From Returning: A Spiritual Journey
One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I work up screaming. I got out of bed, went into the next room, sat down on a couch, and screamed again. This was not, in other words, one of those waking nightmares left over from sleep that is dispelled by the comforting light of day. It was, rather, a response to the reality that another morning had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noise, moving images, and wired to electronic games that further distracted my fragmented attention from a growing sense of blank, nameless pain in the pit of my very being, my most essential self. It was the beginning of a year in which I would have scored in the upper percentile of these popular magazine tests that list the greatest stresses of life: I left the house I owned, the city I was living in, the work I was doing, the woman I had lived with for seven years and had hoped to remain with the rest of my life, ran out of money, discovered I had endangered my health, and attended the funeral of my father in May and my mother in November.
The day I woke up screaming I grabbed from among my books an old Bible I hadn’t opened for nearly a quarter of a century. With a desperate instinct I turned to the Twenty-Third Psalm and read it over, several times, the words and the King James cadence bringing a sense of relief and comfort, a kind of emotional balm. In the coming chaotic days and months I sometimes recited that psalm over in my mind, and it always had that calming effect, but it did not give me any sense that I suddenly believed in God again. The psalm simply seemed an isolated source of solace and calm, such as any great poem might be.
In that first acute stage of my crisis I went to doctors for help, physical and mental. I told an internist in Beverly Hills that I had an odd feeling my heart was beating too fast and he confirmed my suspicion. My “resting” pulse rate was 120, and the top of the normal range is 100. An EKG showed there was nothing wrong with my heart, and the doctor asked if I was in the entertainment business. I confessed to television: I had been co-producer of a TV movie I wrote and so earned the title of “writer-producer,” giving me the high Hollywood status of a “hyphenate.” The doctor nodded and smiled, saying many of his patients in The Industry suffered from stress, as I evidently did now. He prescribed medication that would lower my racing pulse.
The “beta blockers” lowered my pulse but not my anxiety, and I explained to a highly recommended psychiatrist in nearby Westwood (home of UCLA) how I had come out to Los Angeles from Boston nearly three years before to write a TV series called “James at 15” that ran for a season, and then I stayed on doing TV movies and a feature film rewrite I was fired from. I told her how I had grown to feel alien and alienated in Los Angeles; the freeways and frantic pace and the roller coaster of show business were driving me nuts and I couldn’t stand the sight of a palm tree. The psychiatrist said I should take a vacation; she suggested Santa Barbara. At that moment the voice of Bob Dylan wailed in my mind the line from “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” – that my best friend the doctor won’t even tell me what I got.
Watching the national weather forecast on “Good Morning, America,” I pictured myself on the bottom left-hand corner of the map in the dot of Los Angeles and felt I had slid to the wrong hole on a giant pinball machine, wanting to tilt the whole thing so I could get back to the upper right-hand corner to Boston, where I felt pulled by internal gravity. My Southern California disorientation deepened because I no longer knew when anything happened in the course of a year since all the seasons looked the same to me; when I saw a videotape of Henry James’s The Europeans the New England autumn leaves and sunlight falling on plain board floors brought tears to my eyes.
I tried to forget about Hollywood by starting a new novel but the room I worked in was next to the swimming pool and the service people who came to test the chlorine were unemployed actors discussing casting calls, making it hard to concentrate; besides, the damp seeped into the pages and stiffened them, giving the manuscript the texture of corpse. I wondered if I might end up as one of those bodies in the movies of Hollywood who float face down in their own swimming pool.
A plumber who came to fix the toilet saw the typewriter and tried to pitch me an idea for a TV pilot about a jewel thief who gains access to rich people’s houses by working as a plumber. When he asked if I wanted to get involved I wasn’t sure if he meant in a criminal operation or a TV series and each seemed equally unappealing. I longed to leave the land of deals and palm trees and live in a building made of solid brick with a tree outside I could tell the time of year by. Finally, on one of those frantic mornings I stopped in the midst of all I was doing (and failing to do) and called American Airlines, booking a seat on the next flight to Boston.
