Saturday, August 15, 2009

Our Lady of Kibeho

Given that my dearly beloved but occasionally exasperating father had no use for organized religion, and further given that he had even less use, formally speaking, for the concept of a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is a wonderful piece of Divine irony to employ a favourite phrase of his in application to the happiest discovery of the past week.
"This is the one we're looking for."
I first heard this meaningful sentence at the end of a long, hard, Saturday of digging in the back yard of our new home at Vimy Crescent, in the veterans' rental housing project of some 600 new homes built in the wake of World War II. We were a three man team: Dad, my next brother Wayne, and myself. Dad wielded the mattock, my brother and I the shovels, and we had dug from east to western end of the yard in the spring in preparation for the vegetable garden. A mattock is not a usual tool in a back yard garden, but in this case it was necessary, for our grounds had never been gardened before, only existing as bush forever, and then as the trampling ground for heavy equipment used in the construction. The dirt in the wake of the construction was next-to-bedrock hard, utterly insensitive to the ministry of a mere shovel, so my father went ahead with the mattock, to loosen the soil from hell, and my brother and I followed with the shovels that would render the ground fit for planting. And some of the time Dad and I traded: I too used the mattock.
As I recall, it was raining by the end of the day, but we wanted to see the job done, for even though Papa was not a churchgoer, he had a profound sense of Sunday as a day for the family to relax as a family. It was as we got to the last row of this team effort that he uttered the immortal phrase, "This is the one we're looking for." I did not then know I was a writer, but something in me delighted in the profound humour and common sense of my father's invocation. The "Ite, Missa Est" of the labourer at the end of his daily contribution to the world of work.I was thirteen.
My father, now dead and in purgatory, at last understands the purpose of organized religion, and is rather much aware, I imagine, of the Virgin Mary's irreplaceable office in regards to it.
And he is also aware of the follies of his life-long dedication to racism. This one must really sting for the moment, because his excellent phrase is being applied to his eldest son's discovery, in just the week past, of the Virgin of Kibeho, not only an African apparition, but an apparition in one of the poorest countries on earth. My father was too much of a materialist to have it easy with the poor, and the needs of the poor.
And such an apparition!
The BVM certainly did cut loose. Coaches, presidents, bishops, whatever, really should study the Boss' Ma's techniques! This was indeed a ball game. Scoring from the red line be damned, ninth-inning home runs go wash your face. When you want to see a real world class performance, just call up the Lady among Ladies Auxiliary Redemptor.
I am a little picked, I must admit. After all, we theologians, we Thomists, we back-and-forth-with the Vatican chit-chatters like to be in the loop. And we poor bloody victims of the prophets' periodic 'things that go bump in the night' like to have an explanation of what's going on. So how come I had to wait until now to hear of the real and true Marian performance of the early 80s?
From the simply spiritual point of view, I have always to insist, just to know the dialogue of Juan Diego with Our Lady of Guadalupe is enough. The soul melts, the spirit is forever yoked with the lightsome easy burden. I am of the western hemisphere, and no one over here could ask for more than Mary's initial visit to those sorry shores and the domain of Aztec blood craze. Any apparitions after that, as lovely as they are, can only be icing on the cake, the additional accidentals that John of the Cross talks about in the Canticle.
But that is in the spiritual sphere, and the contemplative ambience. There is also the active zone, damn it, which confronts the world as it is now, and into which I am occasionally inserted.
In 1995 I finally connected with the novel Gone With The Wind, as I have mentioned before, and came out of that mighty epic about neighbourhood with a few musical sketches for an opera. The creative juices flowed for three months, in my head, in my conversations - especially with a pair of puzzled and frequently annoyed agents - and even on to the page. But never the stage.
The contemplative's life is always full of intellectual adventure, and no small part of this mental smash, crash, and dash is the mystery of it all. Every image, every inspiration, has a spiritual value, but what does it mean in the visible world as it trundles along its habitually foolish, insensitive, and mediocre way?
GWTW was unquestionably a rocket. But why do much angelic activity for something that could not come to be?
In retrospect, I have to think that one of the major reasons I was moved to take up the book and make so much of it was the undoubted and very significant presence of the black culture in the South, and the special point of this is coming clear with the facts of the 80s history of Rwanda, thus preparing, a little better than I might have without it, for the phenomenon of black clergy turning up in our diocese. Especially black clergy who understand the importance of good instruction in music.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gently Down the Stream

Let's hear it for the Greeks.
