Over the last week, I have been in Canada with my parents on a journey with two main goals: to shut one door and to walk through a newly opened other. Along the way, I have sought to grow closer in my relationship with God and deeper in my identity as His beloved creation — a quest for spiritual enlightenment, you could say, and a better understanding of passages…
Day One, on the road
Packing and preparation are the beginning part of what I dislike most about traveling: logistics. All through vacation there will be questions that demand answers like, What time, How long, Where to, How much, and so on — and with me we can add, How do I get my wheelchair from here to there? With planning, scheduling, replanning, rescheduling, maps, foreign currency, and other useful things like ramps, we find our way through the “getaways” to gain what we desire. Everyone desires something different from vacation, whether it be physical relaxation, time to think, exciting thrills, wondrous sights, sensual delights, strengthening of relationships with fellow travelers, or gained knowledge and experiences. For me, what I wanted was pilgrimage — without really knowing what that means.
So, we loaded into the minivan with our many bags and other things (you’d be amazed how much stuff a disabled person like me needs, it’s like traveling with a baby) and headed north for our first destination, my French-Canadian mother’s home town. Along the way, whenever we would pass by a cemetery, I would pray for God to have mercy upon the souls of those whose mortal remains were buried there. And this put me in a disposition to think about the past, about ancestors and generations of families who live and die upon this green and blue earth, living their finite lives as best as they can. Some, quite frankly, failing in their humanity, others excelling, and most somewhere in between the two states of being. Some saw death as the transition to a new life in heaven, while others saw it only as the end. How many human bodies have been buried beneath the shallow surface of the earth, or burned into smoke and bones? Will they see a resurrection at the end of temporal time and be glorified by God? And all of this while I listened to an audio book reading of Dante’s Purgatory — especially perfect as our road climbed through the notch in the White Mountains.
In the Great North Woods, we drove past a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and prayed a “Hail, Mary” together aloud as we always do at this spot in the road — but this is the first time that we have done so since the Shrine closed. The Religious Brothers who managed and maintained the Shrine have left, the gift shop is gone, and no more Masses are being celebrated on the beautiful grounds. But the pathways and statues are still there — the stations of the Cross, the World Rosary, and the Blessed Mother looking lovingly upon all. It’s as if to say, Yes, you have abandoned us here in our places of former honor, we who were such joy to you for generations — but we have not abandoned you.
Day Two, in Canada
After resting well in the converted country schoolhouse that would be our lodging for three nights, we awoke early in order to get to the church of St. Henri for the final Mass to be celebrated there. This was the main reason for our journey: to attend the closing of my mother’s childhood parish, the parish where she and most of her 13 siblings were baptized, where she received her first Holy Communion at Midnight Mass, where she was Confirmed in the faith of her ancestors, receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this church, the funeral Masses of her parents were held — in fact, almost 40 years ago, her mother died in this church, suffering a stroke right after stepping through the open door for Mass and blessing herself with the holy water. And, now, the door will not be opened for another Mass. The Parish registers are complete. The books, like the doors of St. Henri, have been closed.
When she learned of the closing, my mother knew that she wanted to be there for the last Eucharistic celebration and my father and I expressed the same desire. Though I needed four men to carry me and my wheelchair up the eight steps (one of the volunteers, unbeknownst to us, was 93, bless his heart) I was glad to be there. Although I felt strange because I hadn’t attended the liturgy there since I was about six years old, being a fully practicing Catholic (devoted to attending the Sunday celebration every week that I am physically able) I did not feel out of place. I did, however, I admit, look at the nearly full church and wonder how many who live nearby didn’t come to Mass at St. Henri. There were only five regularly attending parishioners I’m told. And, yes, I did think of my cousins in that very town — but it was with this thought: it’s our generation that’s closing churches.
Yes, it’s my generation that’s closing churches because we have lost something that our ancestors once had. They knew something that we don’t anymore because the world has distracted us with so many other things to do and other places to be. We have lost a treasure and we don’t even know it — a secret treasure, a sacred treasure that succeeding generations will have to struggle to find again. I am grateful to God that, even though I was most thoroughly lost in darkness, He restored me to faith and to Faith. I am a member of that lost generation responsible for closed doors. But, by the grace of God, I have been pulled through the narrowest opening to the infinite space within… and now, I believe, God is calling me to shine some of the light that I have been given and to open minds, hearts, arms — doors. This is what I believe… is it true, Lord?
