Contending with the Holy Fear


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It was June 8, 1998, the day Sani Abacha died. It was the same year I received Holy Communion. Then I still kept count of how many times I had received communion, I wrote it down at the back of my maths textbook. This is the hundredth time I had received Holy Communion. I knew the number because I have been faithful in my counting. There was this zestful piousness about it, that when Dike had told me I would soon get bored and lose count, that it was the normal spiritual hungover of having something that before now was but distant blurry thoughts and wishes, I didn’t believe him. I was sure I wouldn’t stop counting.

I had loved the solemn profundity with which the priest placed the white round host on the automatically outstretched waiting tongue of the communicants. It was something of beauty; something untainted and far removed from the world. I had promised myself that I would frequent the sacrament when I eventually became a communicant. So when I did receive, I kept counts. Sunday became something to be hoped for, longed for, a sort of hobby horse. I would attend all the masses in our parish, just to receive the Holy Communion.

When I became a communicant I felt the jealous eyes of my peers who weren’t communicants racing after me, whenever I approached the rails with my palms sanctimoniously zipped perfectly tucked under my  jaw, with a mixed feeling of admiration and envy shimmering in their eyes. I enjoyed it, so I always sat with them during mass, so I could feel the pummels of their eyes that fell like little pebbles on my back as I approached the rail, they actually energized my steps. On countless occasions, I have been caught trying to receive Holy Communion twice within a mass in order to stoke the sizzling envy of my mates. It was a bad experience better left unsaid. Now I haven’t stop counting, but with each day, an ember of my zeal seems to give up. So my counting oscillated from tenaciously pious dedication to mere perfunctoriness. But I kept counting.

Initially, when I was initiated into the sacrament, some of the churchwardens for the reason which I didn’t know weren’t so pleased with me, they would torture me with a litany of questions whenever  I approached the rail. “Afo o ne ka I di, how old are  you ?” “I am seven”   “when did you become a communicant?” This year”  “when the priest says ahu Kristi, what should you say? “Amen” Then with a look of condescending pleasantness, one of them would say “oya nna jebe, uta adiroru gi, you are not to blame” Then with anger baked face I would approach the rail, I always knew they were angry about something, something that wasn’t settled with apologies. It seemed to them I had gotten something far beyond my reach, that I have known a century-old guarded secret, something not meant for people of my kind. I may be wrong, but that was how I felt.

EDITOR CHOICE

It’s been years now since Abacha died, and that euphoric and naive piousness, seems to have evaporated with the years. Each June seems to hoist a tent of nostalgia, that sends one down memory lane. I remember that afternoon of June 8, 1998, just like yesterday, how happy Papa was, that he didn’t take notice of Chinelo’s kid sister Nkem who had worn a pair of torn body hugging trouser into our compound. On sober days Papa would have stopped her, shouted at her and then asked her to go home and dress like a lady. But he was drunk with happiness, that he barely took notice of her when she came in. I knew my brother Dike was just as confused as I, why Papa was happy at the death of someone. Our eyes burnt with curiosity, we wanted to know who it was that died. Mama told us that it’s the head of state.”Abacha anwugo. Abacha is dead, things will now get better, and we’ll live in a bigger house”. Mama rattled, without pausing for breath, her eyes filled with excitement. Abacha is a household name, so we knew the name but not the man that bore the name.

Many months passed after Abacha’s death, crawling up into years and nothing changed. Things fluctuated, many things began to disappear in our menu and Papa’s excitement waned and his hope for a better fortune was snuffed out like a midnight candle. Papa lost his Job and stayed at home. Dike left for Niger state to stay with aunty Amarachi, Mamas sister. So I was the only one left at home. We survived only from Mama’s small grocery store. Years later when Umaro Musa Yaradua came into power and died on seat, Goodluck Jonathan came, took the mantle from him. Papa had high hopes that Goodluck was an Igbo man and would change things for the better. Our fortune smiled again. Many people those years named their newborns after Goodluck having heard of his meteoric rise from just a mere deputy governor to becoming a president. Papa didn’t change my name but contrary to his former self he didn’t criticize it either. But Jonathans tenure wasn’t all rosy, he had a lot on his plate  to contend with; the insurgency, the bomb blast in 2010 on independence day,  the bomb blast on Christmas day at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church  Madalla. He did had a lot to deal with. Papa added him as one of the prayer points in our morning prayer.