They knew the joy of running, they knew the joy of rowing, they knew the joy of poetry and music.
I remember three assignments for memory in Grade Twelve English. Something from Macbeth, something from Wordsworth, something from Tennyson. The Macbeth bit began "We've scotched the snake, not killed it." and that always reminds me of the evils still running rampant in the Church Militant. The sonnet from the bard of the Lakes district was Ode on a View From London Bridge, which I chose not to memorize the night before, and then at lunch chose a pick up soccer game on the school grounds instead of memorizing, thus infuriating my English teacher - that was a surprise - but Tennyson carried the palm for unalloyed usefulness with his Ulysses, from which I conned about a dozen lines beginning with "Push off, and sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrow . . . ."
This was, of course, a profound homage to Homer and the culture he came from, and that culture included a great deal of wisdom on the subject of staying fit. Aristotle liked nothing better than to discourse on his elements of genius while strolling about the garden of the academy. Well he knew the students' infinite ability for going for an imaginative meander, at whatever point they lost touch with what was really going on. And what is more real than a walk?
Ah. A row.
Well, perhaps not more real, especially when you journey no farther than the walls of your attic, but definitely more efficient when it comes to burning calories and getting rid of the annoying little bulge in the middle that wasn't there when you were in high school and memorizing poetry.
In those high school days, utterly wonderful in so many respects, thanks to excellent friends and teachers, I became absolutely convinced that the one profession I was in no way cut out for was sales. I couldn't think of an object that was so necessary for the well being of a fellow human that I could have the energy to convince him or her to buy it.
But now, after a week on our immensely well-designed erg, or rowing machine, a Concept 2, I can actually see myself rapping on doors all over the bloody continent, filled, street by street, with people packing the obesity that is so much a part of that which threatens to bankrupt the health sphere.
Can there be an easier way to shed ounces by the day, pounds, even, by the week?
I doubt it.
There can be no doubt that I love walking and running. Earlier pages are a testimony to that fact. But those pages also give evidence that the chap in his early 70's was having trouble with his feet and his knees, and all those images of the extended Kootenay lope began to emerge as so much pipe dreaming. And the lard, although on a holding pattern, was not disappearing quite as it was supposed to, and indeed had done so in the best days of jog-walking, back in the warm summer of '06. Well, too much music research, for one thing, and definitely the foot problem for another.
The rowing might, of course, give new strength to the feet, and make them nimble once again on the high road. But even if it doesn't, no matter. The calorie burning is in place. After a week on the erg, I burn as many calories in a half-hour of rowing as I did in an hour of walking, and sitting in the attic, surrounded by the books of choice, a gallon jar of water, and a baritone ukulele for mode practice, who could ask for anything more totally productive? Stand by for unbelievable bulletins on weight reduction.
From the end of June, 06, until late in August, I had wonderful success with running against the bulge, managing a daily distance on the waterfront of anywhere from 5.2 to 6 miles. But then the right knee became a problem and I had to upgrade my grasp of stretches. And there was always the music research, thanks to no one in modern times understanding the relationship, in music, among math, the modes, and solfa. Just think of Inspector Morse and his two pint problems. Then even the walking sprung sore feet, so that cut down the early morning rambles.
But hah hah hah. Them days are gone for ever.
I guess I had to find out first the virtues of in house walking and solo dancing with a Walkman and Emmylou Harris. Not everyone can afford the thousand bucks for a rowing machine, at least not right away, without thinking about it and realizing that cars are inclined to retard health rather than advance it.
In the first week of a fitness program, of course, you gain weight. Water retention, because the body reads all that sudden activity as an assault on its skills for retaining health. I've been through this a dozen times, and still have trouble accepting the rule of nature. So I kept my mouth shut until today, when the scales this morning finally showed results, at 172.
In a completely unconnected area there is another bulletin. For the anniversary reunion, the Saturday night at the Royal Hotel has been canceled. The gathering at the beach at Sandspit will simply continue into the evening. We've been very good at this in the past, with the first two generations of musicians. The presence of the third lot will make it even more of an event.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Touched by the Uncreated

It has been recommended that I write some explanation regarding the two streams of creative recollections now emerging. My fondness for jumping from subject to subject in conversation is showing up as an appetite for equal unpredictability in time, place, and character notes. It's all wonderful fun for me, and, I suspect, just one more Divine ruse for keeping the reader's nose to substance rather than style, but if I can inject a little order and simplification, that's all right too.
