Sep '03 [Home]
My Religious Life
I used to be an actor. Now I'm a novice in a religious order.
I had an apartment on the Lower East Side with a French busboy and a caterer from Seattle who played in a rock band. Pierre called the mice 'she,' as in, "She went under the fridge." He didn't mind them too much. They freaked me out when they rustled in the garbage or darted across the floor. But, the neighborhood was changing.
The dirty corner store closed down and I was sad because I used to get milk there and 50-cent cinnamon rolls. It later became a real estate office. At night, young men played basketball across the street, while other guys stood around playing poker on the hoods of their cars and listening to salsa. They made it too loud to sleep, but I couldn't close the window. It was in the hundreds for days. The streets smelled awful. I worked in a warehouse for seven dollars an hour and had to ride two subways and two buses to get there. Secretly, I loved all these problems. I loved New York.
But then—hard to explain exactly how it came about—my life wasn't quite up to snuff there. I think about moments, like riding the commuter train to Croton-on-Hudson with my acting teacher Floyd. It's a couple years after my arrival in New York and things are actually pretty good for me. Floyd and I are laughing and talking about theatre, and the Hudson's going by on our left and maybe some kids from Columbia are rowing on it. I'm going to a completely fun and lucrative job teaching acting to kids. Or I'm coming from a run of a show I'm in, or maybe a production of my own play. In some ways, it's all I ever wanted. Yet, in the midst of this joy, there's this feeling. Just a feeling.
They like me at the school. We put on vast Shakespearean productions and the children often stun their teachers with their performances. Back in the city, I've landed some good roles and I'm getting better at the craft of acting. When I write a play, people come to it and laugh out loud; I see their eyes glow. They look around to find me in the audience, shake their heads, and laugh some more.
Things are good, even outside the theatre. There seems to be a romance to everything that happens, and I fall for it hard. Some nights I find myself crouched down on sidewalks rooting through discarded boxes of books and, inevitably, I'm joined by other people. A city of desperate readers. How could I not be happy? I have friends who call me up and invite me to plays, picnics in Central Park, anarchist dance parties on river piers or whatever other intense and perfect experience we're all certain we can have in our city. I teach confirmation classes to bright, poor Dominican children whose mothers work in factories. I go to mass at an old immigrant church that started out as San Giuseppe, became St. Joseph, and then transformed into however you say 'St. Joseph' in Chinese.
There is a hard and sad part to my life, too, and sometimes I get caught up in an overwhelming hopelessness that keeps me from doing much of anything at all. Sometimes, standing on a dirty, desolate subway platform at two in the morning waiting for the F train can serve up a special kind of despair: Nowhere above or below is anything good, nor will it ever be. The arrival of a train seems only a brief stay of this bleakness. But I have to believe that these kinds of thoughts afflict a lot of people living in New Yorkor even people in general.
It's nothing potent enough to drive me away. On the whole, I really have little to complain about. My rent's low. My haircuts are cheap. I dress up like a billionaire and go to Wall Street to protest construction of a new stock exchange. I jog along the East River, and every time I see the Statue of Liberty I get all flushed and run faster, as if chasing after the glorious promise of life itself. I wear a green and red flannel shirt I found on the fence post by my garbage cans, and it makes me feel good to wear this shirt because it was all but given to me by New York. Even September 11 brought me to a deeper fondness for the life of the city, draped as it was in smoke and flowers, votives and guns, voices wearily begging for peace, lines thick with people who suddenly needed to put their blood into someone else's body.
All these things and it's still not enough. It's like there's a haze over my life, like I'm not seeing something clearly. It's as if my whole body were in the water, but I still haven't put my head under and my hair's out there blowing around, just blowing around. There's some kind of mystery I keep trampling underfoot or steaming right past, something I'm trying to ignore as it continues to haunt me. This is a mystery I can't ride a subway to or put into a backpack. I can't seem to act it out of my body or write it out of my brain.
Is it simple faith in Jesus? The sturdy teachings of the Catholic Church? The harsh edges of commitment itself? All these things have been a part of my life, but somehow not a part of it at all. Whatever it is I'm after, it's deeper than plays and films, more durable than protest and terror. And it's haunted me for years now; since high school, into college and well beyond. Through unloading freight, scouring pans, busing tables, organizing neighborhoods, writing reviews, grilling burgers, pouring champagne. Through hopscotching to high school theatres in a van so I can proclaim, day after day, night after night, "Will you go hunt, my lord?" Into bars and restaurants, meals and naps, dates and relationships, winters and summers, and everything else. Something that always says, in one way or another, There's more, there's more. Go deeper, go deeper. So, finally I say to a religious order, the Jesuits, "I want to be with you." I'll go to where they look at and talk about this mystery all the time. Where they even call a halt to sex while they do so and, for some, this lasts the rest of their lives. I don't entirely know whether what I've done here is naîve or brave or just strange.
