*Link to Phelps Oh Holy Night below
Bless my Missus’s tender heart. She struggles to get me something at Christmas. I learned a long time a go that wanting is suffering. A wanting man is not a confident man. I’d rather want less.
This year she got me this beautiful jacket. I tend to wear my jackets for at least a couple of decades if I can, so quality counts. This one is both breathable and windproof and waterproof. It also has scent inhibitor, a new one for me. I picture her reading that and telling herself, “I’m getting it.”
You see, I have faith in Missus. She has faith in me. We grow our faith in each other.
Which makes me think of my mother’s deathbed advice, “Chris, you’ve got to have a little faith.”
She said these words while patting my hand with some effort as she lay dying of cancer. The sacrifice of reaching out through her pain with this unequivocal statement meant her words were anchored in my psyche permanently. I had tried without success to hypnotize her and relieve some of her pain, but it was she who had put me into a trance.
But faith? Faith is about trusting something. A part of me said, “Not this guy. Faith is for others.”
Perhaps I had the concept of “belief” taken from me as a child. It could even be that I have unknowingly searched for it since. It may be that I used to believe, at least I believe I used to believe, in any case, I told ma that day that I’d leave a little room for mystery.
One of my first Ottawa memories is singing in the choir with my dad at L’Eglise Catholique St Thomas D’Aquin on Kilborn Avenue. The old man bounced around his shadow for much of his life but every once in a while his divinity would shine through the darkness… and he was King.
Losing my place in the hymnal at six-years-old my first time singing with my father and the choir standing way up high in the back balcony overlooking the congregation, I felt increasing panic the longer I couldn’t find my spot.
I remember desperately finding the courage to risk interrupting him and to look up to search his face as he stood beside me singing along with the others. It was as if he read my mind and my fear. He casually reached down and with one finger showed me the exact place on the page where I needed to be and resumed singing. What a relief it was, and at least to me at the time, a minor miracle.
On the day I compromised with dear old ma and told her I’d leave a little room for mystery; it was the best I could do. It has now formed into something of a core-belief. This has been a surprise after all, unforetold at the time. It means some shit I can just let go.
It was the quote on my dad’s bookshelf, handwritten in marker in Dad’s script, by Robertson William Davies (1913-1995) which said, “Nobody ever knows the whole of anything.” What a relief.
I wonder why the old man felt so strongly about that quote that he defaced his own bookshelf to remind himself each day of its message. I have a suspicion it is the same reason it so appeals to me.
Dad told me he was worried about dying while still possessing books he had not read. I know he carried a fair bit of shame in his life. You could say it takes one to know one, that’s how.
But some or a good part of his self-worth was tied to his learning. You could see it in the way he had information filed away at the ready, partly from genuine enjoyment and talent, but I think also partly from survival.
I know this was true for me, and like him, I have read a book per week most of my life.
It’s as if learning meant I was worth at least something, and just maybe, if lucky, I would not be taken to the edge of the village and left to the animals and the elements. I think the old man had some of this abandonment fear in him. Davie’s quote lets us both of the hook, at least in function.
Like my father, my faith isn’t traditional, not in the conventional religious sense in any case. This is entirely self-serving because knowing and having a faith is a burden which exceeds me. I think it did for the old man too.
Ma went to church every Sunday, but Dad stopped going. He did tell me if he had to do it all over again he’d go to church for the community because he felt as if he may have missed out. That kind of wisdom is hard to come by.
It makes sense that mystery is a doorway to faith. Mystery and awe are related, perhaps like cousins, especially when a sense of awe is part excitement and part fear, as some claim. Faced with Northern Lights, the Milky Way, the Perseid Meteor Shower, the vastness of an ocean, the view from any mountain top, the rising or setting sun and vastness of space with the moon hanging out there in full, these may inspire awe and remind us of just how small we are in comparison.
If you are at all like me, and I realize you are not, nevertheless, to find at least a faith in yourself, here’s what you do: don’t go all in on the Bible right away. Its parables need some context.
Instead, visit the works of Joseph Campbell, or even texts like the Bhagavad Gita. Dabble in Jung but only the more mystical stuff. R. Wilhem and Jung’s The Secret of the Golden Lotus Flower will build mindfulness and stretch your ideas of interconnectivity (as you gather light over a hundred days).
Consider over a period of some days or weeks Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meanings either in print or through his lectures. Listen to this and allow the greater human journey to build in your mind and most importantly in your heart, then plan to go for a walk in nature.
It was Spinoza (1632-1677) who helped me understand God as a metaphor for nature. Pantheism, which sees God and the Universe as the same, seems to fit me and endures.
Daily I have recited psalm 118:24 for 35 years. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” At first I used it as I had read it. Then I stopped pretending I had a faith and substituted the word “Lord” for the word “Universe” for about ten or fifteen years. No one was listening so no one knew.
But thanks to social media, eventually I shared my morning ritual using universe instead of Lord. At some point, especially after someone pointed out that I was reciting Psalm 118:24 (because citing the source makes things neat and tidy, which makes sense), I decided to use the “as written” version.
Of course, this pissed off the odd faithless bastard out there who felt I was proselytizing. Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke, is my attitude. As a faithless bastard myself, if I can handle it, so can you.
Christmas time is a good time to invite a little more faith into your life. You could act “as if,” and no one will know. It’s none of their damn business anyway.
One thing to do is go out into nature. When you go for your walk, if you are lucky there will be snow.
Snow quiets the forest and the trails, making the odd chatter from squirrel or bird take on an otherworldly rising and falling sound, a disturbance which seems to summon the spirit like a loud whistle from a referee signals the start of play on a sports field.
If you are lucky, you may see sun filtering in among the bushes and trees and fields and be dazzled by billions of sparkling snowflakes reflecting their light.
Breathe in the cold air and imagine the lingering smell of pine.
But before you go on such a walk, listen to Christmas music, one selection in particular.
Listen to O Holy Night. Oh my, it’s up there… metaphor intended.
I have listened to Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and even my favourite torch song singer Whitney Houston (rest in peace fear seeker) and none of them are comparable to the male voices I have heard singing this singularly powerful and faith inducing song.
The Pentatonix group have a female singer and collectively do a fine job. Tyler Shaw and The Tenors are pretty damn good too. This brings several voices to the fray and widens the experience.
But it is this gospel fella David Phelps singing Oh Holy Night live in front of a crowd that may stir your soul. Maybe listen to it several times, it is that good anyway.
Then take some time to walk in nature wherever you are. Who knows what might happen?
You could fall on your knees and hear the angel voices.
I’m off for a walk. Merry Christmas.
*Listen to Phelps’ best rendition here: