By Madonna Hamel
Suddenly it’s Palm Sunday. My intention to live a Lenten spiritual regime of generosity, simplicity and silent contemplation manifests sporadically, at best. Yes, I managed to fast on vegetable juices for five days, but truth be told it was in the hopes of losing a few pounds. I lost three, for the record. But I felt lighter and calmer and brighter, and perhaps that is exactly how one begins a long-term focus on a life of spirit. Only a literalist thinks that visions of giant-winged, long-haired, robust, holy card angels are the result of fasting. In the actual world, the winged presence of hawks, red-tailed and white-bellied, are my reward. There is a clear-eyed sharpness that comes from eating less that can make one feel mysteriously connected to the creatures that surround you.
After mass Vi runs the carpet sweeper around the altar. I’m slow on the uptake but it occurs to me that vacuuming is something I could do. So for two hours I get under the pews and around the altar and clean up the dried-up mud and dust of several months. Ever since we lost Theresa we’ve been trying to take up the slack. Vi also arrives early and gets the altar ready. Annette washes the cloths and coverings used every Sunday for the masses’ various rituals and ceremonies. Wayne and Amy chose the hymns for Entrance, Offertory, Communion and Recessional. Their daughters don white cassocks over their dance togs, their cowboy boots grounding them in their angelic altar serving garb.
We don’t see Caspar as much as we used to. But he’s doing well despite his recent loss; his clothes are pressed and he always returns the Tupperware after he’s eaten the soup one of us has thought to drop off every day or so. “I’ve always washed my own clothes,” he points out, almost indignantly. And the truth is, his home is clean, free of the papers and bottles and bags Theresa collected for mysterious purposes. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the real pain we can never see, because it resides on the inside, chronic and nagging. And all we can think of to say is: “How’s it going, Caspar?” When we know he misses her, but life goes on. When he doesn’t make it to church Leo rings the bell.
Despite my failing efforts at observing Lent I do keep up with my reading. In particular I love Easter Everywhere, by Darcey Steinke, a book I found back in 2007 when I sublet an apartment in downtown Toronto. At night, the helicopter ambulances hovered over the skylight, filling the street with the thud of blades, the glare of its searchlight beaming onto my blankets from its belly. It seemed a secular Saving Angel, bringing another accident victim onto the shoulders of St. Mike’s Hospital, named after the biggest, bravest archangel of them all.
I found the book in one of the city’s many used bookstores, the title jumping out at me as much as the profile of the author, a thin tattooed woman in a tank top, hands clasped, eyes narrowed, concentrating on something on the edge of darkness. Sure enough, says the New York Times Review, “this writer goes head-to-head with the divine…even in the darkest corners of her imagination.” Because, of course, anyone who’s listening, knows that the divine resides everywhere, we just need to be open to it, predispose ourselves to it, tune our headsets to pick up on its beauty, humour and grace, so we can spot the diamonds in the dung.
Steinke’s descriptions of a “kingdom within” fits my own sporadic willingness to connect with the Mystery, Magic, and Mystic. Her words suggest that even in the dark or the fog, or maybe especially in the dark and the fog, the divine shines through. We stretch our necks that much more to catch a glimpse of it, desperate as we are for some kind of sign that we are on the “right” path. It’s the language of the soul, yet it is beyond language. It’s what gives us shivers, gives us over, even. It’s receptive kinship with the Great Mystery and nothing less. The emptying rituals of Lent are in place not so we can be long-suffering long-winded martyrs; they are meant to be a ways and means of becoming lean, clean and well-tuned receptors.
It’s always interesting to reread books that moved us at one time in our lives. When I found “Easter Everywhere” again recently, just in time for Easter season, the well-thumbed book fell open to certain choice pages. Here’s one that moved me back in 2007. Steinke is writing about a lecture given by the monk Thomas Merton in 1965. The lecture was recorded when Merton was a novice master. “Merton’s Long island accent and self-deprecating humour disarmed me,” she wrote. “He said that the absolute worst thing a person could do was make himself a ‘spiritual person’. This was, according to him, completely useless. ‘The one thing for anyone to become, the only valuable thing, is to become yourself.’ This, he warned, would take a great deal of work.”
To become oneself – to commit to knowing one’s genuine self, means not anticipating what others want us to be. To become genuine sometimes seems to me to be the sole purpose of aging. And the gift. We go through so many incarnations, so many attempts at appearing in control or indispensable, losing track of our wild-eyed dreams along the way, that eventually, as middle age teeters toward the downslope, we just can’t hold up the image anymore. If we’re lucky, that is. It takes a trauma of ego-crushing proportions to shake us out of our illusions, but if we die to the old, we rise to authenticity at last. Some dare to call such traumatic events “the gift of desperation”, because when moving through despair it’s hard to fake it. We scramble for what we hold dear, we surrender the dross, we stop playing games.
I’m not talking about post-modernity’s idea of “reinventing” the self. That’s just replacing one invention with another. I’m talking evolution. For me to understand this shift in my posture toward life I’ve had to shift back to describing myself as a “soul”. Or, sometimes, a citizen. But no longer a “consumer” – the term imposed on us in the early ’70s. To define myself as a consumer was to shift my gaze to the things I could own, hoard and augment my invented self. To see myself as a citizen was to be drawn more to the ways I could function in the world, accept my duties as a member of a community and a culture. To be a soul is to resonate with the deepest nugget of truth residing in my core and resonating with every living thing, meant dropping the urge to acquire, possess, consume.
Soulfulness is easier for me when I look up from my dinner plate at the sun setting on the open prairie rather than at a billboard advertising Hooters latest special. It’s why I chose to park my car in Val Marie – to be presented with a world beyond my pinched and fearful cravings. And no other season challenges me to drop all pretenses and acquisitiveness more than Easter. While Christmas is about a filling presence, Easter is about an emptying invitation.
I like the successive edginess of each day of this last week. I remember the odd thrill of sitting in the chapel on Fridays, all flourish and colour stripped from the room, left only with deep purples and blacks. It seemed the skies always darkened at 3 p.m., just as the dying man asks God to forgive the mean and cruel ones because they know not what they are doing. I always break into heaving sobs, it’s hugely embarrassing. It’s as if Christ was my kid and I was his mom, or at least his sister. I don’t want to be mistaken as deeply devout, because I’m not. But the sadness that comes at the presumed hour of death makes me feel fully alive, how do I explain that? Even now I’m awed at the clean grief the day conjures up in me, year after year.
Perhaps there is no explaining. Steinke continues quoting bits from the Merton talk. He mentions the William Faulkner story “Bear”. Faulkner is never easy, but he’s worth the effort. The story in question is about a young boy who goes hunting a bear. Something happens, he says, to a hunter when they know the prey is nearby. “The sound of the wind, the crunching leaves, the woodpecker are all the same. But the bear’s proximity, his mysterious presence, resonates in the familiar sounds. The boy realizes that though he hasn’t seen the bear, the bear has seen him. This, Merton said, is where the mystical life begins. When what you are hunting knows you are there, he knows you’re around.”
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.