Gros Morne: a spiritual experience of apology and gratitude to the earth

Gros Morne National Park: a spiritual experience around every corner

I must see the mantle of the earth before I can rest. Going to Gros Morne always feels like pilgrimage. I need to go to the Tabletop, study it, touch the crinkled surface of the rock and just wait. The rock itself feels grainy-raw and looks wrinkled. Mother Earth without her makeup on.

The formation gives rise to a kind of dragon-spine all along the Northern Peninsula.  Some of the oldest rock on the planet, it has managed to stay surface-bound in the shifting, folding, molding of the earth’s crust. Nothing but the very toughest and most slow-growing of life exists on Tabletop rock because it is chock full of minerals and chemicals that make colonization of rock and soil almost impossible. The tiniest of trees, hundreds of years old, take root between rocks. They are so easily and willfully trampled by tourists who make rock cairns along the path despite explicit pleas from the Park not to because of the ecosystem’s ancient fragility.

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I need to touch Her for two reasons. First, I just pause to consider the near impossibility of being alive at this moment in time, part of a species that has existed for only 300,000 years. Energy from the gold rock reminds me to reflect, simply because I can. I am life consciously reflecting on 500 million years of planetary life. Second, I apologize to Her. Green Point may mark the boundary between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, but we are now living in what scientists call the Anthropocene era. “Anthro” simply is a fancy word for “human-ish.” Humans have so affected the air, land and water with our need to project heat, garbage and chemicals into and onto our planet that we are now creating our own geological time-mark. It can be measured in the earth’s crust for all of time. So, I apologize to Her and vow to do a little better in my own life and sphere of communication. The apology is part of my passion for Parks as preserved space for nature, the people of Canada and the inhabitants of the greater world. When I leave I am sustained by the knowledge that the earth is resilient. On the Tabletops I can see, smell and feel 500 million years of persistent existence under my feet. Humankind may not live another 100,000 years, but the Tabletops will still be there.

Another place of deep reflection and peace is the ocean shoreline. There are a couple of lovely shoreline trails. One of the most wonderful spiritual experiences we have had occurred this summer. During our honeymoon, we wanted to camp by the shoreline at Green Point campground, but were not able to. For over 30 years we aspired to spend a couple of nights there. Arriving around Noon this summer, we despaired of finding a site, but was astonished to find the one site we had always dreamed of camping on vacant. Those nights were some of the most beautiful we have ever spent camping. Behind us, the waves made their endless, eternal heartbeat on our doorstep. At night, as the sun set and the moon levitated, we observed people moving to the shore, clutching cups of warm liquid. They would often talk as they walked.  A curious thing happened during the final setting of the sun. The people became silent. It was not just about the gorgeousness of the moment.

The death of the sun amongst the salty, wet heartbeat of the earth, reaches deep inside of you. The moon brings hope of luminous resurrection, but still, it is never really enough.  There is some part of you that knows the death of the sun is but an echo of your own. And so, conversation stops, tea remains un-sipped and gratitude for life itself floats, if only for a brief visit, within you and among your companion strangers.

Gaspé: you can tell how the living live by how they treat their dead

“Your communities will never really accept you until they see how you treat their dead.” These were the words of Rev. Dr. Shelley Finson. She peered at us over her glasses, pencil stuffed snuggly in her ponytail. She reached for it and tapped the eraser end on the desk beside me whose occupant was sleepily contemplating the ceiling tiles. The class paused for a minute while my fellow student’s eyes quickly engaged hers. She continued. “The people you serve will watch how you wait with them as their loved one dies. They will listen to your words, not for content but for compassion. Then, at the most vulnerable, difficult moments of their lives, they will observe what you do with those words at the funeral when, along with them, you remember the significance of a life. Afterward, the people will wait to see if you stop to take time to mention the person’s name in their presence. Until you take care with these things, you will never be ‘in.’ How you take care of a community’s dead says a lot about who you are. How do you care for the dead?” My peers chimed in with their wisdom.

I remember being somewhat skeptical twenty years ago sitting in the midst of my Pastoral Studies class at the Atlantic School of Theology. Surely, after so many hours spent absorbing history, theology, social analysis, experiential learning and so on, success in a community cannot possibly come down to the death response? When I got out of school and was thrown into the midst of living with people amongst their grief and joy-stoked lives, I learned that Shelley was absolutely correct, as usual.

