Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 19, 2004
Teaching Places discovers the spirit within
Teaching Places, by Audrey Whitson. Wilfrid Laurier University Press: Waterloo, Ont. 2003. 178 pages with nine colour photos. Papercover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"I do think of myself as Catholic but catholic in the most universal and basic sense," Audrey Whiston said this in a Wilfrid Laurier Press interview I perused before attending her reading from Teaching Places at the local Calgary McNally Robinson bookstore one November evening.
Alberta-born and bred Whitson attracted my attention when I learned she was coming to town. More than 16 years ago, I participated in a two-week Denendeh Seminar with her. It was led by the famous Oblate missionary, Father Rene Fumoleau, friend and interpreter of the Dene People who inhabit the Western Arctic of Canada's North. Audrey had served as his teaching-associate during the seminar.
That experience was life-changing for me. I remembered that the author, like myself, was going through some major faith challenges at the time. I wanted to find out what had become of her in the decade and a half since we had had that unique living and learning experience.
"(Catholicism) is the tradition that has formed me," Audrey continues in the interview I am reading, " - its mysticism, its ritual. This formal tradition has become part of who I am today."
But, she continues, there's also another strand of Catholicism, not so much written about. It's the pilgrimage tradition, the spirituality found at holy wells and ancient shrines. It's what is often dismissively called "popular religiosity." It is a spirituality of place. It's an informal tradition; but one that the majority of women and men have observed and kept for centuries, even before Christianity.
The book from which Audrey read - the one I now review - reflects that Catholic pilgrimage tradition. It describes a journey that can be taken right here in Alberta. The varied locations of this pilgrimage are the five distinct areas of Alberta topography (Canadian Shield, mountains, prairies, boreal forest and parkland).
Through this writing, Whitson integrates the land and some of its people with spiritual questing into her psyche, faith, family, loves. The result is an absorbing, vital self-discovery.
As she describes her silences, listening, conversations and reflection, the author undergoes a rich evolution. In each chapter, Whitson penetrates layers of forest, earth, rocks and grasses. She blends this with family history; spiritual struggles; deep hurts and fears; great hopes and desires. There is a blending of the personal with the ecological, of harmony and dissonance, of the local and the universal (Trevor Herriot).
This is a beautiful book to read and ponder. You don't have to live in Alberta to enjoy it. Anyone can follow the example of the author who evokes from the landscape of her province something that can be replicated most anywhere.
I am glad I made the effort to meet Audrey when she came to Calgary to give a reading from her book. Though she finds certain things painful about Catholicism, there is no question that she is still a life-engaging, justice-seeking, institution-challenging Catholic at heart. As well, an ancient residue of her ancestors' wild European blood courses through her veins.
"So I am catholic in the universal and most basic sense of what Catholic has always been," she repeats, "a melding of the pagan and the Christian, only in a conscious way."
Her spiritual journey remains a work in progress.
"Most of all," she ends, "I am a pilgrim. My first affiliation is to place, to the spirit in nature."
(Wayne Holst is a parish educator who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)