Monday, July 23, 2012

God's Henchmen

The folks who own the cabin next door are named Ron and Joan.  We love them dearly and talk back and forth through the hedge and trade tools and home maintenance advice from time to time.  They actually live in Missoula and just come to their cabin on weekends.  They’re members of a Catholic church in Missoula and many times over the years we’ve seen them leave early on Sunday morning to get back home for mass.  It must be pretty difficult to leave on a bright July morning as the sun is just coming up over the mountains and streaming across the lake.  For the life of me, I don’t know how they do it.  I’d be thinking up all sorts of excuses to stay for one more day.  But they leave most every Sunday. 

And then, on top of that, they told us that Ron was going to learn to be a deacon for their church.  It would involve classes for five years and wives had to attend also.  There would be reading and homework and countless hours of lecture.  And here’s the kicker.  The classes were to be held in Helena 115 miles away from Missoula.  If memory serves me correctly, they had to go over once a month for the whole weekend.  Wow.  That’s commitment.  Well, a few months ago Joan said that the five years was nearing an end and Ron was going to be ordained in a ceremony in Helena.  For me, that five years seemed to go really fast…probably not so much for Ron and Joan.  As they were talking about Ron’s ordination Noel said, “You know, I’d really like to go to that.  Will you tell us when it is?”  And then a few weeks ago we got an invitation in the mail.  It seems that 17 deacons were going to be ordained all at once in this ceremony.  Well, we really didn’t know what we were in for, but you just have to honor that sort of commitment and so we were happy to go.

I must admit, I was pretty excited.  Noel was raised Catholic and every once in a while he’ll get the urge to go to Mass.  Although I have no idea what’s going on I always have a great time.  Catholics really have the whole pomp and circumstance thing down.  Everything is a huge ceremony steeped in centuries of tradition.  And the entire Mass is a feast for your senses.  You stand up and then you sit down.  Just when you get comfortable you stand up again; then you kneel.  Secretly I think the whole thing is perfectly timed to prevent falling asleep.  One time I was so mesmerized by trying to figure out some of the scenes in the stained glass windows that I didn’t realize I was supposed to sit down and was the only one left standing in the whole church.  Noel basically pulled me down.  Needless to say, I’m a lot more alert now. 

There’s always a bunch to look at too.  The Catholic churches I’ve attended have all been just beautiful.  The sun streams through the colored glass and shines on ornate woodwork.  There are draperies and crosses and statues and carvings everywhere.  Pretty cool, but pretty ornate…lots to catch your attention.  And one of my favorite parts is the swinging balls of incense.  I’m not sure if this stuff comes straight from the Vatican, but it sure is potent.  I can’t wait until it wafts over my row.  I breathe it in as deeply as I can just in case it’s specially formulated to make you holy.  And then there’s singing and organs and speeches and readings.  It’s grand.  And the best part is that I know nothing about any of it and I have no idea what it all means.  Every once in a while Noel tries to explain a few things, but I prefer not to know the real significance because I’m sure the reasons I make up in my head are a whole lot more fun.  I get no end of enjoyment from it.

So anyway, we were invited to this huge cathedral called Saint Helena.  We made the day of it, driving the four and a half hours through some of the most beautiful scenery past lakes and mountains and rivers.  We had a lovely dinner near the cathedral and then made our way over to the ceremony about fifteen minutes before it was to start.  On the way we congratulated ourselves for such perfect timing.  Noel said, “This is great.  We’ve got plenty of time.”  It had been a glorious day and we were jubilant.

Well, we thought we’d sneak in by a side door, but as we turned the corner into the chapel we realized that we had come in pretty much at the front by the altar.  And as our eyes adjusted to the dim light we saw hundreds of people already seated.  Since nothing else was happening at the time, it seemed that every pair of eyes turned to look at us.  Little did we know that as we were enjoying our pasta, apparently all of these folks, knowing that this was the hottest Catholic ticket in town were racing to snatch up every available seat.  Now, let me stop right here to tell you that entering a Catholic church is a lot like going to Costco.  You’re either a member or you aren’t, and everyone knows the difference by the way you come through the door.  At Costco, you rummage around in your wallet for your special card and hold it up for the guardian at the door to see.  She nods, and you get to enter.  Now, if you’re a Catholic you go through the door and do a special little ritual consisting of a slight bow to the statue of Jesus, then you dip your hand in a bowl of water and cross yourself.  It’s really quite lovely and I think it would be very nice to do in order to sort of shake off the cares of the street and remind yourself that you’re in a church.  I think it’s good to pause and orient yourself to the new environment.  But, of course, I don’t do this because I don’t know how and I’m not really a member.  I know this, and now everyone else seated in the church knows this.  The only difference from going to Costco is that even if you’re not a member the good and gracious Catholics let you go in anyway. 