I would add my own corollary to Shelley’s wisdom. How the living in a community treat their dead says a great deal about how they live. I have observed that unkempt or hazardously managed cemeteries usually indicate a community in some kind of trouble. Either they have lost community capacity for building social structures or there is such dysfunction that they cannot come together to care for their dead. Well-kept cemeteries, particularly if they are volunteer-run, indicate the opposite. It takes a community of some spiritual capacity to come together to figure out and implement a vision as to how the resting place of their loved ones will look and function.

 

When we took the 132 south from Mont Joli you would come around bends or be in the midst of hollows and a small community would just suddenly pop up. Occasionally you would see nicely kept cemeteries. Sayabec is the tiniest of villages and yet it had a lovely community sign surrounded by a robustly gardened area. Its cemetery was stunning. A stone chapel, constructed of local, unique, beautiful stone greets you as you pull into a level parking lot. The most astonishing aspect of the cemetery is the 14 stone cairns enfolding it. On each is a depiction of stations of the cross, (the story of Jesus’ crucifixion). Near the station which depicts, I think, the time a man is voluntold to carry Jesus’ cross, a man’s family took time to erect a small display with his picture and some biographical material next to his grave marker. Not for the first time, I cursed the limits of my primitive high school French. I wondered that a family or community felt a need to highlight this man’s life. In the centre of the graveyard is the corpus (the body of Jesus on the cross) with Mary and another standing vigil.  The unusual volcanic rock of the area supports both of them. The whole has the effect of declaring to the visitor, “This is our impervious, irregular, beautiful faith-rock. It is us. Pain abounds, but resilient love matters most.” I wonder about a community who take such care with their dead.

 

 

Postscript: Dr. Pat De Meo volunteered to translate the words on the plaque. We both agreed they were lovelier than we could have imagined.

(Photo shows a man who has walked to the top of a mountain.)
At the summit of my life, I thank you for having walked with me along the path of love with its joys, its beauty and its obstacles.
Today, my journey continues with you in your hearts.
Be happy and love, for that is the beginning of your path towards love.
I love you, Zita.
I love you, my children, my grand-children, my great-grand-children.
All of you who have walked with me, I love you.
I am watching over you with my gaze of eternity.
Dominique

Canada Day 150: no need to choose between joy and lament, a maturing country does both

(The weekend of our Dollar Lake Camping trial was on the Canada Day weekend.  I left the campsite to lead worship at a Combined Musquodoboit Valley service in Meagher’s Grant. It struck me that our 150th Canada Day celebrations had a strange bipolar kind of feel to them compared to our 100th anniversary celebrations. This is the heart of the message I gave that day)

Do any of you remember the 1967 Canada Day celebrations?  I first became aware something consequential was happening that year when a funny little sign went on the mailbox of the rural farmhouse my Grandmother was renting.  I asked why it was there. She explained that the house was one of the early farm houses in the Port Robinson, Ontario area which earned it the designation of a “Century Home.” I was 8.

Later that year we started learning about Canada’s one-hundredth anniversary in school. There was even a song we were all expected to learn, “Expo 67 – Canada,” by Bobby Gimby. You can still find it on YouTube. Some of my classmates went to Expo. We could not afford such a venture since my Dad was only a corporal in the Air Force. Nonetheless, we took in the fire-works and attended all the local events that tiny Brighton, Ontario had to offer.

This 150th year celebration has a completely different feel. People are a lot crankier. Many are confused. There is a strange wondering about what it is we need to be celebrating and how we should do it.

At about the same time we celebrated Canada’s 100th anniversary, I learned there was no Santa Claus. To make matters more traumatic, the Tooth Fairy similarly became extinct. Horror and sadness ensued. When you believe in Santa Claus there is an irreplaceable naive kind of wonder and excitement on Christmas Eve. Heck, the excitement began in September when the Sears Wishbook catalogue came to the house and you had to very carefully think about what you could reasonably ask Santa to bring without seeming greedy enough to be put on the “naughty” list. When you find out that Santa does not exist, not only does Christmas Eve seem different, your parents, the season and your relationship with both seems irrevocably changed. Christmas means something totally different than you thought it did.

Then, you go deeper. You begin to think about the meaning at the heart of the Season. You begin to wonder about family connections, feasting and community. You begin to think about your responsibility to give presents to others, instead of just receiving them from large man’s magic red bag.  You discover the joy of gifting. None is possible unless you give up the fantasy of flying reindeer and the man in the suit. Still, every time a child learns there is no Santa Claus, you feel some pain as you watch their fantasy burst and you remember a little of your own confusion. You wish for a moment you could go back. That is how those of us who are non-Indigenous Canadians feel on this 150th anniversary of Confederation.

