Emilie Selden has an appealing naïvety. She’s educated in the art and philosophy of alchemy but has no clue about more mundane matters like the predatory bloke who’s after her fortune. She intrigued me when I met her on the road.
On my long drive to work, I look for distractions. My neck aches, headaches hover and my mood deepens with repetitive journeys that never get anywhere other than where I’ve been before. I dislike the process intensely so, in desperation, I followed a friend’s advice and plundered the talking book section of the local library. Enter Emilie, The Alchemist’s Daughter.
Since our chance meeting, we’ve traveled in a cramped carriage from her home in the English countryside to London and back, from virginity through sexual awakening, pregnancy and miscarriage and, as you might imagine, uncovered her dark origins in the process. This 18th-century miss has got under my skin as I ride back and forth in my less exotic carriage.
As Emilie and I have driven through Lent, I’ve begun to think that religious festivals are a bit like my never-ending journey. They come around year after year like familiar towns that you miss if you blink, or see new aspects of depending on how your life has unraveled in the year just gone.
This week the Easter story trots towards Jerusalem. At one side of the city, Pontius Pilate rides resplendent on a prancing stallion surrounded by imperial troops. Across town, Jesus the irritating mystic bumps along on a donkey accompanied by a ragtag bunch of socially questionable mates.
Two men poles apart in their worldviews who are both headed straight into the heart of an ancient religious festival. Despite their differences, both will be irrevocably changed by the encounter.
Festivals are public events even if you do them in the privacy of your own home. The stories, music, and rituals that thread festivals together are about more than our individual belief systems and our particular faith traditions. They point to the importance of nurturing the life force that is almost accidentally revealed when people get together to gossip, eat, drink, mourn or celebrate together.
Once I was so locked into one way of seeing the Easter story that my ability to imagine, or even entertain another version was limited. But as the years have rolled by I’ve changed and my faith has altered beyond recognition. Intellectual knowledge has been important but what has mattered more has been allowing the festivals to show me worlds beyond my reasoning boundaries.
This is the alchemical equation that Emilie has been reminding me of. That at the heart of humanity there’s an irrational mystery so profound that it can transcend artificial boundaries of belief or tradition. Enchantingly, this mystery can be glimpsed through the doorways of our festivals. Bring them on.