to the attempts to kill her off - which were successful for a time, it was around this time that I finally took the novice mistress' advice and threw away the notebook - actually she had told me to burn it, but I could not think of a safe way to do so except to imagine setting the dumpster on fire as I walked away. That was not the end of Tillia, but it was the end of her book, until this week.
There is a risk in taking up the story again. But I do not think it is very great. Truthfully, staying up until 4AM once in a while really does not effect my current existence overly much. On the other hand, I am at a point in trying to go forward where it might be well to look back. Tillia’s story is the monastery in my heart in fiction form. It will be telling, I suspect, to see which variations win out in writing a definitive version now that I am in a new place in my own story. I am also finding the new novel to be much richer, the fictional world and its characters having developed exponentially since my first attempt at writing it.
The excitement and energy are back too. It is even what prompted me to pick up my neglected blog today. The question of a future livelihood has been on my mind more pressingly these last few weeks. I have considered going back to teaching, but my heart is not entirely in it. An online store is not the answer – I’ve only made $4 in 4 months! But I have a great desire to write. I would like Mary’s novel to be my masterpiece. The story of Saint Peter's wife will follow. But perhaps I need to tell Tillia’s story first. I have already typed 10 chapters in two days. I know it is not an easy thing to get published, but I can post it on my website, at least. When it is ready, I hope you will enjoy it.
My first inspiration after finishing reading my friend’s novel was to write a post about the role works of fiction have played in my spiritual life. Instead I have written a very vulnerable post about the role compulsive day-dreaming has played in my spiritual life. I know now it is not a problem to be solved. It is a part of who I am – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I give it all to God. I hope the angels will have cause for rejoicing.