The city itself was succor, a feast of familiar tradition from the statues of heroes (Alexander Hamilton, William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel Eliot Morison among them) in the wide swath of Commonwealth Avenue to the long wharves on the waterfront reaching out toward Europe. Walking the brick streets of my old neighborhood on Beacon Hill, I felt in balance again with the universe, and a further pull to what seemed the center of it, the source of something I was searching for, something I couldn’t name that went far beyond the satisfaction of scenery or local color. I headed like a homing pigeon to the pond in the Pubic Garden and, without having planned it, sat down on a bench, and at the same time that tears of gratitude came to my eyes the words of the psalm also came to my mind:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
I recited the psalm from the start and at the end said, “Amen,” as if it were a prayer, and it was, of thanks. It would not have occurred to me to go to any church or chapel, but the pond in the Public Garden seemed precisely the place to have offered this.
I thought no further about “religion” on that trip but concerned myself with the more pressing problem of my physical health, which my Boston doctor told me he was frankly worried about. He, too, found I had a pulse rate of 120, a condition called tachycardia. The EKG showed no heart disease or damage (“yet,” he added) but, unlike the internist in L. A., he prescribed not pills but a program of exercise and diet conducted at something called a Stress Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. I went out of fear, grumbling all the way, wanting a chilled glass of dry white wine instead.
When I came back to Boston a month later, after finishing (on in some cases giving up or fleeing from) my business in Los Angeles, the last thing I wanted to do was return to that damned stress clinic and start their Exercycle program. The principal exercise I had been engaged in the past few years was carrying from the car to the house the case of Almaden Chablis half gallons I bought every week as basic sustenance. I was in grief over the breakup of my seven-year relationship that had not survived my move back East from L. A., which was followed a week later by my father’s death. The only way I knew how to ease the pain was by drowning it with alcohol, the same “cure” I’d been using for nearly a quarter of a century. I had not done anything for my physical health since I left Boy Scout Camp Chanktun-un-gi the summer of ’48, and only some frayed, shrunken instinct for survival enabled me to make myself go back to see the Exercycle people.
I told Dr. Howard Hartley, the director of the Stress Lab, and the nurse who assisted him, Jane Sherwood, that I was going through a difficult time, I was drinking a lot of wine, and that I did not intend to stop or even cut down. I thought this might provoke them and get me out of the whole thing, but neither of them even blinked. Dr. Hartley was a quiet, thoughtful man about my own age with graying hair and my own sort of Midwestern accent, and Jane was an attractive young blond woman who seemed genuinely concerned about my health. They had disappointed my preconceptions (based on painful experience) about medical people as condescending martinets, and even my aggressive announcement about wine consumption failed to rattle them. Dr. Hartley said all they were asking me to do at that point was work out on the Exercycle a half hour every day, or at least three times a week. I gruffly said if I was going to do it at all I would do the damn thing every day.
I rode for dear life. I rode for my life when I wondered if trying to save it or keep it together was worth the effort. I rode in a fifth-floor walkup apartment I had sublet on Beacon Hill that stifling summer of 1980 in stuffy heart broken by sudden dark thunderstorms that crashed around me like the pieces of my life breaking apart. I rode on a BH Home Bike my old friend Shaun O’Connell helped me buy in some suburban mall sporting goods store and lugged up the stairs for me on a day I was so depressed that after assembling the bike, while I looked on in a sort of paralysis of will, he turned to me before leaving and said in the most optimistic summation of my situation he could muster: “Well, at least you’re alive.”
I rode watching “All My Children” on a portable black and white television set to see other people’s problems in hopes of temporarily forgetting my own; I rode while reading Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy and was cheered to learn that the author of War and Peace took up bicycle riding for his health at age sixty-seven (he read Scientific Notes on the Action of the Velocipede as Physical Exercise by L. K. Popov) and that he and his wife, Sonya, kept records of their pulse rates in their respective journals, especially noting the elevation after domestic arguments. (“After she left he felt his pulse and noted, ‘Ninety.'”) I rode every day, as ritually as I guzzled my wine every night, and sometimes at lunch to help me make it through to “cocktail time.” I rode on days when I didn’t even want to get out of bed or get dressed, I rode when I couldn’t yet begin the rewrite of the script I had to do to make enough money to pay the rent, I rode when I had a hangover and feared any exertion would make me sick. I rode because some vital if battered part of me wanted to survive, and more than that to live, and when everything else seemed illusory or elusive and out of my control, I knew there was one specific thing I could do to help myself, to keep going, and that was to ride the damned bike. I did it, each day, and nothing I had ever done felt quite so essential as gripping those handlebars and holding on.
