By Madonna Hamel
“Did I tell you I was born on Good Friday?” I say around this time of year to just about anybody who will listen. At 3 p.m., when Christ supposedly died on the cross, my father filmed my mother leaving the hospital with me wrapped in the same worn pink baby blanket in which everyone of us left the building. My mother waded through the steadily flowing street that was Dawson Circle as trash cans floated past her on her way to the family DeSoto. Luckily we lived on the town’s one small hill.
“Oh, Madonna, that explains everything,” says Ervin, rolling his eyes.
“You mean my Messiah complex?”
“Well,” he says, helping himself to another piece of eggplant Parmesan, “I was thinking more of your Martyr Complex.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. But it was quite the meteorological event, my birth. And my mother was actually rehearsing the choir for Easter Sunday when she went into labour with me. Which may explain why I cannot listen to Gregorian Chant without weeping. Although, I guess it’s designed to provoke tears. Or at least awe. And reverence.”
Having grown up with the word “reverence” I realize that it’s not something we mention these days. To ‘revere’ conjures up images of submission to a power other than us, and for the most part, power is something that belongs to other humans who keep letting us down. In the Anglican Church clergy is addressed as not only “reverend”, but “most reverend” and even “right reverend”.
“Revere” comes from the Latin word for “fear”. And these days we resent anybody expecting us to be afraid of them, having lost the nuance of the “to stand in awe” sense of the word. Reading on, I find that “to revere” means “to regard with fear mingled with respect and esteem or affection”. Surely, when you put it that way, reverence is the perfect word to describe our relationship with the Prairie and its shifting weathers and skies. When described in such a way, reverence seems to be exactly what’s called for to resolve all manner of conflicts and resentments.
Maybe we feel a repulsion for the word because it smacks of religiosity and subservience, but in its deepest sense reverence is about touching that place of wonder again, a place children wear on their sleeves, and grandparents dredge up when in the presence of their offspring’s offspring, without even realizing. Reverence is about finding sweetness and tenderness for everything and everyone when we are brave enough to feel the ability to marvel rise up in us, and we wisely do not resort to glibness, hardness or, the apparent sign of an independent mind, irreverence. In fact, Plato expert and philosopher Paul Woodruff, in his book “Reverence, Renewing a Forgotten Virtue”, says just that.
“If you have reverence you may exercise it in religion, but you may also exercise it in politics, in the classroom, on the battlefield, or where ever you have moral choices to make. You may be fair-minded or courageous without being religious… It is the same with reverence. Reverence and religiousness overlap, but they d not entail one another.” Also, he says: reverence “is not a slave to human interests… it cannot be changed or controlled by human means, is to fully understood by human experts, was not created by human beings, and is transcendent.”
My mother died a week before Easter. She was working on the song list for the upcoming music festival. She had reverence in spades, partly because she was immersed in the chords and language of reverential music, but also because she never lost her childlike sense of wonder. In fact, one year, as a documentary maker, I had the opportunity to interview my mother for National Teacher’s Day. I asked her what was her biggest thrill as a teacher. “Oh!” she cooed, “To watch their faces light up when they hit a note or sing a new line and they can’t quite believe that beautiful sound came from them!” And then she asked if she could read the poems that, for her, says it best. “Go ahead, mom.” And so she recited Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:
“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
Who knew my mother knew the poem by heart and held it in her heart as a reverent ode to the great and wondrous Unknown? Not only do I revere poetry for its ability to inspire reverence, I revere those who have maintained the tradition of memorizing poetry. In a way, we all have – every song we can sing by heart is simply a poem set to music. But to take the time and energy to commit Shakespeare or Robert Service or The Bible or The Dhammapada to heart is to order one’s priorities in a manner rarely encountered these days.
I miss sitting on the back step on a warm spring night with my mother. The lilacs just out and she tries to recall a line or two from Walt Whitman’s most reverent “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” a poem about the assassination of Lincoln and a nation in mourning. A poem by a man who knew that to experience reverence for each other we need to plop ourselves down onto a piece of land under an endless sky and let Nature remind us of our puniness, while she dances us to the end of the day. Easter will always hold for me the image of a bearded bard resting a sprig of sweet-scented lilac atop the president’s coffin.
“Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.”
Catholics love their relics. And Easter has more than its share, among them thorns from Christ’s crown of thorns, nails and slivers of wood from the cross upon which he died, and of course, St. Veronica’s veil, which she used to soak up the blood pouring down his face and to which a whole station is dedicated. If I were put in charge of the department of relics I’d include Whitman’s lilac and the pink blanket that held me and all my siblings. But, then, given that my choice of revered objects would include so many small and seemingly mundane objects, the collection of relics would be redundant. The whole world would be seen as a reliquary.
While it might seem ghoulish to collect toenails, foreskins, snippets of hair and splinter of bone, I appreciate, as Peter Manseau writes in Rag and Bone, how relics “seem to admit, that yes, while we do have a spiritual dimension to our lives we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us.
Our lives and our deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly out of our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we need symbols to survive. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair- have the capacity to ell stories we cannot imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”
The poets and writers I turn to, the music and the rituals, too, all seem to suggest we are hardwired to be reverent. But what we revere is up to us. As Tennyson sings in In Memorium,
“Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
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.