Monday, April 13, 2009

Easterrific, but impious

Last night was my third Catholic service in the last three and a half months. This was the Easter Vigil, which was explained by the music minister to be Very Important. Not being Catholic myself, I had no idea what an Easter Vigil was about, but they needed brass players and I needed their money. Thus, accord!

The first thing that always strikes me upon entering a Catholic church is that Jesus is always on the cross. I'm sure that's duh-level obvious for most people, but my Protestant upbringing only acquainted me with the plain and non-tortuous crosses. This particular church had a very interesting crucifix behind the altar. It was carved wood, but Jesus had no discernible details to indicate him, other than a *very* vague human shape. It looked almost as though the sculptor had roughed out the basic shape of a torso and the basic sweep of the leg, then polished it smooth and called it a day. I found it very pleasing, in a way similar to when one finds a odd-shaped stone in the river which has been smoothed by the action of the waves.

The service began with an outdoor fire in the parking lot, set in a small brazier. As musicians and non-Catholics, we four brass players stayed indoors, in the now completely-lightless sanctuary. From the brazier, they lit the Easter Candle, which was so large and bulky that it could easily be added as a weapon in the Clue board game. From the Easter Candle, hand candles carried by the worshippers were lit and all returned to the pews, gradually brightening the room with candlelight. My boyhood church has a similar candlelit service, but only for Christmas Eve, so my memories were non Easter-oriented.

The first part of the vigil consisted of an extremely long recitation by a cantor, with ABUNDANT repetition of three or four notes. I found it very tedious, but probably would have been lulled into a more amenable stupor had they used any incense at all. As it was (stone sober), it went on for so long that I had to start hyper-opening my eyes frequently, as one does when sleep is approaching. Luckily, I long ago mastered the art of non-apparent yawning with my mouth closed.

Then we moved on to a sort of pageant. With the sanctuary still mostly dark, there were five speakers arrayed across the front of the sanctuary with radio mics who passed lines back and forth in their most sonorous and somber tones. The voice of God was played by the choir, which gave it a delightfully polytheistic bent, as though one being made of many.

In the almost total darkness, tympani were struck in a satisfactorily "introductory" manner. It was Genesis 1:1, culminating with turning some of the lights on the stage on to the "Let there be halogens" verse. Yes, I'm pretty sure that's in there. At one point, someone in the dark crowd triggers a flash on a camera, causing audible groans of surprise and pain from the musicians.

Eventually, the Gods divide the waters from the void, and pronounce several things good. Before humanity is created, however, the story abruptly shifts to Moses raising his staff over the waters. Oh no! Had I fallen asleep and missed the rest of Genesis? And did I snore as Cain murdered Abel?

Actually, their script just skipped over Adam and all that stuff in the middle. They went straight from Animals and Insects (complete with rain stick and choir snapping their fingers to simulate bugs) to the end of Exodus. I stifled a laugh when I thought of everyone missing pages. The other trombone player and I bit our lips to avoid sniggering as the choir snapped like a poetry slam audience and the serious percussionist tilted his rain stick with gravity (as they say). It's really not fair on the poor musicians, who are attempting to make an appearance of reverence.

Also unintentionally amusing was that one of the radio mics was tuned poorly, so the woman using it sounded fuzzy and hollow, like she was being received over a police scanner. A flash in my brain saying "Car 54, where are you?" made me giggle.

The hand of the almighty was definitely at work in the room, however. And Our Lord was in a "temptatious" mood. I know this, because almost the first person to enter the sanctuary before the service was a fetching red-head who was no doubt named after one of the months of the year. I know this as a fact because (as they say) "June was bustin' out all over". She was wearing a dress which I will call "laughably inappropriate" Easter wear. It was high at the hem, low at the neck, and tight in the middle. She was probably in late teens or early twenties and, as a grandmother might say, certainly old enough to know better. Surely there's some sort of catechism for young ladies about the appropriateness of excessive cleavage in the church, isn't there?

She sat at the near end of one of the pews, which were angled in a way that provides one less occupant per pew progressing towards the front. In effect, this meant that there was nothing in between her and the musicians sitting thirty feet opposite her. These facts combined to give me the knowledge that she was not-altogether skilled at crossing her legs in a "ladylike" fashion. Yes, I occasionally saw London, I saw France... and so forth.

The younger player sitting one over made exclamations from behind his stand and through clenched teeth. The married man sitting next to me agreed with me that YES we hand ALL seen it and lower your voice.

Oh Lord, how you tested us. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the rehearsal, and so we had nothing to do but sit there and try NOT to stare. I can tell you that the fourteen icons spread throughout the room representing the Stations of the Cross are beautiful carved wood. And were I placed in the center of that room and blindfolded, I could point to their exact locations. I can tell you that the struts (located by my foot) supporting the clear plexiglass sound barrier separating us from the choir were two-by-fours which had interesting perpendicular slices here and there, indicating that they belonged to do-overs from some other project that were then wood-stained and pressed into service.

