Friday, October 22, 2010

High Noon

Remember the great Jimmy Stewart? A lovely actor, almost in all his roles a figure of habitual kindness, a quality not at all constantly easy to effect. The old Westerns from time to time essayed the quality of profound kindness in the gunslinger, the angel of death, thus making him a figure of God.
"Every man owes God a death, and he who pays this year is quit for the next."
This is bold stuff, of course, like most of Shakespeare, but fairly small potatoes when compared to the greater realities of the greater soldiery of the spiritual life, in which every man - or woman, as we must mention in the omnipresent silliness of an age when it is so hard to find a woman who can actually think in symbols - must know that to spiritually die today is by no means to avoid the same thing again tomorrow. Actually, it was a woman who said this, Saint Jane Francis de Chantal, spiritual daughter of Francis de Sales and founder of an order of nuns, the spirit of whom is very hard to find in so many of today's "ladies of the veil", all so eager to destroy the Church as it used to be known.
But we now have a test case, a turning point. Do the nuns begin to come to their senses, and drop their moronic "inclusiveness", actually effeminacy, or do they, like Charlemagne's troublesome Saxons, get backed into some symbolic river, there either to accept baptism or to be drowned? The Saxons, of course, were soldiers, male to the last, and thus having common sense, saw the light. I'm not sure these truculent babes can do the same.
Yep, I had an encounter this morning, right under the vault of our lovely cathedral, following Father Matthieu's last daily mass in our diocese for at least a month, and it had all the earmarks of a classic exorcism. Oh, no, not the kind of a poor possessed soul that has no free will, no control of its faculties, but the other kind, the more important one that  comes from diseased minds defying common sense theology and getting away with it, year after year, decade after decade, until they run into a real theologian, a real prophet, a real vessel of the Seventh Mansion, thus, a real exorcist.
Has the Church ever known so many Jezebels, all running around in civilian clothes and mouthing certain selected phrases from both Scripture and the modern imbeciles who clothe themselves as social scientists? I think not. It's quite a unique phenomenon. An urban myth, a plague all of its own singularity.
And this encounter, because God is immensely fond of anniversaries, happened on the anniversary of John Paul II's elevation to the Papacy. As I used to thump on him, being his spiritual director for an interesting ten years, he must have enjoyed the spectacle of my thumping on the very class of religious sister that gave him  heart burn. Happy anniversary, JP.
The difference between being a gunslinger and an exorcist, mind you, is that while the gunslinger, at least according to the novels and the films, walks away blowing the smoke from his gun barrel, the poor old exorcist spends the ensuing hours utterly overwhelmed with some of the purgatory his client is either facing into or has,  by the exorcist's efforts, avoided.
The crucifix can never go away, nor can the ordeals of passive prayer, of the dark night, from the contemplative.
And neither can the images of the Gospel. Remember Christ, and His whip in the temple? We might yet have such a thing. John Paul said there could be violence erupt out of fiddling with the liturgy, which includes the words of the Mass, many of which have been corrupted by the feminist whoring of the nuns.
In our parish, however, there has been considerable seduction and corruption of the laity, so any broohaha  could be voluminous. I got a hint of this at a recent evening, albeit daily, mass.
But with Father Matthieu off to Rome for a month, we will not be showing up at daily mass. They can putter along without the contemplatives, while the contemplatives return to the cathedral after a five week engagement in Kaslo, for the weekend mass, and take it from there.
Get used to it people, the new translation of the mass is coming, and as the Church never tires of insisting, the liturgy is the ultimate public teacher.
It wasn't actually high noon, being about 9:10 a.m., but certainly the guns were blazing. And I had no idea the incident would take place when I began this post! The Muse is most interesting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Boxing Has Its Hour

