Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Journey: A Child's 'Faith' into Living Questions

Last Tuesday, I attended our clericus (gathering of clergy in our local deanery) at St. John the Evangelist Church (the Red Roof) for Mass, lunch and a meeting. I found myself in a theological wrestling match again within myself. But first... a journey of faith that begins in Longueuil ... well, Montreal South really ...

What faith as a small child?

Back - cousin Steve, Jim, Lorne; Front Peter and Rozzie

After Lorne died in 1950 the story goes, I was old enough to begin Sunday School at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Longueuil. It's never been clear to me why we didn't attend St. Oswald's in Montreal South, but I think there was a conflict with a priest long ago. ;-) Conflict in church?! 

St. Mark's had no hall. Sunday School was in the afternoon in the church proper, sitting on kneelers and using the pews to colour. Memories are faint, but I'm thinking we probably sang Jesus loves me, Can a little child like me, Jesus bids us shine, When mothers of Salem .... (not so many choices in those days - no "What if God was one of us..?" or "His banner over me is love ... God loves you, and I love you, and that's the way it should be. Alleluia!")

Then, we were divided into boys' and girls' classes, and we processed (if we were moving away from our pews) to separate spaces. I was 4 and about to be separated from the only child my age that I knew - my cousin Peter. The small boys went into the tiny room to the left of the pulpit where the hangings were kept, and where a door led to the furnace downstairs. 



I was terrified and cried so hard, Canon Bonathan gave permission for me to go with Peter and the other little boys into Mrs. Napper's class. Separation and abandonment were life-threatening issues in those days, and shadows of that time continue to this day - usually faint, not life-controlling. I had the ability - as children often do - of hiding behind a mask of sweetness and goodness - whatever it takes for us to feel we can survive in what has become an insecure and unpredictable world where death (God) can zap at any second.

Jim and me - at Beaver Lake - probably after a visit to Lorne's grave at Mount Royal Cemetery

Journey of faith. Jesus loves me. Does Jesus love me only if I'm good? On the other hand, Lorne died and went to heaven because he was, apparently - as some said - too good for this world. Yikes! Be good, but not too good? Faith on a tightrope. 

Then a few years later, along came our teacher Miss Herron (Frances), and I was, by then, confident enough to be in the girls' class . Miss Herron was lovely. Kind, loving, pretty (!) and we had Bible stories and folded Sunday School papers with questions and drawings. Favourites - not the stories of Jesus (they were ok - you know - Jesus loved little children - even though I 'knew' he also snatched them away on a whim). The best stories were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the burning fiery furnace and Daniel in the lions' den. Not surprising now - and they are still favourites. Stories of survival in terrifying circumstances. Poetry and power.

Peter and me - best buddies - partners in the art of survival

And then - Confirmation Class. Memorizing catechism and creeds. Boring - but Peter and I both excelled - and Peter and I were good. Not healthy spiritually he might join me in saying, but good. 

Grade 7 - the year before confirmation - still very much a child

I remember my favourite school teacher, Bet Pittman Anderson, (who was present at our confirmation on February 28th, 1960) telling me that when I turned from the laying on of hands and the customary pat on the cheek, I glowed. The Spirit had touched me. Peter and I were so committed to our faith, we would walk the two miles to church for the 8:00am service if it was Morning Prayer (2nd and 4th Sundays) at 11:00. I can only speak for myself: I clung to faith with a desperation I can only see in retrospect, and still - hiding behind it - was terror.

In 1959, at Guide Camp, Mum was our cook. We attended a church service in a shelter by the lake, and Mum suddenly left sobbing as we sang "Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes... " I followed her (and the leader) up to Mum's tent - only to be held back by the leader - saying, "Mum was ok." She wasn't, actually. At age 13, I began to be able to cry for the loss of Lorne - but I cried for Mum's loss, not my own. how terrible it had been for a mother to lose a child. (Just in passing, it is also terrible for a child to lose a sibling.) It turned out this psalm was the last thing Lorne wrote in his Grade 3 notebook, .

Gram lived upstairs in her little apartment. She sang hymns in the kitchen. She was a rock for Peter and me. She died August 17th, 1964 of cancer followed by a massive heart attack. Zap!  I had just graduated from high school, worked for a year at Pratt and Whitney, and was heading to Macdonald College to get a teaching certificate. Her death threw me into a state again I recognize in retrospect of desperate clinging to faith in a God who was unpredictable - but whom I unconsciously hoped to control if I was very, very good and prayed hard enough.

