Monday, January 30, 2012

Presenting the Presentation

Before first Mass on February 2nd, a very small group will gather in the porch outside the main entrance to our Church. If the weather holds, it will be a cold, dark wintry morning and the lights inside the Cathedral will beckon warmly, but there is something to be done before the regulars can enter and occupy their spots in the pews. This day is different.

The celebrant, vested, pauses at the top of the steps while the sacristan stands with a basket of candles beside him. Prayers are recited – invocation and response – voices at first hesitant then gathering in resonance as the significance of the occasion sinks in. The candles are blessed and distributed and the people, too, feel the sprinkle of holy water as they cross themselves in time honoured ritual. The candles are distributed, lit and the little congregation processes into church behind the Priest, singing a hymn. The candles are extinguished, Mass begins. What is this day?

The feast of the Presentation commemorates the occasion when the infant Jesus is presented in the temple, in accordance with Jewish Law which prescribes that all the first born of human and animal alike be offered up to the Lord, 40 days after birth. This day also commemorates the Purification of Mary, following Jewish custom for women who had given birth (in the Catholic Church this custom was continued and known as ‘Churching’. The practice has been discontinued for some time).

As a very young child, I looked forward to this day as Candlemas. We lived in Bareilly where the winters were even colder and the early mornings much darker. The church was far away, so my father would wake me up at the crack of dawn. Warmly wrapped up and muffled to the eyebrows, I was transported by bicycle, anticipation and excitement rising with every turn of the wheel. There would be other children and infants brought by their parents – a sweet reminder of that young Jewish mother and her infant son - and we would participate wide-eyed as the flickering candles dispelled the darkness. The fragrance of incense warmed the air and the musical chant of the Nunc Dimittimus resounded between stone walls. I remember Simeon’s prayer so vividly – we had to learn it ‘by heart’! - “Now dost thou dismiss thy servant, according to Thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen the salvation of thy people…”.

This is the day when Simeon tells Mary, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."

This day is significant in the time-line of the Church calendar. A tradition upheld. And for those of us to whom tradition is important, there is a certain tenderness in the memory and a quickening of the spirit. For, in tradition there is continuity - a link to the past and hope for today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chivalry, oh chivalry…

Yesterday, it was a welcome night out at the Catholic Gym. The Music was good, the company excellent, the atmosphere charged and noisy, the food so-so, and the night warmed up as the wee hours approached – I’d give it an 8 on 10, despite my encounter with ‘the queue’.

The snacks and refreshments required the purchase of coupons and there was just one person dishing them out to the milling crowd. After standing patiently in line while it remained static for what seemed like forever, I discovered that the men in front were ordering their chhotas and burras – this entailed stating the tipples, the quantity and numbers. For example, three large whiskeys (name of brand), two small rums (name of brand and either dark or white), one small brandy (name of brand), two vodkas, and a couple of cokes. The man at the counter would then have to check the rates, calculate the individual cost, tot up and total, enter it manually on the receipt, receive the cash, and dish out the change.

I tried my luck. ‘Is there a ladies’ queue?’ The gent before me bestowed a genial smile and a not so genial reply, ‘This is a private venue. You get ‘ladies only’ in government office!’ I tried another tack. ‘Separate line for ‘Senior citizens’? The same gent turned round and gave me a funny look before facing forward again. Oh well, I resigned myself to my fate and spent the time profitably, calculating how much the bill would be. It was quite some time before I made it to the counter and I had the amounts down pat: so many plates (name of item), rate, total. The man at the counter scribbled away to my dictation, tore off the counterfoil and favoured me with a wide grin and ‘Thank you, Ma’am!’ If only those men before me had been efficient tipplers.

Apart from improving my mental math ability, there was one more lesson I learnt: When you’re hungry don’t join a queue of thirsty men!

(Perhaps, on second thoughts, I should have captioned this post 'Oh Chivas Regal...!)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Zapped by the Mass

The first Mass on Sundays is usually a sleepy affair. Very early morning, a sparse congregation and an accommodating celebrant make this possible.

Today, the Priest was young and energetic. He took us through the prayers so clearly and briskly that we had to wake up to keep up! He also threw in a sermon that was a perfect kiss – he kept it interesting, short and sweet. The experience spun me a bit out of kilter and my first thought was ‘Why is Father on horseback?’ but the outcome was a feeling of exhilaration: I was zapped by the unaccustomed freshness and a homily that I could take home in my heart.

When I once questioned the very brief sermons he used to deliver, a wise old priest told me that the ‘sermon’ was already there in the Gospel. Where, then, was the need for a long-winded discourse? Today’s homily jogged that statement out of hibernation: read the ‘Good Book’, hear the message, heed the instructions, ‘come and see’, bear witness. A simple formula for daily Christian living!

My first reaction was that this celebration would have been more appropriate for the youth who look for relevance in the Sunday obligation. Then I thought again. Perhaps we were meant to be roused to the ‘youthfulness’ that makes one eager to face the day. For once, I was not anxious to rush home and keep that appointment with a hot cup of tea. I just had to pass on the experience.