At the moment, everything is going so well that it almost seems contumacious to bring up the bad patches of the past. For one thing, five trips to Kaslo, three of them in the blazing sunshine of autumn, along one of North America's widely acknowledged premier motor cycle routes, have been an unforgettable gift, yet all in the service of getting the Mass said as it needs to be, on the weekend, in even the most remote corners of the earth. Kaslo is not really that remote, but set amongst our minor Himalayas as it is, it often gives that impression, and contemplative that I am I have to trouble meditating on such a resemblance. After all, its surrounding mountains have to be seen to be understood, and twenty miles to the south, and across the lake, there also stands Swami Sivinanda Radha's gift to the Kootenays and the universe, the Yasodhara Ashram. In this context, the Almighty tends to come on like Joe Louis, had Joe's lethal gloves been loaded with spiritual intimations.
I think of Joe, of course, because the reason we have gone to Kaslo for five lovely late Saturday afternoon masses is because it is an opportunity to spend time with a Capuchin priest born, raised, and theologically instructed, in the Congo. Father Matthieu Gombo Yange is therefore black, at a time when, thanks to various forces, not the least of which is a pretty well universal admittance of the fact that the people who were once the preferential option for slaves have become one of the very, very, obvious preferential options for artistic and spiritual excellence. Here in North America we are all very well aware of the physical genius of black athletes, and the artistic genius of black actors and musicians. Matthieu probably could have been either of these, or maybe both. Every time we give each other a hug, I feel the muscles in his shoulders, and he has told us he has played Balthazar at Christmas pageants. I also remember the summer of 1956, when I realized I could figure out the chords to the songs on the Harry Belafonte record in the fraternity house I was living in while I worked as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. But Matthieu was keen on the Franciscan priesthood from his boyhood, and we are all the more blessed because of his choice.
Matthieu has been around for over three months this year, all in our cathedral parish as well as the adjunct missions, because the regular pastor was on sick leave, in need of a heart operation. Father returns to Rome in a week to do the final work on his doctoral dissertation, and then returns in time for Advent in Trail, where once again and even more so his skill in Italian will be appreciated.
I realize, of course, for rather a number of decades, all over the world, blacks as well as other hues of the human rainbow have been proving that they are just as capable of filling the highest office open to the sons of men; so why am I so appreciative of what is so merely ordinary to so many others, and has been for some time?
Because the Kootenays are very much paleface, and Nelson is the palest of all, with never even a population of permanent native Indians of its own, and having lost its resident First Nations neighbours to a Jesuit reserve in the state of Washington in the 19th century. Least of all has it known emigrants from Africa, as that modest number who did come by way of the southern states to British Columbia settled on the south coast.
But it was only in general that I was not long a resident of Nelson, an immigrant myself, that I decided that one of the things wrong with the place was that it contained neither enough Jews or Blacks to consider itself any sort of a truly cosmopolitan culture. Now, we have a lot more sons of Moses than we used to, God bless us, and a small handful of the darkest race God gave out to fill the human palette, but I never imagined that my observations on the sociological mix of the locale, obviously overheard in Heaven, would land us the presence of a priest, and especially not a priest with the natural and spiritual abilities to be the first black minister general of the Capuchins, or even better, the first black Pope.
Matthieu will thank me for none of this, of course. For one thing, his cousin, Jean Bertan, his provincial back in the Congo, will begin worrying about his ego. This is always the responsibility of superiors and spiritual directors, naturally. But I happen to hate, despise, loathe, condemn, consign to the Devil, all forms of racism, so I naturally like to take advantage of any and all opportunities to give it a thrashing any time and place the opportunity arises. And then there is the fact that if Matthieu gets too big for his boots, even if he is thirty years younger than I am, they can always send him back to deal with the upper levels of the mansions. He has done a little work on John of the Cross, and until proven wrong, I am willing to assume that the Capuchins still know how to teach ascetic and mystical theology. I can talk the phenomena of mysticism with Father M. more easily than I have been able to with any Canadian priest except his bishop, also, as my readers know, a Capuchin.
And now we are ready to deal with that  horrific example of another kind of Franciscan, the Atonement father that Emmett Doyle took on as the president of Nelson's little Catholic university, the womanizing Aquinas Thomas. Only when we see the good, do we fully, clearly, understand the iniquity of the bad. The deadly hand of Providence, even if it seems to take forever, eventually shows up in its steel gauntlet.
Steel is a good image. It would seem to be essential to the gauntlet that is closing in on more priests from than lamentable era.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Side Two