Well, here we were in the front of the church, hopelessly looking for a place to sit.  No one budged.  No one scrunched closer to his neighbor.  No one motioned for us to sit down.  We scanned the entire church.  Finally, we found two seats near the end aisle.  Score!!  I asked the man sitting near the end if the seats were saved and were so pleased when he shook his head.  We smugly sat down and looked up to find that we were seated squarely behind a huge marble pillar about three feet in front.  Why the builders of this cathedral even extended the pew this far is beyond me.  Perhaps to accommodate the blind?  I decided these seats would simply not do.  I was not going to drive four and a half hours to stare at a pillar, so I took matter into my own hands and sent Noel in search of different seats.  “Come back and tell me when you’ve found better seats.  I’ll hold these,” I whispered.  Imagine my surprise when just a minute later I looked up to see him gesturing wildly from the very front pew.  Score!  I made my way again to the front of the church in time to hear a lady tell Noel rather firmly, “You can’t sit here!  These seats are reserved for Ron and Joan.” 

He replied, “Oh, I thought they would be sitting up front.” 

As I got up to leave I think I heard her mutter, “This is the front.”

Well, we were off again with every pair of eyes following us.  Little did we know that we were the warm-up show.  We finally found some seats in an overflow area to the side of the chapel and we could just see the altar if we craned our necks to the left and looked through an open door by the choir.  I’m sure the several hundred people who watched us make our way in, through, and around the church were a bit disappointed to see that we actually were going to sit down and stay down.  So, in order to entertain them a bit more we decided to stand near the side door when anything interesting was happening and walk up a few stairs to a platform and sit down during the singing parts.  We pretty much ended up standing when everyone else was ordered to sit and sitting when everyone else stood.  But, what the heck, everyone knew that we didn’t have the Catholic Costco Card anyway.

And then it started.  The bells outside started ringing and the organ inside started playing and the choir started singing.  I stood on tiptoe to see the altar boys and girls carrying tall candles enter the chapel followed by twenty or thirty priests in white robes.  It was amazing.  But, then, oh then…there were men marching down the aisle wearing long black capes and tremendous black hats with splendid white ostrich plumes.  Oh those Napoleonic chapeaus!  They were glorious!  They were grand!  They were magnificent!  Now, I may not know much about religion but I do know that I should not covet.  But, I’m just saying that one of those hats would make a wonderful addition to my collection.  “Who are they?” I whispered.  “Are they the Knights Templar like in the Da Vinci Code?” 

“No, Shelley,” came the reply, “those are the Knights of Columbus.” 

I don’t know why they are called that, but forever more when I think about Christopher Columbus I will imagine him standing on the deck of the Santa Maria, pointing grandly to the New World as he jauntily flips his black cape over his shoulder.  He will be wearing one of those amazing hats and the ostrich plumes will be waving softly in the breeze.  

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the swinging ball of incense entered and just behind came a man with a lovely, white and red robe and a huge red hat.  He looked for all the world like Father Christmas.  He even carried a shepherd’s staff!  “Who’s that?”  I whispered. 

“The bishop,” Noel said through the corner of his mouth.  I must admit that at first I was a bit disappointed but then I decided a bishop is pretty much like Father Christmas.  You don’t see him very often, it’s a big to-do when he does come and he is probably very kind and very wise.  I loved him immediately.

He stood up, removed his beautiful red hat to reveal another red hat underneath (really…it was just like The Cat in the Hat) and began to speak.  He told the deacon candidates that he wanted them to consider the depth, flavor, color and texture of their ministry.  (Don’t you just love that?)  And then he went on to list seven qualities that he wished them to possess.  He called them ‘Hallmarks of the Ministry’.   Now, I must admit that it took me a bit, but I finally got the gist of this whole thing.  All of the qualities started with the letter ‘H’.  So, he talked a bit about humility, then holiness, then happiness and then hope.  He went on with healing, hospitality and ended with humor (my personal favorite.)  And he called them ‘Hallmarks’ (get it?)  I must admit my mind wandered a bit and I wondered what God would have done if he thought that all of the Commandments had to start with ‘C’.  And of course, because I was still thinking about the black hats I thought about Coveting, but then I couldn’t think of any more except Cussing and Cilling (okay, I know that’s really a ‘K’ word.)  So then, I started thinking about more ‘H’ words and decided that it was fitting that we were in the Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, Montana.  And with all due respect I decided that I would call the bishop “The Head Honcho.”

