Pilgrims in our backyard

If holy journeys are all the rage, then why isn't anyone preserving the sacred spots on our own turf?


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Ready for a voyage of spiritual exploration, a personal trek for meaning to a site where for hundreds of years folks before you touched the spirits? Don’t be so ready to hop a plane.

Despite the inference in Micheal Valpy’s column in the Globe a few weeks ago, you don’t have to cross the ocean – or even leave the province – to embark on a sacred journey.

According to Valpy, “pilgrimage is big in the 21st century. In an era when the churches and temples are emptying in the West, the World Tourism Organization’s statistics indicate an explosive increase in religious travel.” He then describes soulful treks to the Celtic valley of Glendalough near Dublin, the Camino de Santiago route in northern Spain, the Holy Land in Israel, the ruins of Hindu temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Mecca, the Buddha at Lumbini in Nepal and more.

What’s disturbing in his account is that there’s no mention of a single sacred site in Ontario or anywhere else in North America.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer , the great Christian martyr under the Nazis, noted that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” You have to wonder whether globetrotting pilgrims are spending enough time protecting sacred sites here at home that are being desecrated.

Ontario is full of spectacular and deeply holy sites you can make the destination of mindful voyages. Christianity’s your grace? Perhaps a trek of homage to Ontario’s oldest Protestant church, the Mohawk Chapel in Brantford. It contains a stained glass memorial window honouring the architect of the Nanfan Treaty of 1701, which maintains that southern Ontario was deeded to the Crown as a holy trust to protect the hunting rights of Iroquois people.

The Mohawk chief canonized in stained glass is the remarkable 18th-century leader Hendrick. In addition to wresting treaties, he successfully lobbied the Crown to pay for a holy communion service.

The prayer books and communion vessels used here were rescued after the American Revolution by a secret Mohawk expedition behind enemy lines and later divided between the Mohawk communities at Grand River and Tyendinaga, on the Bay of Quinte.

Tyendinaga itself should be recognized as a sacred spiritual centre, the centuries-old birthplace of the Huron founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Peacemaker. It’s from this spot that he journeyed in a stone canoe across the waters of Lake Ontario to bring the message of a global democratic peace to the Finger Lakes of Iroquoia.

To honour non-violence, think of a meditational walk to this hallowed spot.

When the Peacemaker journeyed across what in Iroquoian tongues means the Beautiful Clear Lake, its most productive fish and waterfowl habitat was at the spot where the Red Hill Creek flows into Hamilton Harbour, now the horrific site of auto industry production.

The Red Hill Valley has 40 identified archaeological sites, including ancient burial mounds dating back to 11,000 BC, when humans still hunted mammoths.

This area could very well be revered as Ontario’s cradle of human civilization. Instead, activists are fighting to keep it from being turned into an expressway. For three months earlier this year, a native longhouse guarding a sacred fire kept the bulldozers out.

Today, a fire rekindled from its ashes still burns on nearby private Red Hill land, where it cannot be doused by security guards.

Serpent Mounds Park on Rice Lake, owned and managed by the Hiawatha First Nation, contains nine burial mounds, including one that’s serpent-shaped. They are believed to have been begun around 128 AD and were built up over 150 years. The mounds overlook the magnificent marsh and wildlife-filled waters of Rice Lake.

Not far from Serpent Mounds, deep within a forest northeast of Peterborough, is the compelling Petroglyphs Provincial Park, where Canada’s largest known concentration of aboriginal rock carvings is found. Chiselled into the a marble rock face hundreds of years ago, some 900 petroglyphs depict turtles, snakes, birds and humans.

Lake Superior Provincial Park, an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie, is the site of the Agawa Rock pictographs (rock paintings). In Ojibwa, “agawa” means sacred place. Red ochre figures painted on a stone canvas record stories of the Ojibwa nation for over 1,500 years,

There are so many more spiritual power spots around us. Thankfully, a lot of them are protected by the province in cooperation with native groups, so making pilgrimages is quite in order. But many are threatened by the bulldozer. The historic Seneca Village in the Rouge was only saved by citizen action.

We have to be watchful stewards of the land we inhabit.

To know Ontario’s sacred sites is to want to protect them so their spiritual significance is not polluted and removed from human experience for all time.

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