"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

La Belle Provence est une Hotbed of Religious Craziness?

My dear friend, the Archpriest Robert Anderson, lived in Aylmer, Quebec on chemin de la Montagne, enabling him to refer to himself as a real mountain-top hermit, which he was in his own charming and inimitable ways. After the turn of the century until his shocking death in December 2010, I visited that house many times for drinks, dinner, discussion, and then in the summers went up regularly to cut the grass and look after the place as he spent every year from late June through August teaching in Ukraine and then often visiting family in Greece and other parts of Europe. One summer, after debating which day of the week to go up to cut the grass, and indifferently thinking it didn't really matter, I rather suddenly decided to go up mid-afternoon only to be greeted with this bizarre hissing noise as I unlocked the house and went in. It sounded like water but I thought that impossible...until I went to the basement where his vast library (I'd estimate at least 3500 volumes) was kept, and where the pump on his well had burst, and was showering the entire basement in water! There was a good inch or more on the floor by the time I got there and had to hire a plumber to come fix the pump. But praise God we lost almost no books or the liturgical paraphernalia he kept in his wee basement chapel.

In any event Fr Bob, had spent long stretches of his student years in and around Paris, where he became fluent in French (as he was in several other languages, most self-taught, including Ukrainian). He would go on to teach French and theology in Catholic schools for over 30 years. So he was always fascinated by francophone culture in Canada and, in a Flannery O'Connor vein, used to speak to me regularly of how much he thought Quebec was haunted by its recently rejected Catholic past coming out of the Révolution tranquille. His experience was that you just had to waft a bit of incense and trot out some Gregorian chant and you could immediately, if only briefly and not permanently, evoke waves of nostalgia from Quebecois Catholics.

In place of an often repressive Catholicism (or so the myths run in Quebec, where its Catholic phase, especially under Maurice Duplessis, is sometimes called la grande noirceur), what developed in that province after 1965 was often a fascinating but bizarre mixture of hyper-reactionary Catholicism, "new agey" cults, very liberal and often strange (and drug addled) "spiritual" practices, and much else besides. It was fascinating to discuss with him, who had a hilariously well-honed taste for kitsch, which Quebec still abounds in.

All this is just a long preface to say how much he would have been fascinated by a brand-new book: The Mystical Geography of Quebec:Catholic Schisms and New Religious Movements, eds., S.J. Palmer, Susan J., M. Geoffroy, and P.L.Gareau (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 287pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This study of new religious movements in Quebec focuses on nine groups—including the notoriously violent Solar Temple; the iconoclastic Temple of Priapus; and the various “Catholic” schisms, such as those led by a mystical pope; the Holy Spirit incarnate; or the reappearance of the Virgin Mary. Eleven contributing authors offer rich ethnographies and sociological insights on new spiritual groups that highlight the quintessential features of Quebec's new religions (“sectes” in the francophone media). The editors argue that Quebec provides a favorable “ecology” for alternative spirituality, and explore the influences behind this situation: the rapid decline of the Catholic Church after Vatican Il; the “Quiet Revolution,” a utopian faith in Science; the 1975 Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms; and an open immigration that welcomes diverse faiths. The themes of Quebec nationalism found in prophetic writings that fuel apocalyptic ferment are explored by the editors who find in these sectarian communities echoes of Quebec’s larger Sovereignty movement.

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