Day Three, at rest
“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…”.
In the beauty of the rolling Canadian countryside, my parents and I relaxed and enjoyed one another’s company and the wonders of God’s Creation. Birds singing and fluttering in a grove of trees; leaves green and gold in the sunlight; chipmunks and red squirrels exploring grasses and tree limbs and gathering while they may; a gorgeous red fox quietly and swiftly crossing the road at dusk. Paysage de la paix, as they say in French. The countryside in peace, and our bodies, hearts, and minds in peace.
For, although there was sadness for the proceedings of the day before, there is also a knowledge in me of seasons and of God’s grace being always sufficient to fill every need. Yes, the church of St. Henri had closed — a lowercase c church had come to the end of its season, having fulfilled a great need for the Gospel and the Sacraments and for parish community life when generations of people were desirous to be served. But, the whole town has been going through a transition — the little general store closed, the restaurant closed, the small branch of the bank closed, and people are moving away to larger cities and houses aren’t being bought. The closing of St. Henri is not only about a lost generation straying further generations off of the path, but also about the passage of a village into a rural/getaway place of isolation. Yes, the church came to an end — but the Church has not. The uppercase C Church continues through generations lost and found, through wars and peace, through plagues and prosperity, through darkness and light, as it has for 2000 years. “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Day Four, finding a port
We left our country retreat for the city of Québec, driving out of the fertile Coaticook Valley and through the flatland before crossing the St. Lawrence River and finding a way into the venerable walled city through one of its “ports”. Many, many logistics again this day and beautiful things to see, including a spectacular view from our fancy hotel room, but allow me just to record one thought here. While the bellman (yes, the bellman) was unloading our luggage from the minivan with my father, an invisible thief came by and took a briefcase from the open van door. It’s theft was not noticed until later that evening. Inside was my computer. And my sensitive mouse that is the only kind I can use and very hard to find. And two DVDs I rented from Netflix, with some other things as well. For some reason I had been very smart and, before leaving home, had backed up my documents. Thank you, God! And I mean that. I’m writing this on my old (read slow) computer. The grace here is that I wasn’t upset. I felt so bad for my father, who felt terrible. But, although this is the first time I had ever been robbed, I felt completely at ease. My only concern was that the thief would be malicious and mess around with the accounts for which I have stored passwords — but, I was totally willing to let God’s will be done. Perhaps there was something for me to learn here. And I think there was: forgiveness. I named my thief René (or Renée, pronounced the same way) and began praying for him or her — and I don’t plan to stop.
The Open Door
Day Five, the Holy Door
This is the day that I was looking forward to the most — the day that we would step through the Holy Door. A special grace and blessing has been promised by the Catholic Church (well, by God through the Church) to any one who undertakes a pilgrimage and passes through a semi-hidden door in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Québec. This door has been proclaimed a Holy Door in honor of the Cathedral’s 350th anniversary and as a privilege, as it is considered the mother church of North America. There are six other Holy Doors in the world — four in Italy, two in Spain, one in France — a tradition that began when pilgrimages to the Holy Land of Jerusalem became too dangerous for pilgrims many centuries ago. Since I’ll never be able to go to the others, I am grateful for the opening of this one and was very eager to go — this was the real impetus for my journey.
Before going up to enter the door, people are asked to walk through a meditation garden and pray. “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe…Persevere in prayer… Love your enemies… Blessed are the peacemakers…”. And, yes, I did think about René(e) with a special kind of love. I had a hard time maneuvering my wheelchair on the path and kept coming off of it and needing help to get back on it. I said to my father, “This is emblematic of my spiritual journey — I keep straying off of the path.” Later, I thought of this truly in terms of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of our lives here on earth, the pilgrim Church… we live and pray and climb on our way on earth up to the Holy Door of Paradise — may we all enter through.
I admit that I wanted to “feel” changed after crossing the threshold. But, I didn’t. I thought about my father taking my picture and I even thought to smile for it, since I don’t like pictures of me when I’m not smiling. I had brought my collection of rosaries with me in my bag so that they could enter through the Door with me, and even thought that the clothes I would be wearing would be changed for me. No, I did not believe that anything magical would happen. But, I do believe in God’s grace and I do believe in blessings.
