Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conversations with the Crucified

I am most certainly not a numerologist. The worship of numbers seems like a total waste of time, a preoccupation for profoundly minor intellects, of which the world is unfortunately too much endowed. Only idiots think the created more significant than the Creator, and numbers are of course part of the created. Not only that, they are even inferior, as quantity, to the metaphysical predicament of quality, a factor which makes metaphysicians and poets superior to mathematicians, for all that society has to reckon with their essential necessity. But therein lies the lesson. If mathematicians are necessary, how much more the other chaps posted above them?
And yet I have to acknowledge that numbers do have significance. It was the Lord who said, "I have ordered all things by number, measure, and weight."
So now we have Post 100, and I must think that a significant milestone has been reached. Of course, it is not every day that one has a brother die, and thus it was that Wayne packed it in as I was cruising into the 100th. He would probably like that. Once again, he is significant in his brother's life. The tenth predicament of metaphysics: relation. Moving from Aristotle into Pauline Christianity, this gives us the Mystical Body, and a great deal of trucking with angels.
It was in the middle of September, 1957, that a major part of the crew of the great BC Power Commission attempt at damming the mighty Homathko flew by Beaver float plane out of Tatlayoko Lake, down Bute Inlet to Campbell River. It was a radically sunny day, with an utterly cloudless sky, vivid blue, an unforgettable comment on a radically useful summer. In all modesty, given Western Canada's paucity of mystics and general mediocrity in regard to the best theological company, it was an unforgettable day, marking the exit from the Biblical desert of the contemplatives, which had produced profoundly significant fruit, to a purposeful and irrevocable engagement with the One, Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church, without which, it follows as a matter of the simplest logic, no mystic can be totally fulfilled in his vocation.
From Campbell River we bussed to Nanaimo, where some stayed on the bus and headed for Victoria, while the rest of us caught the CPR ferry, either the Princesses Marguerite or Patricia, and set off for Vancouver.
I'd already known my share of adventurous and romantic travels on that pair of boats, but once again sailing into my home town created a whole new level of significant experience. Once we had crossed English Bay and passed under the Lions Gate Bridge, the vessel slowed for the approach to the dock, and I beheld the city before me and naturally pondered my thoughts and feelings on returning to the neighbourhood of my birth and upbringing and education. Now as I've said before, I'd already become accustomed to fairly regular ad-ons from the Almighty, interjecting himself into my observations and thought processes, sometimes darkening the inner and/or outer landscapes, and scaring the crap out of me, or doing quite opposite and making me feel outrageously favoured. Coming home, of course, was quite the parade, and He didn't want to rain on it, I suppose, so as we glided toward Vancouver under what was already a wonderful sunset, it seemed like the lamps had been turned up a notch or two, and the entire prospect, sky, sea, and city, glowed like nothing I had ever seen in a painting, or a film. Naturally, or, more accurately, supernaturally, my soul hummed accordingly. Clearly, I was returning home in triumph, and the year ahead simply had to be more of the same.
We docked, we disembarked, saying goodbye to each other, and promising to meet again when the academic year got under way the following week, and there was brother Wayne waiting, grinning, on the dock, as planned, with my little car standing by in the parking lot. He had driven it down, but of course I drove it home, as we started swapping stories.
The scene shifts, reeling off the decades.
For some years now our cathedral parish has held the public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, one eight-hour shift, one day a week. Thursday. A small but constant band of the faithful sign up for an hour each, and up to the beginning of the summer, we had never been part of this. It had not been at all necessary to our contemplative life, as we have a house that is profoundly quiet and prayerful, anymore than daily mass and communion has been necessary for years.The mature contemplative already lives in heaven, to a large extent, so he or she has no need of these otherwise helpful means for getting there somewhat more quickly than the average. (The Sunday obligation, of course, is another matter.) But as we did do the month of July on a daily basis, having the opportunity to hear sermons from an African Capuchin, we were approached by the lady in charge of the exposition schedule. It was summer; some of her people were on holidays; would we fill in?
We did, although I found I had to hold the line at one hour only from our household. God would not allow two, at least not more than once. And even for the one He was rather blunt about the sins of His people, here and around the world. So it was not an entirely pleasant time, although not as unpleasant as had become the occasions when I would drop by in the manner of the good old days, when so often the persons represented by the cathedral statues were some of my most necessary sources of support and information. But week by week it became more pleasant, spiritually, and less disturbing, spiritually.
In fact, the Thursday two days before my brother died held only one uncomfortable moment, with the life-sized crucifix that hangs over the side door, the northern entrance from the rectory car park. That image rises above the beginning of the stations of the cross, and I was just about to begin making them when I realized I was damn good and scared of Jesus on the Cross. I stared up, puzzled by the sensation, because it is by no means a normal one with me. The Lord had much more reason to be afraid of my doing something ridiculous than I have of his punishment. His lash I've known for too long in the dark night, and He knows this as well as I do.
But, as I said, I was frightened. I do not exaggerate.
I made my stations, all fourteen of them - a lovely habit I began early on, and practiced especially in Ocean Falls and Terrace, at the end of the teaching day - and went back to my pew for the rest of the hour. I habitually begin with the stations.
When our time was up and we were leaving, I was profoundly struck, coming out on the front porch of the cathedral, by the wonderfully luminous quality of the light lying over the town and the forest above it, lying to the south of us. It was remarkable, the most radiant I'd seen in probably some days. I spoke about it to Marianne, and at the same time recalled vividly the evening back in 1957, sailing into Vancouver Harbour. And then I thought no more about it, until my nephew Chris, Wayne's oldest, called just over forty-eight hours later.
A quick sketch of my brother's life would have to conclude, I think, with the decision that he never actually got to that lovely spiritual disposition known as "Fear of the Lord", the seventh gift of the sacrament of Confirmation. He did not receive that sacrament after his baptism, as far as I know, and even if he did, he did not do all that much to make it operative. But that, for some, is the reason for purgatory. So, as so much of the East believes, we can start all over again. Nothing so easy as wandering about as a cockroach, of course. Purgatory is no jog in the jungle. But it is much better than the other place, thanks to the prayers of the Church, so one perennially anxious brother and godfather was heartily relieved by those signs from on high. There were, of course, tears of relief.
At the next week's Exposition, at the beginning of the stations, I said, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," was the reply.
Always courteous, that Man, as well as infinitely forgiving.

