It is important that this post begins by quoting in its entirety my short lament from 2013. I hope that this post is comprehensible, because for the first time I write to ask for an answer.
☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎
The Crack-up (June 2013)
“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross has become the sine qua non of mystic reverie and I hesitate to reference it. The book is one of those mysterious texts that almost opens itself late at night when I feel a certain emptiness inside. John wrote the book to confront his own anguish when he was not able to feel the presence of God. He was in prison at the time – incarcerated by his fellow Carmelite brothers who opposed reforms that John supported.
The Christian faith is built on the Presence of God – the moving finger, burning bush, pillar of fire, and even the Son of God himself have been there to warn and guide. This Presence marks the Believer.
C.S. Lewis wrote in “A Grief Observed”. “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” The dark night of John of the Cross was this total silence, the loss of Presence, and the terrifying emptiness of prayer. This was the challenge to his faith that prompted his meditations.
In my work, in my art, I feel the Presence, or at least the echo of the Presence. But in my real life, my long late nights, there is only silence. But actually not quite silence, something else. A voice in my heart says “See, there is only Nothing. There is no God.” But if it were only a voice that my ears might hear, not just my heart! It would be a presence of some kind, even the presence of a demon, but that might imply that God exists.
How I would love to wrestle with an angel instead of the silence. I want to believe, but I can’t find it. I need it – I feel that – but I can’t find it.
☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎ ☀︎
The reason that I quoted this piece in its entirety is because something happened to me this year. As regular readers know, there was a long period of near-silence on this blog because I was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer in September 2017. It was a serious check to my system to directly face that mortality which I had always seen obliquely. I feared for myself and mostly I feared for PJ. I underwent a series of radiation treatments that ended in May 2018 and the oncologists felt that the treatment had killed the cancer. The treatment also destroyed my insides, and we always feared that the cancer might have spread to other parts of my body.
In December, I had a major regression that ended with two emergency surgeries, the second on Christmas Day. I despaired of ever getting well. In January, recovery began, and by February, I started feeling remarkably well. PJ and I started posting here three times a week, we began our podcast, prepared new exhibitions and planned our next trip to Europe to photograph our beloved churches. All of a sudden, I had more energy and enthusiasm than anytime in the past ten years. I felt at times almost manic.
In mid-March, I went as always to Columbus for my wellness treatments from a woman who has done amazing things to correct the damage done by the radiation. She lives there in Columbus, about an hour away. I would go to her home for treatment and then sometimes go to a Thai restaurant nearby for lunch. I knew the owner, a small Thai woman from Bangkok, by sight. She would take my order and serve the meal, but we never really talked. Just said hello, basically. On this day in March, she approached me, nervously and asked if she could talk. She was agitated and afraid, which made me wonder what we were going to talk about. She said “You will think I am crazy.” Of course my mental process was “Yes, I am going to think you’re crazy” but I said, “No, please sit down.” She sat across from me and looked at me, still afraid. She started by telling me that her name was Palm.
She said that she was a Buddhist all of her life but her best friend, who still lives in Bangkok, said that she had converted to Christianity and encouraged her to talk to this Christian God. Palm said that she did not know how to pray or talk to God. Her friend said just talk to him, he will answer back. A few days later, Palm did so. She tried to initiate a conversation with this unknown God and asked for help with her boyfriend. He was a Christian westerner who was drinking heavily. The next morning she told her him that she had prayed for him to stop drinking. The boyfriend broke down in tears. He had come to the decision that previous night that he needed to quit drinking. They wept together and their life changed immediately. Shortly after, they got married and started reading the Bible together. Palm was quite shocked at the the result of her prayer, and when she reflected on what had happened, she talked again to God and said, “You have done so much for me, is there something I can do for you?”
As she asked the question, the image of my face came to her mind and God told her to talk to me and tell me that my cancer was cured. She was afraid to do this – she did not know me and did not know how to approach me. God told her to trust Him and just talk to me.
She did so, fearfully, at her restaurant in a few days when I appeared. After telling me this, she waited silently and nervously for my response. I was, of course, in shock. I have struggled with belief and faith all of my adult life. And now a stranger came up to me and delivered a message that my cancer was cured. PJ and I talked about this immediately and she understood how disturbed I was. She helped me come to the realization that even if I cannot understand what happened, I can accept the phenomenon. It happened, that is incontrovertible. It was something I needed to process.
About ten days later, I had to go to California for work. I flew a Delta flight from Atlanta to Sacramento, a flight that would arrive about one in the morning. When I boarded the flight and took my seat, one of the flight attendants – a youngish blond woman – asked if I was okay. I said that I was fine. Later in the flight when she was serving the meal, she came up to my seat and again asked me if I was okay. Again, I told her that I was fine. Finally, about an hour before the flight landed, the cabin was dark and most of the passengers were asleep. She came up to me at my aisle seat, knelt down next to me and said, “I’ve been told to tell you that your cancer is cured. You will look back on this one day as a small bump in the road.”
Again, I was shocked and devastated. We talked together for a few minutes and she told me that God told her to give me this message.
I had met Palm a few times before our conversation, but I never told her about the cancer or even that I was ill. The flight attendant on Delta I had never met in my life. Two strangers came up to me within ten days of each other and told me that my cancer was cured. This was so intense that it was difficult to talk about. Beside PJ, I discussed it with a few close friends to try to understand what was happening – to try to get to the truth at the core of this experience. But whatever the truth was, I could not understand why God didn’t talk to me directly. Why did he use intermediaries? My sister Ann said that it was my father communicating to me. He knew that if God told me this directly I wouldn’t listen. I never listen. So my father said “Do something he can’t ignore.” There may be some truth in that. What is true that I have begun my conversations with God directly. And He still has not responded directly, but He has not been silent.
I never saw the flight attendant again, but periodically I go to the Thai restaurant and talk to Palm, who is unfailingly cheerful and happy to talk to me. One time she asked what I did and I showed her Via Lucis on my phone. She thought that was a wonderful thing to be doing. She said she did not go to churches, but thought that these were beautiful and that God could live there. The last time I visited, she asked if I had written about our conversation. I told her that I not, that it was too private and that it was still not settled in my mind. She looked me straight in the eyes and said “God wants you to.”
It is now a month later and still I had not figured out how to write about this. Last night I received an inquiry about photo licensing with a link to the image. It was the capital of “The Fall of Simon Magus” at Autun. I had forgotten the article and read it. Suddenly I knew exactly what to write. The result is before you now.
Note: if you are interested, here is a link to the original post. The comments at the bottom are very interesting and, as we have stated before, part of the ongoing conversation that is Via Lucis, an exchange that we love so much.