Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Grails of August

It was at Albert College, in Belleville, Ontario, in the late autumn of 1944, that I first made the acquaintance of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. I was utterly captivated, felt challenged mostly by Sir Galahad, and I suppose began to ponder the significance of the search for the Grail, although somehow my archly casual relationship with the Collingwood East Baptist congregation had given me no education as to the existence or purposes of chalices. (Later, a Sunday school teacher would tell my class that Jesus would have used coffee at the Last Supper.)It was around 1972, I think, that I read Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August", to be struck both by the title and the mysterious significance of General von Francois' stubbornness sticking so meaningfully in my mind. Von Francois was the commander of the German right at the battle of Tannenberg and refused to launch his attack until the high command under Hindenberg sent him the new eight-mile guns. The Russian artillery, unfortunately for the Czar's forces, had a range of only five miles.
Around the end of the 80s I watched Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanours", with our youngest daughter when she was house-sitting down the street. Having not only played a role in a Chekhov play, but read a fair amount of his writing, I began getting restive as I spotted Chekhov's inspiration and also began to fear that Woody would be so ungallant as not to somehow give credit. But Woody made his acknowledgement not too far along, in his usual craftsmanlike way. Thus, the mention of Ms. Tuchman and her catchy title. Just as good, in its own way, as the Bats of October. (Actually, I think she came first.) The Bats are relevant, by the way, as I seem to be picking up more readers south of the line.
Contemplatives was begun, as I think I have said, on March 17 of 1980. I did not know then that I had some Irish in my blood, in a great-grandmother - also from the US of A - by then apparently lost to family history, but I knew that I had been instructed and baptized by an Irish priest, and sung and taught a lot of Irish folk songs. The sequel also saw the light in the middle of the same month. It was something about the spring, something about the drama of leaving another university year for the summer holiday. That too is a Grail that drew me for years and years, but it was not a Grail of August.
But "The Yacht", the first adventure at the typewriter, was originally a late summer or autumn piece, and throughout its various draughts has stuck with the schedule. It's not just something about the waning sunlight and the autumn mists signifying the end of life, and thus showing us the useful heart of melancholy and poetic and metaphysical speculation on the ultimate meaning of human existence, but also the expectation and excitement any real student feels at the thought of a new year at school. Well, perhaps any real older student. In my earlier years I had such a love for the freedom of opportunity in the holidays, that I honestly think I was a bit of the groaning school boy as the day of return to the class room approached. Thus the spirit of the one chapter of "The Yacht" that has turned up this blog at this point. It was a lovely morning to wake up to, day after day, when you could think of turning your feet in whatever direction they felt like going. I was not actually unhappy once school was on again, because I did enjoy the various mental challenges to a degree, but I know now that my summers were actually exercises in youthful contemplation, with no human in the form of a teacher present to interrupt or misdirect my process of appreciating creation and the variety of things and people in it. Children, unless they fall into trouble of the moral sort, are quite naturally gifted to follow note 235 of the Ignatian exercises, and might even experience some of what John of the Cross talks about in the commentary on the fourth stanza of the Spiritual Canticle.
One cannot think of the Round Table, or the Grail, without also thinking of ordeal, of trial in one form of warfare or another. Membership at the table was a desirable honour, and the possession of the lost chalice was perhaps the goal of goals, but to join the first and even to begin the search for the second was to expect a lot of bruising.
By the time I was ready to enter grade nine, I had a fairly good work ethic, like the rest of my family, and I had done well at school, in fact leading the class in recent years even though I was not really a young swat. But I had no articulated sense of the dignity of simply "being". I enjoyed "being", as my love for the holidays proved obviously proves, but I had never encountered a professional philosopher who could tell me that "being" was actually superior to "doing" and I only knew how to measure accomplishment, in the eyes of adults, by actually producing something, like a page of answers to math questions, or a well-stacked pile of wood or dishes. (There were no girls in my family.) From time to time, moreover, I felt guilty about having such a love for reading stories.
But one fine evening late in August, God introduced his special psychological operations on my soul in a new way.
It was after supper, and my brother and I had done the dishes. I was free for the evening until it was time to go bed. Through the kitchen window while we were at the sink I had seen that the huge pile of stumps and roots stacked up on the north-east corner of the big cleared area intended as the neighbourhood playing field had been fired, and by the time the dishes were finished it was a roaring great blaze. Naturally I wanted to walk up the block-and-a-half and have a look.
