by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
(“Pilgrim’s Notes,” published in The Driftwood, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, October 27, 1997)
Holiness and the sacred belong as much to this world as to the next. God speaks to us through the mundane, in the daily round, through the events of ordinary life and everyday affairs. Especially, does He speak to us through the being and voices of his loved ones, souls whom we meet on our pilgrimage, friends who assist us on the journey to the celestial city simply by being there, by nothing other than their presence.
One such revelation of the sacred, one such epiphanic moment, occurred this past week on Salt Spring Island as I walked through the ‘United Church Meadow” from Hereford Street on my way to the Mary Hawkins Memorial Library on McPhillips Avenue. Although in some respects, it was just an ordinary scene that might attract only a fleeting glance from a passer-by, what loomed up in my field of vision that afternoon became a transformative moment, a revelation of the numinous, one that was ripe with hidden dimensions of spirituality and symbolic meanings.
The paths that cross the meadow from Hereford to McPhillips streets were being resurfaced with bark chips by a team of volunteers. In the midst of the field, a gang of men stood working, most of them in their 50’s or 60’s. As I side-stepped the working group, one man was driving a back-hoe tractor in reverse to smooth out the newly laid path. Another man attended to the pile of bark loaded in the back of the nearby pick-up truck, while the others spread the fresh cuttings over the old pathways and cleaned up the borders.
In the midst of the scene, with rake in hand, working behind the tractor, stood Barry Cooke, minister of the United church. Now although the clergy of today no longer present themselves so much as they used to as “men apart”, I was struck nonetheless by the sight of the Reverend Doctor working on the land. Being a tall man, Barry stood out larger-than-life in the midst, and he looked comfortable as he worked at smoothing out the bark, as if he might have been born a farmer. In the flow of life that sustained the scene, his movements expressed a graceful, natural and spontaneous spirituality.
But some other mystery in this brief scenario captivated my attention. It was not only the sight of the man of God working among the people. It struck me also that a certain symbolism of the feminine surrounded the men with an aura. We know that over long centuries in Neolithic times, women laid the groundwork for such burgeoning agricultural practices as planting, harvesting and berry cultivation. Agricultural traditions on Salt Spring Island are still fairly strong, although much weakened these days by the economic incentive of tourism and the business opportunity. Although agriculture has been largely taken over by men in modern times, the mystique of the land as woman, as fertility, fruit and harvest is still very much alive. By some strange transposition or fusion of vision, by a curious representation, it was very much the presence of the feminine I caught sight of through these men, as they worked at their task in all gentility and civility. While their project was not strictly agricultural, still, the grooming of the field, the closeness to the land, the beautification of the passageway, strongly suggested the presence of the feminine.
The scene that I saw enacted that afternoon suggested to me something almost primordial in the sense of fellowship the men shared; a certain collegiality animated the group. It was the still persistent sense of that old-fashioned spirit of community, a modern vestige or echo of the barn-raising, or the quilting-bee, a country activity taking place in a semi-rural setting, with ordinary folk and a man of God coming together to perform a simple task to beautify and maintain the land.
Later as I reflected on the scene, it occurred to me that the men had been enacting a fitting silent parable of life: that of beautifying our passage from one place to another; that of embellishing our pathway as we cross over. I was a witness to these things that afternoon, and in the vision that loomed up that day, I had been touched by some sweet flow of grace.