A play at Seattle Repertory Theatre invites all of us to discover our own symbols and to write our own sacred story.
I attended the preview of Bill Cain’s “How to Write a Book of the Bible” at the Seattle Repertory Theatre last week the day before the snowstorm canceled opening night. I had a chance to engage Cain in conversation before the premiere of his new play at the Rep.
The principal thesis for the play, Cain explained to me, is that God’s revelation never ends. Although the Bible itself ends abruptly around 100 C.E. (Common Era), God’s revelation keeps occurring in every moment of our lives. “The Bible,” Cain says, “has too often been used as a weapon to punish, or for politicians to jockey for position, in order to gain this or that vote.”
“The Bible,” Cain counters, “is the story of a family. It’s the story of Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants. It’s the story of faith. It’s messy. It’s full of fights and quarrels, but ultimately it’s all about the revelation of God’s love for us.”
Every family has a story, he continued, and every family ought to write its own “book of the Bible” every 100 years or so. “This play is about how I came to care for my mother as she was dying of cancer in Syracuse. It was messy, it was full of fights, and in the end, it was a loving reconciliation of all our family history.”
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“Mom was fiercely independent,” Cain noted. “If she had been on the Titanic, she would not have asked for help. She’d have rather said, ‘I’ll swim to Newfoundland myself.’ “
Quickly after landing in Syracuse, N.Y., he sought out the bookstore. He asked, “Do you have the plays of Shakespeare.” “No,” the clerk replied, “but I think we have his novels.”
So in some desperation for something to read, Cain rummaged through the attic and discovered a box of letters from his older brother Paul who had been in the Vietnam War. Fifty-one letters, all neatly filed in chronological order. But one letter was missing. It hadn’t been written. Their father filled the gap with newspaper clippings of the great battle that had been fought that week. “It was a full 19 days before my parents heard the outcome that my brother had emerged safe. I call it the ‘Lost Epistle of Paul,’ ” Cain said.
After that, Paul no longer wrote about re-enlisting. It all changed. He had a total re-orientation of his life. In the play, Cain uses the language of the King James Bible to recount this event of the “elder brother” because its rich cadences heighten the loss, the tragedy, the abrupt change and parental love.
“Mom used her own death to reposition all the people in her life,” Cain said. That is, she reconfigured all her relationships, and she became reconciled with all the dimensions of her life. “Meals, journeys, deaths, all the cards she wrote — all were heated in a crucible, where her passion burnt brightly into love. Isn’t this what the Bible is all about?” he suggested.
Cain’s explanations came pouring forth in a flurry of continuing creativity. “My own Catholic faith,” he said, “is rich in symbols. I was born on Halloween. When I was about 6, I got a pumpkin, but I dropped it, and it splattered into pieces. My father offered to get me another one. I refused. I was too committed to my own unhappiness.”
His father then laboriously gathered up all the pieces and put them all back together again. “That pumpkin is a symbol of my relationship with God — who picks up the broken pieces and puts me back together again.”
“How to Write a Book of the Bible” invites all of us to discover our own symbols and to write our own sacred story. Simultaneously, it’s a revelation about the Bible itself as the intimate, confusing, ongoing saga of God’s love for every family.
I asked Cain, “So what’s next?”
“I have a script which takes the Resurrection seriously. It stars Jesus, Mary Magdalen, and Colin Farrell (the current heartthrob actor).” “The Resurrection,” Cain explained, “splits time in half, before and after, but does it grip us in our daily life?”
Performances of “How to Write a Book of the Bible” continue at the Seattle Rep until Feb. 5.
Father Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com