I suppose that there was a certain amount of symbolism, about this prophet business; I mean, in the simple fact that when Shawn and I arrived at the stage set up in the middle of the north side of the gym-auditorium in Maryhall, that even though Eva Blondell had been singing for the students many months before we had - as we in fact had not yet sung for them at all -  she insisted that I had to take up the responsibilities of master of ceremonies, simply because I was the oldest of the performers. Then she must have handed me a list, because I wound up knowing the names of all the other guests, even though I had never met any of them before, although by the time the evening was over, I certainly knew we had landed in the midst of a formidable array of ability, and no small lesson in how much I still needed to learn about music, yet without any hint whatsoever of how long it would be, and how far past the clean up of the clerical abuser problem, before I could get on with the conclusions of the research. (How sweet it is, now, finally, to know what the sum and what the parts thereof, and especially to see these as originally designed by the Father of numbers. And fingers.)
So there I stood behind the microphone, a little surprised, but having been a teacher, singer, and actor on and off over the previous half-dozen years, not uncomfortable. I probably thought it would have been nice to have had some warning, so I could better prepare, but in the retrospect of the decades since that night, and given that if there is any role which works its best in inverse proportion for the amount of time granted for a scripted rehearsal of the human variety, it is the prophet's. Artlessness in the ordinary sense is of the essence, for it is really the prophet's Muse's input that will get the job done, not some mere human exercise, no matter how crafty. We had prepared our set list with care, of course, pondering our first college audience, and taping it to the shoulder of my guitar, my dear old Harmony Jumbo, in they event of the mind being numbed in the face of a such a full house.
Our set was probably four or five numbers, but I can now only recall two. I was going to swank out on a number learned only within the past year, Ewan McColl's epic Shoals of Herring, which he had written for a BBC documentary on the herring fleet, and which I had been mightily inspired to learn from the Clancy Brothers equally epic recording. And I must confess that with such a well resonating guitar, Shawn's backup, and a full-court press on my lungs and diaphragm from the Muse, I did indeed swank. I really could see the North Sea and the gleaming nets, and I had no intention of letting down the fleet. There are times when I think that work songs are completely in a class by themselves, and those four or five minutes were one of those times. (That song has a lot of verses.)
The astute reader can easily see why Shoals had made the list. But how come Silver Dagger? And where had we learned it? Google research tells me that Joan Baez had cut it by 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary by 1963, and yet my personal recollections suggest a genuine Appalachian voice as our instructor. Jean Ritchie? John Jacob Niles? But at any rate we both found the words and the music irresistible and Shawn had the song in the palm of her hand. I loved the poetry and the dark drama appealed to the actor in me. Shawn, meanwhile, had a certain personal relationship with the story, in that her mother, although not for the same reasons, and never actually taking up a knife, had not initially been pleased with her daughter's choice of a husband. (Violet had nicely relented by the time she was a grandmother of one, and I had plainly fallen in love with any classroom in a Catholic school.)
It was, of course, Shawn's song to lead, as the lyrics come from the mouth of a female. I don't think I made any mistakes on the chords, and she probably had most, if not all, the words to herself. She didn't really need any help to put the song across, and I was by no means the instinctive genius on bass harmonies with her that she was with alto on my presentations.
In retrospect, this was one of the most significant moments in the history of Nelson, and possibly, if you believe in the power of prayer, in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church. There she was, the local girl, who had honed so many of her talents in Nelson, come back to start dealing, even if unwittingly, with the modern scourge of the Church. She was, after all, a mother, and years later it was she the police would call when they were looking for information on Father Monaghan's assaults on young girls, and it would be her husband who, initially designated as a spiritual director for John Paul II, went on to rain relevant information on priestly abuse on the roof of Saint Peter's. Moreover, there was already a subtle confrontation happening between our house and the diseased will of the Reverend Aquinas Thomas, S.A. Once we were both cast in the university production of Othello, we had invited an older student to move into our little spare bedroom and nanny the rug rats when we were away at the numerous rehearsals. It was university procedure that Clarice had to explain her reasons for moving off campus to the president. He gave her permission but also took it upon himself to advise here that there was "something wrong" with our marriage. This may have been because the first time Shawn ever laid eyes on him, in our very first weeks on the hill, at some minor function or another, she got the feeling, as she told me, that she couldn't trust him, and he probably got the message. He was by no means stupid, in the natural sense.
Neither of us had at the moment any consciousness of the weight of it all, of course. Like any detective starting out  on a case, we were woefully empty of the pertinent information, just as ignorant, according to a recent statement of the current Pope, as the Vatican. But this does not interfere in any way with the omniscient view of the Almighty and his angels, and they were having a field day of note taking, which now, with no little show of extraordinary activity, they share with your humble scribe.
As I had been designated MC, I suspect our set was fairly well along in the programme, if not the end bit. Certainly if one was setting up a film script, that is how it would be scheduled, because the next striking image was not an aural one, but a visual, that of the face of the college president, the priest, standing with  a group of his teachers. The hootenanny was over, and there was an intermission while the band set up to play for the dance. The professors were talking, he was looking profoundly thoughtful as I walked by, and I could only think that I had been the cause, although I could not then connect the dots. The contemplative life, even when it involves quite radical activity, so often takes decades to explain how all the incidents fit together. And how different our thoughts! I was thinking about all the wonderful folk singers I was meeting in spite of such a disappointing faculty, while he had been made to recollect his sins against chastity, no light burden for anyone, but especially for a priest, a man of particularly solemn vows.
In hindsight, it is easy enough to see, which is why God made novelists and historians, so on rainy Sunday afternoons, like this one, we read to acquire the wisdom for the next nasty patch that the universe serves up as it unfolds.
"The play's the thing, wherein we catch the conscience of the king."
Likewise a good folk song.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