I think it is fair to say that of all genres of writing, stories about the spiritual life depend the least on plot. The spiritual writer has to be concerned much more with the sheer facts of spiritual happenings in themselves, without too much concern for their external wrappings, simply because the interior events, in their substance, have little to do with the external, least of all in terms of causation. The external, at best, is no more than an occasion or a setting, and very often its effect on the mystic will be the precise opposite of what a citizen of the world is looking for.
The editorial input is timely. As I said a post or two previous, the winding down of the music research had led me back to my old contentment in the dark night, the normal day to day landscape for the contemplative's puttering about. So, naturally, I have been browsing John of the Cross' text of the same name, and then finding particular relevance in the very last chapter. I'm going to quote and footnote at least some of it, by way of casting a little light on the reason for the two streams of recollection.
The principle intent in this scheme to bringing us to the principle incident of the spiritual life, that is, the experience and recognition of actually being given contact with God Himself, rather than a mere manifestation of created grace. The latter is, of course, wonderfully useful on a daily basis, and necessary to salvation, but it is also most certainly not the same thing as the intellectual "seeing" and spiritual "feeling" of a brush with the Uncreated.
As I was saying recently to a rather wonderful new acquaintance, a Capuchin priest from the Congo, from the Ubaka tribe, the only line of the Our Father that puzzled me as we stood up every school day morning and recited with our home room teacher was "Thy kingdom come, the will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The rest of it made obvious sense, even though I was still not empty of sin, by any means, but just how did Heaven take over the earth?
Grade Twelve, of course, was an interesting year from the spiritual point of view, full of all sorts of special thumps from the Great Beyond, and this puzzle was only part of it, stirring the pot, as it were, in an educational system excellent to a certain degree, but woefully lacking in providing the theology that teenagers have a potential for. The intellectual curses of the Reformation, the babble of the Renaissance, still laid their perverse and disturbing hands on the hearts of the young.
It is true that the Lord's prayer and the Bible readings were much better then than the nothing they have now in the public schools, but they are still not fully efficient without formal theological instruction. Otherwise, how could a youthful mystic, particularly nailed by the extraordinary actions of Almighty God at the age of three, and specially pursued by the Hound of Heaven thereafter, require a full six years at a so-called world class university before he took up the writings of the mystics - specifically John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel - and only then because his wife gave it to him for a wedding present?
How indeed. Did false humility have something to do with it? Lack of a learned example? After all, for all our bold claims to originality and independent thinking we do inevitably only follow one sort of model or another, growing in wisdom - if indeed that fortunate - precisely in the proportion that we learn to bow humbly and gratefully before the classics, especially the classics in, and connected intimately with, the Scriptures, and rare it is that we have the fortune, when young, to find mentors who have taken that journey to its fullest lengths. And even when we are so fortunate we still have to make their wisdom our own, and in that come the trials that few will take the road through, as much as they might like the blessings that come at the finish.
So, because of the disproportions in my inner and outer sources of education, the tales of youth must be told in different modes. Obviously a man is one thing when God has special ways of hammering him into shape that he has no names for, and a different rational animal when he starts to collect some names, and then something else again rather angelic when he somewhat finishes that course of realization.
Thus, all the tales now coming forth under the heading: The Last of the Almost Natural Summers have to do with a youthful mystic happily cranked up several notches above the older moods of teen-hood by honest study of whatever genius took his fancy, yet still unaware of the proper language and texts for what was happening to him beyond the levels of the social sciences and philosophy; and the stuff after that has to do with the arrival of Catholic doctrine and practice, God bless them.
All this, of course, is speaking only of Toby Skinner's younger days, when the faults he had to look to were primarily his own. It has occurred to me that when we get to some later years, and the very senior levels of the spiritual mansions, the faults of others will make for some not unsensational Lives and Times of our present society.
Just to think of one field of cultural endeavour, let us consider publishing. But not quite yet. I have just in the past five or six days come to grips with the delightful rowing machine, a Concept 2 production we have had in our beautifully refurbished attic almost three years, and I shall be swanking out on that for a bit, if only because I am incredibly mystified as to why it has taken so long to get around to finally taking on to what is so clearly the ideal workout situation for a contemplative.