Before I go, I meet this Jewish girl and we sit by the river at midnight and watch the party boats go by, as Dominicans take down their volleyball nets. We wander over to a place called Tonic and sit inside an old half-barrel in their basement in the dim, smoky light. We dance and talk and sip our drinks. I try to be above falling falling falling into her because in a few days I'll be leaving for the Jesuits. In the end, nothing happens. It is as near as I've come to an act of pure faith in my life, telling myself as we stand there painfully close, but not close enough, God has something more in store for me. I walk back to my apartment sort of dazed.
T hen I go away and soon I'm in the Jesuits in St. Paul. There, they have me do a thirty-day routine of spiritual exercises. It's silent the whole time and you pray and then do whatever else you want to. I make fires in a glass-enclosed fireplace in an upper room of our house and read or look at the snow. I watch the kids get out of school across the street at three o'clock, their mothers leaving silver vans to meet them at the door, talking with other mothers, cold and happy. Sometimes I try to pray in this upper room, but I make a fire first and then spend my entire prayer time checking to see whether the fire is still going. Throwing more logs on. Stoking and praying and looking and stoking. The house is heated, so a fire isn't really necessary, but something about the flames draws me and won't let go. As if I'd been compelled to leave everything I had just to come here to build a small fire in a glass cave.
Other times, I walk outside for prayer, through the streets or down some nearby railroad tracks. A song's in my head and I carry a stick. I contemplate the story of the Prodigal Son, the killing of Abel, meditate on How to Attain Divine Love. I wonder whether it's illegal to walk down railroad tracks. It's twilight and snowy and no trains pass. I go through the neighborhoods and hear fathers laughing with their children while they shovel, a noise so good that it feels unreal. Or there is a grim and solitary 11-year-old gripping the snow blower. I find myself quietly happy to know kids still do unpleasant things out of obedience.
I wonder whether this says something about me. Who am I obeying, really? A bizarre and romantic desire for hardship and loneliness? The same desire that pushed me to live in New York and throw myself to the mercy of casting directors and dramaturges? Or trudge through poor neighborhoods and invite people into a social revolution they often had little inclination to join? Is it on the streets of St. Paul that clarity will finally be achieved? The ultimate casting call? One final uprising of a soul into that rarified place it has always sought? I only know that it's cold out and that a conversation has begun.
In this retreat, they have me drag out all my sins from their poor hiding places and inspect them. I flush out all the times (like those nights on subway platforms) I've been in complete despair. It hits me that despair is the worst thing there is, the invisible poison that laces every sin. And I seem to have trafficked in it all my life. Never fully believing things will be okay, and then almost always being proven wrong. Realizing my utter lack of faith is completely depressing and unsettles me to no end.
I look at my gifts, the places where love and grace appeared out of nowhere, like songs in the night. Then I pull out the life and death of Jesus and look at that. The point of all this is to try to go somewhere in the body and brain and in the soul to where I can say, basically, I want to be with Jesus no matter what. I'll go teach high school in Zaire or I'll say the rosary nine times a day for nine weeks straight. I'll sit on people's couches and ask them for money. I'll get through chastity. If Jesus asks it.
One night near the end of the retreat, I'm in my bedroom praying and, because it's part of the routine, I start talking to Mary. Now, Mary is a figure in the Catholic faith I have never been very excited about. She has always seemed too docile and quiet, a dupe for God, a model for women expert at vanishing into the background. But I quickly realize that Mary is just a girl. Like girls I've known. Fun, interesting, lively, bold, kind. Very real. Someone you can talk to. I tell her what's going on with me at this particular time and she talks back. Says my name. Laughs. Acts coy. Gives advice. Amazing.
When we finish, I imagine how I would relate this story to the other novices. How I talked with Mary the Girl, right there in my personal space. Not in some mystical vision or apparition. Just a simple prayer of contemplation that anyone could do. In my mind, I am telling them excitedly, I never knew it could be this way. Which suddenly starts me crying. And crying and crying. Then I pray the Anima Christi and now Jesus hanging on the cross is very close too and I keep on crying. I mean really bawling.
