A Prayer Journey: The Nightmare and the Rainbow
Chapter One: Fidelia
‘Virgin, that art so noble of apparail,
That leadest us unto the highe tower,
Of Paradise … ‘ 1
I can’t have been walking all that long—must have been about twelve months old—and there was this sense of energy, of being really mobile, of walking barefooted and bare-bodied; of lying on mum’s bed with her, then jumping off the bed and playing a game of hide and seek in a wardrobe. And her so big and strong and white and frolicking, and just the two of us, tickling and giggling and laughing. Safe was how it felt.
And all this inside a house of weather-board, of gauzed-in verandas, iron and fibro; floor boards and lino, which was actually a home in a world that sat on top of deep layers of sandy red loam and clay-pans, out of which grew our gigantic Mulberry tree for climbing in (not that I was enjoying that bit yet), and next to the tree, a sprawling sweet potato patch. And further out, serious and pure- looking forests of grey, hard-leaved mulga, thick heaths of purple and brown-tipped hop bush and clusters of dangling, white-spotted-barked Leopard woods.
Half a century later, contemplative prayer is what it feels like—the deep, fleshy and tender expectancy of a human animal with its tiny, chubby fingers and toes pushing out, reaching out to a faithful presence that is always there: looking on in sheer delight and longing to join in on the giggle and to hold that firm grip, and then to lie there and to just talk about nothing and about everything.
Being forgotten or ignored was not even a concept. What better thing would she have to do than to waste time laughing with me and chasing me. The very idea of discovering that secretly she was not really interested would be like finding out that the sun was getting tired of rising.
Here, in a bedroom in the outback, surrounded by the brightness of sheets and skin and the seclusion of cupboards and doors and walls—of a toddler and his mother—the boy-becoming a man was being inducted into a magnificent world of trueness by an unswerving, devoted inductor whose favourite things were me and fun, me and smiles, me and laughter.
Looking in on something called a mother and a son is easier to do now, but at the time it felt as if ‘we’ were just two parts of the one person, which was more often that not, ‘me’ or ‘I’ playing these games and tricks and jokes inside a single imagination. Two separate bodies but one person instantaneously getting the joke and laughing at itself and with itself. ‘I’ loving the new ‘thou’ she had received into her world.
In Spenser’s Faery Queene, we are told that Una (the Faery Queene) asks Fidelia (the personification of faithfulness) to receive someone into her school, but instead of a baby, her student is an erring knight who has been trapped in a hell of his own foolishness.
‘Fair Una did Fidelia fayre request,
To have her knight into her schoole house plaste,
That of her heavenly learning he might taste,
And hear the wisdom of her words divine …
And her sacred booke, with blood ywritt
That none could reade except she did them teach …’2
Without saying as much, Spenser’s poem, in describing Fidelia’s sacred book as, ‘with blood ywritt,’ is telling us that she has paid a price to be what she is and what she has to offer. And so it was with my mum in the outback in her little room, at first instructing her babe in the arts of laughter and joy, and then, when the ‘reasons of terror’ arrived at the door, attempting to show me the way into Fidelia’s earthy and ‘sacred booke, with blood ywritt.’ But what if the attempt fails?
In this particular story—unbeknownst to her—the odds are going to be very much stacked against her. Physical frailty, drought upon drought and the permanent threat of bankruptcy will be making it clear that there is no guarantee that this young and inexperienced mother will be finding her way to the land of Fidelia or even that she really knows the answer to that question: ‘What exactly is it that I am going to be faithful to?’
Fairy stories and sacred books tell us that what was happening here was an experience of the ‘tabu’ or ‘herem’*: something so beautiful that you would be chasing it for the rest of your life and something so terrifying that you would be running away from it for the rest of your life. But why would anyone be running away from this mother and child glory?
There are strong, compelling reasons, and in this story they were already making their way towards that little bedroom. But before we go there, a bit of philosophical house-cleaning about what is real, what is valid and what it all means, is going to have to happen in chapter two.
1 p. 17 Quoted by GK Chesterton in his book on Chaucer – Faber & Faber London
2. Spenser – The Faery Queene
* Albright WF. Stone-Age To Christianity