Thursday, April 5, 2007
Stopping All Stations
Easter is such a problem. For the small business operator, it's long enough to be a 'shut down' and short enough to be a real nuisance. "We'll be 'looking at', 'thinking about', 'responding to that' after Easter" ... "That invoice won't be paid until after Easter" ... . As a child growing up in an unforgivably Christian household, Easter was a real mind-fuck. It was impossibly bleak. Shops would shut ... and gloom and doom would descend on our, otherwise, perfectly happy household. It was a veritable tsunami of interminable guilt and suffering (Friday), reverent anticipation (Saturday) and strident rejoicing (Sunday). For the Recovering Christian, Easter remains a heady mix of ingrained duty and obligation ... and like many of the rituals I still associate with the practice of Christianity, essentially one of messy contradictions. Well might the rock have been rolled away, but the Easter Eggs were (and still are) always scarce.
My father was, and still is, a preacher in the High Methodist tradition. He was also responsible for the Easter Candlelight Prayer Vigil at our local church ... and every year, my faith-full Dad would draw up a roster of believers who would take it in turns to sit at the altar of our little church to ensure the single candle (symbolising our spiritual accompaniment of Jesus on the journey to his crucifixion - 'The (fourteen) Stations of The Cross') never went out. The vigil would start at 8pm on Thursday evening and end at about 9am on Friday morning when the Minister leading the Good Friday Service would extinguish the candle to symbolise Christ's death ... murder ... passing ... homecoming ... betrayal ... what you will.
My father would spend hours on the phone tending his blueprint. 'So and so' were going away ... 'so and so' were interstate ... 'so and so' would love to, but ... 'so and so' were sorry, but ... and so and so on. One year, he ended up doing four separate shifts at times of the morning that were, for the rest of the congregation, decidedly un-Godly. And while our home was always stressful, tense and complicated for the duration of this thankless task, I envied his devotion.
A short time after I had moved out of home, my mother called to tell me that my father was having great difficulty filling his Candlelight Vigil roster. I was in the thick of therapy and, possibly even writhing around on my bed like Linda Blair's 'Regan', I think I snarled something typically badly-intentioned, blasphemous and entirely lacking in irony like: "Jesus Christ! Is he still peddling that shit?" down the phone. My mother, knowing - as mothers infuriatingly do - that I treated sleeping at night with the same level of contempt as I treated my health generally, thought I may like to offer to help him out by taking the early morning slots ... those times when it was apparently inconvenient for the rest of the congregation to be up. Even though I was in the midst of fanatically despising both of my parents for the dazzling array of sins they had (not, as it turned out) commited throughout my entire childhood, I agreed to call him. After all, 3am was easy for me ... and yes mum, I'll try not to be pissed. Christ!
I rang my Candlelight Prayer Vigil Roster-fatigued father who gratefully accepted my offer to fill in the gaps. I would take over from Him, sorry, him, at 3am and 'accompany Jesus to the cross' until 9am when people would start to arrive for the Good Friday service.
The fourteen 'Stations of the Cross', as documented both in the Christian faith and my father's Easter Candlelight Prayer Vigil Roster, are: 1. Jesus is condemned to death; 2. Jesus receives the cross; 3. Jesus falls the first time; 4. Jesus meets His Mother; 5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross; 6. Veronica wipes Jesus' face with her veil; 7. Jesus falls the second time; 8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; 9. Jesus falls the third time; 10. Jesus is stripped of His garments; 11. Crucifixion - Jesus is nailed to the cross; 12. Jesus dies on the cross; 13. Jesus' body removed from the cross; and 14. Jesus is laid in the tomb. I was to take over from my father as Jesus fell for the third time and be there in faithful observation until Jesus was laid in the tomb, and the congregation had arrived to worship.
