On the CBC series THIS LIFE, you can see majestic shots of St. Joseph’s Oratory as it sits nestled between Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. This summer, I decided it was high time to actually visit the holy place that’s made such substantial marks on both the fictional characters of the series and the real characters in my life.
The amount of wooden steps separating my parents and I from the church at the apex of the oratory. It’s traditional to walk these steps on your knees in a state of reflection, only stopping to perform a prayer at each step.
It’s one tradition in a city built on a bedrock of what’s traditional.
In THIS LIFE, when grandmother and matriarch of the series, Janine Lawson, brings Natalie a bag full of ornate bottles of holy water, she’s performing a different spiritual tradition long-practiced by members of my own family.
See, most places of Catholic worship offer holy water to its pilgrims and, in turn, pilgrims use the gifted water as a healing agent, an evil repellant or a tool used to bless other people or objects.
Whenever I’d receive a bottle from a far-flung church or holy place, I’d apply the spiritual elixir to my hockey sticks for good luck. (Sidenote: I never made the NHL.) I also remember applying it on our dog and companion, the late Mickey, when he was showing signs of aging.
For my mother, father, and I, holy water provided comfort while, in the writer’s room on THIS LIFE, holy water supplied an accessible avenue for Janine’s inner spiritual conflict.
Back in March, during the development stage of THIS LIFE, I mentioned that I grew up in a god-fearing environment, went to an all-boys Catholic high school in NDG, and lived with a mother who carried around an ungodly amount of holy water.
From there on in, I was deemed THIS LIFE’s Catholic expert and my mom’s holy water carrying self was going to be reflected on TV.
Anyhow, this (now) Agnostic and his parents climbed the steps of St. Joseph’s, breathing hard/hardly breathing. As a child running up these steps, I’d keep myself from turning to the vastness of the island at my back. I wanted to save the view. This time around? “Jesus Christ. I don’t remember all these steps,” I muttered to myself.
We finally reached the main portico of the basilica, which was inaugurated in 1955, at high noon. I turned and saw a magnificent swath of land, with a view that stretched from the sprawling suburbs of Laval to the breathtaking Laurentian mountain range in the north. Below us sits the location where we shoot Emma and Romy’s high school scenes, Notre Dame College.
Although most of the Biblical Canon has been fired out of my system, it’s hard not to believe in some higher power with a view like that. My meditative spell is broken when a tourist hawks what must’ve been the biggest loogie in the “common era.”
Spitting aside, Janine suffers from an alternate set of circumstances. In episodes of THIS LIFE, she struggles to maintain her faith in the institution that is the Church in the face of the resurfacing issues with her son, Oliver, and the dimming prospects of her daughter, Natalie.
When staples of your faith cease to speak to others close to you in a positive manner, it can dislodge some pent up resentment or force you to re-examine what you believe in and I think that’s what Showrunner and Executive Producer Joseph Kay and staff writer Rachel Langer executed so well with Janine.
Janine’s character reminds me of my mother’s own personal struggles through faith and to some extent, even my own.
Arm in arm, my parents and I enter St. Joseph’s. Inside lies a maze of architectural beauty and holy matter. You’re first led into what’s called the Votive Chapel, a room dressed in old canes and crutches left by pilgrims who were healed by St. André, the late great patriarch of this institution. My mom and dad light candles for the family. I, on the other hand, got tangled up in a group of foreigners looking for the exit.
Thousands of candles keep the dank hall/chapel alight and lead pilgrims, even if stuck in a cluster of selfie-stick people, towards St. André’s Tomb, where many more thousands of visitors have scrawled their prayers in a giant register that sits across from the tomb itself.
As I exit the divine salon, I can’t help but reminisce about THE key scene in episode six, when Natalie douses herself in Janine’s holy water in an explosive fit of catharsis. It heavily contrasts the tiny bureaucratic looking room where holy water is tapped, poured and blessed by priests of the basilica.
My mother, father and I get in line to receive our blessings and our holy water. Dozens flock behind me. I can’t tell if I feel like I’m in line to see a doctor or in line at a rock show. Either way, we get our dozen or so mini-bottles of holy water and contently call it a day.
We get back to our car having successfully completed our afternoon journey, 99 wooden steps and all. We leave the parking lot of pilgrims, happy that we didn’t have to pay for parking (it was a Sunday). And there I was, an agnostic, saying a quiet prayer for the real Janines and Natalies everywhere.
Keep following Janine’s spiritual journey every Monday on new episodes of THIS LIFE at 9pm on CBC Television.
I’m Max Morin, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE. Stay plugged-in to the blog -- we’ve got many more behind the scenes treats to come!
Watch an interview with Janet-Laine Green below: