By Czeslaw Milosz
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognise greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
(Originally written The Guilty Conscience [RIP] 2013)
As a child, I knew that I would be a pastor. It was crystal clear. I remember approaching my pastor as a nine-year-old, which was terrifying for an introverted kid, and telling him I wanted to be baptized. I believed this stuff. I wanted to show it. The Bible said to be baptized. I knew that much. It seemed like a good place for a future pastor to start. A few years later, I remember talking to my dad in sixth grade while walking into Jewel about how Christians didn’t take good enough notes on sermons. For me, sermons were serious business. Real Christians took notes. That same year I went to Wendy’s (which was rare after my family had two bouts of stomach flu immediately after a Wendy’s trip) with my senior pastor. I met with him because I was called not to be a youth pastor, like my friends aspired to, but a Senior Pastor. After all, as a kid with no knowledge of elder boards or publishing companies or denominations or anything outside of my local church, I believed the senior pastor was the great guardian of the Christian faith. They were men who heard the very voice of God through following careful exegetical rules. I had to be one.
And yet, even at that age I felt undeserving; I wondered if I was too sinful to be a pastor. This pious little kid was overwhelmingly aware of his own sins.
I felt guilty.
St. Augustine confesses his guilt over reading The Aeneid as a child and weeping over the death of Dido. He believed that these distractions kept him from focusing on God. I too felt this guilt, but not as an adult looking back at my childhood like St. Augustine. I felt this guilt as a ten year old, who loved stories. I continued on my pious, guilty trajectory until I was seduced by the beauty of the world. It started simply enough. I wrote a poem to a girl. Then I wrote some songs about church. Then I started a novel at 13 which began “Snowboarding filled my mind the winter of 1998.” It wasn’t about snowboarding, but rather about the angst of being 13. It also wasn’t longer than a paragraph and wasn’t about sharing my faith.
I felt guilty.
So I stopped writing fiction and love songs. Instead I wrote a worship song or two. Then I started a band. But the piety waned. Eventually, we wrote songs about girls and Mountain Dew and staying up all night. I still remember our hit song, “Sitting here, staring at the ceiling/sugar high’s wearing off,/and I need some more caffeine or I just might just slip away….”
I felt guilty. (I’d like to point out, even at the expense of the syntactical flow, that Lane felt guilty about none of this, making me the truest guilty conscience of the blog. In fact, Lane sold his conscience to Jay Jameson over a bag of chips that same year).
So I stopped writing songs about girls and changed them to worship songs. Yes, I was 13, and I literally changed the lyrics from “she” to “you” and directed the songs of love to God. Later I would hear of a type of worship song aptly titled, “Jesus is my girlfriend,” and I knew deep down that some of those Jesus songs may have started to a girlfriend.
I felt better.
Then the band started praying and attending revival meetings and teaching Bible studies. We talked about being prophets. How cool would it be to hear the voice of God and to speak it to others?
I felt good
for a while. That is until the siren’s song of the world reached my DC Talk-filled ears. She sang cleverly and tenderly. She sang Hamlet and Henderson the Rain King and Counting Crows and The Godfather and all varieties of secular art.
I felt guilty again.
Eventually, I started college as a Bible and Philosophy major, but the siren’s song of the world pierced my philosophy text-book and sent me diving into the waters of ancient Greece. I took a lit class; we read the Odyssey. And that was it. I was an English major hoping my pen would glean “my teaming brain” (Keats, not Kanye).
I felt guilty, but only a little.
My goal had only changed slightly since I had ventured into Wendy’s as an 11 year old aspirant. At 11 I wanted to speak the words of God. Now I wanted to climb a mountaintop, peer in to heaven, and hear the voice of the Creator.
It was around that time that Odysseus taught me something on his little boat ride. He longed for Ithaca throughout, and yet he embraced the journey (a little too much at times). The astute reader may have already noticed that growing up I thought that I was allowed not to enjoy the journey. I’m not saying that my church placed this on me at all. I just knew a lot of reasons why, “this world was not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.” The world was going straight to hell, and I was not to love any part of it.
I met Odysseus, and the concept of embracing the journey while focusing on home helped (probably an overly simple interpretation of the Odyssey and Augustine and everything else, but I’m trying to keep this relatively short). But, despite my multiple Odysseus-inspired tattoos, my first tattoo the Chi-Rho, a symbol of Christ beginning and end, shows where I truly learned to love the world. I grew in love with the incarnate Jesus Christ. Christ, the eternal creator of the universe, who did more than just a’pass through this world. He walked, and wept, and touched people. He fed and rebuked and told stories and drank wine and made wine when people drank past the reserves. He got bathed in perfume while desperately loving the poor and destitute. He was his father’s son, the son of a father who loved the world so much that Christ became human flesh and blood that loved our bodies so much that he healed both through physical touch and physical sacrifice.
I know longer feel the guilt that Augustine wrote about weeping over Dido. I read fiction to teach my students truth, as much as I can. I read it to see the beauty in the created world. I write it to tell stories of redemption, even in absurd pseudo scifi epics.
I hear the voice of God through the Bible, and the Church, and the Holy Spirit. And I try to convey that truth in some way through story. The path of pastoring in my local church that I thought God called me to has not come to fruition in the ways that I expected. But God is still showing me his truth in the Bible, his image in creation, and his freedom from guilt. My fiction writing is a tiny shadow of his creation. It is imperfect. In fact, it’s sometimes convoluted, didactic, and bad, but through the exercise of fiction, I learn a little about the image of God in me. Milosz’s “Confession” captures the tension of this lesser calling that I have, at least for this season of my life: the calling of literature, “the tournament of hunchbacks” like me.