October 8, 2014

A Jest of God

Last week, on a whim, I picked up a two dollar copy of Margaret Laurence's 1966 novel, A Jest of God. Halfway through the book, I'm shocked at how much I enjoy Laurence's prose. In two brilliantly uncomfortable scenes, she presents a pair of contrasting church services. The first takes place after Rachel reluctantly accepts the last of several invitations from a fellow elementary school teacher. At this church, or, "the Tabernacle," as her friend Calla calls it, speaking in tongues isn't a rare occurrence. Rachel is on edge the entire time and, on this particular night out, things don't end well. 

Most reviews of the book focus on Rachel's inner struggle, her self-alienation. Rachel is a compellingly complex character with plenty of problems, many of them internal and many more derived from circumstance. But even with all her neuroses, I find Rachel's accounts of these services incredibly resonant. 
Singing. We have to stand, and I must try to make myself narrower so I won't brush against anyone. A piano crashes the tune. Guitars and one trombone are in support. The voices are weak at first, wavering like a radio not quite adjusted, and I'm shaking with effort not to giggle, although God knows it's not amusing me. The voices strengthen, grow muscular, until the room is swollen with the sound of a hymn macabre as the messengers of the apocalypse, the gaunt horsemen, the cloaked skeletons I dreamed of once when I was quite young, and wakened, and she said, "Don't be foolish -- Don't be foolish, Rachel -- there's nothing there." The hymn-sound is too loud -- it washes in my head, sea and waves of it.
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet's warning!
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
I hate this. I would like to go home. Sit down. The others are sitting down. Just don't be noticeable. Oh God -- do I know anyone? Suddenly I'm scanning rows, searching. Seek and ye shall find. Mrs. Pusey, ancient arch-enemy of my mother, tongue like a cat-'o-nine-tails, and Alvin Jarrett, who works at the bakery, and old Miss Murdoch from the bank. How in hell can I get out of this bloody place without being seen?
Of course, Rachel doesn't escape before the end of the service and we're treated to more of her sardonic inner monologue, occasionally interrupted by the words of a zealous preacher. The next chapter finds Rachel attending church again, this time with her mother (the unnamed woman scolding her for her young superstition in the passage above). While the Tabernacle service is full of flare, the Presbyterian church service is as bland as the members of the town establishment who attend it. Rachel, again, sees the service for what it is: an expression of the neutered desires of its congregation.
Here we are. Mother flicks through the Hymnary to look up the hymns in advance. I wonder what she believes, if anything. She's never said. It was not a subject for discussion. She loves coming to church because she sees everyone, and in spring the new hats are like a forest of tulips. But as for faith -- I suppose she takes for granted that she believes. Yet if the Reverend MacElfrish should suddenly lose his mind and speak of God with anguish or joy, or out of some need should pray with fierce humility as though God had to be there, Mother would be shocked to the core. Luckily it will never happen. 
Mr. MacElfrish's voice is as smooth and mellifluous as always, and he's careful not to say anything which might be upsetting. His sermon deals with Gratitude. He says we are fortunate to be living here, in plenty, and we ought not to take our blessings for granted. Who is likely to quibble with that? 
The wood in this church is beautifully finished. Nothing ornate -- heaven forbid. The congregation has good taste. Simple furnishings, but the grain of the wood shows deeply brown-gold, and at the front where the high alter would be if this had been a church which paid court to high alters, a stained-glass window shows a pretty and clean-cut Jesus expiring gently and with absolutely no inconvenience, no gore, no pain, just this nice and slightly effeminate insurance salesman who, somewhat incongruously, happens to be clad in a toga, holding his arms languidly up to something which might in other circumstances have been a cross.

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