Isaiah 56. 7. For my house shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.
Of course over the years, due to the different changes in the community, the decoration in the little chapel changed. But these are the same walls and just looking at the space brings back so many sweet memories.
Many years ago, a very wealthy family went on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Lourdes in France and the head of the family, who was a millionaire, made a promise that on his return to Canada, he will build a sanctuary in honour of the Virgin Mary of Lourdes. He kept his promise and on a piece of land in a small town about one hour outside Montreal, he built a sanctuary situated on a little hill and made access to it by a stairway leading up to a grotto in which there was a statue of “Our Lady of Lourdes” (a small replica of the one in France.) It was blessed by the Church and soon began to draw many pilgrims. In those days, the Catholic population in Quebec was very devotional especially to this type of setting. More and more people were visiting and finally the Bishop gave the permission to some Franciscan friars to settle close by and build a small chapel and house. The owner gave the land surrounding the sanctuary with certain conditions that allowed the community to stay and use the land to serve the pilgrims who came.
When I first visited this place it was in 1958 and there were thousands of people attending an out_ door mass and praying the rosary and singing hymns. It was very impressive. After the ‘quiet revolution’ in the Province, all these forms of exterior devotion began to diminish rapidly. In the meanwhile a young Franciscan priest was starting a project in which the aspect of a life based on prayer and meditation was the center. There was no accent on any other form of ministry except opening the fraternity to the outside world to welcome all those who sought to have prayer and meditation their central interest. It meant that visitors could come and take part in the prayer life of the brothers and could also come for retreats. There were a few guest rooms and in summer, tents could be used. It was here I first came for a week_ end and finally asked to be part of the fraternity and I was accepted.
I lived here for ten years and loved it! The prayer life and an atmosphere of silence within the community was taken seriously and there were privileged moments in the day where silence was maintained in the house so that those who wanted could easily practice their meditation. I enjoyed this immensely especially after 2 years absence and three months in India living in Bhuddhist monasteries and all those moments where I attended ceremonies and teachings. I needed the time and space and brothers with whom I could discuss some of these things as how they affected me and how and what could I retain and integrate in my life as a Christian monk.
The friar’s house was small but cozy and the rooms were like a monk’s cell with just the minimum.
The house was surrounded by a large open space in the front and in the back we were at a foot of a hill in which there was a beautiful forest in which I could walk for over an hour without meeting anyone but where there were many birds and deer and other beautiful little creatures. Walking in the forest in winter was a meditation in itself. For me, it was like a most beautiful cathedral where the wind blew sounds and trees cracked and birds sang and light came streaming through creating mosaics in the snow and it felt so serene and peaceful. There were trees I had never seen before and the barks of the trees were like skins of these living beings holding stories of eternity and it was healing and purifying to spend time in their silent presence.
In winter, the white snow was a carpet that showed the feet of all the creatures that walked at night. There were the prints of the foxes’ feet as he stalked the pheasant. There was also the flat feet of the rabbit and the tiny ones of something that looked like a squirrel but I knew the squirrel was hibernating so I wondered what it could be. One day when we were having the mid-day meal in our dining area, I was glancing out through the window and discovered something moving in the snow. It was all white with a fairly long body and I pointed it out to one of the brothers and he told me it was a weasel.
It was the first time I had seen one in winter as in summer, the fur is of a different color. Same for the rabbit which is beautifully white in winter. One has to walk very softly to be able to see these creatures.
It is like there are many beautiful things in life but if we are too busy and too noisy we wont see them.
And of course there were the prints of the deer.
Our place was right in the middle of a path they used to cross over to the other land facing our monastery across the road, land which was now a small farm.
When the winter was long, the deer would would stand on its hind legs and eat the berries from the fruit which stayed on the sumac trees. I wondered why those fruit were not all eaten by the birds and how come they did not fall off the trees and now I understood that nature provided it as food for the deer in winter.
There was a natural pond of water near the house and in spring the thirsty deer would come to drink and one morning at break_fast we counted six deer drinking from the pond. The ice was hardly all gone but there was enough water for them to quench their thirst. It made me understand better when we prayed the psalm 42, which said “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for You O my God.”
In the early morning of spring we heard the Canadian geese flying over the roof as they came back after a long winter absence. It was such a joy for the ears. My room was just next to a tall maple tree and early morn around 4am the birds began to sing and I remembered it was a good time to meditate. Later after prayers, when we were having breakfast, the squirrels were running on the branches of the maple tree and drinking the sap from spots where it dripped. In summer nights as we meditated in the chapel we could hear the chant of the whipper-wheel bird.
I started a garden and when I first broke the early spring earth to till the soil, that was the time of the mosquitoes that came out for food. They were also thirsty but unlike the deer, they were not seeking water.
It was a different life from the city and once I had a visitor and he said, “after all your travels and being with so many interesting people you must be very lonely here”. I looked at him and wondered if I heard rightly.
How could one be ever lonely here? There was such a joy in what nature provided and I was able to have a garden and grow flowers and vegetables and the prayers were beautifully prepared and sung and we had time for ourselves and time for God.