The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
There are many advantages to living in the country; falling asleep to owls and coyotes instead of sirens and junkies, and waking to meadowlarks and blackbirds, instead of, well, sirens and junkies, are my top picks. But one Easter I was thankful for my little rental in Toronto’s inner city.
I was worried about the addict in my life. It was getting late and I’d had no word from him. I saw the lights going on inside St. Mike’s cathedral across the street. I jumped up and threw a big coat over my pajamas, and entered the church in time to hear the St. Michael’s boys choir opening hymn. My sorry soul cracked open with the force of the large, sweet, harmonies. Every hair on my body seemed to be acting in unison to carry me off the threshold and over to a pew. At secular events you pay big money to hear these lads. But most Sundays, and every big feast day, they are in church, putting the celebration in the mass. And giving us permission to accompany them with weeping, if need be.
This Easter I was the cook at the local café, so I wasn’t able to make it to the Saturday vigil at Val Marie’s Nativity of the BVM. I did offer to make up a ham supper for Fr. Joe to tuck into, between vigils. Being up to my elbows in dishes and desserts, I texted Amy and she slipped out of the church to collect the ham. Luckily, Fr. Joe is a Vatican II guy – he’s okay with a bit of meat for sustenance when doing triple paschal duty.
Easter morning I decided I’d drive an hour and a half to Ferland – or Glentworth – to attend one of the masses on the revolving roster. While changing into my new spring frock my mother’s classical group played on my cd player. Mom was a choir director and a performer from childhood, beginning here where she was a bit of a chou-chou of the convent school nuns. Those nuns set her on a musical trajectory that enriched her soul, nourished her children and soothed many a savage beast. I left the church for thirty years, but my beginnings were musical, liturgical music ushered me into the world. Mom went into labour with me while rehearsing for Easter mass on Holy Thursday. And I made my dramatic debut at three o’clock on Good Friday.
When I arrived at St. Joseph’s in Glentworth the parking lot was empty. Two huge bags of sidewalk salt were leaning against the little double doors of the entrance, prompting me to wonder if I’d confused the service times. Was our road dog priest actually in Ferland or Mankota at the moment? I asked myself, trying the door.
Just then, a car pulled up. And out stepped a woman I recognized, one of the ‘church ladies’ who keeps places like these open all over the province, the country, and let’s face it, the world.
We entered the church together.
I admitted that when I saw the salt bags leaning against the outside doors that I wasn’t sure if they’d been there since the dead of winter, and maybe the place wasn’t even open.
“Oh the church is always open. Those are just to keep the wind from ripping the doors off! See how the latch is a little loose?”
We laughed and then, upon seeing the inside of the beautiful little sanctuary, I asked if I could take some photos after mass.
“You betcha. Just remember to put those salt bags back against the front doors when you leave.”
Glentworth’s St. Joseph Church is a classic country church, with arched windows looking out onto an eternity of clouds and plains. The stations of the cross are my favourite style of the depiction of Christ’s last hours, in fourteen chapters. These are hand-painted tableaus. The titles are in the original French and the colours are muted from age. The bright reds, blues and greens are pastel shades of their earlier days. They are framed in antique white octagons, with little crosses poking out their tops.
Non-threatening folksy versions of a story that ends in torture and grief, every station reveals a group of women, hovering near, never leaving, never giving up hope. The apostles, after watching Christ die a long and torturous death while forgiving the ignorance of others, leave dejected and disillusioned. Theirs’ is a culture wherein Power is portrayed in showy acts of smiting enemies or jumping out of predicaments completely unscathed- kind of like what we’ve come to expect of Hollywood heroes today. The apostles’ brand of hope is for showier things than that of the silent, sturdy women’s.
The women’s brand of hope is a kind of ‘ knowing in the bones’ that there is a change of deeper variety afoot. Subjected to daily disregard, they are banking on it. They do not abandon the dying and dead man. They remain, anchoring their hopes in grace. The story goes: (be it literal or a brilliant narrative revealing a new view of Power ) they are the last to see him die and the first to see him rise anew. Looking at these mothers, sisters and friends, I see in them the first disciples.
Back in Val Marie, I spent the rest of the day walking. I decided I would trace my mother’s steps from the Convent Inn to the back of her crumbled homestead, to see how long it took for her and her siblings to walk to school every day, over seventy years ago. Once leaving the cemetery road and entering the PFRA community pasture, I struck out for the homestead, walking diagonally, as she would have done. A deep thrill came over me as I saw a path emerge. It was well-worn, about two thirds along the way. No doubt the path is used today by cows, but at one time, my family, the Laprises would have trod this little worn bit of earth, and after them, the Stavs.
The Truth will set you free, goes the biblical saying. But, to me, truth only makes sense when I’m immersed in the big bible of the Great Outdoors, the planet, the cradling, cooing, singing Earth. Scripture is written on the cracks in the dirt, the veins in the leaves, the tracks of the beasts, the songs of the birds and these revealed paths, leading home.
Poet-farmer Wendell Berry – student of Wallace Stegner, author of ‘Wolf Willow’ and the phrase ‘geography of hope’, reminds us that most of the New Testament parables revolve around acts of nature and are preached in the fresh air. He insists, if you really want to get the point, read them outdoors.
‘Ask the beasts’, ‘consider the lilies’, ’pant like a deer’, ‘sing like a turtle dove’. All these phrases derive from scripture and are being revived by eco-theologians who ask: why have we forgotten to honour ‘the God of Dirt’ when honouring all the creations?
It is not surprising that many of the world’s leading spiritual ecologists, are women, linked as they are to the land with their inner seasons of birth and renewal. Like the women in the stations, like the ‘church ladies’ so often ridiculed and diminished, they are aware of the enormous differences between the violence inherent in birth and the violence of wanton destruction. And the need for a steady, steely, enduring patience. That of sitting by the cross, waiting at the tomb, expecting new life, come drought or high water, somehow, somewhere, at any moment.
I’m thinking these things as I walk home along the allowance road. And I come across a beautiful black cow. Slowly, I realize, I am looking at a newborn calf at her feet, the afterbirth still glistening around her. I watch it stumble upward and the profoundness of the moment shocks me- this s the first time this animal has been on its legs and I am witness. My old cowboy friends have seen and assisted at thousands of calvings in their lifetimes and would laugh at my reverence. But they are also, like the women staying near, slowed down, not so close, as to disrespect the moment, don’t stress the new family. What new mother likes an encroaching stranger? I step back.
This is their moment. Mother and child. I am witness to the miracle of a new life, taking place in an empty field. Except for my junior theologian-self, there is not a human for miles. Easter reveals its lesson: Life goes on all around us and the trick is to become available, to discern when to bear witness, and when to rush in and do what needs doing. Either way, a kind of faith is required. And, either way, the answers come, once again, from sources unflashy, yet indispensable, always around, near but not in your face: the old cowboys and the church women, the path, the calf and the cow.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. She also welcomes comments regarding Prairie Expressions. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org