Plastic Man Piety: Of Monks, Malleability and Supple Sanctity
“The more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials” (CCC 1742)
“What stupidity of perfection would that be which left no margin about God’s work, no room for change of plan upon change of fact.” —George MacDonald
Sorting through the debris and detritus of our decades of life together, my wife came across an old Dennis the Menace comic book from my youth. These yellowing, flimsy codices surface from time to time, and they point to my eclectic youthful reading habits — Dennis, mainly, but also Archie and company, Richie Rich, Beetle Bailey, others. They’re like fading snapshots of days gone by that are fun to revisit and show my kids (*yawn*). Plus — who knows? — maybe they’ll be worth something someday!
This time, though, the emergence of the tattered Dennis elicited a query. “Ever come across any Plastic Man?” I asked my wife. Alas, no. For whatever reason, my D.C. superhero comic collection didn’t make the hoarding cut.
Yes, D.C. The marvels of Marvel comics were lost on my younger self. I’ve come around, of course, like everyone who’s been sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — especially given MCU’s light touch in contrast to the D.C. world’s bleak undertones. If I’m going to the movies for some popcorn-munching escape, do I really want neurotic Batmans in epic struggles with psychopathic Jokers? Naah, I’ll opt for Marvel’s jokey titans every time.
But D.C. comics weren’t uniformly dark back in the day — at least not Plastic Man, my childhood hero! Plastic Man is the alter ego of Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a small-stakes criminal whose bodily structures became fluid and pliable following a chemical exposure during a heist. Leaving his life of crime behind, O’Brian became a supple superhero who could morph into whatever object or likeness was necessary to thwart the bad guys. Plus, he did it with a grin, stocking his do-gooder escapades with plenty of pranks and wry asides. Could it be that’s the reason he hasn’t earned his own blockbuster film to date? Not enough gravitas, not enough angst for the D.C. market.
Too bad. I’d be first in line to check out a Plastic Man flick, and not just for sentimental reasons. There’s something about the superhero’s essential shtick that’s both appealing and inspiring — his humility, his refusal to take himself too seriously, and, especially, his pliability.
I got to thinking about Plastic Man while reading The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton’s exploration of the spiritual teachings of John of the Cross. In a section on asceticism, Merton writes, “The purpose of mortification is to liberate the spirit and make it plastic in the hands of God.” Ah, plastic in the hands of God — like clay on the potter’s wheel, as Jeremiah records. This is far from the rigidity of “Plastic Jesus,” that spoofy folk song with images of mini statuettes “ridin’ on the dashboard of my car.” Sure, such budget sacramentals are indeed plastic, but by design their elasticity during manufacture has been arrested. The whole selling point of those little figurines is that they’ll stand upright — in the car, above the sink, wherever they’re placed. You don’t want them flopping around, like those wild nylon tube guys you see at used-car lots.
Us, on the other hand? We want to take a lesson from Plastic Man and not only preserve spiritual malleability but capitalize on it. The spiritual life, far from unyielding rigor, requires a limber liberality that allows for change, adaptation, and even reversals. It anticipates failure — in fact, plans for it — and motivates us to get up when we tumble and try again, no matter what.
Think of it as the flexibility required of champions who continue working and training with an eye on competing well, heedless of the temporary discomfort involved. Clearly, the discomfort is not the point — a crucial ascetical principle at the heart of healthy spiritual growth. “A morbid love of suffering for its own sake would be an indication of neurosis,” Merton writes. Instead, such self-imposed suffering is a means to an end: Improved endurance, heightened strength, and, yes, expanded elasticity. “St. John of the Cross is talking not about neurotics but about athletes.”
There’s another connection between athletic training and the spiritual life: The role of the coach. To gain a competitive edge, an athlete wants a reliable coach with extensive experience and hard-won wisdom. Yet a coach’s experience and wisdom cannot benefit aspiring athletes unless they listen to him and heed his directives. Similarly, obedience is a core principle of Christian spiritual discipline, even taking the form of a vow in some religious communities. St. Benedict sets as an ideal those disciples who immediately comply with a superior’s request, “at once relinquishing what they are doing, desert their own will and quickly freeing their hands by leaving unfinished what they were about” (RB §5). The key here is the receptive posture involved rather than the relative value of any given undertaking versus another. The act of compliance trains our wills to be more plastic and pliable, and more likely to conform to the will of God. “The more docile we are to the promptings of grace,” reads the Catechism, “the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials” (§1742).
This Benedictine angle actually connects to Eel O’Brian and Plastic Man’s D.C. back story, believe it or not. After O’Brian had been left for dead by his gang following his freak accident, a kindly group of monks took him in, healed his wounds, and, in so doing, inspired him to choose a new life trajectory — one oriented to selfless service. Now, we’re talking about a comic-book character, but even so: Where’s there’s a monk, there’s an abbot, so the fictional O’Brian would’ve been subject to an abbot’s authority during his convalescence and conversion. And even this tenuous link between Plastic Man and Benedict is instructive, for the Rule states that an abbots should be “provident and considerate before God and man,” and should “apportion all things that there be something to which the strong may aspire and something the weak may not shrink from” (RB 64).
In a word, flexible — like any good “abba” or dad. It’s a character trait that fathers prudently apply as they seek to foster virtue in their children, taking into account their developmental stages, their unique gifts and personalities, their limitations. And it’s a paternal character trait that sons and daughters will hopefully emulate and adopt as they grow into maturity, allowing them to hold onto the natural resilience of their childhood. Isn’t that the message the Lord intends when he rebukes the Apostles for shooing away kids? “Let the children come to me,” he admonishes. “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
Lent is upon us, and I’m thinking a Plastic Man piety just might be the ticket to help me get ready for Easter — how about you? We can imitate his pliability in how we abandon ourselves to Providence. We can dig deep to recover our childlikeness in how we defer to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and our confessors’ prescriptions. Finally, we can adopt a healthy sense of humor about it all — the ability to laugh at ourselves as we joyfully stumble our way toward heaven.