Reconciling With The Really Real
Christianity is not an intellectual system, a moral code, or a political stance
[Sorry I’m late sending this out. I was writing it last night, but something came up with one of the kids, and I wasn’t able to return to it before I was too sleepy to string words together. — RD]
On Friday I met a couple who were in town visiting relatives for Thanksgiving. It is not my habit to meet strangers, but I know the father of the husband, and he said his son — a pastor — would love to meet me. So I met the pastor and his wife for coffee. We sat there talking for two and a half hours, and I could have sat there for two and a half more. It’s like that when you meet people with whom you connect at a deep level.
They used to live in Europe, where he earned his PhD. They told me that coming back to the US was like flying a decade back in time, in terms of dechristianization. What they lived with in Europe is coming to America, they believed — and, in the years since being back, they have watched it happening. This is why they really appreciated my book The Benedict Option, they said: because it was realistic. We talked at length about how and why so many American Christians simply do not want to face reality, and take the kind of actions that might give the churches a fighting chance. Instead, most Christians seem content to keep doing what they’ve been doing, hoping it will sooner or later work out.
The pastor told a story about the last church he helped pastor, a large church in a medium-sized city. I seem to recall him saying that the congregation was somewhat conservative, but were eager to liberalize because they could see that they were dying out. The pastor, though young, is conservative, and he pointed out to the advocates of liberalization that that strategy has never worked anywhere else. Still, they persisted.
“If we don’t do this, we’re going to lose the young people,” one older man told him. The pastor responded by asking him where his adult children went to church. There were several liberal churches of the same denomination in the same city. None of them go to church, said the older man. The problem, then, was not that particular congregation being too conservative, but a father whose children had ceased to believe in Christianity, who was desperate to do anything he could not to lose them to the faith.
The Benedict Option has been translated into 11 languages, and has sold pretty well in Europe. In traveling on the Continent, I find that my readers are mostly Catholics under the age of 40, or maybe 50. Older Catholics — Baby Boomers — are still holding on to the idea that if they just keep liberalizing the Church, people will return. In my experience, the kind of people who come to hear me speak are not theological liberals, but they aren’t particularly interested in the old left-vs-right arguments in Catholicism. If you are aged 40 and under, and are still going to mass, you must really believe that Christianity is true. And if that’s you, what draws you to it is a sense of the supernatural, and of the eternal present within it. The old fights of the Boomer generation within the Church don’t engage your imagination, or at least that seems to me to be the case, as an outside observer.
The European experiment with trying to keep the Church alive amid dechristianization by making it more like the world has been a decisive failure. Christianity has to be different, and not be ashamed of that difference. In my European travels, the believers with whom I have spent time would be counted as conservative in moral and theological terms, but that, of course, does not track neatly with political conservatism.
If we are indeed following the Europeans into dechristianization — and all the signs indicate that we are — then we US Christians cannot be so foolish as to think that changing the churches for the sake of political and cultural trends will save us. If church merely offers the same thing the world does, what’s the point? The pastor told me about experiences within his old denomination — he eventually left the church in which he began his ministry — in which the only thing the senior leadership understood was progressive politics. That was their real passion — and they are leading a church that is literally dying (I won’t name it, but the figures the denomination releases annually clearly indicate a likely irreversible decline to extinction in this century). Listening to the pastor talk, I thought about some of the top conservative pastors in the US who embraced middle-class moralism and MAGA. Those churches have a bleak future too, I would wager. The pastor and his wife said that in their experience of church life, many Christians expect the Christian life to be nothing more than bourgeois respectability. As I see it, on the Left, that entails embracing particular social justice causes, and on the Right tends to be less about politics and more about Niceness Over All.
Pope Francis wrote in his 2013 letter Lumen fidei:
Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.
The Catholic writer Gil Bailie, in his great book God’s Gamble, which is about the Incarnation (and René Girard, and Hans Urs von Balthasar), writes that contemporary man is lost in this very labyrinth, and can’t find the way out. Bailie:
Here are perhaps the three most widely held interpretation of Christianity: Christ as the spokesman for a new morality, a plan to improve the world, or a teacher of religion. Those who interpret Christianity along these lines do not lack evidence for their views, and these views tend to soften the scandal of the true Christian claims, but in doing so, they miss the only thing that makes these claims worthy of consideration. In Balthasar’s reconstruction, the challenge Jesus faced was to find a language in which he could reveal a saving Truth, to which many would prefer these mundane religious of moral tripes, but to which that Truth could never be finally reduced. Elsewhere Balthasar poses the same question in slightly different terms: “The first question is not, ‘How can we human beings translate the one revelation of God into our many languages and thought forms?’ The first question is asked by God himself: ‘How shall I cause my unique and utterly determinate Word to enter into the plurality of human languages and thought forms?’”