When Push Gets to Shove

It was Keats who said it:

"but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end."

He did not mean those lines to apply to death. He was not talking about his own end, but the finish of his poem, Endymion. Yet the first time I read those lines in such a mood that they had any memorable meaning for me, I instantly applied them to the end of an individual life. Shawn's mother had just died and not long after we arrived for the funeral and other matters at her house in North Delta, after traveling all night on the bus from Nelson, I had looked through her little stack of books on the table in her room, taken up the volume of Keats and later leafed into that particular poem and somehow noticed the lines. We were late in the month of October, and there was all sorts of sober gold that year, both in the Kootenays and at the Coast.
As my wife said to the me the other day, I love the fall, not simply because of the natural elements Keats catalogues so well in much of his poetry, but because as a theologian and a mystic with my brains so completely re-tooled by the deeper poetry of John of the Cross, I see in the time that follows summer the symbol of the ultimate harvest, that which God calls home to heaven, no matter what time of year. The thought of death is also the thought of God's love and mercy, for those whose work is prayer and contemplation, and no season of the year is more remindful of these relationships, as God took the trouble to start teaching me when I was still quite young, even then in His omniscient way preparing me generally for my life work, but also with a very specific task in mind, this one, a commentary on the death of my middle brother, Robert Wayne, gone this past week at sixty-nine, largely due to severely alcoholic habits. He was basically a strong-bodied man, from generations on both sides of long-livers. But he insisted on doing in his own liver. He was physically tough enough, his doctor told him a few years ago, that if he gave up the hard stuff, and simply get swizzled all day on beer, his organs might make it through. His son pleaded with him to go that route, but to no avail, even after he lost the ordinary use of his legs and could barely make it under his own steam from his chair to the bathroom.
Addictions, the abuse of substances created to be useful in appropriate circumstances, are always mysterious. How can an intelligent, adult, literate, physically capable human being keep on swallowing or injecting or sniffing something that he knows will do him harm in the long run, and perhaps kill him? Why does he go on, year after year, and why is no one who knows him able to change his way of thinking and acting. Or, more to the point, not acting.
He was not always an addict, of course. Once upon a time he was a small boy, lively and cheerful, with a mop of curly red hair, blue eyes and a ready grin, and not a bitter bone in his body, four years and five months younger than myself. And smart. I taught him to read in a matter of weeks as he was turning six, a few months before he started grade one, and this meant they had to skip him a year ahead just as he was streaking through grade two. The reading thing might not have happened if we had been living at the time in an ordinary large community, with a lot of friends each within our respective age groups, but by the time of his sixth birthday we had been two or three months settled into the little paradise of Lasqueti Island, one of the northern components of the Gulf Islands, living in a house quite isolated from handy neighbours and children our own age, barring a fairly extensive effort. Wayne and I were thus made to be our own best friends for eighteen months, with only occasional, although meaningful, changes to this routine.
