It Matters Where We Pray
February 04, 2008
The Anglican devotional writer Evelyn Underhill tells of a trip she once made to the Scottish island of Iona. Throughout the day she sensed a “presence” that she could not quite put into words. While trying to describe this to the old Scottish boatman on the return trip, he said that he knew exactly what she had experienced, because for him, Iona was a very thin place; in Iona there was very little between you and God.
In that marvelous Celtic turn of phrase, the old boatman touched on a very profound and mysterious reality. Since prehistoric times, and in many cultures, certain locations have exerted a powerful hold on people. These sacred sites seem to have a certain spiritual magnetism that draws people to them. In some cases, these places are connected directly to certain historical events or saintly people. In other instances they are associated with apparitions and miraculous healings. There are, however, some locations for which the root of the attraction is lost in the mists of history. In these places too, the physical and spiritual realms seem to intersect, and the call for pilgrims to assemble is heard and obeyed.
One such place is Mniku (Chapel Island) in the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. This small island is the spiritual capital of the Mi’kmaq, a First Nations people indigenous to Atlantic Canada, eastern Quebec and northern New England (especially the state of Maine.) A central feature of Mi’kmaq governance is the annual meeting of the district chiefs, a meeting that has been taking place in Mniku since long before the arrival of the Europeans. The cultural and historical significance of this island was highlighted in 2005, when the government of Canada declared it to be a national heritage site.
In 1610, the famous Grand Chief Membertou embraced Christianity, and the island of Mniku began to acquire a very deep significance for the Catholic identity of the Mi’kmaq people. In 1742, the French missionary Abbé Maillard celebrated Eucharist there on a boulder, and this inaugurated a tradition that has continued uninterrupted to the present day. The Mi’kmaq people have a very deep and tender devotion to the grandmother of Jesus and claim St. Anne as their patron. Every year since 1742, Mniku has been the venue for the longest continuous religious mission in Canada. In this place, held to be holy, where traditionally all marriages, baptisms and burials took place, the people of the Mi’kmaq nation assemble to strengthen their ethnic, family and religious identity.
This all takes place in July in the week after the feast of St. Anne. Throughout the week there are services of prayer and processions and homilies. On one of the days, after an outdoor celebration of the Way of the Cross, there is a procession known as crawling to St. Anne. Worshippers believe that going to St. Anne on their knees can effect cures for the sick. All kneel in front of the church and move forward three or four knee lengths and pause for the Grand Chief to say a prayer. This continues until the worshipper reaches the statue of St. Anne in the church. In preparation for the celebration the statue is cleaned by the women of the community. The linen strips used for the cleaning may be worn by the women as wrist or ankle bracelets long after the mission. On Sunday morning baptisms are celebrated and the climax of the week is the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday afternoon.
Although the major celebrations take place between Thursday and Monday of the week following the feast, some people start arriving and setting up camp two weeks prior to the mission. People come from all across Eastern Canada and New England, from Toronto, Vancouver, California and Alaska. Wherever a son or daughter of the Mi’kmaq nation may live, the pilgrimage to Mniku is a highlight of the year. It certainly has the elements of festival and homecoming, but it is much more than that. For the Mi’kmaq, Mniku is a very “thin” place, and the annual assembly there is vital to their identity as a people and as believers.
When we gather as the People of God for Sunday Eucharist, we too are assembling to be nourished in our identity as the Body of Christ, to become what we eat and drink and then to be sent for the transformation of the world. The Sunday Eucharistic assembly must be a “thin” place to bring about this transformative encounter with God. Those tasked with the important work of preparing and facilitating the assembly’s worship must take great care to ensure the robustness of our ritual symbolic language. Part of that language involves the environment for worship. If the world’s sacred sites, such as Mniku in Nova Scotia, have anything to teach us, perhaps it is the lesson that it not only matters that we pray, but also where we pray.
Rev. William Burke is the Associate Director of the National Liturgy Office, The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, Ontario.