The nicest ladies taught me how to pray
In Sunday Best, contained and passionless
As if some cross-stitched Christ, all wafer thin
And prim could only bear for me to humour him.
I threw my new guitar across the room
And broke its neck. Six unstrung strings were
Spilled in all directions. Wire intestines tangled
Round a fret board – dislocated, dangling, dead.
I crave that swan song chord.
Both faith and art I count as mindless sin –
A disinfected metaphor – unless
My tooth and nail has driven in.
I wrestle with The Horse’s Mouth
I’ll writhe Plath-like in prayer
Give me a pen, a desk, a chair
And for your safety leave me there
This rather angst-ridden poem from a few years ago demonstrates some full-on wrestling I’ve found necessary with my faith and my sense of self. It mentions the guitar that I was given as a young child, one of the instruments I went on to use in church.
I have a memory of that first 3/4 size guitar – an annual festival at Pentecost where as Sunday School children we were seated on a decorated lorry, carrying streamers and flags, and driven around the local town, along with numerous floats from the other churches. I was 7 or 8, and asked to bring my guitar. But the abiding memory is of the singing being started without me, and me being encouraged just to play along, even though everyone had already launched off in different keys and tempos.
It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t amplified and wouldn’t be heard. They were asking me to fake it. Their hope was to help create a good outward appearance to impress the non-Christians lining the streets. I was a child, so, reluctantly, I complied. (But I didn’t let my fingers touch the strings.)
Years later I found myself playing a wind synth as dancers moved in expressions of worship. Because it was a midi instrument and I could make it sound like anything (saxophone, cello, dinosaur, Formula 1 racing car) I chose to shift into some deeply sonorous tones to cut through, into yearning depths, deep calling unto deep. It was a creative time where we were improvising, and my heart-induced sound was intentionally cognitively dissonant; I mean, it was supposed to do more than just add more of the same.
What happened? Twice, everyone stopped, turned around and laughed, thinking I had chosen to interrupt proceedings with a fog horn, just for fun. Twice more, I did it again, believing we were all there to enter the same abandoned space in our collaboration, trusting someone would go with it. But not that day.
And I remember a woman who was dying of cancer, days from death. A prayer meeting was called, and amid the cries for her healing, I came to the front with my flute, and walked around, experimenting with lament. For the first time in that live space, unaccompanied, I discovered a language of percussive rasping, screeching, ugly sounds erupting and condensing among the melodic ones. Death is a serious business, but dying is worse. I was just being honest.
People in pain came up to me afterwards. Tears and silence. It felt like collaboration. It felt real.
So then, what about written words.
The December before last, after a year of reading the Bible, praying and journalling, I had an impromptu bonfire of 19 journals. I was sitting there, box of journals by my side, fireplace empty. I had the overwhelming sense that the New Year, needed to bring me NOT JUST MORE WORDS but something REAL arising from them. And so, in a sudden moment of conviction, I lit the fire.
I placed the books into the flames in handfuls; a whole year’s worth of suede-covered, faux leather bound A4 journals, all with thick cream quality paper; a cremation of handwritten notes, poems, memories, reflections, all crammed into the furnace. I watched the pages curl and brown and burn. No remorse.
It was never about the journals, even when I was writing them. Hours and days and weeks and months of my private world turned to dust that evening, and I’ve never felt it was anything other than the right thing to do. It reaches me deeply now to think about it. Like when CS Lewis says you never really know what love is fully until you experience the death of the one you loved.
And what’s the point of all of this?
What I’m describing isn’t a thought out recipe for interacting with the divine. It’s just instinctively how I find myself pushing – how I find myself praying when the words and the silence feel just not enough.
It’s about finding myself at edges of experience and with no choice but to go over that cliff edge in surrender. It’s as if my best polished versions find themselves made holy by encounter with the unexpected and the disempowering. It’s as if my strongest attempts at curating beauty lack their proper frame until they meet the grit and descent of a truly incarnate God.
Left to my perfectionist best, I carry too much ammunition on board. I hold back from showing my weakness, keep my expression at arms-length, pretend that my art comes from out of a solved life. It doesn’t. And I don’t want any God listening to prayers that sound like that.
I see art as an arena, not a podium.
I’m learning that my excesses are not a threat to what’s truly sacred. My suppression and repression don’t impress the divine, but my extremes are no shock to ‘him’ either – as far as the east is from the west, from the darkest to the purest, it’s all still seen, all embraced. It all counts.
When all that is out of my system, what remains is a humbled sense of self, and a sigh of relief that gets my eyes off myself.
🙂 For the record, virtual community has given me safe space to thrash out some authentic faith journeying angst, and that has made all the difference…