Yesterday I was a guest in The Christian Imagination, a course on faith and the arts offered by Regent College. I talked about my story as a theatre artist who's also a Christian, about my aesthetic and values within the art form, the theological significance of various aspects of acting and playwriting, and what it's been like to run a professional theatre. Before I started speaking, one of the students presented a very moving reflection on the impact of seeing The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot four years ago. There couldn't have been a better or more moving introduction to what I had to say - and the remarkable thing is, when he signed up to do his presentation, he didn't know who the guest speaker was going to be.
Here's what Michael had to say.
In April of 2012, the Cultch Theatre in East Van was showcasing this provocative play called: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
The official synopsis of the play says:
“Halfway between Heaven and Hell, in a place called Hope, history’s most infamous sinner [Judas Iscariot] stands trial. In a court room that’s as much ghetto as gospel, the witnesses are called – Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund Freud....to decide questions of forgiveness, mercy, and eternal damnation.”
Now, who wouldn’t want to see that?
So, my friends from church and I found out about it, and we knew we had to go.
Also, you see, there was a lot of controversy around that time about a certain book regarding Heaven and Hell, written by an author whose name rhymed with....Bob Fell.
My friends wanted to check it out because they were curious about God.
I, on the other hand, was going because I was furious at God.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, I went to see that play on hell, because my life felt like hell. In the months prior to the play, a series of incidents involving betrayal, a close friend being assaulted, and a family tragedy...compounded together to shatter my life into bits and pieces.
This suffering left me questioning what I thought was good and true, who I could trust and rely on, it left me questioning who I was and who God was.
I wasn't sure how I was going to recover from this.
And so we show up to the Cultch.
According to Facebook the exact day was Saturday April 14, 2012. And I’m going to show you a picture to help you visualize the situation.
Yes. That’s me, along with a poster of Judas.
You can say I definitely felt a certain affinity with Judas that day.
Now, Some people, when they go through suffering or crisis––they soothe out their suffering through drinking, drugs, partying––they commemorate their crisis through getting tattoos or buying something ridiculous.
I, God only knows why, decided to triple bleach my hair blonde.
I perhaps dyed my hair to change who I was on the outside, to mask how I felt on the inside.
So we get there to the Cultch, we watched the play, and...I was never the same again.
Because, intellectually speaking, this play was stimulating.
For example, it suggested that the greatest sin of Judas was not betrayal, but despair. Quoting the words of Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa says in the play:
MOTHER TERESA: “Despair....is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute mystery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God.”
And then there’s one of my favourite scenes, which explores God’s potential saving work after we die. In the scene, Satan is called to court (which is situated in purgatory), as a witness, and in the process he sees souls from hell who are now somehow in purgatory. And he is angry because, quote:
SATAN: What? I don’t got enough to contend with?––now I gotta deal with God cruisin’ the barnyards of Hell poaching condemned poultry like some kind of silver-fox-tailed thief in the fuckin’ night??”
As for the aesthetic impact, it did what theatre does best: the liveness of it all.
I could hear the despair in Judas’s voice, as he refused to accept the forgiveness and love of Jesus. I could see the pleading in Jesus’s eyes for Judas to accept that forgiveness and love. I participated, along with my fellow audience members, in gasping at the sacrilegious language of foul-mouthed Saint Monica.
And of course––the words, the words, the words––so well-written and spoken with such fury, intensity, and charm––they left-ringing in our ears long after the play ended.
All this, best experienced in a live-setting.
Lastly, the emotional impact, is what stood out most to me. The whole play felt like the emotional externalization of my interiors. All the anger, despair, bitterness, questions, and doubts I harboured––were set loose and on display in the theatre. My emotions had names, faces, voices, and they paraded on stage. They took on flesh and blood.
This is perhaps best summed up in the last scene of the play, a monologue by a college professor named Butch Honeywell, played by the brilliant Ron Reed. He is speaking to Judas, and reflecting on the mistake of sleeping with one of his students while married to his wife, and how that started a path down a life of emptiness and regret. He closes the play with these lines:
BUTCH HONEYWELL: Do you know who W.H. Auden was, Mister Iscariot? W. H. Auden was a poet who once said: “God may reduce you on Judgement Day to tears of shame, reciting by heart the poems you would have written, had your life been good” ... She was my poem, Mister Iscariot. Her and the kids. But mostly ... her ... You cashed in silver, Mister Iscariot, but me? Me, I threw away gold ... That’s a fact. That’s a natural fact.
Betrayal. Regret. Throwing away gold.
And you know what the final kicker was?
I saw the play on a Saturday.
And I sometimes wonder if that play...served as a kind of Holy Saturday for me.
Like Jesus was coming into the depths of my hell, the depths of my catatonic despair and reaching out to me, through this play, through His Real Presence...
to save me.
It was also this most Holy of Saturdays that prepared me, on an intimate and visceral level, for the Sunday of Resurrection, of new life. Where betrayal and heartache and despair do not have the last word. Where I realized:
I’m going to be okay.
Yes, it feels like hell right now.
Yes, I’m bloodied, beaten, bruised, broken and nearly buried.
But I’m also blessed, being brought back to life, and bursting forth with the vitality of second-chance-ness.
In many ways, experiencing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, brought about the last days of my Old Self.
It felt like a death, but also a rebirth.
It felt like dying, but also––being born again.