So, as we step out of Christmas and a little further into the New Year, I share this message with which we were sent forth: May you feel alive as never before and may your energy be contagious – share the Word, live the Word and God go with you.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Toilet Humour

My maid lives in a one room tenement that is under renovation. The toilets are in a block some distance away and there is an early morning queue for its use (if you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you’ll get the picture). The toilets, too, are being demolished and rebuilt. My maid is worried: when nature calls, how will she and her family be able to answer?

Her problems jogged memories of my own experiences now tinged with laughter thanks to the distance of time. It is one thing to use a common trench at girl guide camps or a handy sugarcane field while on a weekend picnic when you are a child; it is quite another to face that kind of experience as an adult once city life has applied the veneer of ‘civilization’. But needs must and, living in a country where private sanitation enjoys the least priority, the experience varies from exasperation to the wackily humorous.

Our first holiday as a married couple was spent in a village off a magnificent coastline but with no indoor sanitation. For short stops, we availed a screening bush or tree as and when required. When I asked my husband about how I was supposed to take care of the daily morning routine, he calmly answered ‘the rocks’. I was horrified. After two days, nature wouldn’t wait, so ‘the rocks’ it was. Armed with a roll of toilet paper and a small bucket of water, I rose at the crack of dawn, trudged to the furthest corner of the beach, climbed up the highest pile of rocks from which perch I could keep an eye on the surroundings, happily bereft of human presence. Yup, been there done that!

Journeys by road are now dotted with wayside inns and more sophisticated hostelry. But not so long ago, there was nothing but nature between departure and destination and nature flourished thanks to the passing presence of needy travelers. Been there done that, too. I also have memories of the time before flushing toilets: bathrooms were rooms and not the minuscule cubicles you find today, and sturdy commodes lined one wall. One would sit in happy camaraderie with other members of the family – preferably of the same age and sex – and get on with the job. Nature’s needs were taken care of quite naturally.

Today, I baulk at the thought of a repeat performance of any of those experiences (and that includes the ‘pig toilets’ in Goa – but that’s a story for another day). They were certainly not for the faint of heart.

There was also a time when parties and picnics were embellished with a lusty rendering of the bawdy ‘Long live the Loos of England’ (a repertoire which included ‘Daisy, Daisy’ and ‘On the Isle of Capri’), which occasioned the parental, ‘Where did you learn that?!’ Pity the occupying Brits did not think to convert that song to local legend!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A little of this, and a little of that…

The end of an old year and the beginning of a new one always bring on the reflections no matter who you are or where. Someone or something will be the trigger that causes recall. Some things change, some things must not and some things will be entirely one of a kind. The first is welcome because we all need the sloughing that refreshes that which already exists. That which must not change is our foundation, our anchor, our springboard: our values. The entirely new is sometimes welcome and sometimes not: the as yet un-encountered that will change us and shape us. Because that is what all experience does. What could it be? Not even the stars can tell!

And now for some inconsequential chatter:

Our church dog, once spry and frisky now old and arthritic, awoke at the Consecration and made her way to the altar where she sat in quiet contemplation. Neither priest nor server was disturbed. The incident brought a smile to my lips at that solemn moment, for God is present to all of his creation and this was a reminder (though many would not agree!). The sacristan had a more prosaic explanation: the marble floor was cold, the sanctuary was warmly carpeted. Considering that our resident canine has never missed first Mass and has never disturbed the service except for the one occasion when she barked in the middle of a particularly long and boring sermon, I beg to differ.

The mornings now are nippy and everyone comes to Mass snugly wrapped up. I am warmed by the sudden and quirky grins with which we greet each other; our unaccustomed extra attire invites comment not always complimentary. On the way home I see a policeman, head turbaned with his muffler, striding off duty. I give him a smile and am met with a quizzical glance. Our constabulary has yet to learn that greeting senior citizens is the courteous and kind thing to do. Here’s something that certainly needs to change.

Speaking of change: as we grapple with the new Roman Missal, we have been roused out of apathetic acceptance to enter into dialogue (sometimes acrimonious) about the pros and cons. Upheaval was expected and, when all is done and dusted and shaken out, I do hope that we will have a rendering of the liturgy that is eloquent and enjoyable as all conversations with God should be. I listen to the music of the new Mass on my computer and experience an uplift of the spirit. The composer is Fr. Dan Schutte, an inspired Jesuit and one of my favourites. No argument here – the music is beautiful, glorious and ‘singable’!

The biggest change that I will need to face is the absence of my dearest friend and partner. But he is not wholly absent for I can feel his encouragement – and exasperation! – in all that I do: encouragement because that is the way he was, and exasperation because, thanks to chronic impulsiveness, I tend to jump in where angels dare not tread. But then again, who knows? Maybe we need to blaze the trail and angels will follow. Now there’s a radical thought!

For you, may the year ahead be as good as it can get: may all the changes be comfortable,may new challenges be surmountable,and may you always have enough love, laughter and courage to face each day.