Saturday, 8 July 2017

Gum under Pews, Stories, and Grief

Last year when life was difficult (understatement) I discovered that one way to hold the inner pieces together was to return to attending daily Mass - as in convent days. The easiest way to do that was at 4:30 pm at St-Antoine de Padou in Vieux Longueuil. A day's work followed by a half hour of peace. Odd. Only male priests. In French (which is actually good practice) and pretty exclusive language. For a feminist, inclusive language loving woman priest - what the heck was going on? It doesn't have to be analyzed to death. It enabled me to keep things together through a  period of depression and keep going a day at a time - sometimes one step at a time. (It didn't help that I had sleep apnea and stopped breathing 25 times an hour and was permanently exhausted. Now I sleep - thanks to a CPAP machine!)

St-Antoine-de-Padou is huge. A co-cathedral along with Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Gradually I got to know people by sight and vice-versa. I kept my priestly Anglican status a secret for quite a while until I asked a kindly senior priest if it was ok for me to have communion. "Of course," he replied and we chatted for a few minutes. (More recently, of course, Pope Francis told RC's if they can't get to their own churches, they can go to an Anglican one.) 

So, what has this to do with gum under pews? Well, one day I was sitting quietly (how else does one my age sit in a huge church?) and leaned a bit forward with my fingers under the pew. Gum! Hard as rock little nobs of gum! Mystery. So, I began checking other pews (since I didn't always sit in the same pew) - was there gum there, as well? Yes, there was. Every pew I tried. Hmmm... who put the gum there? When did it happen? Was it children or adults? Or both? What were their stories? Were they children in the 50's as we were? Did they take out their gum before going for communion and stick it under the pew? 

Reminds me of a clean-up day we had at St. CHL a number of years ago, and Madeleine who must have been coming up for 90 was down on her knees with her granddaughter Madison cleaning gum from under our pews.

Back to St-Antoine's - Which leads me to more stories. I'm so aware of people especially as I'm walking out of church. People with bowed heads. A lot of white and grey heads. Younger people of Spanish origins - Central and South America. Haitians and Africans. Two priests are from Democratic Republic of Congo and one is from, I think, Guatemala. The curé from Belgium originally, was appointed last Thursday (Sts Peter and Paul) to be the next Bishop of Ste-Hyacinthe. 

St. Antoine's is a place that has been long prayed in and smells lightly of incense and wax ... Each person has his or her story - grief at the death of a spouse, joy at the birth of a child, illness, arthritis, a grandchild on drugs, refugees or simply people who chose to leave their countries behind, separatists and federalists, ... God knows each one's story.  I'm deeply moved.

Jump ahead. tomorrow is my last Sunday at St. CHL. I have ministered there for 22 years and five months. but who's counting? I've never been anywhere this long is my 70+ years. If I am moved by stories of people whose names I don't know, whose faces I begin to recognize, how much more by the stories we have lived together at St. CHL. From Lily Hermitage resisting giving me keys to the church the first Sunday I arrived. (I discovered later that a previous priest was never given keys - after 18 months, he got the key people to make them for him.) I inherited a parish with conflicts and at the same time that the final people from three church mergers in five years arrived from St. Luke's, Rosemount. A priest had never been placed longer than 2 years. 

from Google images

I don't want any religious nonsense thrown at me. I am grieving, as are the members of our parish. It's not a competition. It's not like the death of a spouse or a child. But grief is grief. I don't know where I will belong. I don't know myself apart from this community in some ways. Yes, we will all be well. Yes, it will take time. 

In the last three weeks, I have presided at three funerals. Two of them asked to have 'I did it my way" by Frank Sinatra as part of the liturgy. I should do that tomorrow. The world is changing. The church is changing. And we have done creative, dynamic ministry on the margins of the church. We have addressed issues like racism directly. We have addressed conflict directly . Right from the start (and I didn't learn this as a child or even as a young adult) I refused to hear complaints through a third person - and requested that the complainer be told to speak to me directly. We worked together, studied together, certainly prayed together often in creative ways. I remember where each one sat (we're Anglicans, after all and don't change pews unless under duress or if someone had the audacity to sit in our pew)  !  :-)

There were suicides, a horrific stabbing, and an attempted murder, and a murder ... a few examples of what we weren't prepared for in seminary . Where to get rat traps - and, after trapping 30+, helping the family find an apartment free of the beasts. Some parishioners living in unbelievably substandard conditions - and voices going unheard to get the city to build more low-income housing. Helping three families to settle after the earthquake in Haiti, and organizing with PWRDF a project to provide meals for children in the area worst hit by the hurricane.

We had chickens and a garden - first to minister to and with vulnerable children - leading to outreach to our neighbours - Enduring memory: at our picnics until they stopped growing watermelons with seeds - I see Hester at 90 and others who had not only never spit watermelon seeds - but had never even considered doing so. Celestine was the consistent winner of the spitting contests. When watermelon seeds became no longer available, we tried peanuts, cherry seeds, and others - but I hasten to report (and save you the trouble of experimenting) that no seeds are as aerodynamically perfect for spitting than watermelon seeds. 

The list of memories could go on and on. They are in our hearts. Bill Brocklesby singing loudly and off-key. Gordon Pike muttering during my homilies - and I learned later that he was, in fact, listening and commenting. Gloria, our resident Evangelical who could give me chapter and verse from her front left-hand seat - and who sang glory to God with such beauty and enthusiasm. Children at the altar assisting with communion. Max racing in from the hall, kneeling at the rail and holding his hands to receive and then dancing back down the aisle ... Jazz Masses ... healing services. Learning about Japanese-Canadian internment camps from Akiko Edith Sakai who, with her family and many thousands of others,  endured them. Our Johnny's sister and brother singing  "Jesus Christ is Risen today" in Inuktitut at our Easter service a few days after his funeral .... singing in Créole with our beloved Baptist brothers and sisters and receiving gifts of mais moulu ak sauce pwa... Spoiled, I was. 

We have laughed and cried and argued and loved each other. We have baptized, married, and buried loved ones. We have been community. And I am sad to be leaving. The time is right - kairos time - but that removes nothing from the sense of grief.

Yes, we will always be part of each other. Yes, we will continue to minister - all in our own ways. 

An old approach to faith might be that priests shouldn't get too involved in the lives of their parishioners and that they move on when it is time. No tears. Excuse me! If we are going to be human and love each other in community, then we will grieve when we leave.

So, there will be tears tomorrow. And in days following. Tears tinted with thanksgiving at all that was - at how we have changed each others lives - and how we will carry each other always. We are human. There are different kinds of death - and this is one. 

Jesus wept.

And - two quotes I use for almost all funerals along with the biblical readings, of course:

Give sorrow words;
 the grief that does not speak
whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.

from Macbeth

From The Prophet – Kahlil Gibran
Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of death.  And he said:
You would know the secret of death,
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day
cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death,
open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one…
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing,
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb,
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

May we know peace - God's deep peace - and may we know it in the midst of grieving.

from Google images

And then there was JOY -  my 25th Anniversary as priest at Pentecost - thanks to Helen Foster for the photos
more on this wonderful day another time now that I got the photos from DVD to memory stick