In which language would they be able to understand his message? That is the question underlying the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ was surely a teacher, and — properly understood — he was also a proclaimer of the law and the proponent of a new morality, but these things were not the language in which he communicated his everlasting message. The language he chose for the proclamation fo the Logos that he came to reveal was neither Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, nor Latin; nor was it the language of doctrine, prescription, or proscription. the language in which his message was delivered was the language of life itself — the World made Flesh. Jesus was himself the message he came to deliver.
Bailie goes on to say that the meaning of our lives, and their ultimate worth, depends on how well we have received that message and conformed our lives to Christ’s.
To turn down the invitation to enter into the Trinitarian mystery is to turn one’s back on the Logos, which is to say on the meaning of and reason for existence itself. The incomparable revelation of that meaning, that Logos, occurs in history in one unforgettable place: Golgotha. It is there that Christ makes his final case for love and forgiveness and mercy, and it is there where humans face the Loving God’s incomparable appeal for reconciliation in all its unsurpassed starkness and heartrending moral beauty.
Bailie says that our task is to desire as Christ desires. To be unified with him is to reconcile ourselves to the deepest reality of existence. It is not enough to affirm the Truth with one’s mind, but to submit the heart (symbolically, the seat of desire) to that Truth, and also one’s body. The Truth, remember, is a person; God calls us not to affirm a proposition, but to imitate a life. Once more, Gil Bailie:
The universal human ability to recognize the One in whose image and likeness we are made is not only impaired, but because of the docility, contrition, and selflessness than an encounter with him demands, it tends to provoke a hostility that is itself a form of recognition. Like a magnet that transfers a certain mysterious polarity to the metal attracted to it, those drawn to Christ can expect to experience, to some degree, the world’s reflexive animosity, for Christ came to wrench us out of our anesthetized banality and to set upon our shoulders a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. What makes the yoke easy and its burden light is not its convenience or comfort, but its correspondence to the deepest desires of the human heart.
Returning to Pope Francis’s remark about losing the “fundamental orientation” that unifies our existence, I am grateful for the way of life that Orthodox Christianity is teaching me — specifically, the cycles of the church year. I say “is teaching me,” because Orthodoxy is not so much a series of doctrines and practices to be grasped once and for all, but a way of life that one takes up, growing in perfection with each passing year. In Orthodoxy, we are now in the Nativity fast, which is the necessary preparation for the Christmas feast (the American bishops grant a dispensation for Thanksgiving feasting). The Nativity fast is more difficult for me than the Lenten fast, which is longer and more rigorous, precisely because American culture recognizes no period of fasting prior to Christmas. In fact, the entire month of December is spent feasting. For the Orthodox, the Nativity fast is meant to deprive the body of pleasures so as to awaken the spirit. Living as we do amid material abundance, the fast, when undertaken in the right spirit, re-harmonizes the body with its fundamental orientation.
Even more than its dramatic and mystical worship, Orthodoxy is most at odds with this world in its fasts. The fundamental orientation of our modern Western world is: more, faster. There are left-wing versions of this and right-wing versions of this, and you can find them within plenty of churches. My own biases — in both my convictions and my instincts — pull me to the right, which means that I tend to be moralistic and intellectual in my Christianity. There is nothing wrong with having strong morals and cultivating the mind, but Christianity cannot be summed up in either a moral code or a philosophy (though there is a Christian moral code, and there are Christian approaches to philosophy). But that is not the whole of the Christian life and calling. The pastor with whom I drank coffee yesterday said he discovered after graduation that one of his professors in his seminary PhD program did not believe in God. The man had taught an entire course about a God in whom he did not believe. So much for intellectualism. I told the pastor about Thomas Aquinas’s mystical vision near the end of his life, during the celebration of the Mass, the details of which he revealed to no one, but that he said rendered his writings “as straw.” He quit working on his Summa, and died three months later.
