Coastal communion


White capsIn times gone by, on days when there was more water in the air than air, more ocean on the road than guidance, a famously flinty old Presbyterian woman by the name of Mrs Morgan used to remind anyone she'd meet that such wild weather was in fact god's weather, as if the coastal pastorale had taken on a meteorological morality, the sleet stinging sideways by dint of some divine navigation, some barometric embodiment of the punishment of sins.

Since then the religious beliefs in this area have largely changed but as I drove my two little boys to the footy ground on Saturday morning the weather was still front and centre. I found myself telling them briefly about what Mrs Morgan used to say and then found myself issuing them with a challenge. Whoever could count all the whitecaps on the water would win a box of chocolates.

A cruel father? Perhaps, or just the latest in a long line of annoying dads furnishing car-rides with memories designed to last a lifetime.

When the road finally turned slightly away from the shore and we lost sight of the ocean I changed the challenge. Whoever can count all the leaves on the trees wins a brand new Nintendo DS. Patrick, eight years old and an unsuccessful yearner for that very gizmo his whole life, replied that the challenge was an impossible one. When I asked him why he said it was because 'there are so many trees. Even more whitecaps. The world is too massive.'

At the footy ground the gale of course was blowing to the northeastern end, this being a Bass Strait landscape in May. They gathered with their teammates in the synthetic shine of fresh guernseys, boys at the androgynous age, putti really, crying out in the cadence of girls, for the ball in the warm-up, as if they could eat it, like chicks squawking for a worm.

The whistle blew, they played the game, in the rain and a strangely lo-res switching on and off of sunlight, like you might see on YouTube. They battled and chased and tackled, some had a clue, some didn't, some focused on the ball, some on the shadows of clouds passing over, all learning.

And after four quarters it wasn't so much the victory that was cause for the chaotic swelling of the theme song but rather the more obvious holy grail of the sausages and soft drinks to come at the home-game barbie.

Which, once digested under the pine trees on the half forward flank, left us as a family with the prospect of our other traditional rite of the late autumn season, the special parish mass at the end of the blustery afternoon ahead, where Patrick would begin the steps towards receiving the rather unfashionable sacrament of first holy communion.

At 6pm, in the tiny church built of ecumenical brick, with barely any aesthetic pleasure to distract from the humility of the message, Patrick and his cohort in both the footy and the communion to come, his schoolmate Finn Brown, sat quietly, though with the telltale legs of novices swinging restlessly under the front pew.

What is communion? Patrick had asked me between the game and the mass, just for one more clarification.

I made another ad hoc attempt to explain the meaning of this ritual that's come down through the centuries from our Irish and Sicilian ancestors, and which he now was to become the latest of the family to undertake.

You know how I receive the bread from the priest at mass? I began.

Yes, he replied.

Well, that bread symbolises Jesus and so when you take it it's as if a little bit of his magic rubs off on you.

So it makes you feel good? he asks.

Yes, well Jesus was a man who always spoke the truth, even when it was difficult to do so, and his heart was so wise that even his own mother believed he was a god. It can't be a bad thing to take on a bit of that?

Mmm, nodded Patrick, looking worried now, probably about how his mother would feel if receiving communion made him seem somehow different to her, somehow more than just her son, something other than what he actually was.

Father Wally began the mass, which can sometimes seem a little perfunctory on a Saturday night, but this one wasn't, though it was short, partly because of the excuse of the cold weather, but mainly because of the footrace that would close the ocean road the next morning, requiring Father Wally to hurry off to say an extra mass in Lorne that night.

He found time to mention footy during the service however, right in there alongside the sheepstealers of the biblical fold, and the theme of the importance of vocations, and the fact that the bishop had been let off the hook from making his scheduled visit down to the coast from Ballarat.

Afterwards, the four of us whose children were to undertake the six steps of learning towards the rite of communion over the coming weeks, lingered among the pews, filling in the forms and discussing midweek meeting times, breaking down the days of our busy family schedules, looking for a pause of general suitability, discussing the best options for everyone.

As it turned out this was relatively easy, thanks in part to the dwindling of the 21st century Catholic congregation, but also to the tiny scale of our town, where it seems an age-old spiritual ritual can still be orchestrated without too many logistical complications.

