“Act as if you believe,” a friend once told me. That gave me the permission I needed, when my revelation occurred before the Mona Lisa, to accept the concept of “God”… hypothetically, of course. Just as an experiment, to see what would happen if I “believed”. It was a completely different way to live. Behaving as if I trusted that the process was being designed by something other than myself, I started on this journey to become an artist. Picking up on the clues of synchronicity, I began to follow the muse and create paintings that I knew were art, packed with so much feeling that I am affected just being in the same room with them.
Reading Tarot for others I discovered that none of us are alone in our loneliness, that this sense of doom that everyone feels is a collective malaise and not an individual pathology. It does seem that being alienated from meaning is the cause of it. I meet so many others who, like me, are skeptical, and for good reasons, but still need someone to listen to them, someone to witness and validate their experience, someone to facilitate a sense of togetherness. So I began to call myself a High Priestess, after the Tarot card that I most identified with. However, this felt presumptuous, specifically the High part. Although I knew it was an inaccurate title it did seem to get across what I was attempting to do better than simply ‘Tarot reader’. Reluctantly, I began to accept the calling of channeling feeling and fostering connection, in small, modest ways. I’m an unlikely candidate for spiritual worker. I make no claims to any kind of special access, after all everyone has an intuition and can choose to follow it. I can’t tell anyone anything, but sometimes I can prompt them to listen to themselves.
Sometimes there are moments that feel particularly numinous. Once, on a busy street in Berlin, I sat down across from a man who announced that it was time for him to write a speech and began furiously scribbling. “Tell me about it,” I said as we sipped our coffees.
“I’m the Leader of Europe,” the man said, our eyes meeting with that uncommon intimacy that happens when you’re speaking to someone else who is awake. He was a handsome, slight man in his early thirties, with wire frame glasses, hair that was not recently cut, shabby clothes and a remarkable intensity. I don’t normally find myself attracted to a political man so I was curious. “We can no longer afford to be living in delusion,” he said, “it’s time that we began to govern ourselves according to the terms of reality.”
“Good idea,” I said. “How does it begin?"
“I start with the apologies,” he said.
“That’s a wonderful place to start,” I smiled. Now I was very interested.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m an atheist priestess,” I answered too quickly, without thinking. What caused me to introduce myself this way to this man? I’m not sure.
“Interesting,” he said, although he didn’t pursue his interest, and instead complimented me on my appearance. He went back to his speech. “Next, a call to courage.”
“Oh,” I said. “I have some information about courage! I have been doing the same work as you are,” I said, “just that you are coming in from the top, and I am coming up from the bottom,” I said, doing the hand gestures. I had just done the MiZTAKES circle in Brooklyn, a ceremony all about invoking courage, and I began to tell him about the information I had found there about channeling fear. It seemed so obvious to me that I had met him to convey this insight. I began to tell him about it but it became clear that he was becoming impatient with listening to me, so I wrapped it up quickly with a “but your mileage may vary.”
“What’s your favourite philosopher?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m just learning about philosophy, to be honest,” I said. “I guess from what I’ve read so far Spinoza seems to resonate.”
“So, religious,” he said.
“I think it’s more open than that.” I said. Then, because he was the Leader of Europe, I said playfully, “I bet I can guess your favourite philosopher.” He motioned, okay, go ahead. “Nietzsche,” I said in my terrible anglo pronunciation, “the atheist Jesus.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. “He is, isn’t he.”
“Nietzsche is a funny one,” I laughed. “He couldn’t apply his own insight.” The Leader became visibly agitated.
“It’s going to rain!” he said, pointing at a cloud, and left in what could be described as a huff. It was not going to rain. What is with these Nietzsche boys… they hate being laughed at. Their egos are so brittle. I’m not sure that an Ubermensch would make a great leader. Maybe he would be able to win hearts if he would listen to a priestess, but of course the entire philosophy of the ‘great man’ is hamstrung by a petulant resentment towards the necessity of mothering. Perhaps there could be a more advanced, compassionate response than a massive eyeroll, but I’m not that enlightened yet.
A week later, I was just about to do the last painting of my fine art series in Berlin. The theme was going to be Trust. I had spent the entire week leading up to it meditating, reading, spending time with myself, trying to access the feeling of complete trust in myself. I pictured myself as an artist, believing I was an artist, believing that I could make a living from this work. I had one chance with a wonderful model. I fantasized about an ideal version of myself that was free from self-doubt.