But I suddenly felt as if I had the flu and greatly disappointed, crawled into my bunk. I was so overcome with surprise and indisposition that I don't think I even had it to take a lingering, regretful look out the bedroom window, on the same side of the house as the kitchen. All I was capable of doing was telling my mother that I had suddenly taken ill and that it seemed as if I had the flu. She was almost as surprised as I had been, because of course only minutes before my brother and I had been roaring through the dishes in our usual lively fashion, joking, singing, talking up the day, and racing. I washed, he dried, and I could keep up with him until we got to the pots and pans, so I would store up the silverware until I got to the stickier stuff and then dump it all into the dish rack and start in on the slower section. I had showed no signs of illness then.
I must have looked ill, too, for my mother didn't argue with me, just looked as concerned as I felt.
I lay in my bunk for half-an-hour, puzzled, disappointed, but not in any physical pain, although I knew very well that my muscles and nervous system were not about to let me go anywhere. My principal thought must have been that with only a week of holiday left it was a rotten time to get sick. And I knew I didn't have any mind for reading, which was the thing I would most likely do any other time I was in bed when it was still light.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. I felt fine. In fact, I felt great. I hopped down from the top bunk, put my pants and shoes back on and headed down the hall and through the living room for the kitchen and the back door. My mother, in the living room, asked me what I was doing. I said I was going to the fire. She said I couldn't go anywhere, as I was sick. I said I wasn't sick any more, honest, and kept insisting on my good health, until she said all right and let me go.
This startling episode - which nobody ever thought of or mentioned again - would have taken place not too many days after my discovery of "Perilous Passage", and was the other side of the coin that sometimes is called "the rites of passage". I had no way of connecting it with the earlier event, of course, and while God had no aversion to dumping unusual experience on my little soul, he likewise had no interest in explaining why at the time.
In retrospect, in trying to analyze why the experience landed at the time it did, I have decided that it was his way of telling me that there was, in my life, more to think about than school work.
And, because it was most definitely a ligature of the faculties, and a sizable one at that, it made a grand preparation for his coaching me, inflicting upon me, that very desirable empty space in the mind that is above all mere intellectual acquisitions of concepts or images. The East talks about this void void a great deal, and well it should, to students of the eastern forms of meditation,
because of the absolute need in the spiritual life, for detachment from all things except that which is above and beyond all things. Brahman, the Universal Mind, Allah. The sincerely meditative soul, bound on the Truth and nothing but the Truth, will always encounter the Nothing that is Everything, or All Things beyond all things. In these philosophical systems, excellent as far as they go, Being is Being, but it is not the Word that became Flesh, so it better stay pretty empty of human images, human concepts, except as they are, of course, necessary as steps on the ladder to the attic of emptiness. To achieve the void is no small victory, as the study of the Eastern thinkers makes abundantly clear.
It is also no small victory in the West, or amongst Christian intellectual endeavours, because of the necessity of metaphysical speculation and spiritual detachment from images and practices that actually obscure the whole significance of God becoming Man and choosing a Virgin Mother as his route for doing so. But here the image of the Word and the by-Divine-choice-equality of the image of the Divine Mother fill up the mental void so as to completely and most perfectly justify the purpose of its coming to be in the first place. In other words: Hail Mary, full of grace.
Man will never know perfectly until he dies the full significance of those words. Only when he joins the angels, and perhaps converses with the very angel that spoke the phrase, Gabriel, will he see, and understand, and embrace with complete spiritual security, all the treasures of Heaven, of which Mary is by no means the least part.
And yet the Seventh Mansion, the Transformation, the Spiritual Marriage does participate in the incalculable presence, in Heaven and on earth, of the Blessed Virgin. (Mary was a subject on which John Buchan, as fine a writer as he was in other respects, and whom I loved when I was young, made quite the fool of himself, as if somehow he had actually failed to learn the value of the medieval symbols that Walter Scott understood, even though Buchan wrote a most creditable biography of his predecessor among Scots novelists.) One might say that this supreme level of understanding and spiritual operation, created only by the supernatural action of the Almighty, is the unmistakeable sign and proof of the possession of the highest levels of the spiritual life.
But it begins where it begins, and those roots must lie in the good deep earth of passive prayer, which was what I was irretrievably introduced to the night of the bonfire on Normandy Drive. Mind you, I can't say that the experience gave me any special longing for returning to school, as would happen in later years, and was the substance of the inspiration for the title of this little essay, but the magical quality of those expectations could never have achieved the same provoking of my sensibilities without that surprising rocket through my brain, and I have to render the account of it here before I deal with the experiences of later years, especially with the late summer of 1957, which these days fights tooth and nail for supremacy over my recollections.
I shall continue, if only because it is the season for such kinds of thoughts, with education getting itself back into gear.

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