We do live in a wonderful country. Millions from all over the world want to come here. We also live in a Nation that has made mistakes, some of them horrific.  The country and its peoples are living through the continued healing of those mistakes. Our scripture reading today says that whenever someone offers welcome and cup of water to a thirsty person it is the same as offering Christ likewise. Since the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we now know there have been times when expulsion was given instead of welcome. Indeed, expulsion of those who initially did the welcoming is part of the Nation’s heritage. Cups of water were stolen instead of being given to slake thirst. We cannot un-know. We cannot go back to naiveté and neither should we. For non-Indigenous peoples, accepting truth and working toward reconciliation, makes us deeper, more whole, faithful people. Ultimately, we become more capable of joy when we remember both Canadas: the parts of being Canadian that are worthy of celebrating as well as the parts that require lament.

I am the child of an immigrant who left the Netherlands after the devastation of the Second World War and 5 years of brutal German occupation. I grew up with the influence of those dreadful years and the story of being released from them. However, as anyone who has loved someone who lived through war, release is never total.

My father loved Canada. After he and his sisters arrived, wooden shoes and all, they settled into farming in Prince Edward County. His sisters married and moved into their own versions of Canadian life. Fate was not kind to his parents in their new land. His mother contracted Parkinson’s. At 16, my father did not feel called to be a farmer. His parents decided to go back to the Netherlands where extended family was handy. My father refused to go back. After his parents left, he made his way by working in factories and living in rooming houses. At 18 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he said was the making of him. He loved this new country. He was and is Canadian. I have always seen the country a little through his borrowed eyes.

My Dad perpetually wanted to do all things “Canadian.” When I was 8, Dad was transferred to Trenton, Ontario. My parents purchased their first home, a tiny farmhouse. No one, I mean NO ONE in Brighton, Ontario hunted moose. He did. He would go to Northern Ontario with some Airforce buddies and live for two weeks without washing. He always came back with a moose which was butchered and stored in a rented freezer locker. It lasted us the whole winter. I dreaded that anyone would find out in my class. We lived in Brighton for three years before we moved again and I thought I had safely navigated that secret. One day, a few short months before we moved, my teacher asked me to bring in some of my mother’s moose soup for “Pioneer Days.” She did it in front of the class which consisted of surprised farmer’s kids. The teasing was relentless. It was only when I moved to Newfoundland where moose hunting is an important cultural and culinary right that this memory was rehabilitated for me.

Our Dad dragged us all out to camp, hike and fish. My mother, who had spent much of her growing up years in serious poverty could not understand the point of camping. Dad took us on cross-Canada car camping trips. It was our responsibility, he insisted, to see and appreciate the land. I grew up with a hope for fresh-eyed appreciation. In these last couple of years have I begun to hear stories of confusion and wonder about his encounters as a member of the Armed Forces with Indigenous communities.

The Truth and Reconciliation process has made us all painfully aware of the terrible treatment of those of us who are Indigenous by those of us who are Non-Indigenous.  We feel weird about this particular 150th anniversary because of this awareness.  We feel conflicted because of the peculiar dichotomy of celebrating 150 years of history while pondering the treatment of those peoples who continuously respectfully lived on the land for over 10,000 years. We cannot forget this and we cannot un-know it. It even makes some of us really angry if it is mentioned on Canada Day.

Yet, we are a maturing people. We can do both. We can be joyfully appreciative and we can lament, seek reconciliation and work toward righting wrongs. That is what mature, healthy, spiritually whole people do. No one said it would be easy. It is easy to lie in your bed and wait for Santa to come and fill your stocking from the big, red magic bag. It is more difficult think of what people need in terms of gifts. It is much more taxing to plan a family celebration where all are truly welcomed. It is difficult to say you are sorry to relatives you know you have hurt and whom you must reconcile with in order for Christmas Day to be truly meaningful. Writing a wish list to a man in a red suit is simple. It is much more difficult to wonder how the bills will be paid and take responsibility for that.  Those Christmas times are the best of times where all the important, difficult things happen; people are fed, loved ones are reconciled and fiscal pain leads to simplicity. These become the deepest of times because thoughtful, loving people have cared enough to do the perplexing, arduous work. That is where we are with Canada Day. We are not celebrating the fantasy of 1967 with wild abandon again because that bubble has been thankfully burst. Instead we are expressing gratitude, wonder and also sometimes lament, pain and disquieting concern. Welcome to the post-fantasy Canada. Welcome to this wonderful, amazing, disturbing, unfinished Nation.

As part of my commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Report, we will acknowledge the territory of every National Park we visit. There will be a separate “category” for it so it is easily found on the blog.