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Finding God through longing and darkness


In “An Almost Holy Picture,” the character of Samuel Gentle, a former Episcopal priest, now groundskeeper, shares his four life-changing experiences of God in American playwright Heather McDonald’s one-man play on Broadway. Making his first stage appearance in a decade, Kevin Bacon takes on the role of Gentle in this shimmering play, at the American Airlines Theatre through March 31.

His opening words set the tone: “There are three experiences that have shaped my personal idea of God.” By the time the play is over, a fourth will have emerged as well.

In his first experience, he was 9 and walking with his father on Cape Cod “when the air all around me suddenly went still.” He looked up and heard a voice whispering, “Follow me.” The voice spoke again more strongly, “Follow me.”

Gentle did follow, as a priest working in a small adobe church 20 miles outside of Albuquerque at the foot of the Cebolleta Mountains, a location he had chosen. “I was drawn there by light, space, the deep pleasure of unexpected life and stillness. The geography allows for God. … Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus all spent time in the desert listening to the silence. And they brought back visions. … I was full of longing.

“Longing is an essential stage in our spiritual life. It’s an arrow, an arrow that points toward God.” Here the second event that shaped his personal idea of God occurred. “I believed then that each of us has a ‘good work’ to do in this life, and our purpose is to discover what that good work is. And so I came to the desert with my longing for vision and light: I had not expected to stumble blind into so much darkness.”

The darkness was a bus accident that killed nine children in the parish youth camp. He left the priesthood and the desert and returned to the East, to The Church of the Holy Comforter to tend the bishop’s garden. He married an anthropology professor and they faced the pain of losing three babies “a trinity of miscarriages.” “I looked for answers and comfort in the religion of my youth. But most religious answers aren’t intended to ease our pain but to defend and justify God. … If it is true that God is somehow testing us, then he must know that many of us are failing the test. If God is only giving us the burdens we can bear, I have seen him miscalculate many times.”

But as painful as these miscarriages were, none provoked him like the third experience. That occurs with the birth of his daughter, Ariel, who was covered face and body in a white-gold swirl of hair, the result of a hereditary disease called congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which is passed on by the opposite-sex parent. He is overwhelmed with love for his daughter and offers himself up in prayer at matins each morning, “still trying to strike a bargain with God, hoping to find him in a benevolent mood and open to deal-making. My left leg if Ariel’s hairiness would leave her. My sight in exchange for a smooth-skinned daughter.”

He stands in the back, not partaking of Communion. “I have trouble with the Apostles’ Creed. I can never get beyond the first two words: I believe ... ”

The struggle for faith has been well represented on New York stages this month. Another one-person play dealing with men and their relationship to God opened on the same night within blocks of “An Almost Holy Picture,” on 42nd Street. In “Damien”(NCR, Feb. 8), the Belgium-born priest recounts his life among the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii. Both plays are blessings.

Rhetta Blaney is a theater and religion writer in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002