Similarly for those Christians whose biases draw them to what we identify as the political left, it is good to stand up for the weak (as Christ did), and to bring skepticism to the way we apply traditional moral codes (as Christ did, for example, when he challenged the mob about to stone the adulteress). But if we make idols of the weak and oppressed, forgetting that they too are sinners in need of a life-transforming encounter with the Word Made Flesh, or if we forget that Christ did not negate the Law, but rather fulfilled it, then we will fall short of the harmony to which we are all called.
So much of our religious anxiety is really about having to figure out how we can avoid doing the things we know we must, while still being obedient to God. We become religious minimalists, giving God only as much as we need to do to appease him, while keeping as much as we can for ourselves. This, as opposed to desiring as God himself desires. This, as opposed to living in reality. I’ll give the final word to the Abraham Joshua Heschel, the beloved rabbi from whom every Christian has much to learn. In this passage from “The Holy Dimension,” Heschel says that religion is “a divine grant to man.” It does not exist for consolation, for social benefit, or to guarantee eternal life (though it may entail all three). Rather, it is reality:
The pious man believes that there is a secret interrelationship among all events, that the sweep of all we are doing reaches beyond the horizon of our comprehension, that there is a history of God and man in which everything is involved.
Religion is the light in which even the momentous appears as a detail. It is the ultimateness in the face of which everything seems premature, preliminary, and transitory. The pious man lives in esteem for ultimateness, in devotion to the final amid the mortal and evanescent. Religious to him is the integration of the detail into the whole, the infusion of the momentary into the lasting. As time and space in any perception, so is the totality of life implied in every act of piety. There is an objective coherency that holds all episodes together. A man may commit a crime now and teach mathematics perfectly an hour later. Bu when a man prays, all he has done in his life enters his prayer.
His own heart is not the source of that light in which the pious man sees his simple words becoming signals of eternity. Hands do not build the citadel in which the pious man takes shelter when all towers reared by man are tottering. Man does not produce what is overwhelming and holy. The wonder occurs to him when he is ready to accept it.
Our life here is a pilgrimage towards the wonder. Our life here is about shedding the blindness of self, and learning how to see in the light of faith what is truly True, what is really Real.
Here is an extraordinary letter from a longtime reader of my blog, who had a remarkable change in his life. This is his answer to my request in “Thanksgiving During Covidtide” for readers to send in their thanksgivings for every wrong move:
Covidtide greetings from your friendly Midwestern ex-Satanist. I'm loving your Substack writings but I sincerely hope you keep some of this style of writing on your American Conservative blog. It's pieces like these that most drew me to your blog and served as the positive counterpoint to the more negative articles. To me they provide the full context of the beauty and ordering center that our modern world is erasing while not noticing what it's doing. Too many people don't even know the positive type of life you write about is an option. Those writings also helped lead a very angry man in his 30s to this week finally talking to his priest about officially joining the Orthodox church with his wife and children. It's been a five year process of intense questioning, disgust, and finally acceptance that to get to where I want to I have to go to the very last place on heaven or earth I ever had any interest in going. The darkest spot in the dark wood. The church.
It's funny you write about Poi Dog Pondering here. That album was in heavy rotation between my older brothers and I in our house. In 1995 while you were in Ft Lauderdale I was on the other coast as a high school freshman in Ft Myers first meeting my future ex wife and her family as we rebelled against everything and broke every moral law imaginable. Today I'm back in the farmlands of my early upbringing, in a new to us 100 year old house, happily married, with two absolutely wonderful children, and a third due on Christmas day. With the new house I finally bought a full size Christmas tree. I had Bing Crosby and medieval choir works playing on the stereo and our little family had one of the most beautiful and happiest days I could ever imagine any human beings ever having. At a certain point I had to leave my family and with some tears say some prayers for my ex who is God knows where and her abusive mother and thank them for their mistakes that lead to my financial well being. I'm writing not about giving thanks for my own endless wrong moves but for someone else’s.
My ex's mother came from an incredibly impoverished background in a third world country. One of many children, her parents frequently told her she was worthless and degraded her at every opportunity. She came to America with literally nothing, worked tirelessly, married rich, and had all the trappings of immense worldly success. She was also a miserable and violent drunk who was determined to physically and mentally beat any weakness or vulnerability out of her only child.
