the penultimate WORD
Series 2008 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
If God doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks…
Psalms 127:1 The Message
The wood heat tempered the frosty air. Inside the hall, I unzipped my parka. My trip from the frozen landing field on the lake had been chilly and I welcomed the mug of drip coffee thrust into my hand. Tommy Beardy, the priest at Muskratdam welcomed me. “You like coffee since you’re from the South,” he said as he placed the mug into my hand. He sat across from me, his face shining, and went on, “isn’t it wonderful we have Jesus!”
I sipped from the mug, clasping it with both hands so that my fingers would benefit from warmth. Disarmed by his simplicity and total disregard for cliché I nodded and smiled my agreement. Steam curled above the coffee mug like clouds of fragrant incense bearing up weightless prayers. One priest to another, strangers both, had common ground in Jesus. Paths converged here on the banks of the Severn River in northwestern Ontario. His journey found him in the inaccessible boreal forest north of Sioux Lookout; mine was taken in the salt-air of Maritime Canada.
The morning sun entering by the window where we sat cast a light that disclosed a joy in this priest I have seldom witnessed. I have seen imitations. But today as I sipped my coffee and Tommy sipped his tea I found the joy palpable. So this is what it’s like!
That was nearly twenty-three years ago. I had been invited to teach at a Catechist’s School in the diocese of Keewatin. And in this northern Cree community I found myself to be the only non-native for hundreds of kilometers. By now my ski plane had taken off on its return to Big Trout Lake. I would be part of this community for the next 10 days and I was to discover that the clergy and catechists, the men and the women, and the children too would teach me far more than I presumed to teach them in my daily lecture.
Walking the village I discovered that the center of the community was occupied by a massive log building, unfinished, the staging still in place and tools abandoned on the planks. Freshly fallen snow highlighted the logs and helped define its shape. It was a church. It had a wonderful proportion and was cruciform in shape. The path that tied the village together passed it. Villagers daily witnessed this curious monument frozen in mid-construction.
Muskratdam is not yet without a church. Walking to the end of the community and climbing the path to the hill top the Anglican community – for the entire community was Anglican – approached St Matthew’s as the bell tolled, calling the people of God to worship.
Curious, I inquired after the derelict structure. It had been undertaken, I was told, because the previous church, ministered to by Tommy’s Dad, had been outgrown and a larger building was needed. One man undertook the project to replace the tar-paper covered church that had served the community and now needed to be replaced. One man had a vision and he arranged for the logs to be felled and dragged to the site in the center of the village. He gave the daily orders and the work was begun. Logs continued to be brought to the site from a considerable distance as the local forest could not provide the harvest needed for such a splendid building.
Work continued until one day the man who had the vision for a new church fell ill and died. His vision died with him. No one on the worksite knew what the vision for the new church was. No one in the village knew either. So hammers and saws were left on the staging and the men returned to their homes and to other tasks.
In time, Tommy’s Dad became ill and it was necessary that he leave his parish and go to Winnipeg where he would be closer to the medical attention he now required. In need of a new priest, the community called Tommy who had been a Catechist. In due course Bishop Jim Allen arrived from Kenora to Ordain Tommy and charge him with the care of the people here. But before that Service could begin, the Bishop first entered the new Church the people had built for the occasion – the church I now approached at the end of the path tying the community together.
A private vision unshared has its own reward, and a monument to that truth remains as a daily reminder to each one passing its length and breadth.
Copyright © 2008 James T. Irvine
Teachings at the Muskratdam Catechists’ School:
Midi: Sacred Ground