Another coin was tossed, and an octogenarian came into power. Papa had said that he was quick to tell us of his ailing ear so that he would always pretend not to hear us while we cried. Silently people died, and the man began to die in many, nobody made a sound. Prices of goods skyrocketed. Many left for their villages in order to survive. Dike and aunty Amarachi returned and squatted with us. The house was full but our table has gone empty. Another silence fell. Mama would cry at night and Papa would stare up deep into the dark ceiling gritting his teeth. And we just laid quietly listening to their sighs. Days had rolled and we fared no better. Our source of livelihood congealed. Then one morning after our morning prayers papa announced “get ready, we’ll be going back to the village” No one objected, though we would love to stay in the city, but we knew our village was the only option left …

Climbing back into these dark days always seemed like wading through a familiarly dark tunnel. But those are the memories that now came with June- Abacha, Yaradua, Goodluck, Buhari and my first Holy Communion. Now I have lost count of how many times I had received communion. With a little mustache now sitting under my jaw and a swollen chest beneath my crispy shirts, a tinge of masculinity rearing its head. The churchwardens no longer troubled me. But now I have known more and have become more scared of approaching the rail. Just before Holy Communion my mind zooms into a museum of sin and calls me to the exhibition. After this, I get weak with the sweat of shame draping from my chest to my cinched belt, and I will nail my buttocks tightly to my seat. Because somehow, even after these years, I still believe, that receiving Holy Communion when not in a state of grace was death. Even when I see the accusing eyes of the communicants who left me all alone in my seat while they proceeded to the altar, I didn’t budge. I was still afraid. Fr. James calls it the holy fear. By Anselm  Alita. E

It was June 8, 1998, the day Sani Abacha died. It was the same year I received Holy Communion. Then I still kept count of how many times I had received communion, I wrote it down at the back of my maths textbook. This is the hundredth time I had received Holy Communion. I knew the number because I have been faithful in my counting. There was this zestful piousness about it, that when Dike had told me I would soon get bored and lose count, that it was the normal spiritual hungover of having something that before now was but distant blurry thoughts and wishes, I didn’t believe him. I was sure I wouldn’t stop counting.

I had loved the solemn profundity with which the priest placed the white round host on the automatically outstretched waiting tongue of the communicants. It was something of beauty; something untainted and far removed from the world. I had promised myself that I would frequent the sacrament when I eventually became a communicant. So when I did receive, I kept counts. Sunday became something to be hoped for, longed for, a sort of hobby horse. I would attend all the masses in our parish, just to receive the Holy Communion.

When I became a communicant I felt the jealous eyes of my peers who weren’t communicants racing after me, whenever I approached the rails with my palms sanctimoniously zipped perfectly tucked under my  jaw, with mixed feeling of admiration and envy shimmering in their eyes. I enjoyed it, so I always sat with them during mass, so I could feel the pummels of their eyes that fell like little pebbles on my back as I approached the rail, they actually energized my steps. On countless occasions I have been caught trying to receive Holy Communion twice within a mass in order to stoke the sizzling envy of my mates. It was a bad experience better left unsaid. Now I haven’t stop counting, but with each day, an ember of my zeal seems to give up. So my counting oscillated from tenaciously pious dedication to mere perfunctoriness. But I kept counting.