Acts of faith are decidedly loaded undertakings - where that part of the brain that qualifies our actions as meaningful and appropriate to the given circumstances, proves simply incapable of resolving the inverted equations (of which the World Trade Center 2 + 2 = 0 is the quintessential example of our age). But I was acting out my faith for the benefit of my father ... in spite of the fact that the philosophy of John Wesley's Methodism contains more than a generous strain of emotional, psychological and physical child abuse. (Years later, I would include faithfully transcribed details of Wesley's teachings relating to The Child(ren) as material evidence in a submission I was commissioned to write for the Australian Senate Enquiry into the Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse). And while I certainly do not consider myself an abused child, Mind Fuck Methodism certainly defined the physicalisation and the fractures that will forever mark the complex and demanding relationship I share(d) with the Christian faith in general, and my father specifically.
Arriving at the church remains a striking memory. It was cold. I was early. I was sober. I was drug-free ... and I was rugged up and ready to draw on all of my theatrical reserves and 'do this thing'. It would be easier than television. I thought. My father was very happy to see me ... and for the briefest of moments, as we met at the altar in the flickering candlelight, his faith and my acceptance and understanding of it, was an undeniable reality. The peace and resolve was quite profound. He showed me The Prayer Book, where people had written their requests for prayer. There was the little old lady down the road who was expected to die come the resurrection. And there were others. I was to pray these collective requests ... but more than anything else, I was to be here as keeper of the candle. If it went out, I was to re-light it with a match from the box beside it. I was to be beside Jesus in his hour of need. And with that, my father left ... shortly after which I, of course, immediately fell asleep.
And on this occasion anyway, Christ died on my watch.
I woke only when the lady who had arrived with the floral arrangements was fastidiously (and perhaps intentionally a little too noisly, thank God) attending to her task. Those who know me well will understand how soundly I sleep ... and for how long ... and how hilarious it might have been watching this particular Good Friday service delivered over the prostrate, paralysed, dribbling, snoring and talking body of Geoffrey sprawled - immovable, stranded, inert and unconscious - across the altar. I didn't know where I was and, the momentary disassociation was impacted (with the velocity of an incredibly high speed head on collision between a semi-trailer and a tiny hatchback on a stretch of desolate rural single-lane highway) with fear that I could, for the first time in my life, taste. The candle had gone out.
Pulverised with fear, I very reluctantly looked up. A scattering of people were arriving and there were some already seated. I witnessed this by, not only the almost surgical quality of fluorescent light, but also by the now barely discernible but instantly recognisable flickering light of 'my' candle. Well might I have abandoned Christ in his hour(s) of need, but it would seem that He had chosen not to provide any evidence of it.
In the good Methodist tradition, I expected to be punished when I least expected it. Instead, it would later be confirmed, that the true measure of significance was that I was physically 'there'. 'Popping out to the 7-11 for a late night snack' would have been an indisputable error of Judgement - and consequently impossible to either accept or forgive. Christ's death, on the other hand, was unpreventable - and whether I was asleep or awake, it was the presence of a living (albeit snoring) soul beside the candle that was the quintessential and undeniable truth of this particular ritual. It took me years, however, to get over the embarrassment ... and to be honest, especially writing about it now, I'm not entirely convinced that I have.
In the years since I rejected Christianity and have chosen to live my life, instead, worshipping at the altar of The Almighty Haphazard, there have been moments when it has been impossible to deny the presence of something beyond even the clockwork curiosity of my imagination. There has been more than one occasion when a gentle but determined hand on my shoulder has prevented me from stepping from the footpath into the path of an oncoming car. I have suddenly been inspired to call a friend at the perfect time, and I have spent time on stage buried under dirt in a shallow and very crowded grave.
But my lasting memory of the Easter Candlelight Prayer Vigil is also crowded ... crowded by acceptance, forgiveness, company and precious solitude. And the point at where, while in the tranquil company of Jesus, I was powerless to prevent the most all-consuming, blissfully ignorant and unintentional sleep I have ever had.
Image: Barry Moser's The Crucifixion.