The Way is Made by Walking

field of stones

Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.

made by walking.jpg

fording the stream

map of route

The Melancholy Giant

sunrise over Sleeping Giant

“Didn’t you know?” asks the woman beside me, “the Sleeping Giant won the peoples’ choice award for the greatest wonder of Canada.” She sits back, folds her arms over her chest. “Beat Niagara Falls by miles, although the organizers had to give first prize to the Falls just on principle.”

My seat-mate is a chatty, attractive, dark-eyed young mother who can’t say enough good about Thunder Bay, home of the Sleeping Giant. She tells me about her husband (a gem of a man. Very busy. He’s starting his own business), her kids (they’re good kids. A bit fussy eaters at this stage but I’m sure they’ll get over that), her weight problems (I need to get back on my cross-country skis so I can get rid of this, patting her stomach) and not least, her town (I’d never move anywhere else. Thunder Bay has everything I need. I lived in Ottawa for two years. I was miserable).

She’s hardly the last to tell me about the Sleeping Giant. “Have you seen the Giant?” asks Jari when he picks me up at the airport. He wrestles the car through lane changes, giving a cursory history and geography lesson of the Lakehead in a gunshot, growly accent I’ve grown accustomed to hearing. He cracks jokes constantly, but sometimes won’t smile, glancing sideways at me to see if I get it. I’ve learned that humour is often a test of intelligence amongst Finns. Despite their dour reputation, they have an affinity for a finely-tuned, ironic sense of amusement.

Jari is an enthusiastic host but a distracted driver, and points out landmarks with abandon until finally we are turning into the old town of Fort William. Even as I’m making the connection from the street-sign, Red River Drive, to the fact that Thunder Bay points west as much as east, there ahead of us is the Giant. No I hadn’t seen it before. No matter. There’s certainly no missing it. The long silhouette of gray granite rises out of glinting Lake Superior in the middle-distance like an eastern sentinel over the Lakehead. The formation really does look like a giant on his back, arms folded.

I’ve come to town for a Suomi, or Finnish, conference of the Lutheran church. This means that for four days I will be spoken to in a language that is so exotic, so difficult and rare, and has such deep roots in old Norse traditions, that Tolkien adopted it as the language of the Elvish inhabitants of his fictional Middle Earth. Many of the elves look a bit like Finns. Or the Finns, perhaps, like elves. Beyond “good morning” and “thanks for the pulla” – a Finnish sweet bread – I haven’t mastered this strange tongue. Although I’ve learned to sing it reasonably well, the words remain a mystery to me, and even when complimented on my pronunciation I’m never sure if I’m actually invoked a blessing or recited a shopping list. Over the four days of the conference I’ve been assigned jobs, most of which involve speaking in English, showing my documentary, eating Finnish specialty foods, and making various forms of music. In other words it’s a perfect conference.

They don’t say “Finnish” here, as in “I speak Finnish”. It’s shortened. “Do you speak Finn?” Maybe that’s more accurate, because there’s a whole culture on display at the conference. It’s not exactly Finnish and not exactly Canadian, a hybrid culture of Canada and the old country that’s aged together with these older immigrants. Many of them are senior citizens who came to this land over fifty years ago now, but still sport names as thickly Finn as their accents: Pirkko, Eili, Tuula, Ritva, Markku, Olavi, Jari.

“Does the Sleeping Giant have a name?” the driver of the yellow and black, slightly beat-up Roach’s Cab repeats my question before answering it. “Yes, his name is Nanabijou. The legend is that he was a Native warrior who made the mistake of telling the white man where to find silver. So white men stayed in this country, and as a punishment the gods turned the warrior into stone and put his head right beside the silver he showed the white man.”

“You believe that?”

The taxi driver, definitely a non-Finn, answers my question with a question: “how long you in town for?”

When I tell him only a few days he shakes his head. “Too bad. I’d take you out in my boat – it’s a beauty, a thirty-footer – and you could see the flooded mine shaft for yourself. Water’s clear as crystal, a big black hole near the giant’s head.” I promise to look him up next time I’m in town.

To my mind, Finn hymns are some of the most beautiful ever written. But perhaps that’s because I have a taste for minor keys and wistful, elegiac melodies. The hymns can be as dramatic as the people are not. “Sure they’re beautiful,” says someone sitting beside me during the choir practice. “If you’re prone to depression.” Then he glances sideways at me.