As John Paul Said

In the process of getting up my new chops with John Henry Newman's Lead, Kindly Light, I have discovered an amazing coincidence. I wouldn't go so far at this point to call this concatenation of labels the kind of association which Aristotle insists is a sign of genius, but I do find it too utterly delightful to be ignored, to go unstated. This is the fact that the tune for Newman's soul searching words - better, his God searching words - is called Sandon.
Newman, although he was a violinist as well as a theologian, did not himself write the melody. This was done, along with the arrangement, by one Charles Henry Purday. Did they joke with each other about having the same middle name? Purday was virtually a precise contemporary, and, for the moment, I have no idea where he got the name for his lovely little tune. But I do know that Sandon is also a ghost town, once a thriving mining camp, half-way along the Kaslo - New Denver highway, and I have even been there a number of times. The first occasion was in 1969, in August, when my friend and fellow folk musician Eric Johnson drove us through on our way up the Forestry road that led to the summit of Idaho Peak, at that time of the year,  a multi-acred park of wild flowers, continually made famous around the world by post cards.
This was not simply a ramble through our magnificent outback, or yet a  look into a location of the mining industry that had opened up the West Kootenay to rest of the world, but some quite necessary R and R marking the winding down of a period of very demanding social and spiritual work I had been put to after leaving the classroom. I think Eric knew I had been mightily under the gun, and that a day in the hills would be a most healthy antidote. But it was also a bit of a celebration, as we had been able by that time to find our next place to live, our third  in Nelson, and as those quarters were to feature a great deal of work in music, in recording as well as performance, the celebration was in the way of being in advance of those events. Eric was in fact a big part of all that music that was to come, just as he had been a big part of my surprising education as to the larger truth of the reasons I had been so inspired to come to Nelson, after my shocking realizations over the true state of the leadership in the diocese. Certain clergy were not worth knowing, except for the sake of doing God's will by trying to save their souls whereas Eric and a number his fellow indigenous musicians certainly were excellent company, instructive to my decidedly amateur self as well as consoling. Folk music was not only entertaining and a swift way to make new and satisfying friends, but it also offered more truth and integrity than a number of performances in local pulpits.
It also offered a threat and a warning to one of the major ring leaders of the Catholic leadership cabal of those days, even without my realizing it at the time. God and His providence are always at least a little bit incomprehensible in the hour of the events He provokes and promotes.

Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother,
She's sleeping here, right by my side,
In her right hand is a silver dagger,
She's vowed that I'll not be your bride.

My Daddy is a handsome devil,
He's got a chain that's five miles long,
From every link there's a heart that dangles,
Of another girl he's loved and wronged.

