In Stained Glass a 50s-something reporter, who has been jaded by overexposure to media hype and is cynical about every aspect of his wretched life, is given an assignment by his aging mother to complete the memoir of his great-great-grandfather Christopher Dryden. In the early 1870s Christopher had been sent on a mission to the boisterous Gold Rush town of Barkerville, BC, where a fund-raising campaign to install a stained glass window behind the alter of St. Saviour's Anglican Church (flickr image at right by jmegjmeg) turned into a heated controversy when it was revealed that the anonymous donor, who was covering most of the cost for the painted glass, was none other than the owner of the town's most notorious brothel...

Monday, September 27, 2010

From Christopher Dryden’s Journal – St. Saviour’s

Praise be to God and the Holy Spirit. Glory to Christ the Redeemer, who fills my heart with joy.

The little church of St. Savour’s sits at the end of Barkerville’s main thoroughfare, framed by the rough-hewn hotels and storefronts of this pioneer village. One could not imagine a more rustic cathedral, or hope for a more remote parish in which to deliver the Word of God.

How Rev. Reynard managed to get this edifice built is beyond me. Bishop Hills informed me that the effort almost broke the man, and that Reynard and his family endured unspeakable hardships raising this temple in the wilderness. And yet the whole church could easily fit under the vaulted nave of Westminster Abbey, where it might serve as an example to those accustomed to comfortable pews of the true nature of Christ’s mission.

I feel I am at the capillary end of the Anglican Communion here. The pulse of evangelical zeal has pushed me from the heart of worship, across oceans, over an exceedingly rough and narrow road to this outpost of civilization. And here I shall stay until God’s work is done – or at least my minute portion of it.

And what a work it shall be!

Our usual sensibilities are confounded by this place. Angels may alight upon the town’s boardwalks refreshed, the sweet ether of heaven still filling their lungs; the weary human traveler stumbles out of the Bernard’s Express, his bones jarred and stomach churning after a most stupendous journey of some 350 miles. More than once, as we careered around sharp turns atop ghastly precipices, I prayed to you Lord to preserve me and my fellow passengers, that your servant might arrive at his destination in one-piece to begin Your ministry. I am told Mr. Bernard began his enterprise by conveying letters from Yale to Barkerville on foot – a mode that may have been considerably slower, but was most assuredly safer than riding in one of his coaches!

One mustn’t complain, though. And I am not complaining. God, You know that in my heart I give thanks for the blessings and the honours You have bestowed upon me. Your will is my desire, Lord, and wherever You send me I shall rejoice with Your Word on my lips.

The greeting party that met me at Bernard’s offices included Albert and Margaret Hewitt, prominent members of the community. He is a bank manager, she a tireless volunteer on various church committees. Also in attendance was Mayor P.J. Dearden and newspaper editor Alexander Allen. They wanted to convey me instantly to the Hewitt’s residence, where I was to spend the night. But begging their indulgence, I turned my steps instead toward Your church, Lord, toward the humble tabernacle raised by the hands of men in Your honour. My hosts seemed somewhat disconcerted by this alteration to their plans, Mrs. Hewitt even flashing an annoyed glance that bespoke the threat of lightening. I later learned that several more dignitaries lay in wait for me in her parlor, and that she was discomfited by my impromptu digression. But I would not be dissuaded by words or looks because I felt Your summons God.

My entourage tagged along as I strode up the main thoroughfare toward St. Saviour’s. I must confess, Lord, I wondered myself why You wanted me to turn this knot of upstanding citizens from their itinerary. What must they have thought of this contrary new priest, who had dropped into their midst? Nevertheless I placed my trust in You and put on a show of confidence because I felt You steering me in the direction we were taking. Your strong hands grasped my shoulders and urged me gently on. At the same time the Holy Spirit infused my heart with exceeding joy. Even though I could not say why, I insisted on this pilgrimage, knowing it was right that it be undertaken.