The first day I wander along Thunder Bay’s developing waterfront, where you can smell municipal and provincial development funds and the hope of better to come. There is a sort of urban life here, but it’s just beginning. Where in Montreal or Toronto such a view would mean streets crowded with terrasses and tourists, the sidewalks here are largely empty and the evenings silent, except for the odd walker returning from the local McDonald’s.

For the next two days I’m busy with the conference and barely get back to the harbourfront. On my final day an elderly Finn, Eepu (one of the disconcerting things for a foreigner about Finn names is that it’s hard to tell what gender they are. Eepu is an elderly man) takes us back to our hotel before we go to the airport.

We are heading toward the bay when Eepu does something entirely unexpected: he pulls out a harmonica. Still driving, he begins to play. His gnarled right fingers hold the instrument close as a lover, and from it come the most beautiful, sad melodies, tunes you might dance to, but only the final dance of the evening, before parting forever. I think that Finn folk music sounds a bit like tango.

Just then we crest the hill, and there before us are the 250 meter-high cliffs of the Giant. As I marvel at the sight, Eepu launches into Finlandia. Everyone is silent. Sibelius’s sad and noble melodies fill the minivan. There is a curve to the left and then the right, a left turn, and with the final notes of the anthem we are at the hotel.

Eepu gets out to hand us our luggage. Most of the passengers speak Finn and there is a chorus of kiitos (thank-yous), and a few hugs. “Thank-you,” I say to him. “The music was wonderful.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Sure,” he answers. “If you like that kind of thing.”

Eepu plays mirror

 

Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”

“Have you read the Guy Delisle graphic novel Jerusalem?” wrote my friend C, who sometimes pops into my inbox with interesting ideas and comments on life. “Since you were recently there,” she went on, “you might find it relevant, or maybe even entertaining and heart wrenching. There is even an important character at the Lutheran church.”
This was my first ever recommendation to a graphic novel. Had it been about vampires or medieval Spain I might have balked. But Jerusalem is….well, it’s Jerusalem. As you’ll know if you’ve been there, there’s no spot on earth quite like it. I was interested in seeing what a cartoonist would do with the place, that hasn’t already been done by Jews, Arabs, Crusaders, religious zealots, Zionists, Muslims, Christians and the million other types of people who seem to have a deadly interest in these few acres of the not-so-holy Holy Land. Besides, where else does a best-seller feature a Lutheran pastor, even in a small cameo appearance?
I got the novel at the library, and started reading. And C was absolutely right: I did find the novel relevant. And entertaining. AND more than a little heart-wrenching. And because, with the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary group I visited the Lutheran chapel and hospital at Augusta Victoria in East Jerusalem, right above the Mount of Olives, I wanted to see it again, through an outsider’s eyes. It turns out that, unlike the omnipresent dividing Wall (which features again and again in the book), Augusta Victoria became a place of rest and reflection for the author (Delisle became friends with the Lutheran pastor, who is a comics fan, and had his studio there).
I’m not a follower of comics and despite his success, I didn’t know Delisle’s work. He’s a Quebecois who has lived many years in France. This book (originally published in French, English translation by Helge Dascher, published in 2012 by Quill & Quire of Montreal) is the result of his family’s one-year stay in Jerusalem. During that year Delisle took care of the kids and sketched while his wife worked for Medecins sans Frontières in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Get this novel and read it. It’s worth it. Firstly, Delisle is honest but hilariously understated in his portrayals of life in the so-called Holy Land. There’s no shouted polemic. Instead Delisle’s slightly dopey, typically nice Quebec/Canadian alter-ego meanders through, and chronicles, the absurdities that seemingly pop up everyday in and around Jerusalem: an Israeli soldier with a massive machine gun slung in front of him and an equally large guitar slung over his bag, Palestinian women shopping in the settlement grocery store the expatriate workers from overseas, in solidarity with Palestine, have been so studiously trying to avoid, Christian priests coming to blows over which part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is theirs, Palestinian children afraid to go to school in the West Bank because of the settlers and Israeli taxi drivers afraid to go into East Jerusalem because of the Palestinians. One of Delisle’s funniest lines is “thanks God for making me an atheist”.
The most touching, and yet still understated, part of the book is at its end, as the family prepare to leave after their year-long stint. But I won’t spoil the ending for you. Read it yourself. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is the kind of book that, like a seemingly harmless “nice guy”, sometimes surprises you. Delisle’s everyman is a sharp-eyed observer, and this novel has a punchline, even if you have to look for it.

