Saturday, January 13, 2007

In the Diocese where I was ordained, one of the more cantankerous archdeacons reserved the right to teach all new priests how to celebrate Communion. We'd already been priested - most of us had said our first Mass at some point already but he started from the opinion that we'd done it badly. And so we were trundled up-Island for a weekend of browbeating. Apart from a morning spent poring over the Canons of the Diocese of British Columbia, we had to learn the various 'manual acts' - movements, gestures and hand positions - associated with the celebration of Holy Communion. One of these manual acts, of course, occurs at the epiclesis which appears, in our liturgy nowadays, as an element following the Eucharistic narrative (the story of what Jesus did and said when he took bread and wine at the last supper). The priest will place his hands over the elements with his thumbs interlocked and invoke the Holy Spirit over these gifts of bread and wine. I could have told the archdeacon that I knew all about that. I had already gotten quite a fright at that moment in the service at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Montreal during my training.

I was the subdeacon there for a while (looking vaguely like a scruffy young hippy who'd been mugged by angry sacristans and dressed up in a tunicle but that's another story) and it was my role to stand to one side of Father Slattery as he celebrated Mass, be prepared to remove the pall from atop the chalice at the appropriate moment, genuflect when he genuflected and to raise the edges of his chasuble during the Elevation. It was all new to me - the churches of my youth had been nothing like this and I wasn't yet convinced. That is, until we got to a point in the liturgy one Sunday morning where Father Slattery placed his hands with interlocked thumbs over the open chalice (unlike the illustration above where there is a pall covering the chalice).

St John the Evangelist in Montreal was, at one time, sinking into the mud. Cracks had begun to appear in some of the masonry as a result of the shifting foundations and questions emerged as to whether the building would survive the slow sink into the ground. Then they built the Metro - Montreal's subway system - in 1967. The line ran right under St John the Evangelist and the structural work managed to prop up the building to such a point that any further slippage was unlikely.

Father Slattery had just gotten to a particular point in the liturgy where he spread his hands over the elements on the altar when a train ran under the church. Things are more connected than we might think and the vibrations ran up from the train to the structure of the tunnel to the foundations of the church and to the altar and all that sat upon it. The clear mirror-like surface of the Communion wine rippled. I said to myself 'My God, it's true'.

Years later I am able to explain all this with recourse to the physics mentioned above. I do, however, still find myself filled with awe and expectation that God honours those particular moments in time when dumb things are presented to him with a reasonable hope that he will change and animate them.

And I will never forget at which particular point in the Mass that hope is expressed most clearly - almost defiantly - in words that beg some immediate answer.

See what the dog brought up!

So what's the deal with jellied salads? I didn't like them when I was young. I was forced to eat 'just a spoonful' and was told knowingly that I'd grow to like them with time. I remember them back in Winnipeg when I was small - most particularly the evolving configurations of Tomato Aspic - appearing regularly like successive incarnations of the Buddha at church suppers and family events. They were still on the table when we first moved to Victoria, B.C. in 1965 - glorious 'oeuvres' in scarlet, green, pink or dappled grey. And then nothing. *Poof* - they went out of style, or were declared 'infra-dig' by the leading women's magazine. They disappeared.

It was the sixties. The Summer of Love was just around the corner and there was no place anymore for the formality of these compositions - for bits of egg, meat or marshmallow suspended in a product which was meat-based but, please - made from what bit of the beast, exactly?

One wonders if there's not a prejudice against mixed things - the laws in the Old Testament proscribe garments made of mixed materials. American television is still remarkably coy about portraying the relationship of couples across the colour divide - even after the changes of the last 40 years. Recordings of a saxaphone playing baroque favourites just don't sell.

For my part, I never liked jellied salads simply because there were all these 'bits' and they were never frankly one thing or t'other. Children prefer stories with predictable endings. Try changing a predictable ending the next time you're reading to a small child. Listen to the protests. They detest ambiguity.

At the table, they are forever holding up a bit of food on their forks and asking 'what is this'? and 'do I like it'? Before they risk a taste they want to know which category it belongs to. We pretend that children maintain a natural openness to new experiences but that's a load of old bollocks. The child's question at table is that of a rigid purist.

Those of us who are old and compromised - we take ambiguity as a matter of course. We'll never be able to proclaim our purity and excellence in any one thing so we might as well empty the fridge of any leftovers not crowned with green fuzz and plunge them into goop and serve them up to our relatives.

When it comes to the shocked expression on the face of the wee boy looking at this wiggling green tower, we can only sigh:

"Just wait kid. One day, when the wife has left you and you've been overlooked for promotion and your knees don't work any more, you'll be scarfing down that stuff as if it were your last meal!"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Among the Canadian contributions to the world - apart from snowmobiles and plexiglass there is of course Glenn Gould - with all his neurosis and ability. He wouldn't let you touch his hands which he would keep dipped in a pail of hot water prior to any concert. He brought his own slumping little chair with him. He gave up public performance altogether quite early in his career. There are two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations. One, recorded in mono in 1955 and another in 1982. I'm particularly partial to the earlier recording but to everyone his own. A video has been circulating on Youtube in the last few days with a version of the Aria and seven of the variations that more resembles the later recording and has Gould with all his eccentricities. He hummed while he played. He wouldn't stop. There are a few recordings of various works where this becomes problematic. In most cases you learn to live with it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Not all my predecessors have been big fans of Santa Claus. They felt rather pressed to make a choice for or against the predominant commercial Christmas culture. Fair enough. The United Church of Canada has tried to at least bridge the gap betwen the two.

This is what the Scottish House of Bishops looks like prior to the retirement of our Primus, Bruce Cameron. Idris Jones of Glasgow and Galloway (second from the left) is our new Primus. The Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney is still vacant. Their attempt to elect a new bishop 'failed to elect' and so the process begins all over again.