The autumn of 1964 I recall as full of the best of an Indian summer in the Kootenays, with an initial few weeks of the simple joys of the academic life to be found on any campus, mingled with the the intellectual pleasures of a Catholic campus at least theoretically connected with the wisdom of the Scriptures and the great and incomparable Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Briefly, especially with all the precise and lovely practical connections with settling back into her old home town that had worked out for Shawn and me, I thought I had come to an earthly paradise, where all our talents would be able to flourish according to all those demands set by Christ in the Gospels. We were fast making friends among the students, as well as connecting - reconnecting in Shawn's case - with her old friends, and we were both cast in a Shakespeare play. The experiences of Terrace's opportunities in culture were rolling forward, and it seemed only a matter of time until more of my original insights from the Holy Spirit came to fruition.
And yet the Holy Spirit, intervening in his usual fashion, had begun as well as inviting me to note the glories of the autumn landscape and the startling energy of the local culture, to think of the awesome strictures of the prophets of the Bible, and had begun to point out in no uncertain terms that whatever earlier flirtations I had experienced with the idea of being a prophet had  now become serious indeed. For one thing, the senior instructor in theology, Father Gilbert Kershaw, a retired Scripture professor, master of an unthinkable number of languages, from England and in our corner of the universe via his relationship with a brother, and engineer at Cominco in Trail, had one afternoon looked at most meaningfully while he discoursed  on Jeremiah; and on other occasions, especially on Sunday afternoons at home, in our house two blocks up the hill from the Cathedral, I was much moved to digest Ezekiel, especially in the passages wherein God told him he would be punished if he failed to warn the sinner. This was by no means the first time I had put long hours into studied the Book of Books, and I had earlier sometimes mused over the idea of the prophet's role, but never as I can recall at the same time as being told it was about to become something of an actual job.
I can't say that I rejoiced in the prospect. For one thing - and this is the most important - real prophets never do, because it's a miserable life, or more accurately, a segment of life. Prophecy, unlike mysticism, is not a habit. Thank heaven. If it were, the prophet would be habitually miserable, like a parent who could do nothing else with his children except punish them, or a priest who could never see anything in his parish but constant mortal sin. Fortunately it comes and goes, at God's will, and when the prophet is not in the prophetical mood, which is most of the time, not  only is life much more pleasant, but he can hardly believe he ever had what it took to take on any section of mankind for its wretched defiance of one or more of the Almighty's common sense directions.
It was especially on Sunday afternoons that I seemed drawn to the prophetical section, read them all, but was especially struck by God's warning to Ezekiel about going down with the sinner that he failed to warn.
"This means you," was unavoidable. Yet there was no accompanying specific image of address, nor would there be for months to come, in fact a full year. Nonetheless, I read, I pondered, and I watched the days unfold.
I had got to know Eric very early on in my short-lived career on the campus. He was part of a duo, who sang very well together, and they were headliners at a big banquet given to honour the formal opening of Maryhall, the combination gym, cafeteria, and as it was to turn out, concert hall and arena of the voice of rebuke, even though that would be unknown at the time to the rebukers. Eric and a young lady named Eva Blondell, from Vancouver Island, rendered up a ripping version of  the old Gospel-Folk standard, When the Stars Begin to Fall. Actually, that too was something of a prophetical warning, because Eric especially held a place in the register of those who, as singers in the folk tradition, those who play just as meaningful a role as the court jester, send out messages to the people in power, either in Church or State. And Eva had a voice that cut, as the critics say, to the heart of the issue. It was a magnificant performance, and as a musician I had no alternative but to make acquaintance as swiftly as possible, if only because this performance seemed to be solid evidence of the reality of the things to come I had experienced in my brief career on the new television station in Terrace.
The acquaintance was struck, there was much discussion about the talents in the area and the delight Shawn and I could expect from joining forces with it, and quite swiftly the idea of a grand Hootenanny was conceived. Eric was also the drummer in a campus band called "The Gents", and a very sound plot decreed that the local folk singers would throw a concert to be followed by a dance featuring the band.
That's probably quite enough for one bedtime story. Tune in next week, the Muse permitting. Or maybe tomorrow, the same authorities applying.