Our town might be small and the numbers at mass may have shrunk but outside in the dark of the carpark, to use Patrick's words of the morning, the world became immediately massive again. The whitecaps and tree leaves of old Mrs Morgan's morning had been replaced by the clear and copious stories of the starry canopy, and the wind that had favoured the northern end had gone on to whichever place the wind goes — perhaps back into the pre-Christian bag of Aeolus, or simply to settle in the east, as a zephyr hovering over one of the grand Kurnai hills of Gippsland.

As we hopped into the ute Patrick piped up again, to ask me about the meaning of the word 'vocation'. It's like a holiday isn't it? he ventured, in a cheery and accomplished tone.

Confused for a moment, I eventually twigged, and smiled, at the happy phenomena of misheard words, the way our ears desire song lyrics or even the messages of the liturgy itself to mean what we want them to mean, in this case that the vocational path of a priest and of the path to first communion were as fun as some sunny destination.

I started the engine, we pulled out into the starry road, and I began to explain the difference — between vacation and vocation. I contemplated — as you do — the Latin roots. The contrast therefore between vacare and vocare, between the state of being unoccupied or vacant and the somehow opposite condition of calling or being called.

This was a bit different to the Eels versus the Swans of the windy morning, this was a contest usually undertaken privately, without spectators, and not just on Saturdays but on every day within the equally wild weather of the heart. It was the contest of emptiness versus purpose, absence versus voice, going away or leaving versus waiting, listening and finding a way to speak. A battle in fact that we all, churchgoing or not, undertake, in this vast yet seemingly always enveloping world.

Of course I explained the distinction to Patrick in words he could understand but with the bolster of the beautifully simple Latin lineage handed down to me by Carmelites priests and brothers at school, it wasn't a difficult translation to make. Right then I was grateful for the education that gave me access to the provenance of these English words we still speak, so many centuries since that fiery shaman of Nazareth walked inspired and predestined in the Aramaic soil of his own calling country.

And when I'd successfully made the clarification in the darkness of the cabin, taking care of course to avoid making a vocation seem like the total opposite of the kind of good time you have on a holiday, I found myself saying, half to the celestial windscreen and half to myself, that the rubbing-off of a little bit of divine magic through the act of communion was one reward you could realistically win.

Unlike that box of chocolates on offer on the final day, that somehow disingenuous final day when the leaves of the world's trees and the wild sea's whitecaps would supposedly be all toted up.

We rolled the ute down the hill towards home in neutral, quite content I think then with our station in the season, and also with the diverse rituals that would lend some kind of richness to the cold winter of southerlies ahead. Perhaps Patrick was thinking more of the call of the ball and the larkabout teamwork of the Saturday mornings, but as we pulled into the driveway I was simply looking forward to revisiting, thanks to him, the call of the humble church at night. 

Gregory DayGregory Day's novel The Patron Saint Of Eels won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2006. He has published two novels since, Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds, and The Grand Hotel. His epic CD of musical settings of W. B.Yeats, The Black Tower, was hailed by the Yeats Society of Ireland as the finest musical interpretations of Yeats ever made. 

Topic tags: Gregory Day, Communion, bass strait, ocean, white caps, autumn leaves



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Existing comments

What a lovely opening paragraph, galloping us along in the hope of a full stop, like a bit of Flann O'Brien on a good day, but without the adverbs.

And the explanation of communion is beautiful, even if the former St Kilda player now running Catholic things in Sydney, might demur.

Must search out one of Gregory Day's books.

Frank | 01 June 2011  

But Gregory, what are you going to say when he picks a number for the white-caps and then asks you to prove that he isn't correct?? Very expensive game perhaps.

Pauline | 01 June 2011  

It's refreshing to read about sacrament and ritual with spirit and humour away from the all pervasive wave of ferocious atheist zealotry. The Carmelites would be smiling knowingly.

Lawrence Mooney | 06 June 2011  

It's refreshing to read about sacrament and ritual with spirit and humour away from the all pervasive wave of ferocious atheist zealotry. The Carmelites would be smiling knowingly.

Lawrence Mooney | 06 June 2011  

Great piece Greg. Thoroughly enjoyed it and quite apt with our current cold days!

Rupert | 07 June 2011  

I enjoyed the warmth of this story and the world it portrayed. Keep em coming

Mark Orwin | 16 June 2011  

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