Sincere meditations

Slick packaging can't hide a disfigured soul or fearful spirit. Just ask the pastor of the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity.

By Anne Lamott

Published May 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A friend said mournfully the other day that he'd lived his life like the professor on "Gilligan's Island." While he found time to fashion generators out of palm fronds, vaccines out of algae, he never got down to fixing that huge hole in the boat so he could go home. How many people actually do? Sometimes, if you are lucky and brave, you can watch someone who's met with serious illness or loss do this kind of restoration, this work that you may suspect we are here on earth to do. Or if you've ever seen David Roche, the monologist and pastor of the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, you may have already witnessed this process.

David and I met years ago through a mutual friend. The first time we spoke was on the phone and we talked about God for half an hour. He mentioned that he had some facial deformity, and I thought, well, whatever, and we talked some more. Then he came to my church, and it turns out he has the most severe facial deformities I've ever seen.

He was born with an extensive and benign tumor on the bottom left quadrant of his face, which surgeons tried to remove when he was very young. In the process, they removed his lower lip, and then gave him such extensive radiation that the lower part of his face stopped growing, and he was covered with plum-colored burns.

He is 55 now, with silvery hair and bright blue eyes.

Last week I saw him in performance at a local community center at a benefit for the refugees in Kosovo. He was wearing a dress shirt in plum purple, which exemplifies the kind of tender and jaunty bravery with which I have come to associate him. He stepped out onstage before a hundred grown-ups and a dozen children, and stood smiling while people got a good look. Then he suggested we ask him, in a conversational tone and in unison, "David, what happened to your face?" When we did, he explained about the tumor, the surgery and all those radiation burns.

He told of wanting to form a gang of the coolest disfigured people in the world, like the Phantom, the Beast from "Beauty and the Beast," Freddie Krueger and Michael Jackson. They'd go places as a group -- bowling, perhaps, or to one of the make-over counters at the next Macy's White Flower Day Sale.

"People assume I had an awful childhood," he continued. "But I didn't. I was loved and esteemed by my parents. My face may be unique, but my experiences aren't. I believe they are universal."

Wouldn't you think that having that thing on his face totally messed with his adolescent sex life? Of course it did, he said. And he was a little fat too, a chubby little disfigured guy. But these things were not nearly as detrimental as having been raised Catholic; having been, as he put it, an incense survivor.

Telling his stories through a crazy mouth, a jumble of teeth, only one lip and a too-large tongue, David's voice did not sound garbled but strangely like a brogue; like that of a Scottish person who just had a shot of Novocain.

"We with facial deformities are children of the dark," he said. "Our shadow is on the outside. And we can see in the dark: We can see you, we see you turn away, but one day we finally understand that you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable to your family, and society and even to God.

"All those years, I kept my bad stories in the dark, but not anymore. Now I am stepping out into the light. And this face has turned out to be an elaborately disguised gift from God."

He spoke of the hidden scary scarred parts inside us all, the soul disfigurement, the fear deep inside that we're unacceptable; and while he spoke, his hands moved fluidly in expressions that his face can't make. His hands are beautiful, fair, light as air, light as a ballet dancer's.

He told of his first game of spin-the-bottle, when the girl who was chosen to kiss him recoiled in horror, and he said to her, debonairly, "You know you want me." Then he admits sheepishly that he didn't actually say that for 20 years, but that in soul-time, it's never too late. He told of loving a teenage girl named Carol, of how it took months to ask her out, but that when he did, she accepted. They went to the movies and then afterwards sat on a couch on his front porch, and he kept trying to put his arm around her but couldn't quite, so they talked and talked and talked. He wanted to kiss her but was too shy to ask; he was afraid it was like asking her to kiss a monster, and finally she said, "I need to walk on home now," and he said, "Carol, I want to kiss you," and she said, "David? I thought you'd never ask."

That was a moment of true grace, and from this experience, he built a church inside of himself. There is no physical church but his own life: Both his performances and his work teaching people to tell their stories, their marvelous, screwed-up and often hilarious resurrection stories. Voil`: a church.

"We in the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles," he said. "But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you've got to put your foot in it.

"Look, 80 percent sincerity is about as good as it's going to get. So is 80 percent compassion. Eighty percent celibacy. So 20 percent of the time, you just get to be yourself."

God, it's such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe -- that if you look good, you'll be happy, and have it all together, and then you'll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won't have to die, and the rot can't get in.

In the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, you definitely don't have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. Following David's instructions, you sit quietly with your eyes closed and follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: "Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! I have so much to do! My butt itches ..." And if you stick to it, he promised, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic meditation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what you will do when you win the Lotto.

When David insists you are fine exactly the way you are, you find yourself almost believing him. When he talks about unconditional love, he gives you a new lease on life, because the way he explains it you may for the first time believe that even you could taste of this. Because, as he explains it, in the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but has a shelf life of about eight to 10 seconds. So instead of beating yourself up because you only feel it fleetingly, you savor those moments when it appears. "So we might say to our beloved, 'Honey, I've been having these feelings of unconditional love for you for the last eight to 10 seconds.' Or, 'Darling? I'll love you till the very end of dinner.'"

He has been married to a beautiful woman named Marlena for the last few years. After listening to his lovely words, his magic, this doesn't seem at all strange. There he is, standing in front of a crowd, and everyone can see that just about the worst thing physically that could happen to a person has happened to him. Yet he's enjoying himself immensely, talking about 10 seconds of grace he felt here, 10 seconds he felt there, how it filled him and how he makes those moments last a little longer. It can fill him because he fixed the hole in his boat. Everyone watching gets happy because he's secretly giving instruction on how this could happen for them, too, this militant self-acceptance. He lost the great big outward thing, the good-looking packaging, and still the real parts endured. They shine through like crazy, the brilliant mind and humor, the depth of generosity, the intense blue eyes, those beautiful ballet hands.

The children, mostly sitting in the front rows, get him right away. Maybe they don't have so many other overlays yet, of armor and prejudice, so Spirit can reach out and grab them faster. Maybe it's partly that they're sitting so close, but whatever the reason, they gaze up at him like he's a rock star. "I look different to you now, right?" he asked them when he was done, and they nodded, especially the teenagers. To be in adolescence is, for most of us, to be facially deformed. He makes you want to build a fort with him under the table with blankets, because it looks like such fun when he does it. He builds a fort with blankets and then lets you lift them up and peek in, at him and at you. You laugh with recognition, with relief that your baggage and flaws are not vile, unmentionable. It's like soul aerobics.

"I've been forced to find my inner beauty," he said in closing. "Doing that gave me a deep faith in myself. Eighty percent of the time. And that faith has been a window so I can see the beauty in you, too. The light in your eyes. Your warmth. So thank you."

Thunderous clapping begins, and he bows shyly, ducking his head and then looking up, beaming at us all. He holds his palms up as if about to give a benediction. His hands catch the light like those of the youngest child here.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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