While my ex and I had many years of friendship and a good long term relationship the moment the shackles of marriage hit everything fell apart. She stopped living, spent 20 hours a day on video games and Tumblr blogs and eventually ran off never to return. At the time it was utterly devastating. The one good point was that as a sort of payoff so she didn't have to return to face me or my family, who deeply loved her, was that she sold me the house she had bought us with her inheritance for an incredibly low price. It was an older house, and I had put an enormous amount of sweat equity in it, but I could never have afforded it to begin with. When we got together I was living in an incredibly artsy and weird space that was great for an eccentric 20 something but basically a hellhole and with my many sins it was all I could afford.
So, with child three coming along quickly after child two I needed more space. With Covid driving up housing prices I profited an amount I never could have saved on my own and bought another fixer upper at a bigger scale. We're talking modest homes here, I make my age every year and my wife is a stay at home mom who does a little work for people on the side here and there. We live small and tight but we have a large network of family and friends and through mutual generosity we always seem to be able to make our world happy and beautiful and rich.
I can't help but think though, that I always am incredibly indebted to this angry drunk stranger that I met once in high school and her daughter who fell in love with the abyss. Maybe my ex is happy these days. It's been nearly a decade since I've heard of her from anyone but I hope so. She was an SJW before it was cool. What I try and do, in my own little way with my small sliver of their fortunes though, is bring a happier, more loving world into being with what wealth I received. If not for the hardships, mistakes, and pain wrought by people starting half a world away, maybe my kids wouldn't be hanging ornaments on an 8 foot tree listening to Bing Crosby and cathedral choirs. Maybe we would be back in that hellhole trying to figure out how to feed ourselves. Maybe we would be in my parents basement. Maybe an apartment on a street I wouldn't want my kids to live on. I should be poor, but I live just on the low side of middle class. And I'm incredibly thankful to be here. But how many tear filled nights, how many moments of abuse, how many anxiety ridden extra hours did someone else put in to make the money I received? There's no need to list all the family turmoil but it's a long list of broken marriages, scattered families, greed, desperation, and loneliness. It's Hillbilly Elegy but with enough money that no one notices or cares enough to save anyone. But somehow, I ended up with a better life for it. How can I not be utterly humbled knowing that due to that, in the great butterfly effect of the universe, people I will never meet gave me an opportunity to make myself and the world around me better. I'll never know the cruelty or pain that caused someone to casually drop that kind of money my way. I do feel it's my moral duty to pray for these people and their hardship. I hope that if there's any way prayer works this way, that that woman can see the joy in my household, and hear my heartfelt thank you, and know that her actions didn't bring just misery, but now are in service of love, repentance, and the laughter of children. That if any of their souls are in pain, that connecting them to this, can redeem their sufferings. Maybe that's not how any of this works, but I want it to be. I want to tell her this is part of her story too. Despite what else happened, this is part of you, and there's at least one person left alive to pray for your soul and thank you for your existence. It's not my place to forgive her for anything else, but at least for this, I can say thank you and wish them both well.
So, be thankful for not only your mistakes, but the mistakes of others that make your world possible. Especially today we want to wash our hands of the horrors of history. We want to end our association with negativity. We can't. All we can do is redeem the hours and days we have left and thank those who came first for everything they lived we will never know. Maybe we don't always stand on the shoulders of giants but even the small, downtrodden, and wretched have something for us. What can we do other than tell the living and dead we'll do what we can to make this all worth it when we get a gift born of suffering?
On different and weirder note I also wanted to thank you for your post about how God speaks to us. Your description of your experience being like something projected on a screen resonates with my own experience. I have previously written about it in your comments section but thought I would revisit it and attach my fast childlike attempts to draw it in case there's the slightest bit of resonance you may find something edifying in. I'm no artist, and tried to do these as quickly as possible to get the feel of the moment without judging what I was doing. And selfishly, I don't really have many others I can even share this with who might not think I've gone into complete madness. I was still rather anti-Christian at this point in my life but had recently discovered Orthodoxy through your blog and found myself very unhappily agreeing with what I was finding out about Orthodox thought and practice. I started saying the Jesus Prayer as a kind of experiment and noticed it was bringing up loads of inner turmoil and psychic resistance. Now, and I really hope this doesn't make me sound crazy, but I have had plenty of experience with mind altering drugs and occult rituals. I know how strongly you can think your experience is unique and meaningful and it's really just your own delusion. There are all kinds of ways. Anyway, I was rather hungover, looking at my two month old daughter, realizing all my conceptions about life seemed shallow and grotesque in the face of my love for this little person who seemed of so much cosmic significance. I simply mumbled to myself for no particular reason, "I have to stop being at war with reality."