We made quite a sight, walking in procession down the dusty road. I kept up a brisk pace so that my companions – still doubtful at this turn of events – fell in behind. The late afternoon sun warmed my neck. From off to my right the clang of a smithy’s hammer assaulted my ears. People on the boardwalks stopped to stare. Laughter spilled out onto the street from the darkened doorway of a hotel saloon. I fastened my eyes on the wooden steeple of your church, which stood out bravely against the distant mountains, and a sky blue and translucent as the inside of a robin’s egg. On we marched, oblivious to the noises of men and the distractions of nature.

The doors of Your cedar cathedral were closed. Not surprisingly, since no ordained priest had been sent out to the parish after the departure of Rev. Reynard. I suspected the portal would be locked as well, but stretched out my hand anyway and gave the doors a good rattle just to make my point. Then I turned on my bewildered flock with beseeching eyes and exclaimed: “Locked!”

Now, Lord, I must confess I executed this gesture with an intended theatrical flair. I fully expected at least the hint of a smirk on one or two of the faces in my audience. So imagine my astonishment when I discovered them all downcast, with what appeared to be genuine expressions of remorse on their bowed faces. Not one of them dared meet my gaze – not even Margaret Hewitt. Of course You don’t have to imagine this scene, Lord. You knew perfectly well how they would respond before I uttered my imprecation. Indeed it was You who added the hint of thunder to my voice and the glint of lightening in my eye.

Nor do you have to imagine the jolt of pride that shot through me when I observed the effect of my rebuke upon them. You know I brimmed with righteous indignation, which I would later repent. It was Your Word, not mine, that stunned them, and I sinned against You God, by imagining myself as the author of their confusion. Forgive me.

“Does anyone present have the key to these doors?” I demanded.

Mr. Hewitt fumbled about in his pocket and produced a jangling ring of keys – among them, I suppose, one to the vault of Mammon, and another to Your house of prayer. He jiggled it into the lock, twisted the bolt open, then edged aside, leaving to me the honour of stepping over the threshold.

By now I had quelled my inflated sense of dignity, which threatened to burst my skin it had expanded to such a degree. Keep me from anger, Lord, and overweening pride that parades as righteousness. Remind me always of Christ’s patient strength and willing sacrifice, for I do not have the right to tip over tables in Your temple. I cannot look any man in the eye and say “You, Sir, are a sinner and I condemn you”, because I am a sinner too, and the lowliest sinner of all, beings as I have been blessed with the means and the time to reflect upon Your Truth.

We entered Your sanctuary Lord, perforce in single file, for the gateway was narrow. What sublime calm I discovered there! The air seemed to me like a suspended breath, charged with the power of divine meditation. Right away I felt at home, and at peace, and in communion with all that lay under and above the roof of your tabernacle. The floorboards creaked as I made my way up the aisle to the foot of your alter. Behind me I heard the shuffle of my new flock, settling uncertainly into the pews. But these sounds did not disturb in the least Your profound tranquility My God. They passed through You like light without any reflective object to bar its way. And I knew in that moment for the first time – knew it in my heart – that what St. Augustine says about all  of you being fully existent in every quantum of Your universe is indescribably true, Lord.

I prostrated myself on the floorboards of that magnificent church and gave thanks for the life you have given me and the task you have set me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

From Anna's Diary - How do I love thee?

I don’t know how this is possible, but I find myself drawn to this man, this priest, Christopher Dryden. How can anything whole and healthy survive between us? I have led such a life that, even to tell it would shock him to the core. As for him, he leads a life I would find dreadfully boring. It’s all routines and ritual and sacrifice.

But still, I must admit to an unavoidable attraction. It has something to do with his pure convictions, and the way he looks at me, not as a woman so much as a work of art. I’m tired of being looked at as a woman, as an available woman, as a woman that miners can resort to when their passions must be relieved. I do want to leave this life of bondage to men’s crude lusts. But if that were my sole attraction to Christopher I would squash it underfoot.

