Faith is a discipline –difficult and often boring. I ask for what I want –opportunity, love, rescue, relief — and settle in to wait for an answer. It’s not so bad at first. Maybe I play a little Tetris Battle or Bejeweled Blitz on the computer, maybe I spend a weekend watching the weird plastic Food Network Barbie robots cook pasta and bake cakes everyone knows they would never really eat in real life (bitches). Maybe I have a good cry, eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, write about it, take a nap.
At some point during my wait, I usually go into the kitchen where the acoustics are particularly good (I really will miss that when we leave this house) and sing all the Paul Simon songs I know, which is most of them. Sometimes I change the lyrics a little bit –I’m good at rhythm and language –and sometimes I experiment with harmony. Sometimes I push my voice as far as it will go (which is not far at all) and sometimes I keep it soft. I never let anyone see or hear me –there are some truly horrible notes and some rather crass language; Paul Simon fans might be genuinely offended. I bet Paul himself would kind of love it though. As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.
While I wait, I try to tell myself that God heard me and is processing my request. I picture bored angels in a Heavenly government office building, drinking lukewarm coffee and gnawing on bagels –they’re the ones who just barely made it in (I’ll be one of them someday if I’m lucky). At about this point, all of my conflicting spiritual training –both formal and self-taught– starts echoing in my head:
Can I do a little feng-shui to help the cause here, or is that too witchy? Should I pray directly to the little plastic statue of Saint Joseph that I ordered from Amazon and buried upside down in my back yard to help me sell this house or is that considered idolatry? Since praying to saints is a Catholic thing to do, would it help to make the sign of the cross first? Or would that be frowned upon since I’m more of a Congregationalist now? Does my spotty church attendance count against me when I ask for help? Should I be bothering God with my suburban real estate request when so many of His people are crying out to Him in loneliness, starvation, poverty, illness? I don’t have the right to ask for this …I already got to keep Caroline.
As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.
It would help if I knew God better. This is not from lack of trying –I talk to Him all the time. I just never know how to decode the answers. Here, again, my convoluted religious history gets in the way; I have pictured everyone from Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino to Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.Which version is correct? Nobody knows. God could really be much more like Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia. That would actually make all kinds of sense.
But I don’t know…I don’t know a whole lot about who I’m talking to and I don’t know how He sees me. I HOPE He likes me (I believe He loves me) and I HOPE He sees me trying to do the right thing, the loving thing, the brave thing, but I don’t know. I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.
My dad, who tried valiantly for at least the first 15 years of my life to shape me into a decent Catholic (but ultimately failed) was the one to tell me about the Saint Joseph statue thing. I told him I’d think about it and then called him a couple of days later to let him know I had ordered one. “I figure why not?” I said.
“Well it’s not about asking ‘why not,’ Dear,” he said in his I-love-you-but-you’re-SO-WRONG voice. “It’s about having some faith, asking for help, believing you’re worthy of that help.”
“That’s hard for me,” I said, surprised and irritated that I suddenly felt like crying (a mysteriously common development when I’m talking to my dad). “‘Dear Heavenly Father, please grant me a comfortable and tasteful house with a soaking tub in the master suite, a screened porch, and double ovens. Amen.’ I can’t pray for that. I can’t stand people who pray for that.”
“You know that’s not what you’re praying for, Marta,” my dad said softly. “There’s nothing shallow about this request. You’re praying for relief –for your whole family– from all that has happened to you while you’ve been living in that house. Don’t you want your children to ask you for help when they need it? Of course you do –you don’t ask yourself if they deserve it, you just help. God wants you to ask. He wants you to be happy.”
I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.
Believing that is where faith begins for me, where discipline comes in. My happiness has always seemed beside the point in the same way that the Mona Lisa’s happiness seems beside the point. I have faith in God, I believe He’s always there, listening and watching, and I believe he has created a beautiful, heartbreaking, playful, ultimately triumphant, and consistently meaningful life for me. He is the original Artist. I have faith that I’ll get my opportunities, my love, my rescues and relief –sometimes just the way I ask for them and sometimes not. I have faith that things will always change and that I will be able to endure the changes.
But I have a hard time believing I’m allowed to make changes or ask for them myself. I don’t know where this particular spiritual belief comes from –this idea that my life is a painting or a play or a song God wrote and which nobody should try to alter. It may be more of an artistic belief than a religious one. Obviously I change God’s masterpiece all the time with my selfishness or my weakness or my doubts, but my intention is always to restore the original work –return to the original story or melody. I’M not supposed to muck it up with my shallow human desires. Who walks up to a Picasso or a Wyeth with a paintbrush and some new ideas?
Of course this painting is of ME, this play is written for ME, the song is about ME; why wouldn’t I add my own voice to it? If I believe Paul Simon would get a kick out of the liberties I take with his work, why can’t I believe God would welcome my experiments with His? Why can’t I believe that He wants me to paint my own portrait, write my own story, sing my own song?
He does. He expects this of me. He has faith in me.