Much like you described it, it was like another vision of reality opened up within my own sight. An image of Christ, which you will see bears no small resemblance to icons seemed to shoot through me. It was as if there was a Christ the Teacher icon layered a million times on top of one another went through me. One thing that strikes me so hard about it is the red triangles around Christ that I saw. I had never seen an icon at this point but it's a feature you see in quite a lot.
Then, another vision opened, as if from a single central point, opening up into a large circle, and this black robed demonic figure walked toward me with roaring storm in the sky. If you get this other early 90's musical reference, it was much like the roaring background noise during the opening of The Afghan Whigs’ album Gentleman. It's the closest comparison I can make. It hissed, pulled something from me, and then wandered back across this incredibly red desert away from me and the vision closed. I had time to say "What the hell was that?" and then with an utterly physical retching, it felt like all the organs in my body did a 180 degree turn. I let out a pathetic sounding moan and in an instant it was like I understood the why of the Christian moral life. I felt an overwhelming sense of love towards Mary, and a sense that she was 14 years old. I don't know how I know that, it was just there. And a huge sense that even knowing this, it didn't make it any easier. I had a point on a map, but didn't have the slightest clue how to get there. I might as well be a hobbit being told to take a ring to Mordor. The visions had a sort of slightly two dimensional quality I would also come to recognize as being icon like. I still had never seen an icon but in all my years of spiritual events, the ones that seemed "real" as opposed to creative imagination have always had that quality. I really think there's something "real" about what's being conveyed in icon art but have no understanding of the why or how it came about.
Anyway, in the intervening years, I can still tell you everything wrong, or cult like about Christianity, or how Jesus at times seems to be a complete charlatan, and would be the devil in any other context, but I can only offer the reality of my life, the softening of my own heart, and acts of charity since that moment as testament that something happened that is utterly, terrifyingly, and completely real. And really at the end of the day that's what we're all called to do. I try to keep Matthew 5:13 around as a warning to myself that taking up the cross has consequences if you do it too half-assedly.
So, here are my childlike attempts to quickly scribble that moment, and one of my kids decorating the tree for something a little less weird and more wholesome. I would appreciate you not publishing that if you feel like publishing any of this, but there's so much happiness there and a return to normalcy from this part of the letter I thought it worth sharing with you because in part your writings helped me find my own way to making it happen. And I thank you for that.
Thanks for your time. May the new book see you doing as good as ever and good things for you and your family.
Here is the image of Christ that appeared to this man in his vision, as he sketched it:
And here is the image of the demon:
At his request, I am not including the photo he sent of his kids decorating the Christmas tree. But thanks be to God that this is his life now!
Another reader’s Thanksgiving For Every Wrong Move, this one a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity:
Seems like wrong moves is all I think about lately: what they were, the warning signs, and how not to repeat them.
In all this I'm trying to temper my self-critique with mercy. I was essentially orphaned as a teenager, and failed by my family long before that. Some kids fall through the cracks, but I was deeply lost in a chasm of poverty and despair. When I am grieving the current state of my life I force myself to look back on how I avoided the very real dangers of homelessness, prostitution, and suicide. So even my wrong moves need to be covered with the oil of mercy, even when they were very wrong.
A lot of wrong moves in my life, but one pivotal wrong move became the means of my salvation. It's uncomfortable, and talking about it is uncomfortable, but I sometimes think it is important for other women to hear.
Back in 2015 I was worse than godless. I was filling the emptiness of my life with essentially demonic things: neopaganism, sexual immorality, and a vague hedonism. I knew I was lonely and unhappy, that my life was not ideal, but I had no clue how completely lost I was. Looking back, I'm terrified at where I have walked and somehow God saw me through safely even when I didn't acknowledge Him.
