Most actors have "careers" that consist of waiting - waiting tables and waiting for their big break.
Many of my actors over the years have left St. Louis for Hollywood, all but one running into a brick wall in the process. The one who made it big in L.A. is nevertheless at a precarious point in her career where her big hit is ending its run - which means that she might be as forgotten ten years from now as she was unknown ten years ago.
My solution to this was never to go to L.A. Since I first moved out on my own as a 20-year-old, I have made a living in show business - in St. Louis, no less, a town not known as a theater friendly place, a town where few movies or TV shows film. I've had to be versatile - and since I didn't want my career to consist of "waiting", it's consisted of everything from making money as a stand-up comic, magician, drama teacher, director, singing telegram performer, audio book performer, and so on.
But I've had limits. Early on I decided that I would only do good work that I was interested in and proud of; and that I would not work for free. This means that I've had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, and how to write, produce and direct my own material. It means my stuff has had to be good enough to please an audience and succeed in the marketplace.
Now this form of scrapping - and sometimes of scraping and scrambling - teaches you quickly that it's not glamorous. Becoming a star or having adoring fans is something that I long ago gladly traded for earning a living doing what I love to do and what God has made me to do. This means that to an extent I am indeed a star and I do have fans, but I'm a star in small towns like Sesser, Illinois and my fans are 90-year-old ladies who watch EWTN.
So when I audition actresses for our murder mysteries, I tell them, "This is not for everybody. The audiences are often drunk. Our changing rooms can be small two-toilet bathrooms that are closed to the public the night of our show. We're often staying at Super-8's in rural America surrounded by corn fields. This is more vaudeville than it is legitimate theater. But I love it. The audiences love it. We are bringing joy to people. Our shows are actually good, well-written, very funny and liberating; they are more fun than I can ever describe. And yet - it's not for everybody," which is my way of saying, I only want to hire troopers, not diva-Hollywood-wanna-be's.
And so this all leads me to reflect upon life and how we listen to God when He talks to us.
Or how we don't.
This weekend in Chicago on a Theater of the Word tour, we met with a friend of ours - a religious sister who has suffered a great deal in her life, but whose radiant joy is the light that the darkness of suffering could not overcome.
I won't go into detail, since I don't know how much of her story she would want me to publicize - but it's all about how she thought that she had founded a religious order - an order that Cardinal George approved and that she and another sister took vows for - but an order that seemed to fizzle and die before it ever got off the ground.
The other sister left; our friend got very ill; life itself seemed to come apart at the seams. Suffering upon suffering and cross upon cross sent our friend through a dark night of the soul that made her doubt (I imagine) her very reason for being.
And yet, now it is becoming more clear to our friend. She begins to see that the particular things she suffered were particular preparations for a very particular sort of Work that she is being called to do for the Lord. The order is not dead; it is just that God is Forming it. Helpers are beginning to appear. A mission is beginning to reveal itself.
Much the same is the story for Theater of the Word Incorporated.
I was not expecting Hollywood stardom and the glamor of adoring fans. But I was expecting a certain amount of worldly success and some encouragement or acceptance by a grateful Church. Have we had either? We have had a touch of success from a worldly perspective, and much ad hoc private gratitude from audiences and fans; but we've also had lots of rejection and even a fair amount of persecution from what has been in general a very ungrateful Church.
This made me quite mad, and fueled alot of my discontent over the last three months. (Read the blog posts since August, if you dare.)
Finally, I started to see the light that my own darkness had not understood. I started to see two things.
- First, you can't really say you love someone or something (like the Church or your vocation) until you hit a kind of rock bottom and there is absolutely no reason to love it.
- Second, the frustration I'm feeling comes from a false expectation - the expectation that the Form I had envisioned for my apostolate - and for my life - is what God had in mind when I said "yes" to His call. In other words, I thought I had said yes to a kind of Hollywood; but God, in His mercy, has given me something far more Real than anything like Hollywood - a grace for which I have thanked God by doing a good deal of complaining (as is my wont, I am sorry to say).
And so, like an actor who thinks he can only be successful if he's a big time TV star and that trudging along doing "guerrilla theater" at wineries and in church basements for 35 years is a failure; or like a religious sister who expects her order to be one thing and finds that it's totally different and perhaps much more painful; or even like a husband or wife who gets married and finds out that it's absolutely nothing like they imagined it to be - like all of these folks, we are usually our own worst enemies, and even when we say "yes" to God, we are often saying "yes" to the image in our minds, and not to the far greater Reality that He intends to give us.
For God is always Real. That's what the Incarnation is all about.
Do you think, for example, that the Virgin Mary imagined her "yes" would mean the panic and poverty of the Nativity, life as a refugee in Egypt, losing her son for three days as He went about His Father's business, seeing Him condemned, tortured, executed? Did she imagine, perhaps, that being the mother of the Messiah would entail a bit more honor (in this life) and ease and earthly glory?
We know she didn't have any of the selfish egotism that we all do. But did she get confused or frightened when all of the apparent Success of being the Mother of God appeared to be for naught - a vocation of utter futility - on that dreadful day when the sun stopped shining and the earth shook?
We see the glossy images of the Nativity, but we don't smell the manure.
We see a painting of the Flight into Egypt and we forget the Slaughter of the Innocents.
We see the Reunion in the Temple, but we forget the horror and panic over a Lost Child.
Our Faith is Real, more Real than we would care to admit.
And every time our life, our career, our day doesn't go the way we envision it, let us say a little prayer. Let us say, "Thank you, God, for speaking to me in this frustration; thank you for showing me by this little suffering that the Reality You're giving me is always greater than the Unreality I keep telling myself I'd rather have."
Yes, we should be magnanimous. Yes, we should never settle. We should not lower our expectations and aim for the easy mark.
But no, we should stop arguing with God that when we told Him we'd serve Him we meant it on our terms and not His.