Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reflection for July 24, 2011

You don’t mess with Mother Nature

Our parish matriarch, Lillian Garrison Sanders, died this week, having reached close to 100 years of age. I call her our matriarch because, if for nothing else, a grandmother of 14, the great grandmother of 23 and the great, great grandmother of 3 and a woman remembered by her family as the “glue” that keeps them together deserves the title of matriarch. But to be a matriarch means a lot more than being the fountainhead of so many descendants. It has to do with being a dominant woman, self-possessed and of long experience who feels subordinate to no one but God alone and even then there may arise some differences of opinion! As I reflect back, there was something about Lillian akin to my probably faulty memory of a Land o’ Lakes butter commercial of many years ago in which a goddess, appalled at the thought of anyone using oleo-margarine, says amid thunder and lightning, “You don’t mess with Mother Nature.”

Or better still, I like to locate her within the grand tradition of the matriarchs of the Bible. For instance, with Eve to begin with. I can’t help but feel that Lillian, if she were with Adam in the Garden of Eden, would have bridled, like Eve, at God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I can hear her saying to Adam, “Why not? Who’s he to tell us what to eat and not to eat? Here! It’s quite tasty. Give it a try.” Of course she got them thrown out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience but they did leave with their eyes wide open and the whole of sacred history unfolded from that “happy fault”.

And then there was Rebecca, the patriarch Isaac’s wife. The rules of a masculine dominated society in those days required that the firstborn son be heir to the father’s wealth and in this case to God’s promise of a blessed destiny. And what happens? Rebecca gives birth to twins; Esau emerging first and then Jacob. So by law it’s Esau who inherits the destiny of God’s chosen one. But Esau grows up a hippie, shaggy, tattooed, the head of a motorcycle gang - hardly worthy of his privileged status. So what does the matriarch Rebecca do? When it’s time for old Jacob to ritually pass on God’s blessing to his oldest son, Rebecca dresses up Jacob, the gentler, civilized son, in rough skins, makes him kneel before blind Jacob and thus usurp Esau’s primacy. Jacob of course is scared, hesitant, fears being discovered and cursed instead of blessed. But Rebecca, in the tradition of our biblical matriarchs, says, “Snap out of it. If there is any fall out, I’ll take the impact. As for you, just get on with it.” Regardless of the established rules of the game, a self-possessed, insightful, dominant woman diverts the history of the world in a way that led to Christ. We could go on to talk of Judith and Esther who successfully took matters into their own hands, fully confident that they were agents of God’s doing.

In that context I see a lot that resembles Lillian. Notes given me by her son recall how in the early days of St. Leo’s parish, Lillian “instructed the new priest on how to do things”! I myself remember her often, as she “presided” at Mass from her usual perch in the front pew, talking back to Monsignor O’Hare as he ad libbed from the altar. On one occasion she was invited to speak on some anniversary and instead of doing so from the lectern, placed her cane on the altar and did so from there, even turning to exchange remarks with the visiting bishop. The notes also remember her as “the unofficial funeral director of St. Leo’s, telling people when to stand and when to kneel.”

An obituary, of course, should focus, I suppose, on the biographical data of the deceased. But in Lillian’s case I think it important to place her among the stalwart women of our tradition – to bring out the true stature of her presence among us.