His inquiry into reading began, I think, with the backs of the cereal boxes - Kellogg's was doing a thing on wild animals from far away places - and continued through simple story books we found in the small library of the house we were renting. I had never heard that phonics were not the "correct" approach - idiocy is always intruding itself into educational methods somewhere, but not into Vancouver in the early 40s, when I was taught to read - and he caught on swiftly. We both had a good time, and I was quite unaware that I was doing anything significant, but we did our work in the kitchen, in the breakfast nook, so our mother heard us. In particular she heard me, and it was probably then that she realized I was a teacher, a useful grasp on my behalf when my basically less educated father became ambitious for me to become a lawyer. She told me later that she marveled at my patience, something she felt she would not have had for the task, and no doubt she also understood, in a way she could not express, that I was also thoroughly enjoying myself, as if I were playing a game. Because of my brother's eagerness to learn to read even before he went to school, she was given a glimpse into the future and the keeping within the family a sense of the fitness of things, not the least of which is that each child should be free to utilize the talents God gave him or her, and not be expected to fulfill a parental fantasy. This was all very critical when the rows came upon us, over my choice of vocations and religion, for my mother's attitude toward vocation generally came down on the side of doing what made you happy.
For some years forward, Wayne was content to follow my wake. As I was a habitual reader, so became he. He also joined the same scout troop, the same cadet corps. As the city was building new schools after the war, he attended a different high school, but he came on to UBC and also spent time with the campus paper. He was another of the incentives for my deciding against Toronto. As the new family home was then twenty-five miles from the campus, my car was handy for the ferrying.
And that car, a little 1950 Vauxhal I'd been able to buy from my afternoon shifts at the Port Moody pipe mill, in the early months of my first year in law school, figured in the signage from Heaven that indicates that in spite of Wayne's moral failures, those events and habits that legitimately bother family members, godfathers, and theologians, he's not in Hell. He is in Purgatory, a working member of the Church Suffering. Not too long into his university career he also followed me into the Church, becoming baptized and therefore eligible for eternal bliss, albeit delayed according to God's good pleasure.
How can I be so confident of a fact, and not merely caught up in theological speculations? Certainly any Calvinist faithful to his own convictions within the errors of those horrid doctrines would have to assume eternal damnation, from a variety of directions. And even a Catholic full of mercy and the lesson of the Pharisee and the Publican would have to ponder the Divine view of a divorce from a Catholic marriage and subsequent liasons, including a second marriage.And then there was the puzzling contempt my brother fashioned, within a mind that so often preferred to root itself in the mentality of sophomores, for our mother, blaming her for his own defects, of which he was well aware but not interested in correcting, as far as anyone else could see, and apparently refusing to see how many family attitudes lay in the regularly ridiculous positions of our father. In fact Wayne was first taught the practice of dumping on his mother by our sire, who from time to time vehemently attacked our grandmother's reputation. As ye sow, so ye shall reap.
It sounds like a Greek tragedy, does it not? Or even a Christian tragedy, for as I happened to see last night as I bedside read the Gospel of Saint Mark, family members do rise one against another. (I had also watched the concluding episode of the BBC's most excellent production of Anthony Trollope's Palliser series. Interesting timing, and I thought of the bullheadedness of our father, and the softening influences of our mother. Susan Hampshire was such a wonderful actress, as she and Trollope and the scriptwriter thundered on behalf of the heart.)
And yet, through all this contradiction to what good Catholics find in the orderly unfolding of a universe according to Grace, the avoidance of eternal damnation.
To be continued, although not without some testing of the reader's abilities to deal with spiritual

