My husband has a unique talent. He paints.
The fact that my husband can churn out amazing oil paintings on interesting subjects was probably the number one factor in getting me to turn over my actual phone number to a stranger I'd just met in a smoky college bar.
When a shy boy in a baseball cap asked me for my phone number after spending 20 minutes chatting about our homes in Upstate New York, my time in Law School and his major in Painting, my first thought was "I've got to see those paintings Jon is talking about!"
I've watched Jon paint outdoors in a camper trailer. I've watched him paint with a newborn strapped to his back. I watched him disappear for hours in a home-made studio inside our apartment storage locker.
My husband can paint. He's happy and vibrant and alive whenever he finishes an oil painting. His paintings are deep and mysterious and Catholic. I love having my husband's paintings hanging up all over our house.
When my husband got a normal 9 to 5 job after we moved to Washington D.C. four years ago, he suddenly stopped painting. There wasn't time or energy to paint at night. Two kids aged 2, 1 and a wife who suffered a sudden miscarriage seemed to suck up every second of Jon's time on the weekends.
As the wife of a former artist, I felt confused and lost. I missed the status of my husband's job as an Art Professor. I missed holding the stem of wine glasses at Gallery openings. I missed the "hipness" of being a painter's wife.
During this time of transition an artist named Christina lived in the apartment two floors above us. We watched our neighbor go from struggling hack to a painter who sold elaborate oil paintings for $10,000 each in NYC galleries. The transformation in her work occurred, Christina assured Jon, solely as a result of forcing herself to paint three hours every night after work.
For two years, every time I ran into Christina at the mailbox I received a large scolding in her thick Russian accent. "Jon MUST paint. He must paint EVERYDAY. You are his wife! You MUST make sure this happens. Jon can not waste his talent."
I'd stand there, blushing, holding my colicky newborn Maria and feel like such a failure. Why couldn't I be a better wife? Why couldn't I manage our home life better in order to give my husband a half an hour to paint everyday.
Thanks to her increased income from painting sales, Christina eventually moved into a more expansive apartment building. However, I simply traded Christina's fellow artist scoldings for one from a fellow Carmelite.
One of the ladies in my Carmel group, Diane, is an accomplished artist. At our first meeting she decided to jump start Jon's failing painting career and immediately enrolled him in several local art groups.
It was incredible because I watched my husband have a sort of St. Joseph transformation. Suddenly, painting wasn't something oddly abandoned. Painting was deliberately rejected in favor of his vocation.
After a few painful weeks, Jon stopped going to art group meetings. He stopped asking for painting supplies. He told our Carmel friend "I'm a father of young children. This isn't the season for painting right now."
Instead of dreading the mailbox run, I now started dreading running into Diane the artist at Carmel meetings. "You've got to get Jon to paint!" she'd say. This time instead of money or fame, my fellow Carmelite used the God excuse. "God gave Jon a talent. He has to use it! Think about how many souls his paintings can touch!"
My secret pride and vanity left me feeling shaken and ashamed. We were supposed to be proof that Artists can have a holy family life AND a talented career. Yet here we were, totally abandoning our painting and writing skills in order to parent little ones. And we wanted even more babies! As a married couple, Jon and I had become the suburban cliche that every student dreaded in Art School.
As most painful events that wound my pride, my feelings about Jon's lack of painting sat quietly with God and healed on their own. Jon's oil paints gradually gathered cobwebs in our pantry. Gradually, I stopped feeling physical pain whenever I happened upon Jon's unused art supplies. Instead, I started to feel a bit of awe that my husband loves God, me and our children MORE than he loves to paint. After joining Carmel, Jon kept telling me "If I've got an extra twenty minutes in a day, I'm using it to pray. I'm not going to use it to paint."
As a typical sign of the vast difference in my own spiritual development and that of my husband, the person who I'd uncharitably avoided for the past four Carmel meetings is the very same person who currently tops my husband's list of prayer intentions.
This morning while making oatmeal, my husband announces "I've prayed a lot for Diane this week. I'm really worried about her. I hope you'll join me in praying for her today."
Pray for Diane? I sputtered in my coffee cup "Why are you praying for Diane?" Shouldn't you simply run away from her like I do during every Carmel meeting from here to eternity?
It turns out that Diane is horribly stuck on a painting she's doing of a Catholic saint. "Every time I see her she looks worse and worse. I want to tell her that all this stress clearly isn't God's will. She should just take a break from painting and wait to start up again when she feels called to begin. A break for 10 days or 10 months doesn't matter. What matters is that we always have peace when we paint. Nothing is worth fighting God's will like this! . . . But Diane isn't ready to hear all of that. I'll keep silent and just pray hard for her instead."
My husband stopped puttering around the kitchen and had an intense moment of self-reflection. "Diane doesn't have kids. That's why it is so hard. I learned how to stop painting because I had people who physically needed me. I learned how to paint inside God's will the easy way."
Jon's self-confidence amazed me. I asked him many questions about his own pause in painting. Jon insisted that he felt clear and certain. He's a husband and father in the model of St. Joseph. He performs acts of self-sacrifice with great joy.
Moreover, my husband is a clear-eyed Carmelite. To him, it's useless to paint without the help and approval of God. Anything you paint for your own pride, your own vanity, your own sense of legacy is simply JUNK.
To Jon, it's obvious that God would never ask a young father to stop playing legos with his only son in order to paint a few oil paintings that might make him a famous artist one day. In the same manner, God would never ask a blocked, frighten painter to keep painting, no matter how "holy" the subject of her painting.
While I talked to my calm, clear husband, I had an amazing insight.
Everything we worried about sacrificing in Art School was wrong!
It's not noble to forsake your wife and children to spend massive hours trying to become the next Vincent van Gogh. In fact, if you asked Vincent to choose between his life and my husband Jon's sweet family life, Vincent would choose being a family man in a second.
After all, Vincent was an ignored, poor painter during his life with a chopped off ear. His paintings only became famous works of genius after his death. During his lonely earthly existence, I have no doubt that Vincent would have adored possessing my husband's sweet Catholic life.
I could just hear Vincent shrieking in my ear "You want your husband to leave a faithful wife, beautiful children and direct contact with the Divine in prayer in order to spend a few extra hours in front of a blank canvas with some smelly oil paints! What are you thinking? I'm only spending hours painting because my time with prostitutes is so unfulfilling!"
"Vincent van Gogh would have preferred living my husband's quiet, humble and totally fulfilling life," I thought this morning at breakfast.
Today, I'm praying for Diane and for Christina and for all of my artistic friends. I pray for the artsy boys who double pierced their chins and consented to vasectomies out of the fear of sacrificing their Art to Fatherhood.
I give thanks to God for my husband, a man of St. Joseph's own heart.
I pray that all fathers have the courage to leave the "good" of the Church Finance Committees or the Promotions that Require Tons of Business Travel, in order to find the "better part" of Marriage, Family Life and Time Spent with Christ in Prayer.