Yes, I’m a day late. The kings were late too, right. This image is taken from the stunning collection of nativity scenes from all over the world that is housed in St. Joseph’s Oratory here in Montreal. I know, the picture is not stunning but – be proud of me – it’s the first picture I have ever transferred from my phone to WordPress. Marvel at this modern miracle. The nativity scenes at the Oratory show how people from all over depicted their idea of the Nativity mirrored by their own culture. The good news is that the whole collection is on permanent display, year-round. There is even an activity room for the kids where they can make their own Nativity figures and drawings.
In fact, I went to the Oratory yesterday, close to a site of an errand, to do my outdoor cardio. There is a formidable set of outside steps where summer pilgrims sometimes ascend on their knees. To be honest, one used to see a lot more of that in years gone by. Having huffed and puffed up to the top I decided to explore one of the staple tourist attractions in our city. This huge building houses a vast church with a formidable organ, a smaller chapel, a mysterious and candle-lit foyer with various relief sculptures of St. Joseph and even the crypt of Frere Andre. Even though he has now been made a saint, no one calls him anything but Frere Andre. He was the humble doorkeeper at the college across the street for many years. It is through his force of will and mobilization that this complex was built. Of course, that was in the old Catholic Quebec of the early 1900’s.
I always thought St. Joseph got a bit of a raw deal and I love his trade, his devotion to family and work. Frere Andre was like that too. Just an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things.
I love the feast of the Kings. I love this idea of traveling far just on hope, on faith that something wonderful will happen. I bet St. Joseph was surprised to find them knocking on the door. At home, my Nativity scene only has two kings. About fifty years a dog whose only devotion was to my mother, grabbed one of the kings and hid away to gnaw him into pieces. To our shame, we were much more worried that the dog had poisoned himself than about the fate of the third king. Anyone who ever asked was told, “the third king is still on his way.” These days I try to act as stand-in – traveling around full of hope and faith. Time to dismantle the Christmas tree!.
Going to church is a strange thing when you consider it. What makes it holy, special, the sort of place that brings me to the spirit world? This morning I gave a tour at the Museum of the Tiffany windows in the concert hall. That used to be a church but it was ” deconsecrated “. How did they make it not holy any more? Isn’t every place in the world holy? Is a Walmart store holy? A bordello? A torture chamber? Maybe not. Still, those places are built on the sacred earth. The earth is sacred all over. The windows depict scenes from scripture but I only talk about the glass-making technique, the business genius of Tiffany, the social class of the people who made up the congregation. Nothing sacred in that discourse.
Then, when the tour was over, I went to St. Joseph’s Oratory. That church is famous here in Montreal. It’s a place of pilgrimage and loads of crutches and sticks are hung up as proof of miraculous cures. They all date from the last century. Don’t miraculous cures take place any more? Tourists come by the bus-load but believers come too. There were many Asian people there today. I wandered around and lit a candle as a thank you for a wonderful thing that happened. Like many people I pray in secret for things to happen. When they do it feels like good manners to say thank you somehow. Nothing is “forever”. Even Lazarus had to die a second time. However, sometimes I feel like I get a really big blessing, a gift from the universe, from the spirit of all life.
The Oratory is a sort of complex of churches and chapels and a garden and a gift shop and the heart of a saint on display and a museum. It’s quite a place. The part I like best is a sort of hall with altars to the attributes of St. Joseph where I lit my candle among the hundreds of others. It’s hot and dark in there and people are talking and taking pictures. It puts me in mind of people struggling and asking the saint for help. From there I went into a chapel where Mass was being said. The priest was a young man from South India or Siri Lanka. He had a wonderful voice and a rather charismatic way with him. Many people went to Holy Communion and I was surprised after Mass to see many people lined up to put their hands on the feet of the figure of Jesus on a large crucifix. I got the impression most of,them were asking for something.
I don’t understand what church really is. What are these buildings, and pictures and objects that mean something, some sort of blind searching? Today I had to go to a place that was still ” consecrated” on a special mission to catch that little flame on the taper and light up a candle in a glass cup. Beside the flame there were tears of gratitude too for being alive and being happy.
People were there with their cameras, their best clothes, saris, beautiful African turbans and Sikh turbans too and Vietnamese speech, bewildered American tourists, and the beautiful voice of a Chinese girl who sang the responses. I liked being in the midst of all these people. I had my place in there too.
The church is a place to honour the Spirit and to ask for what we need and to thank when we get it and to wonder and wonder what is the whole heart of this existence.
confounding our image-driven idea of
what this holiday
Clammy, bone-chilling fog,
mystifying mist, blinding cloud
coming down .
Wrapping a scarf, buttoning a coat,
pulling a cap down over the eyes.
The chilly fog fingers insinuating themselves,
Looking up and out from the little parapet,
searching for the settled dome, the solid curve
Crackers and Santa Clause and plum pudding
all submerged in a flighty, uncalled-for
cloud of winter fog.
Will choirs surrender to it? The notes
melodies tangled in the soft white
cold nothing of mist.
Misty Christmas, welcome mist,
swaddling us, binding us in mystery.