The night before I was supposed to do the painting I sat down on a bench next to a bookstore and looked over at a rack of postcards. There was a postcard with the Mona Lisa’s face on it and she was frowning. It was a terrible distortion of my guiding spirit’s face, and I was preoccupied with a feeling of doom. The next day, I choked during the painting session. Trust, the painting, turned out to be misshapen and unbeautiful. It was humiliating, I was so apologetic towards my model, and I was disturbed at my own incapacity. I had been trying to prove something to myself about belief, and I failed.
I left for Athens, grudgingly accepting that my series had only 12 and not 13 paintings.
In Athens, I knew I was on the final stop of my wandering years. Travelling had lost its glamour for me. I was tired of living out of a suitcase. I wanted a home. Still, I was happy to be alone in the city and I spent a sunny afternoon on top of the Acropolis, thinking about this pragmatic goddess, Athena. I learned that Parthenon meant “unmarried lady’s apartment”, a joke on Athena’s virgin status. Her monumental statue was treated practically as a gold reserve - she could be melted down in times of need without apparent impiety. Athena didn’t inspire wild devotion, which is appropriate for a goddess of reason.
Noticing that my knees had become sunburned, I walked down off of the hill and into the park. There I found myself at Socrates’ Prison. It was in a lovely wood grove, and it looked just like the cartoon image of a prison, just like Plato’s cave! It was fascinating to realize it had a direct view of the Parthenon, that Socrates and Pericles could have been looking eye to eye across the valley in the standoff between the ideal and the real.
Also, the prison was free, and it was entirely empty of people, unlike the busy 30 euro ticket to the top of the hill. Well, it wasn’t entirely uninhabited. I climbed on top of the prison, and there I met Socrates himself.
I saw an old man sitting on a piece of cardboard box, leaning on a rock. He was reading an old leather bound book with yellowed pages. He had a giant red nose and was very ugly. He seemed at first glance like a vagrant, but on closer inspection he was clean, with a shabby gentleness to him. Clearly I was in the presence of the spirit of Socrates himself. I attempted to introduce myself to him but he spoke no English, and I spoke no Greek. I could tell from the handsome twinkle in his eye that he liked my vibe, but when no conversation was possible, he simply shrugged and went back to his book.
On the other side of the prison roof were three Greek teenagers smoking a joint. They had some English, enough to joke around with me and offer a hit.
I sat down on top of the prison between the old man and the young men and took a look at this beautiful view of the Parthenon. I realized I was wrong, Nietzsche isn’t the atheist Jesus. Just as Mona Lisa is my angel, Socrates is my saviour. He died for the truth! No one wanted to hear it. No one buys a ticket for the truth, it’s not worth anything. Many climb the Acropolis to take photos of the ideal, but no one goes to the Prison. Even though the Prison has the best perspective of the temple. Socrates took his own private satisfaction from remaining true to his principle of absolute skepticism to the fatal end. Popularity meant nothing to him, and faith was useless to him. Of course, if the prison was full of people, it wouldn’t be so idyllic.
No wonder I couldn’t access Trust, I thought. It has nothing to do with my natural inclination. Atheist priestess, that was my title. I had been avoiding it, thinking, I don’t want to have these awkward conversations… like the one aborted by the Leader of Europe. Sitting on the prison, it was clear I didn’t have a choice. This was the central contradiction of my work, and I must reconcile that over and over. What right did I have to exist? And yet here I was, doubting.
In the warm spring breeze of a perfect day in Athens, I had a wonderful moment at the summer of my life, knowing who I was and not quite believing it. It didn’t matter that no one could see that I was an insignificant being playing a crucial role.
As I climbed over the hill, I passed by Socrates’ camp. It was simple and tidy. This man has figured out life, I thought. It gave me comfort, to think, that when I am done with worldly things, I will live ascetically and spend my old age reading, unbothered, protected by the obscurity of deep thought.
I flew back to Canada and arrived in Montreal to finally end my itinerant ways. I found my ideal studio here and named it Parthenon, an unmarried lady’s apartment. It’s an irreligious temple. I’m not sure what that means yet.