A new year, another chance for change

  • January 3, 2012

We were eastbound on a VIA train between Kingston and Montreal midway through the Christmas week when we got news of a horrifying accident ahead.

A man and woman had been killed when their pickup truck somehow jumped a barrier on Highway 20 at the west end of the island of Montreal. The truck plunged onto train tracks below and was hit by an eastbound VIA train.

It was the next day, reading about the accident in the newspaper, that I was hit with the full force embarrassment of realizing that my initial reaction was annoyed speculation at how long our travel would be delayed by the earlier crash.

Here were two people dead. Here were families dropped into inexplicable grief by an unfathomable tragedy. And here was me, impatiently, petulantly, calculating the potential minutes of delay in my usual bedtime.

Nothing was excused by my keeping my response entirely to myself, or the awareness it was probably shared by almost everyone else on the train, or even that it was likely prompted by my having been stuck on a broken down VIA train for four hours the week before.

No. For beyond my impatience and petulant disregard for the souls of those killed, and the lives shattered by their deaths, was the gracelessness of its automatic nature.

We have the habit of giving full moral weight only to external actions, not interior life. But didn’t someone teach us that the lustful look equals the completed act? That the heart, not the gesture, comes first?

What mattered was my reactive private thought even though thinking it had no bearing whatever on the outcome of anything. What mattered was me. Full stop.

That is a hard mirror to look into at the end of a year. It is also a serendipitous window to look out as a new year begins. It opens the view onto nothing less grand than the fragmentary, moment-by-moment minutiae, of reconciliation and conversion.

We are all already, by early January, sick of hearing that our new year’s resolutions will be kept only by changing underlying behaviours. What needs to be added is how the very thoughts we think, our ingrained and oblivious mental responses, not only form who we are, but can constrain who we have been given the gift to become.

What is truly exasperating is that all of us experience elusive glimpses of the pricelessness of that gift, episodic flashes of the Christian moment that capture our attention precisely because we are in a situation where we are obliged to forget ourselves.

Indeed, only five days before my churlish self-preoccupation on the VIA train, I was given the opportunity to enter into such a moment by celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in the grandeur of the small, basement cafeteria at the long-term care hospital where my mother-in-law lies waiting for Alzheimer’s to finish its prolonged sadism.

With the institutional splendour of a humming soft drink machine for accompaniment, with government-issue yellowed acoustic ceiling tile above our heads in place of a cathedral cupola, with patients in wheelchairs pointed toward the four-by-eight folding table that served as an altar, with guttural mumbles passing through ancient vocal cords and across lips that had pronounced the same words whole for 70, 80, 90 years, we made our way through a Mass that was the incarnation of our faith’s power to turn torment into the indescribable beauty of God’s own face.

Here we were in death’s waiting room. Here was an elderly woman with tears streaming down her face as she struggled to sing the hymns remembered from her long life as a chorister. Here was a severely disabled man wearing the crown of one of the Wise Men in the Nativity pageant. Here were eyes losing light yet looking with unmistakable certainty at the recurrent celebration of the birth of salvation itself. Here was Christ’s humility shining in every human face.

All this was given to me freely. All this was given as a gift to see, to ponder, to carry in my heart as we visited my mother-in-law in the bed where, though we know neither the day nor the hour, she will soon die.

No sooner was it given me than I was somewhere else tapping my foot, checking my watch, subordinating two tragic deaths up ahead to my all-important desire to get home on time.

Time has instead moved us into a new year. It is the chance to try, moment-by-moment, all over again.

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