I had been dating a man, an atheist, who was using me. He told me he loved me, he took financial and emotional advantage of me, he cheated on me, and when he found a woman who he found more physically pleasing, he dumped me. (Her name was Jolene, which I find amusing now.) I was a wreck. My own self-worth was incredibly low, although I didn't see it, and I began dating a man that I didn't like but found physically attractive. But I wasn't really conscious of what was going on or what I was thinking or feeling. I was on auto-pilot and doing whatever I could to kill the pain and loneliness in my life.
This man desired me physically, which is the only measure of how I could ever understand a man appreciating me at that time. I was self-proclaimed as sex-positive, liberal, progressive and obviously those things meant I was smarter-than-the-average-bear. We went out a couple of times. We discussed sex. I made it clear I was not on birth control and that condoms were non-negotiable, because I refused to chance accidental pregnancy. We were communicating, we were on the same page. It was a modern courtship.
On our third date we got back to my apartment. He didn't have a condom. He didn't take no for an answer. I said no repeatedly. I tried to push him away but he was a lot bigger and stronger than I was. I stopped fighting because I was scared. Afterwards, I remember in my attempt to get him out of my apartment trying to make him feel good about the experience, trying to keep things cordial, non-scary, non-threatening. The moment he was gone I sat on my bed bewildered and texted a male friend that this man didn't make me feel safe. He responded that "safe" is not a word that any man ever wants a woman to think about him. If I was about to comprehend what had just happened to me, that shut me down.
Took me a year to acknowledge I had been raped. The blow that dealt to my pride was immense, because I was a smart, sex-positive girl who communicates, and those sorts of things don't happen to savvy girls like me, right? I went through this whole complicated multi-year grieving process. I moved through anger to forgiveness and finally to an understanding of all the decisions I had made that had placed me in a vulnerable position to be abused.
Eventually, as time went by, I came to realize that being raped was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Not the rape itself, but the immense course correction that it instituted in my life. I returned to Christ. I re-examined all my values and politics. I began doing more meaningful work. I was more thoughtful about relationships.
I still make mistakes all the time out of pride because "I Am Smart" and I can "Make This Work." Even though before I ever met him I knew he was a narcissist, I still put myself under the care of a priest when I shouldn't have and when he gave me really bad advice I followed it. I knew better, but I had a plan and I could "Make This Work" because MY will and plan was what I was pursuing, not God's (although I didn't realize that at the time). I'm coming to realize that those same flaws in me that put me in a vulnerable position back in 2015 still play out in my life, and still make me vulnerable to being violated in various ways. Even outside of the realms of sex and romance, perhaps I only think I am valuable to men if they are using me?
That kind of insight wouldn't be possible if I hadn't hit rock bottom, and been shaken violently out of the sin and misery I was unwittingly drowning in 5 years ago. It's a shocking thing to say, but being raped is the best thing that ever happened to me. It set me on a path towards God, and although the way has been slow and winding, full of pitfalls and mistakes, I am healing. I make plenty of mistakes, but I'm making one less mistake now. And with time, I will eliminate one more mistake. Most importantly, I have faith that although I will not have eliminated all the sin and error from my life when I die, God in His gracious mercy will carry me the rest of the way home.
In my late 20s, after not being in a serious relationship for about 6 years (an eternity at that age) I fell almost instantly and madly in love with a non-believer. I’d been a follower of Christ since childhood, and though I’d been callous to the gift of faith, and gone through some rebellion—how could I be an artist in the church and not!— I, by God’s mercy, never turned from God. This wasn’t during a lapse in faith. And yet she got through my armor. Taking ownership, I’ll say I let her in. She worked at a gallery where I showed in MN, was from the South, and had a sweetness, openness, charm, and beauty I hadn’t experienced before. My high school/college girlfriend was a straight A’s valedictorian, and we were on the path to marriage until she had a crisis of faith and literally left the country to get away from everything, cutting off family, friends, everything. This new woman was opposite: anti-intellectual but intuitively smart as a whip, spiritually ambiguous and deeply suspicious of religion, but also open to talking, being challenged and challenging. I remember preaching to her one time about what I believed and why, and how I was Right, and after I finished and there was a moment of silence. She put her hand on my heart and said “But what about here? What’s in here?” I was so flummoxed, I had nothing to say. It was a dead on assessment though: there was little in my heart. I had an Orthodox Presbyterian background; we the frozen chosen, pharisaically arguing fine points of doctrine while our hearts were distant and largely unengaged.