There was consolation in being back not only in Boston but in my old neighborhood, the Hill; walking down the main drag of Charles Street, I knew how a soldier felt returning home from war. Old neighbors stopped to shake my hand, and merchants greeted me with welcome and asked what they could do to help me get settled again (“rehabilitated,” I thought of it). Ed Jones, a bachelor I thought of as “King of the Hill,” reintroduced me to the regulars at the bar of the Charles Restaurant, and it seemed a haven and shelter, comfortably friendly and dim.
That sodden summer was shot through with shafts of the most intense and unexpected joy, like the moment I came up out of the subway at Harvard Square to the strains of Bach being vigorously played in the foyer of the Coop for coins by street musicians with violins and cellos and it felt like being bathed with love; and the evening Joe Massik took us sailing out of Boston Harbor and we watched the sun go down and the lights come on in the towers downtown like golden signals. Afterward we went to Brandy Pete’s for huge platters of chicken and pasta and baskets of fresh bread, and I felt fed as well by friendship and fortune of place.
That fall I found an apartment up on Mt. Vernon Street with big bay windows that looked out on another brick building across the street and a tree, just as I’d dreamed of in Hollywood. I got out the novel whose pages were stiff from the damp of my poolside studio – it felt like something exhumed – and set to work, with the Hill serving not only as home but as inspiration. I could see a slice of the Boston Common from the window I faced when I worked, and as the late autumn sky above it turned the cold royal purple and silver-gray colors I remembered and loved, I told myself I had to finish the book to earn the money – the privilege – of staying on and living here. The Hill was family, too. When my mother died in early November Ed Jones gathered friends from the neighborhood who mourned with me; he made a stew and we drank and dined, and I was comforted. They drove me to the airport and met me when I returned. Home.
Just by moving back to Boston my pulse went down from 120 to 100, and after faithfully riding the Exercycle for three months it was down to the eighties. I was elated by actually making an improvement in my physical condition for the first time in my life, an accomplishment that prompted me to tell Dr. Hartley I’d be willing to try the diet he recommended (a high-complex-carbohydrate regime with no oil, butter, or fat, similar to but not as strict and restrictive as the Pritikin diet). I would try it with the proviso, of course, that I could still drink all the wine I wanted. They told me to do the best I could. In another three months I had lost eighteen pounds and felt almost as miraculously lean as my idol Paul Newman in The Hustler.
My faith in Dr. Hartley and Jane Sherwood was now so awesome that they could have asked me to do the impossible, and they did. They asked me to stop drinking for a month. No alcohol of any kind. No wine. Not a glass, not a sip. Zilch. Cold turkey. Why, I wondered, was such an extreme (inhuman) measure necessary? Dr. Hartley explained that, while they were very pleased with my progress – the weight loss, the increased “work load” as measured on their Exercycle stress test, and my pulse down to the eighties – they felt that, in line with this very improvement, my pulse should really now be in the sixties. They said the only factor they could think of that was keeping it above that was the wine consumption, and they wanted to see for sure if that were true. The only way to find out was for me to stop consuming it for a month.
The longest stretch of time I had done without a drink in twenty years was one week, and the four occasions on which I had performed such a miracle of abstinence had been the most extreme tests of my character, will power, and stamina. In fact, they were torture. I had not had the DTs, but I had suffered such anguish, such torment of desire, such depths of deprivation, that the idea of holding out a day or even an hour longer seemed impossible. Now I was being asked to do it for a month.
I said I would start tomorrow. Declaring it was like diving off the high board; I had to do it right away without thinking or I’d never get up the courage. Dr. Hartley pointed out that this was the end of November, and I’d be having to endure this unaccustomed sobriety during the most difficult time of all, the holiday season. Perhaps I’d prefer to put it off to the first of the year. “No,” I said, “I am perverse, and the fact that this is more difficult, that it goes against the grain of society, will somehow make it easier for me.” I would start the next day, I pledged, and I meant it.