Enter a call to the Religious Life. The Sisters of St. Margaret ran St. Margaret's Home in Montreal, and Canon B introduced me to them. I've written about this part of the journey elsewhere. I loved God. I was terrified of life. I still loved God. And in 1967, when I began at the convent in Boston, I had no idea of the undercurrents of terror and efforts to control. I loved my community, my Sisters, and gave my whole self.

Sisters Anne Marie, Virginia, Roslyn Marie; front: Sisters Jean and Marjorie Raphael at Kenscoff
Haiti. Sent as a missionary, I became the convert ...  Haiti (as Sister Marjorie Raphael recently suggested) released something in me - life, actually. Not recognized immediately. Took a breakdown/breakthrough to create the conditions necessary for new life.

Dad had, in the meantime, left Mum for someone else - and I 'discovered' finally that prayer didn't 'work' - that is - praying very hard was not going to keep my parents together. Or ... fill in the blanks...  It's tiring, too, trying to get God to do what helps us feel safe. Sounds like a childish faith, doesn't it? Well it was. It was survival 'faith.'

To come back to St. John the Evangelist and the mass last Tuesday:

During my time as a Sister, I was posted several times at St. Margaret's Home. We had a beautiful little chapel, but sometimes we attended evening Mass at St. John's. I remember the peace of it - the silences - the candles and smell of incense and wax ... the comforting words of the old BCP, the liturgy as it has been celebrated for several hundred years - priests with power. 

A disclaimer of sorts, if that's the right word: My present faith journey takes nothing from those who find comfort at churches like St. John the Evangelist, or in other churches with different expressions of faith. or in other faiths. We are all one. Only, though, if we can acknowledge that we are different? And, a part of me still finds some comfort there - not so much in liturgy - but in beauty. And I do miss incense. Mmm.... deep breath ... 

As a youngster at St. Mark's, as a Sister at both the convent and St. John the Evangelist, I found comfort. Tuesday, I had the sense of how wrapped I had been - as in a cocoon - by the words and scents, statues and reredos, altars and memorials - simply the beauty that is, or can carry us beyond ourselves to ultimate beauty. God was in charge in those days - and I was asleep. 

I didn't question anything. Not the fact that only men presided at the eucharist and had leadership roles in the church. Not that priests were men of prestige to whom we (sometimes literally) bowed down for blessings. Not that words like men and mankind exclude over half the world's population - and yes, yes, I know... but in a patriarchal society where power in church and society still largely resides with male leaders, language matters. It matters desperately. 

Hymns - well - we had few, if any, hymns of  justice and the several hundred year old English (mostly C of E) hymns supported the theology of the time. Images of God were exclusively male - and now we have "She comes sailing on the wind... " :-) Prayers were - Father. Period.  (Many still are). I didn't question any of this. I didn't know to. Creeds we said by rote were written well over 1,500 years ago by male bishops with an agenda. The Roman Empire became Christian through the conversion of Constantine - who created a flag to go before the Romans in battle with a cross - the vertical post being a sword - then  conquer - assimilate - destroy - all in the name of Christ. Onward Christian Soldiers was written as a marching hymn for children - I love the tune - and how have we used it? 

We create US and THEM and imagine that ours is the only true faith - the only true God. How do we reconcile this with God having brooded over the waters and saying, "Let there be... and there was ... and it was good." Including human beings. Nothing about levels of created people - we are ONE.  

I felt sad last Tuesday, as if I've lost something. I suppose I have.  I can't and don't want to go back. And yet, there was, and is, beauty there. 

I've moved beyond the faith of a small child, though it was essential. I've moved, and am moving, past believing in God from a position of survival mode.  I find living in questions decidedly uncomfortable and yet freeing. I give thanks for all that went before - for all that was formative - even for the lowest points that led to growth. 

I don't know what comes next after this life - and again there is a sense of loss. But I found an excellent blog link this morning to help me ask those questions. Or - more importantly - simply live in the questions.

Sigh... is that a prayer? Yes, I believe it is. And Thank You - even when I'm scared and uncertain...