Initially, when I was initiated into the sacrament, some of the churchwardens for the reason which I didn’t know weren’t so pleased with me, they would torture me with a litany of questions whenever  I approached the rail. “Afo o ne ka I di, how old are  you ?” “I am seven”   “when did you become a communicant?” This year”  “when the priest says ahu Kristi, what should you say? “Amen” Then with a look of condescending pleasantness, one of them would say “oya nna jebe, uta adiroru gi, you are not to blame” Then with anger baked face I would approach the rail, I always knew they were angry about something, something that wasn’t settled with apologies. It seemed to them I had gotten something far beyond my reach, that I have known a century-old guarded secret, something not meant for people of my kind. I may be wrong, but that was how I felt.

It’s been years now since Abacha died, and that euphoric and naive piousness seems to have evaporated with the years. Each June seems to hoist a tent of nostalgia, that sends one down memory lane. I remember that afternoon of June 8, 1998, just like yesterday, how happy Papa was, that he didn’t take notice of Chinelo’s kid sister Nkem who had worn a pair of torn body-hugging trouser into our compound. On sober days Papa would have stopped her, shouted at her and then asked her to go home and dress like a lady. But he was drunk with happiness, that he barely took notice of her when she came in. I knew my brother Dike was just as confused as I, why Papa was happy at the death of someone. Our eyes burning with curiosity, we wanted to know who it was that died. Mama told us that it’s the head of state.”Abacha anwugo. Abacha is dead, things will now get better, and we’ll live in a bigger house”. Mama rattled, without pausing for breath, her eyes filled with excitement. Abacha is a household name, so we knew the name but not the man that bore the name.

Many months passed after Abacha’s death, crawling up into years and nothing changed. Things fluctuated, many things began to disappear in our menu and Papa’s excitement waned and his hope for a better fortune was snuffed out like a midnight candle. Papa lost his Job and stayed at home. Dike left for Niger state to stay with aunty Amarachi, Mama’s sister. So I was the only one left at home. We survived only from Mama’s small grocery store. Years later when Umaro Musa Yaradua came into power and died on the seat, Goodluck Jonathan came, took the mantle from him. Papa had high hopes that Goodluck was an Igbo man and would change things for the better. Our fortune smiled again. Many people those years named their newborns after Goodluck having heard of his meteoric rise from just a mere deputy governor to becoming a president. Papa didn’t change my name but contrary to his former self he didn’t criticize it either. But Jonathan’s tenure wasn’t all rosy, he had a lot on his plate to contend with; the insurgency, the bomb blast in 2010 on independence day,  the bomb blast on Christmas day at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church  Madalla. He did have a lot to deal with. Papa added him as one of the prayer points in our morning prayer.

Another coin was tossed, and an octogenarian came into power. Papa had said that he was quick to tell us of his ailing ear so that he would always pretend not to hear us while we cried. Silently people died, and the man began to die in many, nobody made a sound. Prices of goods skyrocketed. Many left for their villages in order to survive. Dike and aunty Amarachi returned and squatted with us. The house was full but our table has gone empty. Another silence fell. Mama would cry at night and Papa would stare up deep into the dark ceiling gritting his teeth. And we just laid quietly listening to their sighs. Days had rolled and we fared no better. Our source of livelihood congealed. Then one morning after our morning prayers papa announced “get ready, we’ll be going back to the village” No one objected, though we would love to stay in the city, we knew our village was the only option left …

Climbing back into these dark days always seemed like wading through a familiarly dark tunnel. But those are the memories that now came with June- Abacha, Yaradua, Goodluck, Buhari and my first Holy Communion. Now I have lost count of how many times I had received communion. With a little mustache now sitting under my jaw and a swollen chest beneath my crispy shirts, a tinge of masculinity rearing its head. The churchwardens no longer troubled me. But now I have known more and have become more scared of approaching the rail. Just before Holy Communion my mind zooms into a museum of sin and calls me to the exhibition. After this, I get weak with the sweat of shame draping from my chest to my cinched belt, and I will nail my buttocks tightly to my seat. Because somehow, even after these years, I still believe, that receiving Holy Communion when not in a state of grace was death. Even when I see the accusing eyes of the communicants who left me all alone in my seat while they proceeded to the altar, I didn’t budge. I was still afraid. Fr. James calls it the holy fear.


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