By Madonna Hamel
I picked up Theresa and we headed up our little highway to Cadillac. Above us the sun’s rays broke through the drifting clouds. Ahead it was snowing. As we got closer to The Divide, the snowline was so sharply drawn it reminded me of icing sugar shaken over a cut-out onto gingerbread. You can never know for certain what the weather will be doing on the other side, but whatever it’s up to, the results will find their way to the Hudson’s Bay. While down here, it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.
We were headed to Marcel Lacelle’s funeral. Otherwise known as ‘Slick,’ because he was always covered in grease, always working on someone’s machine. Marcel is one of a family of 12, and the second son to leave them. Most people know the Lacelles because the brothers run the Husky station in Cadillac. Whether you’re heading home from a supply run in Swift or visiting the Grasslands Park, the Husky is the last outpost until Val Marie. It’s where the fact of ‘remoteness’ sinks in, as the road gets a little rough once you pull out of the station. And it’s the beginning of the local tradition wherein, when you pass a vehicle, any vehicle, you wave. It could be a friendly little full palmed swipe, but it’s usually the two fingered lift off the wheel, a gesture I like to call the “prairie benediction.”
Theresa and I pulled into the parking lot of Our Lady of Confidence just as the sun disappeared and the wind picked up. The little church was already full and so we made our way to the hall where the funeral was being live-streamed from the stage before over 150 people. As the wind lifted outside, the static on the screen increased, but we all stood and sat and stood again, following the choreography of the mass.
I have always found live video presentations of sacraments a little unnerving. I do appreciate how TV has made it possible for shut-ins to celebrate the mass from their beds or couches. The year Francis became Pope, my dad and I were glued to the TV, supper plates on laps. The ceremony went on forever, but we were never bored because in the privacy of the family home we were free to make a running commentary. I recall, in particular the sacrilege of the ‘dignitaries’ in the VIP section, checking their cell phones every few minutes, missing the import of the occasion.
“Can you believe it!?” I blurted. “Look at that guy, he’s actually texting!”
“In church we always turn off our cells,” said Dad shaking his head.
“I know. Where’s Mother Superior to snatch that out of his hand like she did my bag of marbles.”
“You played marbles in church?”
“No no, it was in math class. Point being, this whole ‘seat the rich and powerful in a special area where they can continue to make business deals in designer clothes’ is counter to the whole message of Christ, right?”
“Are you making tea?”
As we toasted the new Pope with vintage Sleepy Time, I was reminded of the belief that many of the world’s aboriginal tribes hold: the camera steals the soul. While I don’t necessarily believe the camera steals souls, I do believe it leaves them behind. I’ve got nothing against being photographed, but my theory explains why some people are what we call ‘photogenic’ and others don’t get the justice their beauty deserves. Some of us have features that translate better in photos and some lose their dimensionality. I can think of two people in particular, whose soulfulness requires presence. One is a larger-than-life man whose personal energy fills the room when he enters. And the other is one of my sisters, whose beauty is a subtle emanation of a healing energy that comes as much from being near her as seeing her enter a room. It’s in the sparkle of her eyes, which, in a photo often shows up as ‘red eye,’ and ‘demonic possession’ is not something that pops to mind when I think of her.
Standing next to Theresa in the hall, singing the old hymns, I sneaked a peek around to see who was there. Val Marie turned out in numbers: there was Millie in her boogie-woogie cap and Deana in her heels. In the same row as me were the Carliers, behind them Tony Andree and across the aisle Marilyn, our librarian. I don’t know if it was our distance from the actual mass across the road, but few of the congregants were singing or responding to the prayers, so when communion rolled around I leaned over and asked Theresa if she wanted to go over to the church to receive it.
We made it just as the host was being laid in the last pair of waiting palms. After, I found us a pair of chairs and so we stayed there, in Our Lady of Confidence, in the presence of the actual flesh and blood, wine and ashes of a grieving family seeking solace in community in a shared space, where shared confidences are encouraged because hands can be held, tears wiped. When you lose someone you need a living tradition and a physical ceremony to facilitate the hurt. You can’t watch ‘hurt’ across the road with anything more than passive witness, because the hurting ones can’t grasp for your hand when they falter, nor can you smile down on them when their eyes meet yours.
The energy in the little church was palpable, you could hear the sniffles and muffled crying, see the trembling hands and heaving shoulders. And as the priest rose, to console us again with Ecclesiastes, I felt the import of the language, out here in the open, windy wilderness punctuated by bales and failed or finished crops, under the rapidly moving clouds of an eternal prairie sky. “There is a season and a time for everything,” we are reminded. And the litany of life unrolls in my brain: A time to rejoice, a time to mourn. A time to remember, a time to forget. A time to reap, a time to sow. A time to rend, a time to mend. A time to hurry. A time to wait.
The mass is ended. The family holds itself together as they leave, each stopping to embrace the eldest brother in the last pew. Theresa and I sing together, like we do on Sundays, in our combined Country Gregorian style, with her twang and my choir girl. We hold up well, until I realize that half of the grieving are wearing ‘Marcel’s Repair’ jackets. Then I weep as well. As I should, whether I knew Marcel or not. Because we do this together.
Later, in the hall where we join the family for visiting and reminiscing, and the squares and sandwiches just keep coming from the back kitchen where the women are doing that ‘loaves and fishes’ thing, I sit across from Marcel’s brother Tony.
“We’re lucky to have the mass, this weekly reminder that life includes sacrifice. There’s no way out, you know, we don’t get out of dying,” he says.
“You’re right. Sometimes I’m thankful for what feels like the ‘permission’ to fall apart. To sink into the sacrifice of the mass with all its woe and tears and bodily messiness. Catholicism is so messy! All that blood, flesh, water, wine, bread, incense, burning candles, and dust unto dust. We are such a physical religion!”
Part of being a physical religion is to have rituals that can be mirrored in everyday life, outside of the churches and temples reserved for giving our divided attention to sacraments of transition, redemption, union and reconciliation. We try to live clean, but we get sideswiped by our lusts and terrors. We understand what it means to have faith, but we trip on doubt. We yearn for reunion but we keep tripping on little pieces, we feel cracked, and wracked and raked over like an old plot of land. We wait for some kind of paradise to come even as we try to make it right here, right now, on the ground where it first began for us.
We don’t have to attend mass to turn life’s little rituals into sacraments – into something sacred. But for many of us, mass helps remind us of what matters over the long haul. As humans we do this thing called life together, as a community, despite petty squabbles and all our pointless points we seem to need to drive home until we’ve pounded that last nail in our own coffins. When one of us dies or marries, when another arrives into this fraught and tender world, we let our better angels take over. We weep, we pray, we laugh, we dance, we eat, we smoke, we listen, we shake, we sigh, and, if we do this together, we get by.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.