That night I found one of my drinking pals, a regular from the Charles Restaurant bar, and asked her to join me for a final fling. I was going to load up for the holidays, get loaded in order to endure, as if I could so soak myself in wine that it would somehow sustain me through the dry period. I did my best. I guzzled and gulped, I drank with steady purpose at favorite neighborhood bars, then bought us a half gallon of cheap dry white that I lugged up to my friend’s apartment. I poured the stuff down as though I were trying to extinguish a fire (the fear of going without for so long).
I woke not knowing at first who or where I was. Me. Boston. Beacon Hill. My friend’s living-room couch. Ouch. I sank back down, dizzy. This was a beaut, this was one of the worst pounding hangovers in my painfully hung-over history. I reeled to the refrigerator for orange juice, gulped, gasped, and flopped back down on the couch. The traumas of the past year began to bloom in my head, and I sought some way of turning them off. It was too early to tune in television in hopes of having my mind blasted empty by the tube, for my faithful drinking companion was still asleep in her bed. Instead, I groped for a magazine or book, some distracting piece of reading matter from the coffee table by the couch where I lay.
I picked up off the top of a pile a book I had never seen before. It turned out to be a journal with sketches that Françoise Sagan had kept while taking the cure in an alcoholic dry-out clinic. It was not the youthfully bittersweet romance of Bonjour Tristesse. It was gritty, tough experience, painful and true. Too true. Too close to the mark of the path on which I was painfully about to embark. But so true I couldn’t stop reading, either. It was like a personal letter to a fellow boozer on the brink of trying the cure. The last entry, made when the author was sobered and clean and ready to leave, seemed like a message to sustain me in the dry month ahead, a goal to think about during my thirty days in the wilderness of sobriety, a goal that must have seemed as distant and as painful to reach for Mlle. Sagan when she started her cure as it did to me at that moment, but one whose attainment would indeed be worth every deprivation, every exercise of discipline, every resource of nerve and courage it was possible to summon:
“Now I begin to live and write in earnest.”
Just before Christmas I was sitting in The Sevens, a neighborhood bar on Charles Street, drinking a mug of coffee while friends sipped their beers. I didn’t mind being in bars and around other people who were drinking while I was on the wagon, in fact I preferred it. I was comfortable in the atmosphere, and if I couldn’t drink any booze at least I could inhale its nirvanic scents and maybe I even got a kind of “contact high” as musicians were said to do off others smoking grass. A house painter named Tony who was sitting at the table with me and some other neighbors remarked out of the blue that he’d like to go to Mass somewhere on Christmas Eve. I didn’t say anything, but a thought came into my mind, as swift and unexpected as it was unfamiliar: I’d like to do that too.
Since leaving my boyhood Protestant faith as a rebellious Columbia College intellectual more than a quarter century before, I had only once gone to church. Yet I found myself that Christmas Eve in King’s Chapel, which I finally selected from the ads on the Boston Globe religion page because it seemed least threatening. It was Unitarian, I knew the minister slightly as a neighbor, and I assumed “Candlelight Service” meant nothing more religiously challenging than carol singing.
As it happened, the Reverend Carl Scovel gave a sermon about “the latecomers” to the church on a text from an Evelyn Waugh novel called Helena. There was a passage in which Helena, the mother of Constantine, addressed the magi, the three wise men who came late to the manger to bring their gifts to the Christ child, and it ended like this:
“You are my special patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all latecomers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
“For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
I slunk down in my pew, literally beginning to shiver from what I thought was only embarrassment at feeling singled out for personal attention, and discomfort at being in alien surroundings. It turned out that I had a temperature of 102 that kept me in bed for three days with a violent case of the flu and a fearful suspicion that church was a very dangerous place, at least if you weren’t used to it.
Maybe my flesh was rebelling against not only the unaccustomed intrusion of spirit but the equally unusual exclusion of alcoholic spirits from my system. For the first time in my adult life I went without wassail through the Yuletide, strictly keeping my pledge of abstinence from alcohol – though the help of a small stash of marijuana from a friend kept it from being a truly cold-turkey Christmas season.
