Wednesday, May 17, 2017
By Joy Beth Smith
I once read a quote by Marc Chagall I couldn’t fully process: “A stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world.”1 But as I stare at the intricacies of the glass in the Cathedral of Maringá, I’m beginning to understand his meaning. The mural isn’t flawless—the shades of blue are inconsistent, the shaping of each piece varies, and the overall spacing displays more artistic vision than visual perfection. But it’s undeniably beautiful. It’s a hard-won beauty though, one that speaks to great inspiration and great effort. And in many ways I see myself, as Chagall must have, in the mural.
My own identity feels like it’s being constructed, pane by pane, in an attempt to create a stained glass masterpiece. All the parts are here—the childhood trauma, the talents, the heartbreak, the community, the love of God—but working them together to create a striking, cohesive whole seems daunting, even impossible. How can I create a mural for a life I never wanted to lead?
In the wake of graduation, I’m averaging an out-of-state move and career change every two years. Teacher, barista, editor. Nashville, Chicago, Colorado Springs. My shifting, haphazard vision for my life has less to do with a lack of roots and more to do with unmet expectations. This is not the future I always dreamed of (and was promised as a reward for being a good Christian girl), and I’m not sure how to reconcile the person I’d imagined I’d become with the woman I see in the mirror.
It’s like I was shown this picture many years ago of the mosaic my life would create—and it was so lovely. It looked like other pictures around me, and the familiarity was comforting. It was predictable and safe, full of large panes that fit easily together: frantic days filled with grad classes and friends; a graduation weekend seamlessly transitioning to a quaint Virginia wedding; sleepless nights spent rocking a fussy newborn; piles and piles and piles of laundry that never seem to end. I used to conjure these images on a regular basis, waiting until I was handed the glass that would build it. I never received those pieces though; instead, I’m holding others that seem misshapen and discolored by contrast. Standard glass is replaced with disappointing deviations, and I’m left without any vision for how they all fit together.
In an attempt to salvage the mural, I tirelessly work to construct a new image. I cultivate a character that wins me friends and opportunities. I take risks and shake off failures. A few more slivers of glass to add to the pile. But I’m still lacking purpose and understanding. At times I feel like Moses must have in Exodus 3 in response to God’s instructions: “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?” And God answered as He often does with me—in place of affirming my own strengths and the arc specific to my narrative, He provides the only justification, the only purpose, I need: “I will be with you.”
Much like Moses, I find myself carrying these bulky panes I never expected. He became a leader of thousands, I’ve become a reluctant career woman. I thought I’d be that wife and mom by now too, but instead I defer to my career. The longer I spend in this role, the more successful I become. Ironically, this success corresponds with an off-putting intimidation for potential suitors: I’m investing in my career because I’m single, but in investing in my career, it seems I’m prolonging my singleness. I’d love to trade my laptop for a minivan and my empty apartment for an over-full schedule, but those aren’t the glass pieces I’ve received.
All of my struggles surrounding identity are only compounded by the fact that “biblical womanhood,” as I’ve heard it discussed in the church and presented in books, depends on the context of marriage and motherhood. I have no idea how to be a godly woman apart from being a wife and a mom, creating yet another source of frustration. Biblical manhood seems to embody certain characteristics: strength, integrity, leadership (and a mighty fine beard). But biblical womanhood feels rooted in relationships: patient wife, flexible and present mother, accommodating but firm daughter-in-law (whose womanly figure and modest clothing convey both allure and chastity). Without those relationships? I’m left to aspire to be merely “sweet and subdued,” and I threw in the towel on those years ago.
What’s worse is my identity is constantly in flux; the pieces could fit together in a thousand different ways. In one job, my extroversion makes me likable; in another, it makes me seem too weak and accommodating. Am I a writer who edits or an editor who enjoys writing? I vacillate between being strong (a universally admired trait) and strong willed (a death knell for my romantic and professional success). I’m a product that’s never quite finished with the picture always obscured by grout, painters tape, or the “under construction” sign.
Some days I feel guilty for caring so much about the what I’m creating instead of simply enjoying the process. Shouldn’t I be placing my identity more in Christ, the frame and foundation of the mural, and less in all of the tiny panes and how they fit? C.S. Lewis concluded his classic work Mere Christianity by saying, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”2 My identity is determined and contained and defined by Christ—in inspecting the frame, I learn more and more about the mural in progress. While this brings a certain amount of peace, it by no means assuages all my fears or fills all my longings.
I often feel like I’m playacting life, years after I should be owning my adulthood. I’m simply guessing where the pieces go because I’m growing into this big thing, this identity, and I’m too close to understand exactly what it is. I’m still cutting the glass and sanding away the edges. I’m trying to steward each piece well, even if it’s one I never wanted or expected to hold. And while I can’t see the whole thing and my arms feels tired and the job feels far too big for one, I think it’s coming together.
In the end, I take great comfort from the fact that my stained glass, no matter how the pieces are arranged or the picture turns out, only serves to filter light from a much greater Source. In the dark of night or in the shade of a tree, a perfectly pieced identity is mediocre at best. But in the break of dawn or in the light of the Son, even the most crudely constructed mosaic is a testament to glory. When they were originally created, stained glass windows were said to be the poor man’s Bible; may my slivers and pieces, no matter their arrangement, come together to reveal that same Truth, Goodness, and Beauty for which these windows were intended.
1. Benjamin Harshav, ed. Marc Chagall on Art and Culture (Stanford University Press, 2003), 145.
2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, HarperOne, 1980), 227.