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Innocents Aloft: Canto Four

Although they were not bosom friends, Toby had from the beginning recognized Terrence McLynn as one of the people he had come back to the university for, instead of going off to Toronto journalism. In fact the entire Toronto plot - except for the possibility of it being the tyro contemplative's initial exercise in praying for the future of all his journalist friends who actually did go to the presses of that city for the rest of their working lives - had been something of a joke, inasmuch as he had only been in the bush a few days before he knew he would return to the campus for a year of all sorts of things he knew he had to catch up with. His year of partial removal had had its uses, but there was still much of the academic the novelist needed to explore.
And Terrence had been an excellent academic, a thorough reader, but not at all a recluse in an ivory tower, and ultimately enormously useful as an editor.
McLynn had been evident around the offices of the Pub Board, those utterly dingy basement rooms relying utterly for their architectural significance on the brains and hearts that frequented them, but Toby had never really seen him in action until he spent a lunch hour auditing a debate, over the relevance of the Queen, between the Brit and a Canadian student - ultimately destined for the diplomatic corps - whom he, Toby, already knew from another association.
It was a rollicking affair, in good old Arts 100, the scene of Toby's half-time auditing of Canadian history, in first year, and the much endured Economics 200 in second year. Terrence had acquitted himself in a sound parliamentary manner, immediately securing Toby's confidence in his basic literary competence, and then his protagonist had roundly accused him, in a manner quite stolen from John Diefenbaker, of taking his entire text from a recent article in Maclean's Magazine. Toby had simply enjoyed the whole thing, being impressed by skills he was not at all sure he possessed, and felt mightily confirmed in his decision to come back to the campus. There had been a good house, and Toby had also come away impressed by the energetic contributions to general society of his own nation, but equally convinced that it was no time to get rid of the monarchy.
So when Terrence showed up in the north Brock basement, or elsewhere on the campus, Toby always found something to say to him. The lad was enviable, in a way, finding purpose in the literature courses the university offered, and clearly radiating a co-natural relationship with them, unaffected and realistic, making it obvious to those sensible enough to appreciate it, that such study was the obvious road to intelligence: irreplaceable and not to be avoided. Terrence also wrote poetry, but not in such a way as to use it as an excuse to avoid the need of reading the classics. McLynn had annoyed him on only one issue - not bad for a fellow undergraduate - he had assumed that Toby was a socialist. He had pronounced this epithet as the pair of them were unfolding their umbrellas on the steps of the university library.
This pronouncement had come in the autumn, after Toby had turned over to Terrence his short story, Terrence being the editor of the student literary magazine and Toby having been oddly inspired to write a tale for it, subject, of course, to editorial approval. The story was plainly influenced by Toby's summer in the woods, and was undoubtedly a kind of pastorale in that respect, but it was also violently ant-establishment, one could say, because in it the principle character kills his boss by throwing at axe at his head. Toby knew only a little about Terrence's own position in the establishment of the British Isles, but he knew enough about it to think of the lad as quite broad minded in accepting such an explosive piece for publication. And yet it felt odd to be thought of as a socialist, after he had spent so much of the recent months pondering himself as possibly a Conservative, from the political point of view. He had most certainly not been anything of the sort before he went into the wilds, but the reading there had registered enormous sensibilities for the classics, and that seemed to him to include a conservative way of looking at all sorts of things. And yet if that were so, why had he admitted to himself that one of the biggest parts of his rationale for coming back to law school again was to study labour law, and read, with his head full of riotous anger, a substantial booklet on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1920 or so? It could all be very confusing, this swinging back and forth between points of view, and yet he had not enjoyed being labeled as a socialist. For himself at least, he had habitually thought that an honest novelist looking for a world-wide audience had to remain free of a specific political allegiance, for the sake of objectivity, just as he had to remain free of specific religious organizations for the same reason, although this latter position had somewhat altered, in the spring, when after his winter of studying the social sciences he had found himself quite sure he would become a church-goer when he acquired a wife and children.
And then there was that concept of perfection. This had come upon him on the bush job, as if he had been called away into the wilderness to be spoken to about something unusual, or, more accurately, about dispositions to the unusual further down the road. It had followed his running into Saint Thomas and the other classic writers Mortimer Adler was on about. He had not totally rejected the idea, but he had put it aside for later consideration. Perfection seemed to demand more than mere detachment, the concept that had been dangled in front of his nose as he entered university life. And as the obviously integrated Aquinas, the man who knew how to combine head with heart, was a Catholic, possibly this meant that he, Toby Skinner, would have to become a Catholic as well. But all in Somebody's good time, one day at a time, and probably not before he had accomplished certain goals.
There remained, for one thing, the problem of interior suffering. Was there too much comfort in Christianity? And then there were those who did not, could not, believe. Starting with his father,
reaching back into a very long list of thinkers and artists, and well spread around his campus contemporaries.
And, furthermore, one of those contemporaries, now, was his freshman brother, who, in fact, was another of his reasons for deciding to come back to the campus instead of heading off to j0urnalism in Toronto.

