This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Lent: repentance and transcendence.” For more stories on this theme, see the March issue of The Mennonite.
These days, I experience transcendence on a regular basis, and I experience it in a place my grandmother does not understand.
I find the Spirit of God in a place where there is alcohol and F-words and tattoos and lewd comments about the ol’ “no pants dance”—suffice it to say, debauchery in many forms. But before you send angry feedback to the editor demanding an explanation for the inclusion of philosophical input from a heathen, indulge me.
I am an improviser.
If you are unfamiliar, improv is a form of live comedy in which everything is made up on the spot without a script. As comedians, we certainly enjoy earning your laughter, but improv is about so much more than the exchange of tom-foolery for giggles and applause.
Improv is a vulnerable, creative process that requires total commitment to the present moment and a willingness to support your scene partner above all else, even if the audience doesn’t get it yet (and maybe you don’t either). Improv asks you to choose curiosity over judgement and maintain equal parts humility and courage as you listen to your scene partners and then take a risk to add your own creative input as well. Improv invites you to relax as things change and develop quickly, then to find the delicate balance between taking boldly and giving graciously.
I have sensed the presence of God in many places. I have found fullness of joy, the peace that passes understanding, the silence after the wind and the earthquake and the fire. I have known beyond what I can explain in words that the Spirit of God was speaking to me, speaking through me and occasionally speaking in spite of me.
But I have also sensed the absence of God. I have known the sadness and loneliness that accompany doubt, depression and darkness. I have known what it is to close myself off from the Mothering Spirit out of fear, resentment, anger and confusion about the circumstances surrounding me. I spent six long years like this. Cancer took someone I cared deeply for, and that crushed the little faith I had left after a growing disenchantment with the church during my college years.
Painful as some of it was, I do not regret this chapter of my life. I don’t bemoan a single part of it. I stand by every question, objection and criticism of the church and of modern-day Christianity. The six years I spent identifying as an atheist are not a lamentable tarnish on the legacy I hope to leave my children as being a woman of faith (words that mean a lot to me).
This part of my story is what guided me into an authentic spirituality and connection to God that surpasses anything I previously understood. Something beautiful happens when you stop having all the answers.
When my faith got crushed, I became a seeker. When I lost the religious infrastructure of my upbringing, I was left with just the foundation given me when I came into this world.
We all have a foundation of faith when we are born. We all have a God-given inner knowing that draws us closer to love than to hate. How well we maintain that foundation depends on many factors, but it is always there for us to rediscover as we allow ourselves to be drawn.
And this, friends, is what is so lovely and delightful about my improv transcendence experience. It was the means by which my soul could manage to be drawn once again.
When I was lost in darkness, what called to me was the need for laughter. When I rediscovered laughter, what called to me was the need for meaning. When I rediscovered meaning, what called to me was the need for connection. And when I rediscovered connection, I rediscovered a faith that I thought was lost forever.
Improv fosters connection in a powerful way. Every single improv show starts with the performers touching each team member on the shoulder and saying, “I’ve got your back.”
Improv is vulnerable in a way not many other things are. Committing to a character in a room full of people watching silently, waiting for you to be hilarious, exposes you in a way that’s hard to explain if you haven’t had that experience. Sometimes the idea in your head doesn’t land with the audience the way you thought it would.
Failure in improv is common, especially in the first years. But somewhere in the midst of the adrenaline and the awkwardness, you develop a sense of connection—to yourself and your creative impulses, to the people around you and to the delicate process of collaborative vulnerability that is improv.
This sense of connection has captivated me and allowed me to reconnect with God.
So much love is present in the selfless manifestations of having each other’s backs. God is there because if God is love, then where there is love there is God. And besides, “There is no place where we can be but God is present there.”
Transcendence happens through lessons like these:
- My scene partner’s creative intuition is just as valid as mine.
- It’s OK for my teammates to be inspired differently from me by the audience’s suggestion.
- Silence is not an emergency.
- It’s OK to make choices the audience doesn’t understand when I’m serving my scene partner.
- Sometimes I’m not needed on stage, and that’s OK.
- It’s never too late in the show to find new inspiration.
When I’m improvising, I feel the Spirit of God daring me to be courageous, teaching me how to love and be good to my scene partners and guiding me to a life of joy and fulfillment. I am reminded of the unconditional truth that the Spirit is present in my scene partners as well.
I hear the Spirit’s laughter and her gentle nudge that she’s not so easily offended. I feel her presence in the observation that improv is about connection more than performance and that maintaining a degree of playful curiosity in the midst of ever-changing layers and circumstances pulls me into that sacred connection.
I was shocked to find God in improv. The lack of hard-fast rules make it seem like the opposite of church. But church doesn’t own God. And when I start to be dismissive of my unexpected, transcendental encounters in my theater, I hear the whisper, “I am everywhere, and you will always find me if you are looking.”
Andrea Flack-Wetherald is a corporate culture consultant and career transition coach in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is owner of &Beyond, a consulting and coaching agency that uses improv to help teams and individuals cultivate peace through times of transition. She attends Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church.