I consider going downstairs to a secluded room to finish my praying because I don't want everyone to hear me. I don't think I've ever cried for that long. Not even when I was little and my mom told me my brother had been killed. It goes on for so long that I have time to stand outside myself and watch myself cry and wonder what exactly is going on here. Then, in the midst of praying and wailing I find myself saying to God what I could not have dreamed of saying ever before: I don't want peace from my sins; I only want to do Your will. It's then that the haze over my life disappears. The mystery of why I've come here clears up. I go to the upper room and make another fire and thank God for such an overwhelming grace.
T hey send me to L'Arche Daybreak, outside Toronto. There, I meet this guy named Michael and we pray in his room together, crouched down on the floor looking at his candles and a rocket he drew and Jesus and a priest named Henri and the archangel Michael and his dead brother Adam. These icons sit in his prayer corner, a cardboard box covered with a bandana, and Michael has somehow found me worthy enough to help him worship before it. It feels kind of perfect: from spiritual epiphany to spiritual ministry.
When we pray, Michael talks to his brother Adam, who could never talk, as if Adam were right there. Michael often says to Adam, "You are in my heart," and it feels truly meant, as if Adam were literally a tiny little tenant in Michael's aorta. Nearly every time, Michael also says to his brother, "You gotta help me."
I think he says this because his mind is ravaged by illness, because he is hunched over when he walks and can't speak very fast or eat very fast or get anywhere fast, only slowly. Because every single solitary morning he hates waking up. If he is in his room and needs someone, he puts his fingers in his mouth and makes as if to whistle, but basically just screams. If he's fallen off his bed trying to get his clothes on, he calls, "Somebody come and help me!" He stumbles when he walks into a room and he mutters, "Some days you just can't win," with the precious bravado of a child sitcom actor. I look at him, stunned for the millionth time that I have been given the chance to live with a man like Michael Arnett. One day he says to me, "You are in my heart." I freeze for a few seconds, and stop breathing.
L'Arche means "The Ark" in French and many of its rescued live, like Michael, in homes with people who help them. Sometimes I feel it would be beautiful and spiritual to be a vulnerable, honest person who talks directly to the dead and screams happily when he means to whistle. Others moan all the time, but even they have periods of involuntary delight, when their liberating yells ring through the church service, the community meeting. If this is an ark, the waters surrounding it are surely baptismal and holy because everything that happens here is anointed.
On the other hand, if all that happens at L'Arche is holy, then I am awed by the pain of this anointing. Maybe those waters are not always baptismal, and those screams are not delight, but horror. The horror of being engulfed and drowned and helpless to do anything about it because you just don't have it in you. Of being at the mercy of newly religious people like me who come and go for just six weeks, six months, a year at a time. Of having to be taken care of, all the time, day in and day out. Always a burden, always suffering. Maybe that's why Michael watches Batman movies, puts on Superman t-shirts, sleeps in Spiderman pajamas—to clothe himself in powers alien to his body, defenses against the flood.
When all is said and done, I really don't know what to think. My religious life has taught me to look at someone like Michael Arnett and say, even with all the horror and pain: Here trips and hunches and moans God. Here sputters the living, breathing, beaten-to-hell Jesus. I believe this deeply, and it's an awesome belief. God is closer than I ever realized. Mary sits on my floor and listens to me. I can station the cross anywhere and talk with Jesus as he dies. This is a joy above and beyond almost any other I've known. It's true: I never thought it could be this way.
But Michael's pain and misery, Christ-like though it may be, is still pain and misery. It, too, haunts me—along with others: a girl untouched on a riverbank, a rustling in the garbage, a sleepless night in a hot, dirty city. A haze still covers my life sometimes. A sadness still enters me, like a plain wind. Despair can cling to my skin, a sickly odor I thought I had washed off long ago. There were shadows in New York, and they are in St. Paul and in Toronto, and all points in between.
I don't always know exactly what I'm doing here or who I'm doing it for. I often turn off my lights and sit on the floor and try to pray to Michael Arnett or Mary or God, but end up falling asleep. Or I don't pray at all and can't tell myself why. In a thousand ways, I am a complete novice in a religious order, and a human order. In a faith and a priesthood and a way of being with the holy. I have few illusions for myself and my ability to understand my life. I have, as ever, only a mystery to tend to, like a small fire in winter.