Joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. – Romans 12:12
When I was a kid, the Gideons International gave out New Testaments to all kids in Grade 5. I remember my big sister got one, though it wasn’t until she was 15 that she really took up with our churchy neighbours – for a while, while my Mom endured her beloved eldest daughter attending a Lutheran church. It didn’t last. Having had my own experiences with that family and their blend of forward positivity and somewhat oblivious racism, I can guess how it might have unfolded, her brief enfoldment in their embrace.
When my brother got his Gideons bible, he dove into it with a deep passion for the injustices in the world. He wanted to save the world, and was overwhelmed with horror at how daunting a task it seemed. He was an angry young man, and Mom endured that, too. To me, he talked of wanting to be a guerrilla, wanting to go to all the missile silos on the western plains and dismantle the bombs. But how? And how to destroy the knowledge to rebuild those things? He became more and more melancholy and angry.
As for me, I could hardly wait my turn for a New Testament. It was pocket sized, with a pretty, faux-leather cover, and a frontispiece form to fill out, with your name and the date that you swore to accept Christ as your personal saviour. I remember feeling somewhat leery of that, of filling out that form. What I did do, right away, was promise, just like the bible pushers asked us to, to read that New Testament every day.
I wonder what Mom thought of my turn with the Gideons. What is somewhat strange and eery to me in retrospect is that I can’t remember her actively saying anything much to any of us when we got our little bibles. You’d think a devout Catholic might have leapt on the teachable moment. Maybe, with some of her kids, she did. With me, I only recall one exchange about that bible.
Maybe she didn’t want to interfere. She’d given me a picture book of Old Testament stories one year. Each of us big kids had gotten a hardcover book for Christmas, and that had been mine. I loved that book, those strange and dramatic tales – Joshua singing and banging pitchers until the city walls of Jericho fell down!? Astonishing. Between my keenness for that book, and my aspiration to be like my older sibs, maybe she wasn’t at all surprised to see me glom onto my very on New Testament (plus Psalms & Proverbs).
I read my little bible. I carried it in my pocket. I read it aloud to my pony. I read with interest, and puzzlement and occasionally with a sense of transcendent virtue. I felt something spiritual, a call to do the right thing.
And I read with horror, though I don’t recall in what chapter or verse, that one should tithe the first fruits of one’s labours, and the first portion of all gifts, to the Lord. In my mind, the logical link was inescapable. I had prayed for years for a horse of my own. I’d written songs about horses, drawn and cut out paper horses to play with, been a horse in play. And now, I had a horse, a beautiful little pony born on a Sunday morning in May, the centre of my heart in an instant. And now, the Bible was saying I was responsible to Tithe My Pony Unto the Lord. It was sinful, somehow, to hoard something so beautiful just for myself.
I had no idea how to ask my parents. I wrestled with the idea, silently, fretfully. I was frankly terrified that God would take this great gift from me if I didn’t tithe my pony, whatever that meant, which was frustratingly unclear.
Eventually, I hit upon the answer. I would train him to the harness, and use him to plow the garden. In that way, I’d be a biblically correct person, not an idolatrous horse-mad girl. God would be satisfied if I could prove that this pony was not an indulgence.
So, I took the pony sized collar Dad had found at an auction, and I figured out how to make a harness of braided baler twine, and I tried to figure out how to train a horse to harness. I can imagine my parents watching, bemused and proud, as I tried to drive my pony. They must have thought I was having so much fun, so much discovery.
They likely had no idea of the deep soul torment that afflicted me.
As a parent now, I can well imagine that, to them, being able to give me a pony was purely good. To them, the pony’s usefulness lay in the many lessons he was teaching me about patience, kindness, intuition, honesty, all the ways that horses have always taught us. That pony’s proud and stubborn love for me is a treasure I carry even now, and I can understand that my parents would have been delighted to have given me that.
How could they imagine that I was wracked with guilt, trying to fit my pony through the eye of some needle of obscure doctrine couched in archaic language?
I have no idea whether Mom ever knew how heavy that tiny book became for me.
As I mentioned, I recall only one time when she and I talked about the little New Testament. It was a strange exchange.
I was reading larger segments, trying to understand a narrative. She was having an evening visit with a neighbour woman, one who was very status-conscious and competitive, so theirs was never an easy accquaintanceship.
Into the atmosphere of mildly duelling politenesses I descended. I do recall reasoning that, with a guest in the house, Mom would likely overlook my coming back down on a school night, would be happy to help with this small dilemma.
I recall a sense of indulgence from them both, a mild curiosity at this distraction. Emboldened, I got right to the point.
‘Mom,’ I asked, brandishing my New Testament with its pale silvery cover and gilt-edged pages, ‘What does ‘fornication’ mean?’
I was dispatched back up the stairs with astonishing haste, none the wiser. I wish I’d remembered to ask Mom, in later years, if she remembered that incident. Had she and the neighbour been choking on laughter? Had she been embarrassed? I wasn’t quite clear what had happened there. I just knew I’d better not ask twice.
Was Mom joyful in hope when each child got that bible? Was she patient in affliction, as we struggled to understand a faith that seemed more alien by the year, while Dad was coming to articulate his sense of loss, an Ojibway man cut off from so much of his own religious and cultural roots, who’d become a Catholic but had to struggle with memories of the Church schools?
Perhaps she was simply faithful in prayer, unable to talk to us about it all, but determined to keep a personal line open to God as she knew Him, so that, just maybe, one day, He’d give her the words to explain.
*This year, I am honouring my mom’s passing by writing throughout the Advent season, following as prompts the daily quotations cited in the free online calendar put out by the Catholic Medical Mission Board Mom was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and I was raised with the Church as a contentious part of our family life, given that my Ojibwe dad’s family was so affected by the church. Nonetheless, her faith was important to Mom, so this is a tribute to her. It’s also a reflection on how religions influence in many ways.
If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.
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