Sunday, June 14, 2009

In procession

The church I go to is extraordinarily High. I am talking way beyond the clouds, deep space High. I chose it because it was that. And honestly, I can't imagine what people who go to churches where the same preachy thing happens every week get out of it - with the best will in the world, I really can't. The thing about this place is that almost every week there is something new and, fairly often, both surprising and sometimes even spectacular.

My tradition started off sort of Broad church. Then it went Charismatic, with all the talking in tongues and hugging and kissing with arms aloft crap. Then it went High - with genuflections and incense and crossing oneself. Then, through force of circumstance rather than choice, Broad again. Then nothing at all, then High again. High, I say but certainly not as High as St Michael's Observatory.

So in many ways, I sit in some puzzlement and often in wonder. Today, it wasn't so much sitting, as walking. We had a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, through the streets of Observatory. Now, processions, I have done before, certainly on Palm Sunday. But in my limited experience, they have been somewhat stilted affairs trying to keep up with the choir singing "all Glory Laud and Honour" over and over again and holding a palm cross as elegantly as one can. And my experiences of ecclesiastical processions, prior to this have been either around the outside of the church, or even around the inside of the church! Sort of token things. A nod in the direction of what used to be, once upon a time.

This one was anything but that! Richard, the priest, announced that we would not be processing if it was raining - (which it has been the whole of yesterday and the night before). But it became clear towards the end of the service that there was no rain, and that a procession would take place because servers started rushing around with Humeral Veils and other accoutrement. The Blessed Sacrament, displayed in a fairly substantial Monstrance was taken in procession down the aisle. The congregation fell to its knees as it passed. Then, singing hymns, we all followed into the streets of Observatory. A police car with flashing blue lights ahead of the procession.

I noticed some people who live in the area, coming out to have a look at what was passing by. Dogs started barking. One rather cute student type, with no shirt on, came out onto his balcony, then rushed back inside only to appear moments later with a camera. Cars did U-turns and others, filled with the curious and the bewildered, passed us as best they could. There was a group of what looked like tourists, with really big cameras, who seemed to want to get us on camera as well. I felt a bit like one would, I suppose, if one were a participant in the Kaapse Klopse, or a military band, or a protest perhaps.

I started thinking of similar experiences I have had both as a participant and as a spectator. I remember the mighty marches we had in the late 1980s - as part of the "Standing for the Truth" Campaign, (which was really the United Democratic Front/ANC)- formed to pressurise the apartheid state. I remember the fact that it was a staggering 10 000 strong in Pietermaritzburg, at a time when protest actions of this sort were unheard of. I remember the Special Branch videoing the proceedings and frightened white people looking down at us from the safety of a high rise building.

I thought of other processions I went to see in Dorpspruit (also in Pietermaritzburg) on Good Friday, where the Hindu religious community did things which I had never seen in my life before. I saw a woman stare at the sun, in order to get herself to fall into a trance and then started dancing like a monkey. In honour, I understand, of the God Hanuman. I saw men have their backs pierced with meat hooks - no blood - and then pull a chariot with an effigy of the Goddess Draupadi on it - with her hair hanging down - symbolic, I understand, of her rape. I saw a man sticking a dagger right through his tongue, and a spike through both his cheeks - again no blood. I saw people walking across a burning pile of coals.

And so I started to compare what we were doing with the other kinds of processions I have been in. Certainly, the others were more outwardly dramatic. Then again, were they? For me, there was something in the way in which that congregation fell to its knees when the Blessed Sacrament passed them in the aisle, which made me start to wonder.

The sermon made reference to perhaps my all time favourite film - "Shadowlands" - with Anthony Hopkins playing the part of CS Lewis. Lewis was asked, in the film, why he kept on praying. He said, it had nothing to do with changing the situation. It had to do with the change the act of prayer brought about in him - or words to that effect.

Because, let's be honest here. Processing around a suburb of Cape Town carrying the Blessed Sacrament is a bit of an anachronism. It doesn't fit with the modern world at all. And the thin crowd of 50 or so people processing and singing hymns is, also, somewhat archaic. (I can't imagine what the bare-chested student is going to do with his picture of us. I can only wonder what the tourists will do with theirs.) I can only speculate at what effect it might be thought to have on the world.

So why does this church do it? To show off perhaps? Because we know how to do it? Because of the tradition? Because we are proud of this religion?

I think it is actually something far simpler and something easily aligned to the CS Lewis idea, I mentioned above. I think it is because those of us who do it, want the very best for our world. And because this strange and curious tradition (and others like it), effects some kind of positive change in the doer, rather than in the world-order. And maybe that is something really important.

1 comment:

  1. 'kassie virrie die bhuya (ask El Smitho, Cape Town's variation of the Benghal Tierkie, to translate. I read your reflection on your fandango through the suburban maze of early morning Obs after returning from our December First Night march planning meeing. Fatiema had told of the ratiep, a practice that emerged from Islam resistance to slavery. Ratiep is akin to the khaliefa rite I remember from childhood. A seemingly senseless self-mutilation of the body by the piecing with swords and other sharp-edged paraphenalia, I am told, was the reclaiming of the subjugated body by the enslaved. It was resistance by the most profound means of retaining your sanity, spirit even as your body was being whipped, bound and tortured.