I showed up for my stress test appointment the last day of my most stressful year with my blood completely pure of booze, and Dr. Hartley counted my pulse at an even sixty, exactly as he had predicted it ought to be if I cut out the wine. I was both elated to have reached this healthy rate and disturbed at what it meant. Dr. Hartley’s suspicion was correct: the wine was acting as a stimulant to my sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls the heart and blood vessels) and keeping my pulse elevated. Before I could get depressed at the distressing implication – it obviously meant cutting wine drastically down if not altogether out of my daily diet if I wanted to maintain my healthy heartbeat – I took the Exercycle stress test. When I finished pumping and sweating through the last stationary miles, Jane Sherwood announced with elation that I had increased my “work load” by a third, from 120 to 180 watts (units of power generated), since starting the program eight months before.
I was exhilarated by making such dramatic improvement and immediately felt competitive. I wanted to know where I stood now in relation to other people, and Jane hurried to her files, coming back smiling and waving a folder. The Stress Lab people kept records of different professional groups they tested, and Jane said proudly I was now “stronger than the average fireman!” I felt like Marvelous Marvin Hagler after winning his first middleweight crown. It was the first time in my life I’d been demonstrably stronger physically than any person or group. The giddy feeling (like a new kind of high) made me think the unthinkable: maybe I could really cut down permanently on my daily wine consumption.
I began to keep a record of my wine intake and how it affected my heart rate. I discovered that if I drank one or two glasses of wine in an evening my pulse was the same the next morning, but if I had more than two glasses my pulse would be higher than it was before drinking the wine the night before. I tried to keep from drinking more than two (well, sometimes three) glasses in an evening, switching to diet tonic before dinner, and coffee after (in the past I rarely drank coffee because it cut the effect of the wine). I began to enjoy the feeling of sobriety, of mornings without hangovers, and a sense of being able to exercise some kind of control over myself. In this new, clear-headed condition, I began to think about other aspects of my life besides the physical that I hadn’t considered for a long time. I began to think again about church.
After my Christmas Eve experience at King’s Chapel, I was both intrigued and apprehensive about church, and I didn’t get up the nerve to go back again until Easter. I did not have any attacks of shivering or chills in the spring sunshine of that service, so it seemed that, even as a “latecomer” and former avowed atheist, I could safely enter a place regarded as a house of God. Still, the prospect was discomforting. My two initial trips of return had been on major holidays, occasions when “regular” people went to church, simply in observance of tradition. To go back again meant crossing the Boston Common on a non-holiday Sunday morning wearing a suit and tie, a giveaway sign of churchgoing. I did it furtively, as if I were engaged in something that would not be approved of by my peers. I hoped they would all be home doing brunch and the Sunday papers, so I would not be “caught in the act.” I recalled the remark of William F. Buckley, Jr., in a television interview, that if you mention God more than once at New York dinner parties you aren’t invited back.
To my surprise, I recognized neighbors and even some people I considered friends at church, on a “regular” Sunday. I had simply assumed I did not know people who went to church, yet here they were, with intellects intact, worshiping God. Once inside the church myself, I understood the appeal. No doubt my friends and neighbors found, as I did, relief and refreshment in connecting with age-old rituals, reciting psalms, and singing hymns. There was a calm reassurance in the stately language of litanies and chants in the Book of Common Prayer (King’s Chapel is “Unitarian in theology, Anglican in worship, and Congregational in governance,” a historical Boston amalgam that became three centuries old in 1986). I was grateful for the sense of shared reverence, of reaching beyond one’s flimsy physical presence, while praying with a whole congregation.
The connection of church and neighborhood reinforced one another, gave depth and dimension to the sense of “home” that I had felt so cut off from in Hollywood. Church was not just an abstraction or a separate enclave of my life but a part of the place where I lived, connected with people I knew and encountered in my daily (not just Sunday) life. I think the deep sense of pleasure and solace of place I derived from returning to the neighborhood was – along with my physical improvement – part of the process of calming and reassembling myself that nurtured the desire to go to church.
