So surrender the hunger to say you must know,
Have the courage to say,’ I believe’.
For the power of paradox opens your eyes,
And blinds those who say they can see.
We were driving through downtown Atlanta, off on literary pilgrimage in the wind and sunshine of March. Just she and I, a sisters’ spree, making holiday in the middle of the week for a day trip to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia.
I think I was already feeling intimidated, haunted by the great one’s ghost, as it were, for as I threaded the umpte-eleven lanes heading south out of the city and fiddled with the AC, I kept prattling nervously about ‘my little manuscript’. It seemed so absurd to call it a ‘book’, even to her, who knows my own soul. Flannery wrote books. I scribbled things in secret.
“Would you stop?”
I cut my eyes over at Liz in surprise. In the middle of I-75?
“Drop the ‘little’. It’s your manuscript. You wrote it. Quit putting it down.”
Her words went to the quick: stung, ‘hurt good’, as a wise friend is wont to say. They touched upon a nerve already tender from the Physician’s gentle prodding and forced me to face my old, old foe. Yet again.
Fear. The giant Apollyon that halts me in my tracks and sneers down all my hopes and aspirations. The paralyzing dread of failure; the horror of being misunderstood that stifles my voice and freezes my fingers above the keyboard. Fear of man’s opinion. Fear that when I open my heart’s treasures to the world, the world will be unkind and trample them underfoot. That morning I felt ill at the thought—I often do. But that’s exactly what it is: a feeling. My desire to write, to communicate and create, is not a feeling but a God-given passion; a relentless yearning that, quite frankly, at some times I rather wish would lie still, but in sublimer moments overspreads my life with the gilt and purple of love’s ambition.
It took me a long time to admit of my vocation, though I’d carried it around with me for as long as I could remember. It was hard to make peace with the extravagant expenditure of time which serious writing demands. I longed to do it; I didn’t balk at the work. But I halted over all the officially sanctioned Christian duties I ‘ought’ to be putting my hands to instead of tapping out words in solitude. I read somewhere that it takes ten years to learn to write a book. I don’t know how true that is across the board, but I felt certain it would definitely be something like it for me. It seemed too sweet a thing to be indulged in. (I know—sounds crazy. Right up there with the fear of imagining God better than He is.) I prayed and prayed for direction; if not for outright heavenly affirmation, at least the quiet sense of God’s hand resting in favor upon my head. I ‘felt His pleasure’, as Eric Liddell so poignantly put it, when I wrote—when I really got cooking and lost my head among the stars. And yet the doubts still rose like a creeping poison: How could I dare to think I’d have anything to give to the world? How could I lavish so much love and energy on a project the world may never see?
I needed to know. I needed, so desperately, to hear God say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a way that I would not be able to forget. Nothing dramatic; just an answer to my endless question: Do You really want me to do this?
The answer came on an April evening, ordinary but for the Arcadian loveliness of spring’s wild greening and the profligate sweetness of breezes laced madly with jasmine and honeysuckle. We were sitting in the yard, my husband and I, sharing a pot of tea and a chapter in our latest read-aloud, Under the Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, our friend Van was describing the directive he had received from God to write A Severe Mercy (our favorite book of all time and the only context of our friendship with him: he’s one of the first compatriots we’ll line up to meet on the other side). He wrote of the blinding and unmistakable sense of calling, such as he had never known in his life. Of the months, from January to May, that he planned out his book and prayed and thought constantly, and of the upcoming long vacation during which he intended to make a start—never dreaming then that he would finish it in seventy-eight days.
I recall no process of thought or decision, certainly no Voice or Presence. The intention, calm, clear, firm, was simply there—a fait accompli—and thirty seconds before it had not been. That is all I know. But I believe as I believed then, that God had commanded me to write the book. It was, precisely, a vocation. In the Afterward of A Severe Mercy I put it thus: Beyond knowing, I believe (and did then) that, having been recalled to the Obedience by the nudges and, finally, by irresistible (or, at least, not resisted) grace, I was now commanded to write: vocatio.
~Sheldon Vanuaken, Under the Mercy
My heart burned within me as I heard the words in my own voice: “Beyond knowing, I believe.”