Friday, September 4, 2009

New Kid on the Blog

It was only a matter of time, but what time?
First, from everyone's point of view, there had to be a family reunion, and perhaps there even had to be a golden wedding anniversary with all the sprawling horde happily milling about in the mood that can only come from at least the heads of the outfit having had the grace to live all that time in the mind of the One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church, with, in easy attendance, long term friends who, while not necessarily tucked under that maternal wing to the same degree, at least have some recognition in their hearts of where all the love came from in the first place.
It really was a party, and it went on for days, and not for one second could Mary say, "They have no wine," simply because she was there in abundance to ladle it out, in spirit, while other willing, laughing, cheerful hands poured the vintages of the lesser reality, and certain world class cooks fed the hungry mouths in four different hosting households, functioning as motels, while a fifth house, that of old friends, a restaurant deck belonging to other old friends, and the incomparable beaches of the Kootenays were staging the general gatherings.
And then there was the Sunday mass, where the family handled all the liturgical functions except that of the priest. No mindless hymns, no altar girls, and finally, after all these years, the language of the readings and the mass almost free of the modern gender stupidities over language.
And a lot of music throughout the almost fortnight. Even I came off research mode long enough to sing and play a little, although my main concern was to get the sense of the modes and solfa into the grandsons who are already quite conversant with the numbers, thanks to last summer's music camp.
Those were some of my agendas.
But my youngest daughter, the one who amongst the other writers in the clan has essayed the most, other than her Papa, into fiction, plainly had the possibility of inspiration for some scribbling in the back of her mind. For the first days after the long party broke up and the family clusters returned to their spaces across the western provinces it was the photographs that poured in via the computer. Printed out the ordinary way, the albums should weigh pounds, and of course provide an entertaining and moving record of it all. But then along came the announcement of one more family blog, "Letters to the World".
I think Rebecca was about twelve when one afternoon as she sat in the living room watching me write in my growing shelf of hard-backed scribblers she said, "Dad, why don't you just publish your journals?"
I told her that journals did get published, although usually after the writer's prose or poetry had made him famous, and often after he was dead. Usually after he was dead.
She took it all in rather solemnly, and it was at that moment that I began to suspect she might be a writer. She was already a great reader, like the rest of our girls, and not long after she was twelve began exhibiting a capacity for witty comment on her peers and others that earned her the title, within the family, of "Nelson's Dorothy Parker". That's the New York writer who said so many things like, "If all the girls of Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised."
Becka's wry comments were often of that calibre.
She's written at least one novel, but as if often the case with writers who actually think deeply, that part of her is so far unpublished. That book is really her mother's domain, not mine, but I have read a passage, on music, that handled the subject as well as Robertson Davies ever did in a proportionate space.
And she has one enormous advantage over her competitors. Because her father is not published in the ordinary way, she is one of the few, along with a couple of Popes, who have had the opportunity to read the photocopied version of "Contemplatives", history's first fiction to deal with the ultimate stages of the spiritual life.
The rest of you should be so lucky.
Enjoy the kid. I know we will.