BY MADONNA HAMEL
The three of us stood outside the Nativity of the BVM in the harsh light and dry wind of the morning, staring at each other, wondering where everyone, all eight of them, were hiding out.
“Is it canceled?”
“I haven’t heard. It’s not like there’s a blizzard. Of course, Vi and Leo had that fire, so they probably won’t be here.”
We sit on the steps, not used to being early for mass. We are the kind of Catholics who show up because we were raised this way, but also because we are thnakful for some tender mercy we have received, in time of illness or semi-conscious stupidity. We are thankful for a visit from Grace, for getting us through a scrape, against all odds and relatively unscathed. We show up on time, or at least two of us do. We have a sense that the Sunday ritual has an underpinning of stability and appreciate it, especially in times of unstable health and relationships. We show up on time and we slip out at the last note of the recessional hymn. We are not used to being early.
“ Oh wait, its a quarter after nine, remember? Father said he wanted time after Mankota to have a smoke before driving down.”
“Let’s go have coffee at the Seniors”, say Joy.
From the Centre we watch the new calves cavorting in the field. I am always amazed at how fast they run, how like ponies or dogs they are, how giddy with life they seem. Some of them have only been here, on the planet, for a few hours. I am reminded how most people on a Sunday morning do not have the privilege of watching, from their living room window, newly born critters experiencing the world in their first minutes.
We finish our coffees and drive the few hundred feet back to the church just as Fr. Joe screeches into the parking lot, pebbles flying. He sits in his new German car, the third in a year, having totaled one on black ice and another running into a deer, and lights a cigarette. Winters are dangerous for rural priests, and this winter was particularly bad with a high number of blizzards, white-outs and sudden snow drifts. Driving requires complete presence of mind, which is why he no longer smokes and drives. When he’s done he shoves open the door, moans, then slowly hauls himself out of the car, permanently hunched from an injury after slipping on ice years earlier. Never break your back, he winces, and begins the arduous climb up the front steps. It’s a study in agony just watching.
Inside I try to give the mass my full attention, to be nowhere else but here: not making breakfast, not working on my column, not walking along the river or up the butte, not reading the latest book club book, which is about body language. I try to be present, but at the same time I watch how people stand, shift, move. Father’s sermons are always engaging. I notice they are getting longer. They’ve gone from twelve minutes to sixteen. But they are always rich, if meandering.
This week’s theme is ‘Presence’. “Be present to each other- that in a nutshell is what life is all about,” he says, in his German accent that sounds like reminds me more of a rabbi than a priest. He continues to remind us that a ‘chat’ online or an email or an internet encounter is not ‘presence’. You are not a ‘friend’ just because you have ticked a box. A chat is a conversation over coffee. A friend is someone you actually know, have met, and will show up for in the middle of the night. And ‘touch’ is required to be present to others. You actually have to be there! It is in presence we develop relationship and it’s all about relationships! Everything else is about money and power and reputation, and what is that?
He leaves the lecturn with another groan and hobbles back to the altar. We are beseeched to give each other the sign of peace. Everyone shakes everyone’s hand, including the three Andree altar-girls who, in sharp contrast to Father Joe, leap and hop down to the rest of us. We shake, then rub our hands on their little brother’s fuzzy hair and return to our seats. Joy passes her travel bottle of hand sanitizer to me.
Be present to all the relationships in your life: your god, your self and others. That is the point of life. Those are the vows of a mystic, but also a parent, or an artist. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, describes enlightenment, or what some refer to as nirvana, as the ability to be fully aware and stay fully present to every moment of every day. “Present to agreeable and disagreeable.” Not making any judgment, or if we are, noticing the judgment and letting it pass. The point of a monk or a nun’s life lived in solitude is to practice being in every moment, so you can then take that ‘presence’ into the world, the street, the day. So you can behave hospitably toward others.
Next week I’m going to tease Father Joe about turning Buddhist, I told myself yesterday, as I returned to writing about my ancestor, Marie Morin, Canada’s first nun and published author. I picked up the book, for the upteenth time, thankful for Sister Sheila Boase’s translation from the seventh century french. And suddenly I remembered a book she handed me the day we spent talking in her home in Waterloo. I searched my shelves and found it: an examination of Christ’s last week on earth by Pope Benedict. “He’s actually a very good writer,” she assured me. I asked her to inscribe something in it. “I’ll give you my favourite meditation”, she said, scribbling something then handing to me. And it was: “Relax. Core. Presence.”