Category Archives: On Belief

On Being a Writer of Faith (and of Doubt)

10300238_703013109778807_6610893359144546667_nThis post originally appeared on Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal, on July 16, 2014.

I am not the kind of Christian my parents wanted me to be. Case in point: I rarely call myself a Christian in public. These days it seems more of a political statement than I’d like it to be—and often not one I’d care to make.

I just don’t want the ordeal.

Any faith I could be said to have is troubled by doubt, such that most days I do not know where one ends and the other begins. This is not a new problem for me and hardly unique. It is not even, when you come down to it, a problem. It is simply the way of things.

Most days I feel I am a terrible Christian. And most days that’s exactly what I am.

You will protest. You mean well, of course, but you don’t know me like I know me. The human heart is not an easy organ to live with. “Our ticker,” writes poet Lisa Ampleman in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Image, “is not meat / and mainspring but measure and limit.”

I go to church sporadically, sometimes because I’m feeling philosophical about the whole affair, but most times because I’m lazy. I’ve broken nearly all of the Ten Commandments, in thought if not in deed. I frequently use God’s name in vain because, to be frank, it hits the tongue just right in a moment of need and because, when I don’t want to take the blame myself, or when I don’t know how else to account for the mysterious forces of life that lead to the myriad pedestrian tragedies of everyday life, God makes the perfect scapegoat.

Christ said: Do not judge. Go in peace. Give love freely.

I habitually fail at all three.

So.

Any qualms I have with calling myself a Christian are paralleled by the qualms I have in calling myself a writer. Once I make the declaration, people want to know what it means.

What kind of writer are you? people ask me.

A terrible writer, I want to say.

It takes me hours to compose a single status update, months to complete a blog post, years to finish a novel draft that is languishing with three final chapters to go. I’ll empty the crumb tray in the toaster or scrub the toilet or watch marathon back-to-back episodes of 90s sitcoms before I will sit in the chair and write.

And even then, once I finally manage to produce something, I regularly get the most basic kind of feedback: Your ideas are vague and abstract; your sentences too long and unwieldy; your word choice awkward, imprecise.

I am a beginner still.

“There is deep gladness,” writes Francisco X. Stork, “in the acceptance that what I do, poor as it is, will be my best” (Image #79).

I do not disbelieve this, but it is hard to keep faith in the gladness when mostly what one feels, day in and day out, is the abiding poverty of it all.

I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s telling of the Hasidic rabbi who left his house every morning convinced that he would die in fits of prayer. Or, similarly, the ritual slaughterer who every day left his home and his family in tears: Who knows what will become of me after I call on the Lord’s power and before I can summon the words for mercy?

All I know to say of the writing life, and of the life of faith—which for me are one and the same—is that to attempt to write, to attempt to believe, is to suspend myself, willingly and perpetually, in that split second of time wherein I might be saved or I might be damned.

And what compels me to this life of radical suspension is the very thing that continues to steel and sustain me for it: the devoutly artistic and doggedly interfaith work of Image.

For writers and artists whose creative work is deeply, perhaps stubbornly, informed by a religious or spiritual worldview, reading the pages of Image is like coming home. In Image we encounter a rigorous yet inclusive artistic community that strikes down the myth of a heart divided between a life of art and a life of faith (or doubt, as the case might be).

The work of Image, when all is said and done, restores us to ourselves. In its pages, we are made whole again.

“Artists need communities,” writes Greg Wolfe (Image #79). “The writers need to just keep writing—and, remarkably, they’ve continued to do so.”

He’s right, of course, but I reckon many of us might not be writing today if it weren’t for the community of Image. I certainly count myself among that number.

If I can call myself any kind of Christian, if I can call myself any kind of writer—let alone (on those rarest of days) both at once—it is because of Image.

I hope I can prove myself worthy of the call.

A Baptism by Dishwater, Courtesy of Mary Oliver

photo-47On days like today, when I wake up early enough that the world still has a kind of blue-lit darkness to it, I feel as though the world belongs to me alone. Snow covers the ground in patches and the sky hangs low. I stand at my kitchen sink, looking out over the canal outside my window, where wild geese gather, honking happily at me in the cold morning air.

I sip my cup of matcha, then feel the fluttering of an old woman at my back, a gray-haired poet moving about my kitchen, making impossible exhortations as she roots around in my green cupboards: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I try to believe this.

In the fall, outside this same kitchen window, there sprung a beautiful, bright red bush. It was an unworldly color. All season long, washing dishes at the kitchen sink, I stared at that bush in my bare feet, half-expecting it to burst into flame at any moment.

Some days, there was the rustling of leaves, a sound that, if you did not strain too hard, might be a whisper.

I have nobody who can confirm this, but I should tell you: I believe I am my best self when I am standing alone at my kitchen sink. All manner of things happen to me on that little rug where I wash the dishes. Geese descend. Poetry arises. A bush alights.

And the voice of the burning bush, as it turns out, sounds a lot like Mary Oliver.

Sometimes, on days like today, for one brief, blessed moment, I manage to answer the call of the geese, take up my place in the family of things. I stand on holy ground.

Then the light shifts, the moment passes, and it is only me again, standing in front of a smoldering bush, my hands warm and wrinkled with dishwater. I look out the window in wonder.

The canal has frozen over in the night and now a few geese tentatively venture out onto the ice, thrusting their webbed feet onto the cold hard surface of the water. Every step an act of faith. The rest of their gaggle looks on from the safety of land, watching and waiting, performing their own acts of faith. I know it as well as they: All is holy now.

When you wash the dishes, a Zen proverb says, the dishes also wash you. A reverse baptism of sorts.

So I swallow my last sip of tea, then plunge my hands into the soapy water, wash the mug in slow, concentric circles. My bush has turned to ash on the cold winter ground.

Still, the geese come, tiptoeing over the frozen ice in all their wildness.