I do believe that God is calling each and every one of us to a particular path in life — that there is a unique passage that each and every one of us is invited to cross through. The Holy Door was not only symbolic of all of this for me, and for others who faithfully enter through it, but it is also a real transformation that is being offered to us by God through His Church. We are being invited to pass through the sacred portal different than we were on the other side — purer and stronger in our willingness to love. This transformation cannot take place unless we are willing to receive the Grace that makes it possible.
And, yes, Christ is the Door. To one side of the Cathedral, a small, but thick and heavy metal door has a person sized bas-relief of Christ holding out his hand to the pilgrim. All of our passages of grace are in, with, and through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior of the World.
Day Six, being sent forth
I had many wonderful experiences while in the City of Québec, which is definitely one of my favorite places on earth. The last moment to share, however, takes place in Beaupré, in the Basilica of Ste. Anne. None of us wanted to go to this enormous early 20th-century church as a distinct destination — but we did not want to leave the area without going there. Truthfully, to derive the full benefit of this site, you have to spend at least a full day visiting everything that is to be seen and praying everywhere you go. We planned only one hour. It was the last few minutes that meant the most to me.
I will only mention two moments here. The first is with the most wonderful statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that I have ever seen. Near the front right apse, he is life-sized, on a pedestal, with votive candles to be lighted beneath his feet. The church is very dim, so I couldn’t see his eye color or complexion, but he had a dark brown beard and hair. He has a white and red robe, his heart on the outside of his chest, his arms upraised and forward reaching, as though opening his hands to you, hands which show the bleeding wounds of the nails. And, yes, he is beautiful. And, as he’s reaching out, his eyes are gazing forward. I knew that if I stood in just the right spot, it would seem as though the statue was looking at me. So, I did it. And I really felt like Jesus was gazing intently, lovingly and tenderly upon me, his eyes in mine. Part of me would like to be able to say that I had a great thought or an epiphany at this moment — but I didn’t, really. It was more like… like being loved… like the warm, cared for peace of being loved. I had prepared to say some of the Consecration to the Sacred Heart prayer when there, “in his sight” — but in that moment all that I could think was “I take Thee as the object of my love and my secure refuge at the hour of my death.” All the rest was Christ loving me — loving me always and everywhere, but allowing me to “feel” and experience in a visceral way the profound reality of that love in that spot.
As I said, the church’s stained-glass windows are many but small and filled with dark colors, so the interior of the church is rather dark. When it was time to go, I turned away from the altar and started down the center path. The doorway was small at the far end in front of me, but it was bright with the light outside. As I progressed closer, the lights became brighter and brighter, hurting my eyes so that I had to squint or look slightly aside. I drew nearer and nearer to the door and it grew larger to receive me, until, almost overcome by the light, I crossed over the threshold into the day. And I had thought, along this progress, that perhaps this is what it was like to be born..
And, so, on the First Friday in the month of September, I took the Holy Door as my facilitator. How many times do we pass through doorways and over thresholds? We open closed doors, we enter and exit tunnels, and, of course, we transition through many passages in our lives. What if each one were considered holy to us? What if, everywhere that we turned, we were aware of passing through sacred portals, from the mundane to the mysterious, from the earthly to the divine? For God is perpetually pouring His Grace upon us, His Mercy and His Love, His Peace and His Joy, and every moment is a unique opportunity, a special privilege, to receive this Grace — to enter into the Fullness of Life.
As part of the Holy Door Pilgrimage, I received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, doing so once home, on Saturday. On crossing back through the doorway of the confessional, I felt refreshed, renewed — reborn. I have heard of people feeling this way after being absolved, but I have never before experienced such a sense of cleanness and lightness — newness of life.)
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I know that you love me —
help me to live always in your love,
help me always to be willing to enter into mercy,
to enter into goodness, generosity, and hope;
Help me, Lord, to keep to the path that you have laid out for me,
and when I stray, to regain my step,
and when I falter, to rest upon your strength;
May I be renewed in my faith, in my life,
whenever I enter through a passage…
for you are the Door… and you are the Way,
the Truth, and the Life.
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.