And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…
I keep a candle on my writing desk. It occupies a small space in the back corner, scarcely noticed until I sit down for the day’s work, click on the lighter I keep in the top right drawer and reach its flickering flame toward the waiting wick. It’s a ritual I stole from Twyla Tharp, which at first felt clunky, but has since become a small ceremony which provides structure and the comfort of liturgy on days when discipline is not, shall we say, my first instinct. (That Netflix Streaming, she is a temptress.)
In mid-October, I committed to using the month of November to write the first draft of a recently-hatched novel idea. While this was the extrinsic goal, the truth is, I was desperate for spiritual retreat and was relying on the discipline of creation – the stillness of conceiving an idea, the act of faith whereby I stare at a blank page and trust the words will come, and the grace accepted as the story takes form – to find a deeper understanding of my relationship with God. I sent out this commitment like a spiritual flare, hopeful that each night after my children were in bed, I would see my work burn bright in its arc through the darkness. Of course, I also anticipated that I would someday have a completed manuscript to show for it.
One night in the middle of the month, I went to bed with the weight of the project threatening to crush me. Looking back at the day’s work, I felt with all sincerity it amounted to nothing more than a pile of dust. A cave man could have communicated more profoundly. My prose was clunky, my character a rough type, and worst of all, the beautiful idea that I had conceived months ago of a story grounded in beauty and truth, the Form which existed in a Platonic realm somewhere, was so far distant, it seemed like a dream from which I awakened with no hope of remembering of even the clearest detail. Was it all a dream, Dorothy?
There’s a way in which writing is like the vision of the Holy City, God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. We understand that it exists, but we have such a dim conception of what it actually may entail, that it makes living on this earth, with these limitations – this gravity, these debilitating diseases, these heartbreaks and regrets – daunting to the point of paralysis. That’s what writing something of any length, with any kind of discipline and focus, is like. We begin with an idea – we seek to build a world and enflesh characters to face obstacles and make choices – all with the hope of some grand meaning emerging. But between the “Already” of the idea and the “Not Yet” of the reality lies a long, torturous, mystifying road.
Still, I’m convinced that the act of creating, of bringing chaos into order, is in some way integral to our understanding of what it is like to live with the Kingdom, God’s Holy City, not yet come, out of reach for now. We pray each day that Kingdom would come and Will would be done, in the same way that we pray that our creative work would ultimately take its final shape and be found meaningful. Perhaps training ourselves to persevere in the face of doubt and unanswered questions in our creative work is the trying of our faith of which Paul speaks. Each day we put our faith to the test with a prayer for fresh words with which to express ourselves, fresh insights about this world we inhabit.
The month is gone, but the candle burns on and the work continues. Some days, the sight of the flame burning and the scent of the cinnamon and cloves have been the only thing keeping me going in this trek. Other days I have been blessed with a timely email from a friend or a word from my wife encouraging me to persevere. So in this way, I have come to believe we need those who will stand as candles in our own lives to remind us that the creative work is necessary, because as feeble as our efforts are, they help to image the Kingdom to ourselves and others, and to understand, however dimly, what it means to live in the space between promise and fulfillment.