The odd thing is, despite all his talk of creeds and salvation and eternal damnation, he has already forgiven me my sins without my having bowed to any of it. I can tell by the way he looks at me that Christopher cannot bear to condemn me to perdition. I am a torment to him, and a balm, and love being his perpetual contradiction in the flesh. In a peculiar way his perplexity delights me because it makes him fallible as well as pure. I do not want to destroy his faith, but am not content to leave it unchallenged. For in my heart I know he desires me as something more than an ideal, and I think he will be a lover such as I have never known.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Margaret Hewitt

Margaret, a staunch Anglican, has arrived in Barkerville with her husband Albert, a banker. She is a leader in the community, deeply committed to the British way of doing things and to Victorian values. As part of the 'upper crust' of Barkerville, she rallies the forces of conservatism and is deeply offended by the rougher aspects of pioneer life. She sees it as her duty to uphold the values of hard work, clean living and Christian charity.

She reacts viscerally to the notion of the town's most prominent and flamboyant prostitute installing a stained glass window in St. Saviour's. To her, the apse window admits God's light into the church, and to have it filtered through a lens provided by 'whores and their depraved clients' seems a mortal sin. Her blaze of indignation is doubly fierce because she had initiated the failed drive to raise funds for the window in the first place, and to see a 'harlot' succeed so easily where she had failed galled her beyond endurance.

At first there is a great deal of sympathy for Margaret amongst the moral minority that control much of the church's affairs. But as Reverend Dryden is swayed, and the miners, and Madame Blavinsky's colleaugues, opinion begins to shift away from Margaret, who becomes increasingly strident as she becomes marginalized.

Finally, isolated with a small, vocal group of opponents, she is driven to her desperate terrorist act. Using her husband's shotgun, she blows out the Stained Glass window during the ceremony celebrating its installation. The Shard that has been carefully preserved in Maggie Welland's living room, atop the upright piano, is the physical testament to that incendiary act; Reverend Christopher Dryden's unfinished memoir, the written testament.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Babushka Tins

The form of Stained Glass is becoming clearer. I have wrestled with it for some time now, not wanting to confine the story to a chronological or conventional structure. What has emerged is a sort of Babushka Doll story. Kyle's mother hands him an antique cookie tin containing the unfinished memoir of his Great-Grandfather; by the end of Stained Glass, he will have his own cookie tin, containing his own unfinished memoir and the unfinished memoir of his Great Grandfather.

The notion of incompleteness is central to this book.

Of growing importance will be the friendship between Kyle and the latter day Anglican priest. Their ongoing debate about subjects spiritual and theological will intermingle with the emerging story of Kyle's Great Grandfather. Although they are striving to reach some sort of reasonable conclusion to their debate, which fluctuates between serious and humorous, tragic and comic, there will be no satisfying ending. The only lasting conclusion will be the bond of friendship and mutual respect... of Love. This will be deepened by the compassion the priest shows in dealing with Kyle's wayward son, Andrew. And by the advice he offers with regard to Kyle's bitter marital dispute. Because Kyle is not a parishioner, the usual distance a priest would maintain is breached and they end up talking 'man-to-man', and going places neither could go otherwise.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Focal Point

This is turning out to be one of those stories where the author actually enters the novel in disguise. I can't help drawing parallels between Kyle Welland and me. In fact, I would go so far as to say he is in some senses an avatar of Craig Spence.

Right away, though, I am confronted with a problem. My life to date has been interesting, joyful, challenging and many other things, but it hasn't really been the stuff of novels. I could write dozens of short stories based on my experiences, but can't say I've lived through an extended conflict that would hold a reader's attention through, say 300 pages.

Kyle Welland, as the central character in Stained Glass, must do that.

When I stand back from this conundrum a solution presents itself almost immediately. Kyle is standing in for me as the focal point of spiritual confusion in the novel. His life has rendered him perhaps more cynical than me, but the spiritual and emotional turmoil that will be stirred up by his research into the life of Christopher Dryden will parallel in many ways my own ambivalence concerning things religious. I don't see him ending up in the same place as me, but his investigations will turn into a quest, which will be overlaid by the gritty realities of his life.

