BY MADONNA HAMEL
A few years ago I rode out to Mankota with a car load of fellow parishioners to attend a parish meeting concerning the closure of rural churches. We met in the church basement and sat around tables, eating squares and cookies and sipping weak coffee, while we, the faithful, expressed our doubts. We grumbled that the cities just don’t understand the effort and planning it takes to get to mass some Sundays, especially during calving season or in the midst of a blizzard. “Who cares about a us?” we moaned, “ a few small congregations in leaky churches miles apart and accessible only by bumpy roads?”
The diocese suggested we amalgamate and meet in different churches each week, even in each others’ homes? (I cringed at the thought of opening up my living room, with my hoards of books covering a crumb-covered rug.) “It’ll never happen”, we mumbled. “We won’t survive”. And out rolled the list of miserable scenarios. “Please,” interrupted gentle Fr.Hope, raising his palm, and calming our catastrophizing with his deep, sonorous voice, “please remember to always leave room for Grace.”
Three years later we are still here, all eleven of us. And that’s due partly to the stubborn tenacity of prairie folk and mostly due to the Andree family who make up half the congregation and certainly due to the sacrifices of our priest Fr. Joe, who in his late 70’s and in pain due to a never-quite-recovered broken back, still manages to make us think and laugh and hope and dream.
But it’s also due to a community who shows up to lend a hand: when the roof of the BVM began to leak and the collection plate could never amass the kinds of funds required to replace it, Caitlin and Amy created a crowd source site on the web. Within a year the money was raised by locals who were not about to let the village church perish. By their actions we shall know them; by their actions we know they are generous.
Whenever I feel a stir of empathy or compassion for someone’s plight, when I may have harboured a resentment against someone, and suddenly am broken open by an unexpected glimpse of the frightened child in them, or by some unattended guarded sorrow, burbling up and revealed by their eyes or their voice, I know: that’s Grace happening.
Grace always shows up when I least expect it. When I’ve given up on someone or something, most often myself. But, because I have a deadline, because, in an isolated community such as this, I have to rely on my neighour, because I’m all out of solutions, schemes, and plans, I go through the motions of a believer, although, in what I believe I often haven’t a clue. The truth is, in those frequent moments, I feel all tapped out. Then, Wooosh! Grace swoops in like a magnificent raptor and a super-natural breeze wafts over me, or a talon taps me, something grips me. In an instant, my mood, perspective and prospects change.
Grace is often bestowed and easily spotted in Nature. Grace resides in what the poet Mary Oliver calls : the God of Dirt. Animals have neither doctrines nor tenets. There are no strings attached. But Grace also comes in the actions and solid presence of grounded people who show up when you haven’t even asked for help, but desperately require some. I have a nun friend who calls these folks: God with Skin. She also reminds me that I can’t see this God standing right in front of me because I’ve slipped back into that old punitive religion that says: God resides in the sky, on a throne, keeping tabs of my vices and stacking them up against my limited virtues so he can smote me, any minute now.
She also says, “When we forget that divinity is as close to us as water is to a fish we lose sight of its presence in us all.” Then she adds: “Even you. Even me!” And she sticks her be-spectacled face two inches in front of my face and laughs. To which I reply, pushing her mug away from me: “Ok. Got it. Thanks. You’ll have to remind me again in ten minutes, though.”
I don’t do well with that word: God. And I never really had a fair shake at Jesus, because, being raised Catholic I was not given direct access to his words. We didn’t study the bible; we studied catechism. But the dove-shaped Holy Spirit: that was something I could wrap my head around? Paradoxically the least easy to define, the Spirit slips the surly bonds of limited and subjective human projection into far-reaching metaphor, the language of the transcendent, as ‘effable’ as the Ineffable is ever gonna get.
The Spirit, also fantastically referred to as the Holy Ghost, is a carrier of Grace. A white bird capable of spreading peace and calm and relief and release and fondness and tenderness, like a positive epidemic wiping out the dis-ease of mean-spirited, tight-fisted, persistent, low-grade temerity.
Being the good little Catholic girl that I was, I memorized the dry and uninspiring language of “catecismic” doctrine like I was memorizing an operating manual for an industrial air conditioner. It had none of the rich and textured and juicy poetry of much of the bible, where Christ’s best lessons were parlayed outdoors: on seashores, in orchards, gardens and vineyards. On the mountaintop. It’s only now I realize he was man who never wavered from his calling, which was to suggest we take another approach to solving problems other than annihilating each other.
Martin Luther King closest Christ-like figure I’d ever known. I learned about him on the day he was assassinated. It was my 10th birthday. Every year on the 4th of April, I acknowledge his unwavering call to embrace the Creative Power of Love. To this day many of us believe his death was an ‘inside job’ by a destructive power in America who could not bring themselves to believe King really cared that much. They believe King’s dedication to economic and racial justice-for-all came from a communist agenda. Why else did he come out against the war against communists in Viet Nam, they insisted? Why else would a Christian preacher insist on spending money on helping the poor rather than waging war?
I would be a hypocrite to tell young black men to protest nonviolently, yet watch as those same young men get shipped off to die in warfare, he said. “I can’t segregate my morals,” he stated flatly. Why else would a Christian preacher insist on loving his enemies (even as he was “not required to like them.)?” How does a nation claiming to be Christian come to suspect a reverend for doing his job? What is suspect is a culture dis-graced by greed and rendered paranoid. But even haters and hoarders can fall from horses when crossing the path of an unpredictable Grace.
And whiners can be knocked over by the good graces of others. I was trudging my way to a catering gig last night, moping all the way. Railway Avenue was slick with ice and I was sick with a bug. All I wanted to do was sink into my couch and mope because certain people weren’t taking my unasked-for advice. And all my schemes and plans for a radio assignment were falling through. I was striking out on all counts. But, as Anne Lamott writes: Grace bats last.
Opening the door to the little white community hall, fumbling with the doorknob and cursing under my breath (because I didn’t see why we had to get all dressed up for a stake-holders supper when we dress casual for mere mortals), I looked up to see half the village standing in a semi-circle. I believe they yelled “Surprise!” I can’t be sure. Shock has a way of obliterating memory. “Come in, come in and close the door!” waved Caitlin at my blubbering self. “But, why me? Nobody else gets a party when they turn 60?!”
“That’s because nobody else whines about it as much as you!”
Val Marie showed up, like they do, for weddings, funerals, showers, anniversaries, emergencies, hospital bills and church rooftops. Apparently they are even willing to share themselves with a loud, opinionated, well-intentioned weirdo on her 60th. They showed me, because apparently I need to be reminded on a daily basis, that we don’t have to change our minds before we act differently. We can act ourselves into a new way of thinking. And how do we do that? By showing up, by fulfilling our civic duty, by acknowledging our kinship with others, by focusing on our similarities instead of our differences, by being part of the solution not the problem, by feeding the dream not the nightmare, by answering truth with love, by using our skills and talents for the good of all, by staying in the crazy game of life, and in so doing, leaving room for that old wild card Grace.