When I lived on the Hill before, I enjoyed it but took it for granted. This time I appreciated it, plugged myself into its rituals. I bought my first pair of ice skates since childhood and on winter afternoons slid precariously but happily over the frozen pond in the Public Garden. I looked up Steve Olesky, my old neighbor from Myrtle Street, a lawyer who served as president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association (he also turned out to be a member of King’s Chapel), and volunteered to cook at their annual pancake breakfast in the spring. When I burned my thumb flipping blueberry pancakes at that event, just as I had in years past, I knew I was really back. And I knew by then that I had managed to resuscitate my novel as well as myself.
How nice it would be if exiles could end their troubles and live happily ever after simply by coming home. But those are the endings of fairy tales. We aren’t told what happened to the prodigal son after his father welcomed him back, but the anger of his jealous older brother does not portend a future of sweetness and light. As fulfilling as it was for me to return to Boston and begin a new phase of life in better physical health, it did not make everything smooth. As the usual trials of life continued, I went to King’s Chapel not only for inspiration but for solace, a respite from the all to common afflictions of the human condition, from broken furnaces to broken hearts, from bad dreams to flu and taxes.
I began to appreciate what was meant by the church as “sanctuary.” The word itself took on new resonance for me; when I later heard of the “sanctuary” movement of churches offering shelter to Central American political refugees, I thought of the kind of private refuge that fortunate citizens like myself find in church from the daily assaults of pressures and worries, the physic guerrilla warfare of everyday life.
Caught in an escalation of panic and confusion in my own professional campaigns (more painful because so clearly brought on by my own blundering), I joined the church in May of 1982, not wanting to wait until the second Christmas Eve anniversary of my entry, as I had planned. I wanted the immediate sense of safety and refuge implied in belonging, being a member – perhaps like getting a passport and fleeing to a powerful embassy in the midst of some chaotic revolution.
Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems – if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time – but it gave me a sense of living in a larger context, of being part of something greater than what I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential. Even more remarkably, the practice of regular attendance at Sunday services, which such a short time ago seemed religiously “excessive,” no longer seemed enough. Whatever it was I was getting from church on Sunday mornings, I wanted – needed, it felt like – more.
I experienced what is a common phenomenon for people who in some way or other begin a journey of the kind I so unexpectedly found myself on – a feeling simply and best described as a “thirst” for spiritual understanding and contact; to put it bluntly, I guess, for God. I noticed in the church bulletin an announcement of a Bible-study class in the parish house, and I went one stormy autumn evening to find myself with only the church’s young seminarian on hand and one other parishioner. Rather than being disappointed by the tiny turnout, as I ordinarily would have been, I thought of the words, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” and I felt an interior glow that the pouring rain outside and occasional claps of thunder only made seem more vital and precious. I don’t remember what text we studied that evening, but I can still smell the rain and the coffee and feel the aura of light and warmth.
Later in the season I attended a Bible-study session the minister led for a gathering of about twenty people on the story of Abraham and Isaac, and I came away with a sense of the awesomeness and power of faith, a quality that loomed above me as tremendous and challenging and tangibly real as mountains. The Bible-study classes, which I later, with other parishioners, learned to lead on occasion myself, became a source of power, like tapping into a rich vein.
Bible study was not like examining history but like holding up a mirror to my own life, a mirror in which I sometimes saw things I was trying to keep hidden, even from myself. The first scripture passage I was assigned to lead was from Luke, about the man who cleans his house of demons, and seven worse ones come. I did not have any trouble relating this to “contemporary life.” It sounded unnervingly like an allegory about a man who had stopped drinking and so was enjoying much better health, but took up smoking marijuana to “relax,” all the while feeling good and even self-righteous about giving up the booze. It was my own story. I realized, with a shock, how I’d been deceiving myself, how much more “housecleaning” I had to do.
I cannot pinpoint any particular time when I suddenly believed in God again. I only know that such belief came to seem as natural as for all but a few stray moments of twenty-five or more years before it had been inconceivable. I realized this while looking at fish.
