The Imaginary Boy

close-up on boy's hands in prayerThe other day I came across a passage in a novel that brought me up short. The book is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The writer describes the thoughts of a nine-year-old boy: “His father always talked to him—so he felt—as if he were addressing some imaginary boy, one of those that exist in books, but quite unlike him. And he always tried, when he was with his father, to pretend he was that book boy.”

These sentences struck me like a thunderclap, and I wondered why. It’s hardly a novel insight that we often pretend to be someone other than when we really are, or that people often treat us as someone we’re not. I think the passage struck me because it captures in a few sentences the utter futility of an all-too-common human situation. Everybody’s playing make believe. The father has a fantasy of the son he has. The boy pretends he is that son, knowing he’s not.

Walter Burghardt, SJ, calls prayer “a long, loving look at the real.” He writes, “What is real? Reality is not reducible to some far-off, abstract, intangible God-in-the-sky. Reality is living, pulsing people; reality is fire and ice.” Reality is the real boy and the real father. Prayer is an end to the game of let’s pretend.

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Jim Manney
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is What Matters Most and Why. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


  1. Thanks for your wonderful insight, Thank you for sharing your wisdom I thoroughly enjoy your compilation of daily thoughts

  2. Thank you, Jim, for your profound prompt: “Prayer is an end to the game of let’s pretend”. That is all we need to know, and I will greatly cherish those words.

  3. Thanks for the insight –How often are we treated as someone we are not…how do we treat others?
    Prayer is “long, loving look at the real” – prayer is not only in our quiet sacred space. Prayer is our day to day journey to God –taking the risk to Love.
    Reminds me of an article from Dean Brackley SJ, “For love is demanding. It changes your whole world. It is always holy ground, the place where we experience the terror of not being in control. That is why love is the least inadequate way of conceiving of God”
    Where did you last find God?


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