Vanauken made it clear, both from the setting and the usage, that this was no optimistic “I-deem-and-suppose” kind of believing. This was an “I-believe-in-God-the-Father-Almighty” conviction he was talking about. Not a confidence in oneself, such as to rival the supreme allegiance due only to God, but an expression of that allegiance. A living out of the wild impracticability of faith. As Christ-followers, we have to take everything at His word; there is very little we can claim to know, experientially and unambiguously, at least at the outset. But we have something better than knowing—we have faith. Rock-solid stone upon which we can build a house that will last and a life that will count for eternity. Belief is the gateway to the knowledge of God, not the other way around. It’s true, ultimately and superlatively, in our salvation. But it’s also true—interwoven into the very fabric of our identities—in the inexplicable summons of our vocation.
In that blazing moment, I had my answer. My desire—so much a part of me—was the call. And the reply could only be made in faith. Art exults in its own implausibility; it is mystery and miracle awaiting the collaboration of a human handmaiden. It is a plunge in the dark; a walking on water. If St. Peter had been looking for a firm place to set his foot before embarking across the waves, he never would have gotten out of that boat.
And neither would I.
Faith is the only antidote to the fears that I face every day when I open up my laptop. It is the lodestar towards which my barque is bent and the lifeline when I’m mired in the mully-grubs and think I’ll never write anything of any value to anyone. God has had to bring me to this place again and again, down to the point of pain. For if I believe— radically, riotously—that this is my Obedience then what have I really got to be afraid of?
I used to have a secret codename for writing—so secret that no one knew about it but me. “Stuff around the house” was what I’d volunteer when someone asked me what I was up to on a given day. I’ve long since seen how silly that is. It was only recently, however, that I recognized the inherent sinfulness of it. It’s a fear that is rooted in pride and it’s deadly to both faith and works. The Lord put His finger on that and it seared me to my back collar button: it was pride that was keeping me from telling people what I was doing with my writing. Not pontificating on the nuts and bolts, of course. That would be a different kind of pride. But the fact that I was doing it. Up until that point I would rather have died than confess to most people that I was writing a novel because, well, I mean, what if I failed? Miserably? And then they would all know about it! It is the fear of failure, masquerading as some kind of artistic modesty and propriety that has kept me from saying, “With God’s help I’m doing this crazy thing of writing a novel.” And then if it gets done, He gets the glory. And if it doesn’t? Lanier is that much more humble (I would hope) and honest, with herself and with others. And—I have to believe this—in some way that only He can fully valuate, God still gets the glory.
T.S. Eliot whittled it down to one line of exquisite poetry:
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
I don’t want to fail. I want to sing the songs of Eden to a tired and homesick world. I want to write of beauty and truth and goodness, unashamed; I want to spin words and weave stories that will make other people know they are not alone. But even this ambition, sweet as it is, comes short of the mark. For if I truly believe that in attempting to write a book I am being obedient to something that God has placed within me, then His pleasure is the final word. It will not matter in the least whether I succeed in the temporal sense or fail utterly. In the words of the immortal Rumpole, it will be “a matter of indifference bordering on the supernatural”. Supernatural, indeed. For only faith’s vision can incite a recklessness of that ilk, that caliber of abandon that has made the disciples of Christ stand out from their kin like stark raving lunatics from the first Year of our Lord until now. God help me to be among them.
The Apostle Paul called us ‘fools for Christ’, and I’ve always imagined he said it with a lopsided grin, a little dazed by the gorgeous insanity of it all. We are ordinary men and women aflame with immortality and moonstruck mad by a grace we can scarcely fathom. We believe crazy things and we do crazy things as a result. We are loved outrageously, beyond all wisdom and reason, and we can’t keep the joy of the joke to ourselves. The love of God has wrung all manner of impossible things from of the hearts of His people since the world began. And how much lovelier is the world because of it.
It’s embarrassing to admit how often I need reminding of these things. I smarted under my sister’s sweet reproof for days. When I told my writing partner what Liz had said, she was all over it. (Bless her heart, she’s had to put up with enough of my insecurities as it is.)
“I’m going to hold you accountable,” she declared.
She didn’t have to wait long, for scarcely a week later she heard me pull the same stunt at a dinner party, fawning and halting about my ‘lowly book’. I felt her eyes on me from the other end of the table; saw that arch tilt of her chin.
“Liz would love to hear you say that.”
I looked back at her, shamefaced. And then I did the only thing I could do—the only thing such a clownish fear deserves.
I laughed. Right in its ugly face.
And I can’t help thinking that God laughed with me.