"This is an 'impossible' novel, in the sense that Lisa Gottlieb has managed to achieve something quite amazing. At its deepest level, this novel is a microcosm of the human search for meaning and stability in an unstable world — the search for Christ in the midst of 'ordinary' lives. Gottlieb shows us ourselves, and does so with honesty, affection, irony and wit. This is the work of a very, very gifted writer." - Michael O'Brien
I belong to neither the Optimists' nor the Fatalists' camp. I like to think this is a reflection of my pragmatic nature and relative youth, but, really, I am just not much of a joiner. Of course I have performed the same tasks as everyone else in the parish. I have worked the sandwich assembly line, cutting crustless isosceles triangles of ham and Swiss and coating slices of Value-Loaf with the vivid hues of egg and salmon salad, in preparation for what surely must be the one ritual shared by churchgoers of all denominations: the coffee hour. I have dusted pews, served at Mass, sold jars of homemade jam, their lids fussily bonneted with squares of calico, at the Christmas Bazaar that takes place every third Sunday in Advent — Gaudete Sunday, when our set of rose vestments is liberated for one of its biannual appearances, the other being Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, both dates known as Cedar Sunday at St. Osmund's on account of the odour imparted by the storage chest in which the pinkish garments are sequestered most of the liturgical year.
What I mean is that, regardless of the duties I have undertaken, I do not think of myself as a church-lady. I am not one of those "excellent women," like the heroines in novels by Barbara Pym, chronicler of twentieth-century English parish life. People might find this surprising, given that I had the perfect model in my grandmother, Mary Wayland Greer. I think of her and her peers as the last generation both able and willing to assume that role. Based on my experiences over the years and what I have heard secondhand, I am fairly certain that it is a matter of age and outlook, but not of gender. Here in Ambrose, Ontario, even the men are excellent women. The way I see it, my grandparents, their siblings and cousins and neighbours, had instilled in them by their elders an all-hands-on-deck mentality that did not question but just did. It is hard to fathom this today, when nothing can be accomplished without meetings, surveys, and focus groups. In an environment where it is assumed that everyone will have his say, a willingness to act unquestioningly is considered a sign of weakness. In those days it was a sign of faith.
If I cannot cast myself as a church-lady, I at least share with Pym's characters a fondness for anthropological investigation. One of my earliest observations — which my seven-year-old self shared with my grandparents, who then shared it with every person they came in contact with, so that it spread, virus-like, across the parish — was that church is like pie. During my summers in Ambrose, I would venture out on sunny mornings to pick, with great pride and fierce concentration, the blackberries from the brambles that enclosed a back corner of my grandparents' garden. (Apparently my powers of observation did not extend to fruit shrubs, as I learned years later: my grandfather would come out shortly after I had finished and collect the pails-worth of berries I had overlooked.) Whatever berries were not eaten out of hand were destined for pies and ice cream, and, yes, the aforementioned jars of jam. I would watch my grandmother as she removed a pie from the oven, set it on a rack positioned over a tea towel on the kitchen worktable, and centered her right ear over the five steam vents cut like a sunburst into the top cruSt. "A pie," she instructed, "always tells you when it's done." This was amazing. Who knew that pies could talk? She held back my hair as I stood on my toes to listen to the burbling and hissing, like muted conversation, emanating from those vents.
St. Paul told the Corinthians that "the body is not one member, but many." At St. Osmund's it was many, then it was very few. The continuing disintegration of our own body is why the Reverend Daniel Giles, our rector for the past fourteen years, suggested that I assemble a history of the parish. If I had to choose one word with which to describe Father Giles, it would be earnest. It is a trait that exemplifies all that he says and does, so far as I can tell, in every church-related circumstance and context. He could be explaining doctrine or the need for St. Osmund's to change from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and his tone, his mannerisms, his degree of attention, would be the same. The only way to discern the gravity of the topic at hand is to look for the blinking: the more serious the discussion, the more rapidly his eyelids flutter. I watched him as we sat in his office and considered this parish history project. He was blinking so often that he could have powered those lightbulbs himself.
Parish histories are usually compiled to commemorate some celebratory event, such as the centennial of a church. I have even seen publications that mark a parish's sesquicentennial, which is a rather awe-inducing thing to consider. Our own one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary is a mere thirty-four years away, by which time I, God willing, will have become a septuagenarian. I have heard it said that personality traits become more sharply defined as one gets older — that aging is a process of commensurate yet inverse erosion, whereby the accumulative pounding of life that gradually reduces the body to an indeterminate mound of flesh also chisels the psyche with the precision of a sculptor, just as the waves that crash onto a beach both obliterate a sandcastle and carve the shore. If this is true, then I predict that I will be the type of septuagenarian who anthropomorphizes her houseplants and has nice long chats with them about the good old days, the ones visible only through rose-coloured glasses and in sepia-hued photographs. Whether or not St. Osmund's will still have a pulse in the year 2044 I cannot say. Those rose-tinged lenses see only the past, not the future.
Although I was not surprised that I was asked to write our parish history, I began it with a fair amount of trepidation. First there was the reason for undertaking the project, a fact over which I have no control and that I have no desire to face. Then there was the question of bias. Would I be truly honest in the telling, or would I whitewash events? Most parish histories are guilty of sins of omission, reluctant to rattle the skeletons in the closet, especially those belonging to the clergy. But I am fully aware of our reputation, that at certain points in time clergy and parishioners alike were eyed warily, like lunatics on furlough from an asylum. So I think — or at least hope — that I have been fair and truthful, despite my family's longstanding connection to St. Osmund's. And indeed, not all my relatives have been pious churchgoers. Some were always nonbelievers; others had, as they say, "fallen away from the Church." I have always found this to be a quaintly dramatic expression that, like "excellent women," is not entirely accurate. For one thing, it seems too passive, as if the act of falling away were not a conscious decision but an unfortunate fate, an illness whose unwitting victims undergo a slow decline, like consumptive women in Victorian novels. I suppose this is just my own tilt, but I really cannot imagine that the phrase provides an apt summary of events in most cases. My mother, for instance, did not fall away from the Church. She bolted.
This tidbit of family history has become part of church lore. But as I compiled this account, I came to the realisation that all of it, everything you are about to read, is family history, not because my great-great-great-uncle was the founding rector of St. Osmund's, but because this group of people thrown together by coincidences of time and place and preferences in worship means as much, if not more, to me than blood relations.
St. Osmund's is not yet silent. Like those whispered prayers I once strained to hear, there are messages that need to be communicated, to be stored not in friable records and mouldering memories, but to be set down as tangible evidence that this place really existed, that all this truly happened.
This book does not mark a celebration, but it is a commemoration nonetheless.
Reprinted with permission from Justin Press.
Born in Boston, Lisa Gottlieb is a graduate of Wellesley College, the University of Chicago and the University of Toronto. After spending most of her adult life on academic pursuits, she realized that she would rather write novels that have a purpose. "Beating the Bounds" is the first book of a trilogy focusing on Tabitha Yarwood. Like Tabitha, Lisa was baptized into an Anglo-Catholic parish, enjoys baseball and dessert and is preoccupied with the question of why a person would not want to lead a a church-centred life. Lisa and her husband live in Toronto.
Copyright © 2013 Justin Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.