Downbound St. Lawrence Seaway-Ashtabula, Ohio to Quebec City, Quebec
Though the word is not confined to the provinces of the middle-aged and the elderly, it was when my doctor said it, ‘colonoscopy’, that I believe the lid on the coffin of my youth finally slammed shut. There were numerous indignities that followed, up to and including the procedure itself. However, worse was the anxiety I felt leading up to it. Dreaded analogies of unspeakable prognoses. It was this, and the recent and serious illness of a close friend of mine, that made me briefly envious of those people who have faith and the comfort they take in prayer.
When I was nine years old, I served as an altar boy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. I recall myself as being a serious child, often anxious and prone to what doctors called ‘nervous’ stomachaches. I had spent most of the Sunday mornings of my short life at Sunday school and mass so becoming an acolyte seemed a matter of course for a Maltese-Canadian kid. The first mass I served, myself and the other altar boy N. were in our place, kneeling roughly 15 feet behind the priest at the altar. I was furious as my father had chosen to sit in the front pew with the rest of my family (something they never did) and he was sticking his tongue out at me and pulling faces. Had he no sense of decorum? Did he not know where we were? I broke a commandment right there and prayed for a new Dad.
We were into the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the priest held the communion wafer above his head for the congregation to see. He was a chain-smoking, ruddy faced man in his late middle age and at the moment when we Catholics are meant to believe transubstantiation occurs, the changing of the bread into the body of our lord Christ, he released a rattling volley of farts that even from such a distance I swear tousled our hair. My eyes widened. I heard a squeak emerge from N. beside me. My lips were pursed tight as a bear trap and every muscle from my navel to the top of my head was tensed to stifle the laugh that was trying to erupt with Krakatoan urgency. I closed my eyes and thought of starving children in Ethiopia. This was not where my faith ended, but it’s safe to assume that the first seeds of skepticism were sown by these grown men and their lack of propriety. It is a good thing nobody else heard the priests eructation’s. If the sound had reached those in the front, my prayer would have been answered and my father would have laughed himself to death.
My friend got some good results and she IS going to get better. As for me, apparently my digestive woes are diet related, though it still feels like the fucking cast of cabaret are doing a tap dance in my lower intestine.
Make no mistake, it is a tough old road to hoe alone, and some help along the way might be nice. I am a flawed man, quick to anger, deeply critical, short on patience, prone to envy and pettiness. I have been remiss in my relationships, even unkind. I would like to change these things, but it is not a divine imperative that motivates me, it is the scant wisdom that my age has endowed, the increasing awareness of how short our time is here, how important our interactions are. This reliance of some religions on a supernatural element seems baffling to me, besides the arrogance of eternal life, all we need is right here. I’m reminded of the words of the French poet Jaques Prevert,
‘Our father who is In heaven
and we’ll stay here on earth
which is sometimes so pretty.’
I’m sure I could benefit from some form of meditation and prayer and I am not averse to a Damascene style conversion. Friends, I am awake. My eyes are rapt, my ears are open. But short of this, is it not enough to seek meaningful interaction with each other, to marvel at the flight of birds, the industry of insects, the boundless love of a good dog. I can sing my own hosannas, for all these things and more. For the feeling of salt on my skin after a swim in the sea. For the first sip of beer on a hot day. For the sun I saw set two nights ago over Lake Erie and that rises now over Quebec and the length and breadth of the river this morning. For the wild places. And for words and running, and the solace I find in them and that simple act of locomotion.