Just then, his speech ended.  A quick look at the program and I noted that his speech was called a Homily…a fact that filled me with an inordinate amount of glee.  And the singing started again.  Now, I’m not really complaining, but the Catholic congregations do a bunch of back and forth singing with the choir called Responsorial Psalms.  Basically, someone from the choir sings one or two lines of a tune that is full of sharps and flats.  They’re nearly impossible to sing.  And I’m telling you that the people who are supposed to sing these things have wonderful voices and probably teach singing at the local college.  They can’t even hit the notes.  And then sadly, it’s the general congregation’s turn…the folks who probably only sing on Sunday.  Those who are wise know to just keep their mouths shut or at best, they mouth the words.  The rest try to follow along, but like I said, these things aren’t exactly what you would call melodies.  The whole effect is a little depressing.  And to make matters worse, the same thing is sung over and over and over again.  I think it would be so much better for everyone involved if they just took the same words and set it to the tune of say...”Row, Row, Row your Boat.”  Lots of people would sing because it’s actually a singable tune, and since you’re singing the same thing over and over again, just like “Row, Row, Row your Boat”, it could be sung in a round.  Certainly a more joyful noise all around. 

Anyway, we struggled through some of the singing and then all of the deacon candidates had to lie down on their stomachs with their noses pressed into the travertine marble as a sign of humility. 

The effect was really quite humbling for everyone and a memorable statement about their submission to God.  But, they had to stay there forever and ever while we heard another rather tuneless song about all of the Saints and all of the Catholic churches in Montana (don’t ask me why.  I tried to figure that one out and I have no idea).  I started to worry that they weren’t going to let them get up, and then I thought that one of them would start snoring and it would drown out the singer which would have been a blessed relief.  But, they were finally allowed to rise.  Now let me pause to tell you that several weeks ago, Ron and Joan’s dog tried to race Ron down the back steps of their cabin.  The dog won because Ron ended up on the ground with a broken ankle.  He still wears a boot cast and only recently advanced from crutches to a cane.  Well, there he was face down on the marble and everyone else was getting up.  For one long breathless moment we all worried that he would remain there for the rest of the ceremony.  But two other deacons rushed to his side and sort of tuna-hauled him up, white flowing robe, boot cast, cane and all.  There was a collective sigh all around.

Well, the ceremony was grand and it certainly held my attention.  Now, as I sit at my computer I think back over the day.  Again, I’m amazed by the commitment of those seventeen deacons.  If everyone loved something enough to make this kind of sacrifice I think the world would be a much better place.  And their intentions of service to God and their fellow men are most honorable.  I wish them all well in their endeavors.  I may not be of their particular faith, nor obviously do I understand it, but I admire their ideals, respect their dedication and hope God blesses them in their good deeds.  And I’m glad that the powers-that-be in the Helena Diocese pulled out all the stops to pay tribute to them.

As we were making our way out of the cathedral (ahead of the crowd, I might add) I asked Noel exactly what a deacon does.  He told me that they are kind of helper priests who assist in baptisms, weddings, funerals and that they work with the sick and the poor and the down-trodden just like Mother Theresa.  Well, unfortunately that got me thinking.  (I’m sorry; I just can’t turn off my brain.  I’ve tried.)  And I thought that “Helper” was a nice word because it started with “H.”  But, “Helper” just doesn’t have enough power…enough zing.  It just doesn’t give the right vibe.  So, all sorts of “H” words started tumbling around in my brain and just like a Bingo ball, the one that tumbled out was “Henchmen.”  That’s it…they’re God’s Henchmen!  A quick check of the dictionary reveals that I’m right.  I easily skip over the definition that involves members of criminal gangs and come to the part about henchmen being loyal and trusted followers or subordinates.  Henchmen are also pages of honor to a prince or other person of high rank.  Who, I ask you has higher rank than God? 

So, Ron my dear friend, I’m glad to know you.  I’m happy that I got to witness this rite of passage as you attained a goal that most would find too daunting.  And I’m especially glad that you live next door just in case any extra holiness, goodness or purity rubs off.  Heaven knows, we can all use more of that.  And if I smell incense coming through the hedge, I’m telling you right now…I’m breathing in deeply.

No comments:

Post a Comment