O Come, All Ye (un)Faithful
The votive candles burn on in secular Quebec
This is the second in a series of essays by the 2019 CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation writer in residence, Emira Tufo.
"The end is near!" proclaimed the young man who stepped onto the Metro at Bonaventure station on a recent Sunday night.
Science, he declared, was now confirming what the Bible has been warning us about for 4,000 years: global warming, earthquakes, floods.
"Turn to Jesus, for only he can save your life. We are the last generation!"
The man sitting across from me raised an eyebrow and smirked, while the rest of the last generation continued to swipe and scroll.
"Amen!" I shouted, by way of encouragement. (It is not easy to speak to an indifferent audience.)
I hoped that the others might follow suit, but I only managed to attract a few startled glares.
"Thank you, sister," the young man exclaimed, as he darted into the adjacent wagon and recommenced his sermon there, leaving me alone with a disapproving public.
The Quiet Revolution may have emptied Quebec's pews, but strange are the ways of the Lord whose preachers have descended upon Métro Bonaventure.
Perhaps it is the high traffic at this particular station that attracts them: all the besuited ladies and gentlemen heading to work in their office towers, all the tired travellers lugging their luggage to Central Station, all the homeless with their paper cups extended, and all the students heading to the École de technologie supérieure in Griffintown.
The station is a Christian proselytizing zone, named as it is after the medieval theologian, Saint Bonaventure.
It is here that believers board the trains to speak of the apocalypse, and here that Jehovah's Witnesses patiently stand behind racks of The Watchtower magazine, ready to hand it out to anyone who asks.
But no one ever does, for fear, perhaps, of being drawn into a conversation.
So many paths to choose from
It was here, too, that I chanced upon two angels clad in white, their shirts emblazoned with handwritten words from the New Testament:
Jésus-Christ dit: Je suis le pain de vie. (Jesus Christ said, "I am the bread of life.")
I could not help but approach them, for they stood not in the shadows but at the crossroads of the station's many exits, in front of the glowing halos of two pop-up kiosks.
The common faith of Catherine Morin and Alain Lamothe sealed their union years ago, and they have since moved frequently, speaking the word of God along the way.
No, they belong to no church or organization.
Theirs is not a religion, but a free faith, a matter purely of the heart. Their being here and speaking to people is their personal gift of time and love. Many stop to speak to them, they said, and they write down each and every name, creating a record of the way the word of God travels.
We talked about the multiplicity of spiritual paths, and they nodded emphatically when I suggested that all prayers drifted to the same address.
Then, Catherine took out a black book where she wrote down my name, and they bade me farewell with the words, "Assalamu alaikum," and "Shalom." Peace be upon you.
The way of the Buddha
In the city, there is no dearth of invitations to believe, and on the Plateau Mont-Royal, some are of the more exotic variety.
On the corner of Laurier Avenue and St-André Street sits the Kadampa Meditation Centre. Here, a young Buddhist monk with a sunshine face delivers teachings on things of both practical and metaphysical significance: love and attachment, nostalgia and sadness, the origins of life.
His name is Kelsang Loundhroub, but he was once Xavier Perraton.
The son of a Mexican and a Québécoise, his family moved to Saint-Jérôme when he was five years old. Even then, he was drawn to solitude and contemplation, and in Saint-Jérôme, young Xavier wasted no time. He dug out caves in the snow and sat in them contentedly for hours, thinking.
The wonder of creation struck him first through the experience of music and later through the study of physics, which revealed to him the infinite complexity of the created world. And yet he found something lacking in science: it was permanently grasping for external truths.
He chose the journey within.
On this particular Wednesday, Kelsang Loundhroub urges those assembled to tend not only to this one but also to their future lives, and then he chuckles at his own proposition: isn't this life already a handful?
Then there's Big Fat Seb
Where Jesus and Buddha have perhaps failed to leave their mark, there are other options still.
For nearly 30 years, an unusual ritual has played out in the basement of Très-Saint-Rédempteur Church in Hochelaga.
Every Saturday at 8 p.m., Très-Saint-Rédempteur has welcomed amateur wrestling matches, featuring Big Fat Seb, Tony "la Puissance" Stallone, Freak Hugo and Le Rat, all bedecked in acrylic capes and latex, armed with dubious weapons borrowed from the pantry.
Badass babes step into the ring between rounds, sporting T-shirts that read, Check ma crack et ferme ta gueule! (Check out my crack and shut the f--k up!)
This is Quebec's Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW).
There is fake violence and real profanity and mothers with babies stepping up to the ring to give the finger to the antihero — for it is always a battle between good and evil, between David and Goliath, between the angel and the devil.
Visitors have been welcome (sort of), but photographs not allowed.
The ICW is a sacred community ritual that brings together a multigenerational neighbourhood audience of pink-haired grandmothers, parents, teenagers, toddlers and Hochelaga gangsta-types wearing knuckle rings and flowered sweatpants.
The ICW federation held its last wrestling bout in the church basement boxing ring on March 6. It's now on the hunt for a new venue.
Who lights the candles?
We live in a province constantly attempting to assert its secularism, yet turn up in any empty church in Montreal, and you will find many votive candles burning — so many at times, that it is impossible to find one to light.
(That problem is solved at Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue Church in Old Longueuil, which has installed candle vending machines).
One rarely sees these candle lighters.
Yet I have a feeling that among them there are atheists and agnostics, those of other faiths, the merely superstitious, and maybe even wrestlers — all of them hoping that the good will prevail, that the bad will have been for a good reason, and that their prayers will be answered even when whispered to an unknown address.