I saw Jesus in Hollywood many times over the course of my decade working there. And most of them were surprises. And mysteries.
For me, Jesus is like a puzzle I’ve been assembling since youth. I know I don’t have the whole picture yet, but the few pieces that have come together thrill me.
Did you ever put puzzles together as a kid? My dad taught me to look for the corner pieces first; they anchor the image. Then the sides. Then similar pieces until it’s all filled in. Funny thing was, when I became a parent and tried to do the same, my kid had a different way of doing it. He’d work from the inside out, matching color splotches and patterns only he could see. I didn’t understand his method, but I liked how he worked. And the picture that he made.
So here are some pieces of my Jesus puzzle. They may not be yours, nor match the way you would assemble it, but maybe we’ll both still like the picture.
“I was so mad at him!” she said to me as we crossed the street. She was recounting the time in New York City when a homeless man had asked everyone for money except her. It was exasperating not to be asked.
She was Maia Wojciechowska. A petite, salty, white-haired author of some fame who I was trying to talk into selling the film rights to her Newberry award winning book Shadow of a Bull.
What a fantastic, unexpected woman she was. Having escaped Poland as a child, she later fought bulls in Spain while befriending Ernest Hemingway and then turned all of that into a career writing literature for children.
She was also a devout Catholic, which is where the Jesus part comes in. Often she would call me after attending Mass and extol the virtues of Jesus. And this is what I thought at the time: ‘She loves Jesus more than I do. How is that possible? She’s Catholic!’ Raised Protestant, I had picked up the erroneous notion that Catholics weren’t Christians. That we had a monopoly on Jesus.
Well, in Maia Wojciechowska, I saw Jesus. I saw him in how fervently she wanted to help a homeless stranger who shunned her and in how her words shimmered and glowed in recounting daily encounters with Jesus at Mass. She made me want to be Catholic, too.
Then there was this writer guy. On the cusp of being famous or at the very least accomplished, he was an alumnus of my college, a few years older than me, and he had just been featured in Vanity Fair.
And here he is, braving the LA streets in his convertible. Confident beyond measure. Top of the world. We park near Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax. I stride towards the restaurant when he stops to talk to the lot attendant. Now, there is a social hierarchy in Hollywood, and attendants aren’t at the top. But this guy smiles at the attendant. Trades jokes. Connects. Engages in such a personal way that it reminds me of…? You guessed it. Jesus never cared what station or status you held in life; he loved all. For him, everyone had a deep significance that he acknowledged and celebrated.
This guy wrote books and screenplays, produced a movie called Elf, and still stops to love on whomever he meets. And while I don’t remember what was said during our lunch, I remember Todd Komarnicki showing me Jesus.
One night I saw Jesus himself. And forgive me if this tosses me into the ‘weirdo’ bin, but it’s true. Only I didn’t know it was Jesus at first.
I was lying flat on my back in our Pasadena cabin. Awake around 3am. And this face appears floating just above me. A three-dimensional bust of a bald man’s head, gray and smooth like a marble statue. I was scared. Then a voice says, “It’s Jesus, don’t be afraid.” And I think, “Well, okay then,” and relax.
As I study every line and angle of that face, a mental picture flashes into my mind of a man stripped to his waist, kneeling face first against a wall to which his arms are chained. His back is bare with bloody cuts, and his long hair nearly touches his waist cloth. I spend the next however many minutes marveling, crying, praying, rejoicing, and thinking ‘I’d better treasure this; I may never see his face again.’
Here’s where it gets weirder. I go to seminary the next day and I can see auras. At least I think that’s what they are having no experience with such things. The air looks different, like a negative exposure only colored. Something like a thermal reading. Or a filter placed over my normal vision. I take to the sidewalks of Pasadena at lunchtime and people are glowing with different colors and intensities. (Some are, some don’t register at all.)
One man in particular has an atomic glow. He’s in a wheelchair, about to board a bus. And I have this feeling, “Tell that man I love him.” And this urge, this surge of what I’ll call faith, fills me and I think – I actually think – if I touch this man in the name of Jesus and tell him what I just heard, he will be healed.
But I don’t. I’m too scared.
I try to explain to a fellow seminarian at lunch what I have experienced and he does his very best not to look at me like I’m crazy.
Talk about seeing things that aren’t there. I once watched James Earl Jones film a scene in a tiny, on-location set. His character returns to an attic apartment after a long prison stint. As he enters the room from a lower stairwell, he’s supposed to react to the furniture and the memories it stirs. Only because of the camera, lights, crew, producers, and visitors, there is no furniture. There is nothing for him to see or react to. And yet upon entering, he stares so intently and specifically into the corner that I ‘see’ a fridge. Like he imagines one into existence. “That’s a real actor,” I remember thinking. “One who can see what’s not really there and make us believe it is.”
Maybe that’s a good way to describe the puzzle of Jesus in my life: there, but not always there in the way I expect. Yet I do see him. In others. In films. In creation. In our daily struggle to be fully human and discern meaning for our lives. In our failures to connect lovingly with each other. In the brief days of sun here on the coast that interrupt gray months of storm. And, even in Hollywood.
“That is why I speak to them in parables,” Jesus said to his disciples. “Because having the power of seeing, they do not see.” (Matthew 13:13, Amplified Bible)