When you asked your readers to share supernatural occurrences last week, I almost wrote about a confirming experience I had while wrestling with God about what to do regarding this relationship when I was in the thick of it. Its too much to get into now, but God spoke to me in a way one night that moved me at my core. It resulted in the deepest love, most yearning worship I’d ever experienced. I felt how fully incomplete I was, and how utterly satisfying Christ is…and, paradoxically, how utterly satisfying it is to want more. In this season, I never felt like my faith was so vital, so razor-attuned to God. But I had to be utterly broken for it to happen. I went years without painting. I was dropped by my galleries. I followed my girl to San Francisco, where she went to grad school and I, not willing to cohabitate found my own apartment got a straight job for the first time since college. Painting sales didn’t cover the rent in SF like they did in cheap, rural Minnesota. The only job you can get as a failed art painter is as a house painter. Its was a long fall, and a humbling one. After 6 months of resenting the work and the humiliation of paint dust and boobie/poopy joking coworkers all day, I finally caved and embraced the job, doing my best, loving the people I worked with. It’s a lesson I still apply to those type of situations: you’re not too good for this, do your best right NOW.
I’m still regaining my creative footing, or making a new one, almost 20 years later. I look back at that time—7 years in total— with both wincing and wonder. I’m so thankful that I was preserved through that relationship, even strengthened by it. I’d never choose it again or recommend it to anyone, but I was taught the lessons I needed to learn through sacrifice, committing to something I wasn't assured would work out, and compromising…and learning to draw the lines where I would not compromise. Most importantly, if I was used as a small part of the process of this one woman coming to faith, her body and soul ending up in heaven, enjoying our God forever, isn’t this, and much much more, WORTH IT? It is! And I believe with all my heart I will see her in glory, and we will dance.
I’ve been married for over 8 years now to someone who loves Christ and is my perfect complement for me in that regard. We have a 5 year old son. We live in France. I’m painting almost full time, and when I do have to go to a job, I get flown back to the US (or did until COVID) to decorate someone in the 1 percent of the 1 percent’s home. It’s not an easy life, but it’s worked so far. I’ve been broken in some ways that will never be repaired, and in some ways that I will always be thankful for. We are celebrating Thanksgiving today (Friday) and my wife is downstairs preparing a feast. It’s her favorite holiday and instead of turkey, which doesn’t show up here until Christmas, we’re having magrets de canard, which are far superior anyway. It’ll taste better remembering what’s gotten us here, and anticipating where we are going. I’m thankful.
Wrong turns up somewhat a habit of mine. Years later I can look back and see the benefits.
Wrong turns can quickly give us information that we wouldn't receive otherwise. Sometimes we need to run into the quick dead end so that we don't keep wondering about if we are on the wrong path. I can share one.
A few years ago my widowed mother in law begged us to move in with her. She was very lonely and she said we were the only ones she wanted to live with out of her children.
I had been kind of stuck in limbo for years. Job was OK, but no future and a very long commute. An attempt to change careers wasn't going good either. We were 800 miles from the nearest family.
The move wasn't easy, or close, and once we got there, everything went horribly. My wife's siblings, with whom we had gotten along well previously, went to war against us. They worked to turn my mother-in-law against us. It was really really bad. After prayer and fasting with my wife, I felt I needed to apply for work in a neighboring state, where we had lived more than a dozen years before.
I had 5 interviews set up within days. I almost didn't go for the 5th interview because I was worried my family wouldn't be physically safe from some of my in-laws. It was that bad. I was hired at one of 5th place, starting less than 5 weeks after the guidance from God.
It was been great for our family for the last several years. I can't imagine a better place for us today.
If we hadn't tried to live with my mother-in-law, the idea would have been out there forever. We know now it would never work. Also, my mother in law, who was dead seet against remarriage, recently married. It was good for her and us. My wife's siblings still hate us and that might not resolve for a long time, if ever. My wife is the only religious member out of 7 children and part of their hatred is related to that.
Let’s end on a note of beauty. Here is a link to a prayer from the Terrence Malick film To The Wonder. It is spoken by the actor Javier Bardem, who portrays a Catholic priest who is struggling through a dark night of the soul. He cannot feel the presence of God, but he knows God is there. He knows what — and Who — is really real.