I had gone with my girl friend to the New England Aquarium, and as we gazed at the astonishingly brilliant colors of some of the small tropical fish – reds and yellows and oranges and blues that seemed to be splashed on by some innovative artistic genius – and watched the amazing lights of the flashlight fish that blinked on like the beacons of some creature of a sci-fi epic, I wondered how anyone could think that all this was the result of some chain of accidental explosions! Yet I realized in frustration that to try to convince me otherwise five years before would have been hopeless. Was this what they called “conversion”?
The term bothered me because it suggested being “born again” and, like many of my contemporaries, I had been put off by the melodramatic nature of that label, as well as the current political beliefs that seemed to go along with it. Besides, I didn’t feel “reborn.” No voice came out of the sky nor did a thunderclap strike me on the path through the Boston Common on the way to King’s Chapel. I was relieved when our minister explained that the literal translation of “conversion” in both Hebrew and Greek is not “rebirth” but “turning.” That’s what my own experience felt like – as if I’d been walking in one direction and then, in response to some inner pull, I turned – not even all the way around, but only at what seemed a slightly different angle.
I hoped the turning would put me on a straight, solid path with blue skies above and a warm, benevolent sun shining down all the time. I certainly enjoyed better health than when I began to “turn” back in 1980, but the new path I found myself on seemed often as dangerous and difficult as the one I’d been following before. Sometimes it didn’t even seem like a path at all. Sometimes I felt like a hapless passenger in the sort of small airplane they used to show in black and white movies of the 1930s, caught in a thunderstorm, bobbing through the night sky over jagged mountains without a compass.
There was a period around four years after I returned to church that I felt as if finally, with God’s help, I was on the right track in my own journey. Then I had an experience that was like running head on into a wall. I turned down a lucrative opportunity to write a movie script because it would have meant making a series of trips back to Los Angeles. I knew I never wanted to live there again, but this would have meant only four or five week-long trips (or so I was assured, though I feared I might be drawn back into the Hollywood orbit by its own powerful suction). I prayed intensely, and felt it was not right to go, but then as soon as I made the decision I fell into panic, fearing I had unnecessarily rejected money I sorely needed. Then I questioned my own prayer, and wondered if in fact I was only reacting to fear, instead of to God’s will that I was trying so hard to discern and follow. Or was I simply a fool to try to make business decisions based on prayer?
My agony over what I had done and why I had really done it was made more intense by the question of God in the midst of it all and the fear that I might be misusing him for my own self-justifications. I felt a sort of psychic pain as unrelenting as a dentist’s drill. In the torment I prayed, and there was no relief, and twice I turned back to my old way of dealing with things, by trying to numb the pain with drugs. Throughout all this I never lost faith in God, never imagined he was not there, but only that his presence was obscured. Then the storm broke, like a fever, and I felt in touch again, and in the light. I was grateful, but I also knew that such storms of confusion and inner torment would come again, perhaps even more violently.
I learned that belief in God did not depend on how well things were going, that faith and prayer and good works did not necessarily have any correlation to Earthly reward or even tranquility, no matter how much I wished they would and thought they should. I believe in God because the gift of faith (if not the gift of understanding) was given me, and I went to church and prayed and meditated to try to be close to his presence and, most difficult of all, to discern his will. I knew, as it said in the Book of Common Prayer, that his “service is perfect freedom,” and my greatest frustration was in the constant choices of how best to serve.
In times of anguish it was hard to have the faith of an Abraham, and difficult to be reassured by doubts when I seemed to be walking in darkness. Yet there I was, like everyone else, having emerged from all sorts of crises and heartbreak and traumas, events that seemed to have insured my destruction or at least any chance of ever feeling joyous and fulfilled again, and I had gone on, and felt renewed and hopeful all over again, and the very pits of despair most often seemed to have been entries to the next unexpected, unimaginable (while in the pit) emergence and rebirth.
I did not come to think that “everything works out for the best,” certainly not in the Earthly, egocentric terms by which we judge the occurrences of our lives, or in the way that the larger events of the tumultuous world of wars and earthquakes, murder, and plagues, affect us personally. I was fascinated most by the mystery of it, and of how, to paraphrase William Faulkner, we so often not only endure but prevail.