I went to Québec for three reasons – or rather, one reason in three parts: I wanted "healing of body, mind, and spirit."
Before I went to the Basilica of St.-Anne-de-Beaupré, a shrine to the mother of the Virgin Mary, famous as a site of miraculous healings, I knew that I would love to charge in, full of the faith that moves mountains, fully expecting to be healed of the effects of spinal stenosis. I held back, however, because I feared disappointment. Which, of course, may be precisely the reason I didn't receive physical healing. But healing did come-- though, as usual, not in exactly the form I looked for.
Before I left for Canada, my wife – who missed her true vocation as a travel agent – found a wonderful place for me to stay: a refurbished 17th-century Augustinian monastery, with delicious, healthy meals, a fascinating museum documenting three centuries as a hospital, a working church, and a choice of contemporary or authentic rooms. (Guess which I chose.) There are still about a dozen elderly Sisters in residence, and the secular organization that now runs the hotel has carried on, in a contemporary, nonsectarian way, the Sisters’ ideals around spiritual healing and bodily wellness.
Now, despite my skepticism concerning miraculous physical healing, I was expecting some kind of revelatory experience at the Basilica itself. The shrine is about a half hour bus ride from Québec City, where I was staying, and twice I left the quiet simplicity of the monastery for the splendid and impressive church of St. Anne. It is a place of extraordinary beauty (if you are on Facebook, you can see my pictures hereand here.) But though I prayed in the various chapels and shrines – which was, in its own way, very fulfilling – I did not experience, at least on the first day, anything I could identify as revelatory, nor did I leave my cane behind amongst the various crutches and other aids displayed in the vestibule. I have not made an ex voto offering, nor will I be applying to the Vatican for certification of a miracle.
On Friday, I did go to a weekday English language Mass, and it was as dreary and patronizing as Catholic Masses in English abroad usually are, and as cold and distant as cathedral worship generally is. After the Eucharist, the priest and the acolyte brought out two small silver reliquaries containing bone fragments from Saint Anne, and we were invited to form two lines, come forward, and reverence the relics. Which I did, despite my Protestant-bred heebie-jeebies. (I have mixed feelings about relics; at the Cathedral in Lisbon, we saw some of St. Francis Xavier’s hair. On the one hand, ew, but on the other, I really admire Francis Xavier, and there was something extraordinary about seeing his actual hair.}
On Sunday, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to bus to the Basilica for Mass, and the nearest Anglican church was too far to walk to and difficult to reach by public transit. So I sauntered around the monastery-cum-auberge in the direction of the church until I heard angelic singing coming from the wing known as “the Sisters’ Choir.” (See photo above.) After following the sound to its source, I sat in a chair at the back of the room and observed as the Sisters held their rehearsal. After they had filed out past me, many smiling and bonjour-ing in greeting, I took a seat in one of the stalls, opened my Daily Office book, and read the Morning Prayer service for that day. This was all the church I thought I was going to get. But I soon realized that what I had taken for a rehearsal was actually a warm-up, and that there was to be a Mass that morning.
For some reason, the service was not held in the gilded Baroque church to which the choir was attached; rather, an altar was set up inside the choir itself. A priest arrived, the Sisters filed back in, and one of them handed me a Mass booklet in French. I was able to follow both the prayers and the songs with ease, and was deeply moved by the elegant simplicity of the experience. I imagined the days when the many stalls were filled with hospital Sisters will, some of whom worked 12 hour shifts caring for all sorts and conditions of sick and injured people. I had seen their many names on the wall plaque in the museum section, as well as pictures of their simple lives – caring for patients, singing, sharing meals in the common dining hall, ice-skating, picnicking, playing games. I was filled with a powerful sense of their dedication and fidelity to their mission. And while it would be easy to romanticize such women living such a life, it was abundantly evident in any case that they weren't in it for the applause.
The reflection made me wonder about my own life. In my book,The Dark Hills, I wrote:
I often experience my life as confining, unfulfilling. I expected it to be full of height and depth and gravitas, and found it full of dog fur and goutweed. I looked forward to being intellectually and aesthetically stimulated on a daily basis. (What I thought would happen about the dog fur and goutweed I don’t know.) I thought I would feel more important.
I believe I experienced some spiritual healing, not in the gorgeous basilica I traveled to Québec to visit, but in the unpretentious Sister’s choir in the monastery-hotel. Since my return, I have found myself much less liable to mentally checking out as I go about my daily tasks; in fact, I'm actually doing those tasks more faithfully, at least to the extent that the fatigue caused by spinal stenosis allows. I have resumed using my mantra – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me –as a way of staying present in the moment, a practice I had not followed for a long time.
I know it is a mistake to look for what C.S. Lewis called "an endowment of grace for life;" I know that I cannot depend on this undoubtedly fleeting emotional state to carry me through the years ahead. But I'm equally sure that God touched me through the simplicity and self-dedication I witnessed among those Sisters, and to the extent that I stay dedicated to the simplicities of my own life, I can honor that unadorned gift of grace.
Historical note: during the Roman persecutions, Christians celebrated the Eucharist in underground catacombs, using the tombs of the martyrs as altar tables. This was the origin of having a saint or, failing that, a bit of a saint inside church altars. The veneration of relics grew from there.