Finding the highs in the valley of lows

By  Michael Higgins
  • October 23, 2009
{mosimage}This past month has been a very dark period for the Canadian Catholic Church. And it isn’t over. As Ron Rolheiser has said, “in times like these it is most instructive and healing to sit quietly in humility, in sackcloth and ashes.”

In spite of the media coverage — obsessive, unrelenting, merciless and yet fully understandable — it is important to still keep perspective, to remember we are a redeemed people, a people of hope. And so, I don’t intend to add to the commentary on the Bishop Raymond Lahey Affair — as it has been dubbed — in part because I have already done that in other media, but also because we could all do with a respite, an antidote, no matter how passing its effect.

Here is my antidote. In the past few weeks I have had the occasion to be at two genuinely joyful and deeply spiritual celebrations. The first was the installation of the Honourable Judge Graydon Nicholas as the new lieutenant-governor for the province of New Brunswick. Graydon is a long-serving member of my board of governors at St. Thomas University, a onetime Chair of Native Studies, the first aboriginal person to receive a law degree in Atlantic Canada, the first aboriginal to serve as a provincial court judge and a tireless advocate for racial equality.

Born and raised on the Tobique Indian reserve in New Brunswick, Graydon did a science degree at St. Francis Xavier University before doing his law degree at the University of New Brunswick, followed by a Master of Social Work degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. Not bad, as he would say, for a chap who failed Grade 1. He failed Grade 1 because his first language is Maliseet and the language of instruction at the time was English and English only. He tasted discrimination firsthand and not for the last time.

Tenacious and endlessly energetic, Graydon has turned his attention and passion to issues of justice and mercy as a native leader, and a  member of the judiciary, as well as a teacher and social worker, in the full knowledge that he must fulfill his own mother’s injunction to use his gifts for his people. He has done that in spades.

For those who know Graydon and his wife Elizabeth (also a lawyer and Queen’s Counsel), and their number seems legion, the driving and sustaining force for their lives is their Catholic faith. Members of the Jesuit-inspired Christian Life Community, profoundly committed to promoting devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (a devotion close to the hearts of First Nations people throughout the Americas), the Nicholases have sought to incarnate their faith in all aspects of their lives of service and love.

New Brunswick is fortunate indeed to have such a vice-regal couple, people of faith who are neither doctrinaire nor combative, but open to the life of the Spirit and suffused with love. Rarely have I participated in a formal ceremony so naturally joyful and spontaneous as the installation of the new lieutenant governor. It bore all the hallmarks of his innate humility and natural approachableness.

Just a few days before, I was invited to attend the ceremony of dedication of the new Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. An utterly uplifting liturgy — resplendent in sight and sound — underscored the majesty and meaning of the architecture, a living monument of stone. The bishop of the diocese of Bridgeport provided an enlightening theological gloss on the mosaics that are the distinguishing mark of the chapel; the university’s choir was in fine form as it sang both ancient and contemporary hymns, psalms and motets; the congregants were fully engaged in the sacred mysteries; and the impressive acoustics and natural lighting ensured that the multi-hour ceremony remained fully absorbing.

Articles and profiles in The New York Times, on the Commonweal blog, as well as coverage in many other publications and media outlets, guaranteed that this event was seen for what it was: a rich celebration of the religious sensibility informed by a living artistic tradition that eschews the modish and gimmicky for the transcendent and perduring.

As the president of the university, theologian Dr. Tony Cernera, rightly observed on numerous occasions: the new chapel is the heart of the university, a sanctuary for the weary, a quiet place to reinvigorate, a sacred space that soothes and stills. And the chapel is strategically positioned as well as architecturally compelling. It is the locus, the still point, the place that feeds and nourishes.

The artist engaged to create, assemble and preside over the mosaic murals that grace this holy building is the Slovenian Jesuit Marko Rupnik, whose work can also be found in the Vatican and who has been called a modern-day Michelangelo. Certainly, his work is stunning, intricate, its signature a divine simplicity. It all coheres rather marvellously. And it is a marvel.

A witness to the faith that sustains. Unencumbered, with pure lines, rich colours, ample space and the lingering smell of candle wax and incense, the chapel appeals to all the senses, a liturgy in stone, Sacred Heart University’s precious gem. Both events — the installation of the new lieutenant-governor and the dedication of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit — were peak moments in an otherwise dispiriting landscape.

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