A few years ago, I considered making a pilgrimage, as distinguished from a trip, to the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in the Province of Quebec, Canada. That journey never materialized, but my recent two-week excursion to the Northeast US and to Canada allowed me at least a brief visit to this Basilica.
St. Anne’s is reputed to be the most visited religious shrine in North America. I wanted to go, and I am glad I did.
On the way to St. Anne’s from Quebec City, the tour bus took us to Montmorency Falls, which is one and a half times the height of Niagara Falls. Impressive and worth seeing.
St. Anne’s was massive. The context for me is that I have seen many of the Cathedrals of Europe, and I got to the point of being bored by them. My apologies, but after a week of castles and cathedrals, they begin to run together. In Rome, Italy, near where Sally and I once stayed, I got up one Sunday morning to go to church at what I called the No-Name Cathedral. I am sure it had a name, but it was simply the closest church to our room. It was magnificent, but it was on no tourist map, and apparently of no historic or artistic or religious merit. Huh? If that No-Name Cathedral were in South Carolina, it would be our Number One Tourist Attraction in the Entire State. I repeat: It was magnificent. But, No-Name Cathedral was in Rome, and competing with St. Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of St. John Lateran was just not gonna happen. But, I digress. St. Anne de Beaupre was huge and inspiring, but I have seen big already.
Inspiring, however, it was. Not because of the chapels or the statuary or the candles, but because of the walls of crutches.
During my trip, I have been reading a book about Mormon fundamentalism, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer examines the murderous rage of many Mormons, throughout their history, as they claimed they were doing the will of God as they slaughtered other humans. They claimed to be following God’s instructions. As an honest Christian with a couple of seminary degrees, I am also aware of the sometime bloody and vile history of Catholics and Protestants, many of whom, at various times and places, killed others because they thought it pleased God. Muslims and other faith groups don’t fare any better.
In counterpoint to this sorry history of homicide stood walls of crutches at St. Anne’s, evidence of faith at its best: life-giving instead of life-taking. Men, women boys and girls journeyed to St. Anne’s to search for healing. The crutches were the visible display evidencing that many found new health and new life through their faith at that place at that time.
I needed that. Having just retired from a career as a pastor/minister during which I often saw people and churches at their worst and most dysfunctional, it was life-giving to me to see these walls of crutches, left behind by people who had been healed while at the Shrine.
We all need healing. Sick bodies need to be made well. Miserable souls need peace. Tired and empty people need refreshment. Broken relationships need to be mended. I want to be among those people of faith who, instead of believing themselves to be emissaries of an angry God, devote themselves to being messengers of good news and grace.