At some point, we were found worthy (or unworthy) and June moved a few rows back to sit with her friends. She was not, however, alone in wearing somewhat-revealing attire. I was reminded of the late George Carlin's description of church as "a place we all go once a week to compare clothing," a declaration which drew a knowing chuckle from his audience.

Partway through the mass, there was another exceedingly long musical interlude, where a female cantor sung names of people to keep in prayer, with the congregants singing back "Lord, hear our prayer" after each. This recitation of five repeated notes took more than seven minutes, as the list contained over fifty names. The thought struck me after about five minutes that I was listening to a very straightforward minimalist opera, like "Nixon in China". I had to bury my mouth in hand to stop laughing.

*** *** ***

While I am a total heathen to laugh and covet my way through the mass, there were some genuine moments of reverence and awe. The sight of a room filled with the quivering light of candles evoked a sort of sadness and nostalgia that I don't quite understand. There has always been something fascinating about fire and I have always felt a kinship with it. Perhaps all people have that buried in our primitive psyches; I know that I am drawn to flames of any degree like a tall, tow-headed moth.

Also during the evening, five people declared their intention to join the church and were baptised and confirmed. This put me into deep reflection, because I knew that they were being welcomed by the church as a communal entity. The group absorbs the few, welcoming them with open arms and wide smiles. In their turn, the postulates long for the certainty of the community of the Catholic church.

It made me very aware that I was on the outside of this loving embrace. Yes, it was a place that I had never been before, filled mostly with people I did not know. But still, a part of me longed to be the one being clapped over the shoulder and hugged. This is, I should point out, one of the most difficulty symptoms of living alone: a longing to belong once more to a community. A need, practically. Certainly a mostly irrational one; I share few beliefs with the Catholic church and would find no solace within the church walls from my demons.

A friend of mine, riddled with issues of her own self-worth and self-image, once put a question to me: "if you had a friend who talked to you like you talk to yourself, how long would that person be your friend?" In her case, wracked with her own guilt, she sees the question as a wake-up. Her usual method of being downright cruel to herself calls attention to the negative feelings she suppresses unintentionally. It's a way to remind her that (in a way) the reason her arm hurts is because her fist is always unconsciously clenched; relax it and the pain will ease.

I can hear her answer and acknowledge it, but it is foreign to me; as foreign as my answer is to her. My answer is that I would love that friend. I have no such endemic crisis of self: I see myself as a praiseworthy figure. Indeed, at the risk of sounding vain even on a blog written by me ABOUT me, I am very pleased with who I am. At every turn, what I seek are ways to improve those traits which are great, or to bolster the weaknesses. In the quiet of my own mind, the sounds I hear are not the voices of criticism but the noises of industry. "Tomorrow, I should look up what an earwig is; I'm not really sure when I heard it in that Eddie Izzard routine." Or "I had no idea that I'd been using the word 'sartorial' wrong all these years! Let me see if I can use it in a proper sentence." Or "It's too bad that friend of mine lives so far away. I love her company and I rather like the way I'm perceived by her." Or "I think having one life goal is good enough: to have a working knowledge about everything!"

Some friends are surprised when I tell them I consider Pride to be the prevailing sin of my character. Perhaps some of the confusion arises because I don't suffer from the most common form, that of physical vanity. Perhaps confusion comes because I also have a healthy supply of Humility towards myself and my actions, supposedly the opposite force of Pride. I'll tackle this all in an entry for another time, but for now, the most important thing to know is that my weakness, Pride, is also my strength. The negative aspects of Pride dog my steps, but the positive aspects bolster my conscience.

So, my friend's question is turned on its head. She fears and despises the company of her shadow friend, full to the brim of all the self-cleaving dislike she feels for herself. She would not keep that friend. But I actively search for that friend. In many ways, I have no friend who talks to me as I talk to myself. The prospect of finding such a friend is attractive! Someone who thinks of me like I think of me? Very interesting.

This is not meant to denigrate my friends. I love them all, in the sense that they've put up with me long enough for me to realize I'd be lost without them. But none of them communicates to me in the way I do myself.

I do admit trepidation, though. One who has a positive outlook doesn't neccesarily need someone outside his own head telling him how great he is! The danger of magnified self-congratulation is quite high.

But maybe that person is what I need. Maybe that person's philosophy and presence is the key required to get past the barrier I find myself metaphorically stuck behind, its immensity squatting on my life's path. Do I need that unquantifiable-until-I-see-it energy to come from somebody else before I can break forth into the next of life's grand adventures? Or should I shun my complimentary double in much the same way as my friend, for being an external representation of all the most unhelpful traits?

1 comment:

  1. "The noble soul has reverence for itself." - Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil.

    I don't agree with everything that he said, but I do agree with this quote. Loved the entry.