  • His deteriorating marriage;
  • Disappointment with his son;
  • Cynicism about his career as journalist;
  • Utter despair over the seeming emptiness and meaninglessness of life;
  • The failure of materialism to fill the infinite void;
  • His outrage at what he perceives as flimsy philosophical and theological responses to the kind of spiritual malaise he's suffering.
All of a sudden, because he's promised his mother to flesh out the story of Christopher Dryden, the sediment of his soul gets stirred up, triggering a gut wrenching chemistry of rage, sorrow and disappointment.

Another character is emerging now - the cast of this novel is growing beyond my control! I want to introduce a latter day Anglican priest, who will become a foil for Kyle's resentment and fury. I haven't been able to imagine this character yet, except to say he or she is deeply committed to the Anglican faith, which will place him in the sights of Kyle's bitter and biting humor. He is also a direct spiritual descendant of Christopher Dryden, which tends to turn Kyle's barbs and sarcasm back on himself.

Kyle has pestered this character into reluctantly becoming a researcher's guide into the Anglican faith. In fact, I am tempted to have Kyle trick this character by pretending to be a proselyte. I don't see Kyle and this character ever bridging the gulf between them; but I do see tortured friendship and grudging respect taking root in the hard soil of their spiritual no-man's land.

This priest will do what the servants of God are meant to do: comfort Kyle during an hour of deepest, darkest need.

That this new character and Kyle will never overcome their theological and philosophical differences has become strikingly clear to me upon an initial perusal of The Book of Common Prayer. Although a humbled Kyle can get to a place where he respects those who believe in the type of God predicated by Christianity, he cannot embrace that God himself, but must look for some other spiritual path. I don't see him having an answer by the end of Stained Glass, but do see him energized by a question that he feels must have an answer. That will be Kyle's revelation.

Monday, January 25, 2010

British Columbia Chronicle 1847 - 1871: Gold & Colonists

G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen Akrigg have helped me develop a sense of pioneer life in Gold Rush BC with their book British Columbia Chronicle 1847 - 1871: Gold & Colonists. What I appreciate most about this book is it's day-to-day journal style. It's written as if the Akriggs were right there on the scene, as events were unfolding, which in turn gives me a sense of actually being there.

Characters like James Douglas step out of the page and the reader is exposed first hand to the staunch Victorian values of society's elite and the rough cut values of the gold seekers and traders. It chronicles an era that - form a European standpoint - has much to be proud of, and much to be ashamed of. The attitudes are direct and unvarnished and sometimes make you cringe at the hubris and lack of sensitivity of our forebears.

The sections on building the Cariboo Trail and pioneer Victoria are especially revealing of the life and motivations of the times. As are the dealings with Aboriginal peoples. A strange mix of greed, piety, boldness, idealism, punctiliousness and arrogance motivates the Europeans as they carry out an undeclared invasion of a land already occupied.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Just who's saving who here?

My reading of Red Lights on the Prairie has shifted the centre of gravity for Stained Glass somewhat. Anna Armstrong has become much more prominent.

Madame Blavinsky's offer to finance the installation of the stained glass window in St. Saviour's is really an act of vengeful pride. Having been slighted by the high society types for the 'social evil' she has brought down on the community, Madame Blavinsky wants to leave a permanent testament to her own power and impunity. What better vengeance than to have the congregation look through her stained glass window every Sunday when they gather in their church.

Christopher Dryden does not see the situation for what it is. He accepts her gift as a token of repentance, which he has a moral obligation to accept. Anna, who is Madame Blavinsky's agent and confidant, knows very well what her mistress is up to and, despite her occupation as a prostitute, abhors Madame's tactics and motives. Increasingly unhappy with her role in the affair, she wants to warn the naive Reverend about the danger to him and his ministry, and hints broadly at the nature of Madam's gift. But Anna is afraid to betray outright the woman who controls her livelihood, and who can visit a terrible punishment on her girls.

Anna lets Reverend Dryden 'save her' from her sinful occupation because she loves him. For his part Reverend Dryden, whose naivety is somewhat feigned, enjoys being saved because he believes it's in Anna's best interests to think she's committing a saintly act on his behalf... and because he loves her! Their feelings for each other are sublimated through the lens of Victorian morality and righteousness, but cannot forever be contained by that inhibiting set of values, which are not meant to be applied to all people, at all times.