Easter Retrospective

115 journals

journaling, reading as strategies for survival and change

pagan Christ

I am re-posting this from last year. Of course Easter was not early this year, but given the weather we are still having, those Easter clothes of yesteryear would be too cold.

I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year -2013. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.

In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.

Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.

My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming  back for more.

This Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.

As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.

Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus.  He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.

By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.

At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”

On a less serious note: this year, 2014, the local Jehovah Witnesses invited me to a memorial for the death of Jesus Christ. That’s what I call a zinger.

Motherhood: savage longing

Robert Thurman, renowned Buddhist and scholar, and famous Uma’s father, writes in The Jewel Tree of Tibet about an unusual way to learn compassion. While you are sitting in a subway car or bus, look around and realize that everyone you see has, in the course of repeated lifetimes and in some form or other, been your mother.

But will we ever forgive each other?

Earlier this year, I bought Colm Toiben’s new book called New Ways to KIll Your Mother, a title that dismayed at least one mother I know.

Toiben is an Irish novelist and critic, who has written here a series of book reviews or essays in which he explores how we treat parents, particularly mothers, in our novels. He notes that 18th century novels rarely feature mothers. It is true that 10% of women died in childbirth then, but still, it seems unusual especially since motherhood was then beginning to be idealized. Yet “the novel is a form ripe for orphans”. He quotes Ruth Perry, a critic, who says that this “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.”

(That darned individualism, so marked in 2 year-olds, and 14 year-olds, and … oh, never mind.)

Jane Austen’s last three novels have no mothers. Her great success Pride and Prejudice has Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth’s social climbing, hysterical, embarrassing mother, whose husband escapes into his study. (Wait, doesn’t that sound like someone I know?) Aunts were permitted in many motherless stories, including those of  Henry James. They might be kindly as Elizabeth’s or autocratic as Darcy’s, or manipulative, but they were surrogates, not the real mother McCoy.

The middle section of Toiben’s book concerns Irish writers, including the poet W.B. Yeats, whose essay is subtitled, “New Ways to KIll Your Father”. Yeat’s father, an successful artist sounds almost as annoying as Mrs Bennet. He confidently wrote from New York to explain a brilliant book he expected to write and publish to great acclaim. Yeats, who had put in a long and painful writing apprenticeship, refrained from dashing his father’s hopes -and thereby presumably killing him. Instead he waited a long while, during which time no such book materialized and then responded in a restrained manner.

J.M. Synge, Irish playwright (The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea) and co-founder of Irish theatre, had a formidable mother who preached damnation at all three daily meals and organized his short life when he wasn’t escaped to Paris. Much as he disdained her ‘rule’, he followed her every summer to the family’s summer place. And much as she, an Irish protestant, abhorred his atheism, she continued to give him house-room. Despite disdain, he kept on coming back.

“Samuel Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” tells us of the author of Waiting for Godot and his mother. Apparently, she tended to be depressed. (Imagine that -the Becketts were depressed!) Beckett eventually also fled to Paris and insisted on remaining during the Nazi occupation. He wrote the following in 1937 while his mother was away traveling: (She had of course left her cook in place and Samuel continued to enjoy life good food.) “I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill. I am what her savage longing has made me….. I simply don’t want to see her or write to her or hear from her…”

“Savage longing” indeed. Sound like a mother you know?

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit that I am a mother. But, of course, you knew that.

A few weeks after I became one, I sneaked off to the doctor, leaving my newborn in the care of her father. There I sat and wept that she hated me already. Stupid man, he just laughed and assured me that soon we would be deeply attached. We were and we are – from time to time. Did I say that out loud? At present, we have entered a Pax Romana or a  long Victorian empire of peace. I have finally matured.

Her brother, on the other hand, is in a Beckett phase, although he is cordial enough at weddings and funerals. Funny how infrequent they are.

It is quite breathtaking when our beloved off-spring begin as they say to “individuate”. Humbling of course. After the momentary slights and cuts of childish insults, we endure a decade where we are ill-informed if not actually stupid, uncool, unfashionable and just generally out of date. We may or may not suddenly improve when the child is 21.

Apologies to Robert Thurman, but no wonder we have such a problem with each other! If we have all been each other’s mothers, we’ve got history.

On her death bed, my own mother had what looked like a large ruby on her upper lip. She was about to slip into a coma. She looked at me and moved her dry mouth silently. I wiped it with a wet cloth. Than she found her voice. “I need a present,” she said.

And my heart filled with compassion.