Cosplay at the Con

Attacked by the Morbius costume!

“Blessed are the Geeks, for they shall inherit the Earth”

If the above quote holds true, I’ll be enjoying oceanfront property in the afterlife.  This past President’s Day weekend, I drove six hours to Los Angeles and paid admission to the 23rd annual Doctor Who Convention, and thus to eternal knighthood in the kingdom of Geekdom. Those who scoffed at my attendance at this convention (I shan’t name names, PJ Shelton and Joe Hoover) can find themselves some property on the moon.  Besides, judging from the thousands of Doctor Who fans from all over the world who also attended, Earth won’t have room for such “mundanes” in the afterlife.

How might one identify the typical Doctor Who fan?  Some characteristics:

  • We enjoy spirited discussions about our favorite Doctor;
  • We love debates on what to include in the Doctor Who canon (Peter Cushing movie?);
  • We can wax eloquently on the relative merits of owning a TARDIS versus a sonic screwdriver (TARDIS all the way!);
  • We cried when Adric died (except for those who were happy he was dead);
  • We enjoy trivia, having memorized the extensive list of companions and monsters that have graced the show since 1963;
  • We tell awful jokes such as, “How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a light bulb?  None.  We just wait years for it to come back on”;
  • We dream of working for the show as an actor, writer, costume designer, audio engineer or (most importantly) the guy who checks the script for continuity errors;
  • We own vast collections of books, DVD’s, CD’s, and Doctor Who-related toys (In fact, I know some fans who seem to have more toys than their own kids do);
  • We listen to actors and writers talk about their work on the show, wait in long lines to get autographs from our favorite actors, buy fan merchandise and, of course, watch and watch and watch episodes of Doctor Who;
  • Finally, almost all of us (myself included) have dressed up as our favorite Doctor or character from the show.  The convention even hosts its own costume show, known in geek lingo as “cosplay.”

I’ve been to smaller conventions before and seen some cool ones, but the costumes at this, the world’s largest and longest-running annual Doctor Who convention, were amazing.  Fans worked for weeks preparing, making sure each detail was accurate; the amount of time, money and effort they expended was a testimony to their love of the show.  I saw several fans crocheting the iconic Fourth Doctor’s scarf during the convention.  Other, less sartorially talented fans simply purchased their scarves and costumes.  Fans spent so much cash that they emptied not only the hotel ATM, but every one within walking distance.

A Gathering of Various Doctors

We all enjoy dressing up.  It’s part of what makes Halloween so much fun.  For a few hours, we imagine ourselves as being someone (or something) else.  We revel in others’ reactions to our creativity. When I’m pretending to be someone else, I can take on that character’s personality, attitude and characteristics.  I myself score high on the Myers-Briggs introversion scale, but my imagination and creativity can push me to be more extroverted and more like my new character. Total strangers approach to ask who I am, how long did it take to make my costume, how did I come up with the idea, etc.  Their questions and compliments boost my self-confidence, encouraging me to be more outgoing.  This interaction fosters a sense of community and helps explain the welcoming attitude I encountered at the Doctor Who convention. All of this can be great fun for sci-fi conventions and Halloween night.  But it can also serve as the basis for a spiritual practice.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius asks us to use our imaginations to enter into the life of Jesus.  We use our five senses to imagine a particular Gospel scene.  For example, at the wedding feast in Cana, we would imagine the sensations one would experience at the wedding.  Was it loud?  Did they have music? What did the food taste like?  Which tasted better – the old wine or Jesus’ wine?  Who attended the wedding?  What were they wearing?  Feel the clothes, tables, serving utensils and food at the wedding.  And don’t forget the sense of smell.  What did the food smell like?  Smell the slight breeze coming in from the surrounding countryside.  Now take this Biblical example of “cosplay” one step further and start interacting with the characters.  Strike up a conversation with the wedding guests. What do they really think of the wine?  Dance with some of the guests.  Approach Jesus and ask him about his first miracle.  Did he really want to do it or did he feel pressure from his mom?

Many Christians find this type of imaginative prayer helpful in their spiritual life.  By entering into these Gospel scenes, we develop and then deepen our relationship with Jesus, and this relationship transforms us into better Christians. And as Christians, we aspire to become saints. The American poet, Robert Lax, asked his friend Thomas Merton, who just converted to Catholicism, “What do you want to be?”  Merton relates the following exchange in The Seven Storey Mountain:

I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman-English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

‘I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.’

‘What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?’

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

‘What you should say’ – he told me – ‘what you should say is that you want to be a saint.’

A saint!  The thought struck me as a little weird.  I said:

‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’

‘By wanting to,’ said Lax, simply.

Becoming a saint sounds daunting, even overwhelming.  But if we trust that God will help us become who God wants us to be, the journey towards sainthood really involves discovering our truest self.  In My Life with the Saints, James Martin, S.J. calls the true self “the person we are before God.  Sanctity consists in discovering who that person is and striving to become that person.  As Merton wrote, ‘For me to be a saint means to be myself.’”

Scaroth, the last of the Jagaroth

So how do we find our truest selves?  We can start by identifying some aspect of ourselves that we know is not part of who God wants us to be.  And here’s where the spiritual cosplay comes in.  By temporarily taking on the persona of a saint (as opposed to the latest incarnation of Doctor Who or a Dalek), we can cultivate habits that bring out our truest selves. Suppose I struggle with being selfish.  I can look to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her “Little Way” of doing the smallest tasks with love.  I don’t need to sew and wear her 19th century habit to imitate her life.  But I could spend extra time being more aware of how I do simple chores.  Do I do them with love for God and for others?  Or do I rush through them so I can finish in time for my favorite TV show?  Likewise, getting to know St. Francis of Assisi may raise my awareness of the diversity of God’s creation and inspire me to become a better steward.  Or donning the persona of St. Peter Claver may challenge me to become more compassionate to the poor and marginalized.

Sometimes saintly cosplay could feel like an exercise in “fake it until you make it.”  At other times, we may feel the mocking stares of friends and family, asking us “Who do you think you are?”  But if we can play dress up for Halloween and fan conventions, then we can do the same for Christ. With such an attitude, we may surprise ourselves at how easily we cultivate new habits in virtue. Let’s use this Lenten Season as an opportunity to cosplay with Jesus and the saints.

To paraphrase St. Ignatius, let us “desire to be rated as worthless and a [geek] for Christ”.

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