The Clergy House of Rest

The Clergy House of Rest

My second day at the parsonage attached to the summer parish of Cacouna QC, my friend Eric, who had come down to spend a couple of days with me in Bas St-Laurent, found a small plaque on the mantel of the fireplace. It’s a short text, written in old and uneven typewriter script, and deserves quoting in full. The capitals (interesting in and of themselves) are there in the original:

The Committee desire to draw attention to an established Rule which forbids except on special occasions, and with the approval of the Master of the House – the admission of Ladies and Children to the hospitality of the House.

The Committee believe that it will be recognised that the observance of such a Rule is absolutely necessary to secure the Guests of the House that freedom and liberty of action to which they are entitled.

By order of the Committee

There’s no date, and no easy way to situate the notice, but it seems to be a bit of historical luggage left over from the 1920s or 30s. Whichever modern parishioner of the parsonage found this and dug it out must have had a sense of humour. She’s probably also the one who found a photograph that seems to go with it. The photo shows a group of middle-aged men, all in suits, sitting or standing on the veranda of a house very much like the present day parsonage of St James Cacouna. Some are wearing clerical collars. They are looking at the camera, and a few out toward the St-Lawrence (it’s hard to know whether to call it the St-Lawrence or “the sea” here since it’s a bit of both. It’s a river, but some 20 miles across, with six to eight foot tides and salt water). Some of the men are smiling, but most, as was the fashion of the day in front of cameras, look grim. Presumably, the looks on their faces indicate that they are enjoying “that freedom and liberty of action to which they are entitled”!

It would be easy to moralize over such a plaque. But times have changed, and little is accomplished by such straw-man opinions. Likely the men who were responsible for this directive wanted, more than a release from women and children, a release from themselves and their domestic lives (we still go on “retreats”, and these still involve getting away from responsibilities as far as one is able). The capitalization of the word “Rule” is interesting, however – is it possible, I wonder, that whoever framed this had in mind, consciously or unconsciously, the far more official and effective monastic “Rules” such as the Rule of St-Benedict? If so, perhaps there were some frustrated monastics amongst that surly lot on the steps.

But the phrase that most piques my interest is the last line: “that freedom and liberty of action to which they (that is, the clergy) are entitled.” Leaving aside for a second the word “entitled”, it begs the question: what exactly did they DO in the clergy house of rest? Smoke cigars? Surely, in the 1920s, the men did that at home. Tell dirty jokes? Golf? Fish? Walk around in their slippers all day and read the paper? None of these seem exclusively the province of a “house of rest.”

Maybe the “freedom and liberty of action” meant, for these men, temporarily laying aside the heavy weight of being clergy in a culture and time less libertarian than our own, where clergy had a much higher profile and were under much greater scrutiny. Let’s face it, most people barely know we exist these days, and find us more a curiosity than an object of judgment. But in the 1920s, in a stratified Anglo society, things were different. Maybe this Rule expresses the desire of these men to be free to express unorthodox opinions on certain church issues (to tell sacrilegious jokes rather than dirty ones), to be able to vent about people in their parishes, or to be able to pretend, for a time, that they were not “marked” by their ordination vows to be forever different from the rest of society.

It’s also possible that in these words we find the same somewhat unformed but strong urges for male unity and self-awareness that mark the “masculinity movement” of recent decades. And of course, it’s hard for us moderns not to look at that photograph, read these words, and wonder if there were not, again perhaps unconsciously, some homoerotic urges on the part of at least some of those men, the forbidden feelings for which “mens’ clubs” were once a cover.

That’s probably going too far. Maybe, the framers of this “Rule” didn’t really know themselves what they wanted, and “freedom” and “liberty” were words that expressed a yearning more than any actual plan of action. If so, I hope that they found what they yearned for, without having to resort too often to such petty, clumsy and dictatorial decrees as this “Committee” seemed prone to making.

It’s the end of my week in Cacouna. Eric left on Wednesday and when Cathy decided not to come up with her mother as planned, it occurred to me that as a man alone in the house, I was living by the Rule of the Clergy House of Rest! The Parish of St James has been tremendously welcoming to me, and the House (there, I’m picking up the capitalization habit) has been a God-send. Some days the fog rolled over and through the grand old place, making it eerily moody, and other days, when the sun was shining over the gulf, I’ve sat at my computer and watched, hoping to see the Beluga whales that sometimes pass by out in the sparkling waters. I can hear the foghorns of the freighters on the one side, and the lonely sound of the Gaspe train on the other. Up on highway 132, cars with campers pass by, and tourists stop to look at the signs describing the historic village of Cacouna. We haven’t stopped needing places of rest. But I’m glad that the parish of St James Cacouna is now so much more welcoming than was, once, the “Clergy House of Rest”.