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I Paint Jesus in my Sleep
This morning I brought my chinchilla, Perry, to church with me. He sits quietly below my brown and black speckled folding chair, chewing loudly on a neglected plastic fork. I notice with some amusement that there is a licorice black lab in the first pew, dark nose flaring, paws curled underneath it, eyeing Perry hungrily, and a small part of me hopes that today will go down in history as the 1st ever fight on “Bring your animal to church Sunday.” Now would that be epic or what?
The sanctuary is stuffy, and I close my eyes as I push the sleeves of my pinstripe suit up to my elbows. Who cares about appearance anymore? The heating vent above my head is muttering, sputtering like an exhausted car engine, blowing hot, smoky air at my neck that is already itchy with sweat.
The amount of people sitting in this room has far exceeded the recommended maximum capacity, and I am pretty sure that the architect who designed this church never intended for there to be dozens of animals packed into this one room, cats purring, dogs panting, pink tongues hanging out of their mouths. I mean, I love dogs as much as the next guy and all, but I have to admit that their breath isn’t exactly pleasant. Part of the reason I got a chinchilla actually, even though they’re not nearly as manly.
I chuckle inwardly to myself as I gaze out at the dark, stained glass windows, trying not to look at the people out there, filling up the pews, gazing over the balcony railing, standing by the double door exit. All these believers and their animals packed in the sanctuary, all dressed up and freshly scrubbed, and all their eyes staring intently at the paintbrush I hold tightly in my left hand.
I know I have to start painting soon.
The room is silent except for the scratch of plastic silverware, the occasional chirp or meow. I swear I can hear Perry breathing from his seat under my chair as I try to focus on anything but the pressure I’m under. Even my fingernails seem to tremble when I raise my hand to the canvas. I don’t know why I’m nervous. It’s not like I haven’t done this a million times before.
In fact, I could probably paint Jesus in my sleep.
I run my long, shaky fingers up the bridge of my nose and rest them on my eyebrows. My heart starts to beat faster, creating a frantic rhythm, as I try to remember what my teacher, Myles, said to me before my first appearance,
“Let your faith guide you.”
My faith. I breathe in, and then it is like I’ve lost control of my hand, swooping across the canvas in long blue strokes. I am painting the background first, the sky dark and streaky and full of the spirits of all the believers. The bright, white areas represent the people sitting in this room, though I doubt they’ll see themselves. That’s what Christianity is like after all. You have to love God oh, so much, that you don’t have time to think about yourself. You must obey the word of God, and do I question it? No. Does anyone?
I can feel my mind starting to spin and there is a persistent beeping in my ears, even though there is silence in the room. Suddenly, I am mad at all these people and their pets who are watching me in awe, really believing that I know what Jesus looked like, just because I have a good reputation in the church world and because I have had my work recognized on Oprah. But, seriously, who are they kidding?
I slam my brush against my canvas, leaving an angry red mark, one imperfect spot on this beautiful painting. That spot, the odd one out, is me, and I realize this with a sudden clarity, a clock to my head. I am that man, stuck in a world that makes so many people’s lives feel fulfilled, but does nothing for me.
I throw my paintbrush at the canvas again. Another tear, another rip, another imperfection. I am mad at myself for getting sucked into this world, this job, and for not realizing the truth of who I really am sooner. I do not believe in God; I don’t think I ever believed in God.
I feel the ground beneath my feet, steady, and a part of me wants to be one of those people in the sanctuary, all full up with that feeling of comfort; that feeling of knowing with all your soul that there is someone out there watching over you. My eyes are stinging, my ears are still ringing, but now I know that I will never be one of them.
Them. I feel like crying, thinking of all the people I’ve let down, so many people. I remember travelling around the country to beautiful stone churches with colorful windows that sprinkle in the sunlight to paint for people who believe in God, who believed in me. I didn’t listen to Myles. I let other people’s faith guide me, and I ended up living in a dream, in a shadow, and deceiving who knows how many people.
I can’t bring myself to let these folks down too. Sitting so serenely with their pets in their laps, I watch them and I smile. Their faith makes them so happy, and I want them to stay that way with all my heart.
I look back up at my canvas and stare at my sky, all deep red and boiling. My paintbrush is set down on the easel; Perry is in my arms. My feet are moving slowly across the floor and I can practically hear everyone’s confusion as they see that I didn’t paint Jesus after all. All I did was leave them a message: “Let your faith guide you.” Finally, I let mine.