Every now and then, a mild (but vociferous, by Canadian standards) debate erupts about some crucifix adorning some public space somewhere in the province. The most controversial crucifix hangs above the Speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly, but other, lesser crucifixes have also had their share of glory such as, most recently, the one hanging in the lobby of a public hospital in Quebec City. That particular crucifix was abruptly removed by hospital officials as they did not wish to make the patients - a captive audience of sorts - feel under spiritual duress. This was at the Saint-Sacrement Hospital, so unless the patients are unconscious, they will be aware that the Holy Spirit is upon them. As usual, opponents of the crucifix pointed out that the state must be seen to be neutral – especially in this immigrant country of multiple creeds – while friends of the crucifix retorted that it embodies the heritage of the Belle Province. Threats were uttered, ministers got involved, and the annoyed crucifix was returned to its place.
Many hospitals in Montreal also bear the names of saints, and this due to the involvement of religious orders in delivering healthcare services back in the day when dysentery roamed the land (I don’t know if it was dysentery per se, but some infectious scourge must have roamed it because people didn’t wash their hands). There are the Sainte Justine and Saint Luc hospitals, for example, as well as the Sacré-Coeur, Hôtel-Dieu, and Notre Dame. If you are a patient, the Holy Spirit will touch you, unless you’d rather be touched by Queen Victoria or a Montreal General.
The Holy Spirit pervades not only places of political debate and healing, but the very asphalt that we walk upon, as some of Montreal’s main arteries bear the names of saints whom no one – I guarantee it - can tell you anything about. People will, however, tell you that Rue Saint-Denis and Boulevard Saint-Laurent have some of the best smoked meat and ice-cream in town. This meat and ice cream are, in turn, consumed under the constant vigil of the illuminated cross that sits atop of Mont-Royal and is one of the city’s hallmarks.
If you’re reading this from somewhere out there, you’re getting the wrong idea. This is not some fanatical town. Quebeckers threw off the shackles of the church back in the 60s and now use the names of holy objects as swear words with gradation: the more sacred and untouchable the object once was, the stronger the obscenity implied by its name (Tabarnak! Câlice! Ostie!) The sacred has thus been appropriated for popular use, and the many Jesuses expiring on their respective crosses in churches and public institutions across the city solicit but the utmost indifference - and thus represent the pinnacle of religious tolerance.
If you’re having a bit of a moment – spiritual or whatever - the church is a place where you can be sure not to be bothered - and it is usually possible to have the whole place to yourself. Jesus now bestows the precious gift of privacy and solitude still lacking in competing establishments.
Case in point: one evening last winter, I happened to be passing by the Al-Omah Al-Islamiah Mosque close to Berri-UQAM during the holy month of Ramadan, and decided to pop inside. No sooner had I set foot in the carpeted interior but the imam manifested to greet me. This is my universal mosque experience the world over: the host is always present and waiting. I was handed a platter of food and whisked away to the women’s section where a feast was under way. It was the time of iftar, I realized: the breaking of the daily fast.
I hadn’t planned on staying for dinner, but it seemed rude now to depart, so I joined the women in chatter while wolfing down my meal. I then wanted to leave very much, but you don’t go to someone’s house and then depart right after your belly has been filled, so I loitered a little longer to be polite. Alas, the time of the night prayer was then upon us, and it seemed only civil to stand up with the other women and perform the ritual. By the time I felt it acceptable to leave, two hours had passed.
This did not deter me. Last weekend, during a visit to New York City, I stumbled upon the impressive looking Emanu-El Temple on 5th Avenue and felt drawn to step inside. The looming temple doors were closed, however, and also had no handles. The Temple, it seemed, could only be opened from inside. I walked around the building until I came upon the entrance to the adjacent Community House where the security guard informed me that the Temple visiting hours were now over.
Just then, a benevolent voice spoke up from somewhere in the interior, and a middle-aged man dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt emerged from the shadows offering to show me inside. This was unnecessary. The entrance into the temple was right behind him and all he needed to do was to step aside. Instead, I was given a guided tour of not only the main temple space but also the adjacent chapels, told details about the recent renovations and shown the stained glass Tiffany windows. Some of these windows had been transported here from a cemetery chapel where they normally received little attention, the man said, which I thought was a clever idea. I was invited to return to worship whenever my heart desired. By the time I stepped outside, it was late afternoon and I just barely caught my flight back.
Turn up in any church in Montreal outside its regular service hours, however (if there even is a service), and you will find the house unattended. It will be just you and Jesus. Jesus will not ask you where you’re from or why you’ve come or if you’re hungry or if you would like to know about the architecture. He won’t make you feel like you have to stay and he won’t ask you to come back. The confession booth will be empty in case you’ve got something to unload, and you can pick your spot in any of the deserted pews (some of which are now providing seating at cafés throughout the city). And yet, you will find that many candles burn - so many at times, that you cannot find a free one to light for yourself (a problem solved at the Paroisse Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue in Old Longueil which has installed candle vending machines). You rarely see these other candle lighters, but I have a feeling that among them there are atheists and agnostics, those of other faiths, as well as the merely susperstitious. Lighting a candle is a simple and hopeful gesture, without protocol.
Meanwhile, the hosts of the church are standing behind displays full of Bible leaflets at Metro Bonaventure ready to hand them out to anyone who asks – but only if they ask. I have never seen anyone ask and have wanted to do so myself out of consideration, but always refrained due to fear of being drawn into a conversation.
And then, last week, as I was thinking about writing this post, I was suddenly accosted by the Good Lord while rushing to catch the bus. A young woman addressed me seemingly to ask for directions. Naturally, I stopped, bursting with pride at the prospect of demonstrating my knowledge of the neighborhood. But when I leaned in to hear her, I realized that she was asking if I had heard of Jesus Christ. Well, it was too late then to pull away although the consequences of my poor judgment dawned upon me as I watched the bus arrive across the street. I confirmed vigorously that I had but she was not satisfied. She proceeded to tell me that Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of mankind. I thought I might save myself by telling her that I was not of the Christian faith but realized, as soon as I had uttered these words, that I was now sinking into quicksand. She was a kindly girl with large eyes and a gentle face and I could not bring myself to interrupt her. She was still talking as I watched the bus depart.
Oh, well. It's all right. Everyone's doing the very best they can, God bless them. Amen.