BY MADONNA HAMEL
The last few years I’ve joined a group of motley ‘pilgrims’ to walk an historic Saskatchewan trail. Every year I wonder if I’ll make it the whole way. The obstacles on a prairie walk are less obvious than those presented by a mountain climb or a canyon descent, but just as humbling: the savage heat, the hidden badger holes. There are long stretches where you can watch your fellow pilgrims arrive in the evening as you lag behind in the late afternoon. The knee aches, the arch falls. You take the first step as an act of faith, an assumption that troubles lurk, but so do fellows and they will egg you on. The pilgrimage is a metaphor for the long haul, for life, for everything from parenting to learning how to play an instrument to planting a crop to healing a rotator cuff injury.
The Easter season is a pilgrimage too. If you are a decent pagan you begin with Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. It’s a day of greasy, creamy meals and drunken dinners and much dancing and singing, often ending in Oblivion. (Let’s face it, I joke to my sisters about our ongoing weight loss challenges, all our Tuesdays are fat.) As a culture, Lent and Holy Week are rarely mentioned outside of the religion page of the paper and the pulpit, and Mardis Gras, divorced from its full purpose, is an isolated event, a party to end all parties, where ‘pilgrims’ weave the narrow streets of the French Quarter, boozy ‘hurricanes’ in hand, bellowing for bared breasts and hurling beads.
Don’t get me wrong, I love New Orleans, I love the French Quarter and I love those beads. I just don’t lift my shirt for them. I prefer collecting them at the glorious ‘Jazz and Heritage Festival’ where for a few dollars you can wander the racetrack grounds from stage to stage; where entire families, among them Marsalis and Neville, perform together. One year I witnessed Michele Shocked, of Arkansas Traveler fame, join an extended gospel-singing family in the packed Gospel Tent. At the end of her ‘performance’ she gushed: “I came for the singing but I stayed for the song!”
I love the singing. I love the dancing. I especially love the no-holds-bared enjoyment of life, which is most poignant in a funeral parade when umbrellas bounce and soar, dip and swirl in the hands of mourners who dance the dearly departed down the street and over to the other side. But I need the song, too. Without the foundation of tradition and an understanding of the rituals within tradition, all the songs, dances and recitations become empty gestures of momentary relief instead of replenishments of spirit.
I often wonder how people wake to Ash Wednesday after Mardis Gras. I imagine many call in sick or dose a hangover with a hair of the dog. I imagine others share stories and pictures of the carnival with friends and carry on through the day. I’d love to be part of the group who haul themselves into St. Louis cathedral the next day, to have a Cajun priest rub ashes into my forehead, reminding me that I am born from dust and unto dust I will return.
As it was, this year I reenacted the ritual of burning last year’s Palm Sunday palms and hastily rubbed the ashes into my own palms, then blew them into the prairie wind in my back yard. This was shortly after I heard the news that a beloved member of our community had died suddenly on his land. We were shocked silent. It was a moment that demanded a gesture imbued with energy and meaning and potency charged by people observing millions of Ash Wednesdays over the centuries.
That’s how Easter began for me. Over the weeks I did my best to fast and pray, as is also the tradition. For me “fasting” means refraining from unhelpful habits. It’s something I should be doing all year, but Easter season asks we make a conscious effort to move the cleansing habit of fasting forward in our lives. Some fast from rich food (hence the last hurrah of Mardis Gras) or coffee or booze or second helpings. Others fast from gossip, flagrant spending, harsh criticisms. As for pray, the idea is similar to fasting. I think of prayer as an effort to talk more often, listen more acutely to The Transcendent instead of letting the ego rip into whining and worrying.
I like the words of Henri Nouwen, who reminds us that we are all, like the bread purported to be shared by Christ at the Last Supper, “taken, blessed, broken and shared”. By reminding ourselves of this, says Nouwen, we unmask the “manipulative, power-hungry, controlling and destructive world”, wherein we feel constantly “hurt, offended and rejected”, and replace it with the “eternal” world where God is not a punishing patriarch but the embodiment, especially during Holy Week, of the all-embracing Beloved mirroring our inescapable Belovedness, because, as one friend reminds me, “God doesn’t make junk.”
Easter began with a tragic death in Val Marie and the last week, Holy Week, began with a toppling, burning spire. I watched a reporter claim the spire was built for us to marvel at the artistic achievements of man and science. That’s. Just. Wrong. I’m an artist, I like to be noticed. And I know we would not be living today without scientific innovation and reasoning voices. But Notre Dame, Our Lady, was built as a womb, a sanctuary for troubled and weary souls, yearning and fumbling for a place where others can gather and tap into that collective energy that permits brokeness.
The reporter, (in hopes of not offending her wide audience?) repeated that Notre Dame is not just a religious edifice, but an historic marker, an architectural and artistic wonder. But it’s the other way around. It’s not just a finite building, an art piece, an history marker, it’s a place where The Beloved can take solace, feel blessed, break open, share freely. And the spire is not, as some would narrowly claim, a bad example of “gawdy design” any more than Mardis Gras is a party unto itself. The spire is, in its fullness, and true to the definition of the word ‘religion’ – which means “to re-link” – a symbol and a reminder to look beyond the petty world, to reach toward ‘heaven’.