Irish Unsettling

Since arriving in Dublin, I often stumble across reminders of how the Irish were also a colonized people. Sometimes it’s graffiti: “Royalists not welcome,” scrawled on brick. Sometimes it’s living culture, the fact that Irish (the traditional Gaelic) is an official language, but so few Irish students, at least in Dublin, can speak it. While walking along the Royal Canal I came across bronze shoes (below) commemorating the “National Famine Way.” This marks the 19th century families forced, starving, toward Dublin Harbour. Once there they shipped out on British “coffin ships” in hopes of a better life in Quebec and other destinations. Ireland and Quebec are bound together in many ways.

Many died en route or of sickness in quarantine (as at Grosse-Île, QC).

History is thick here. Last week on my way to the dentist I was surprised by another example. This is Croke Park behind me. Even though our apartment is a kilometre away, when 80 thousand fans are cheering a Gaelic games competition, you can hear it loud and clear from our living room.

Croke Park (Croker, to the locals) didn’t always look like a spaceship. On November 21st, 1920, the stadium was the scene of Bloody Sunday (Irish: Domhnach na Fola). In reaction that morning’s assassination of British intelligence operatives, British soldiers and auxiliaries opened fire indiscriminately on players and spectators at an afternoon Gaelic football match. Fourteen people were killed and at least 60 injured. As with settler-Indigenous history where I was born, imperialism is always violent. Bloody Sunday remains a crucial moment in Irish history.

These folks would hear the games even better

There are spots like this all over Dublin, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, places where the land is marked by tragedy, hate, and death. In 2020, a century after the horrific events, this little stone bridge beside Croke Park was renamed “Bloody Sunday Bridge.”

“dark pilgimages” (to sites of tragedy) intersect and overlap

The Royal Canal can be a bit rough here (another good reason for biking this section). But when I stopped and went up for a minute to pay my respects on the bridge, people were walking back and forth to their business at Croker. The Irish seem to be good at this kind of redemption. They don’t hide the past but build new and better on it just the same. During the pandemic Croke Park was turned into North Dublin’s vaccination site.

Where once lives were lost by hate, they are being saved by how the Irish care for themselves and their neighbours, even those from elsewhere.

Like me.

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts


from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

Indigenous Studies at VST

Here’s a little video I shot and produced, to show the summer school program run by Ray Aldred and the folks at Vancouver School of Theology, where I taught this last week. Ay-ay!

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226521214″>NMC weeks at VST</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user32514305″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Mapping with our Feet, Session 3: the desire for transformation


In February 2017, Bishop Michael Pryse invited me to be the keynote speaker for the Bishops’ Retreat for Clergy, held at Niagara Falls ON. This is the third of the three sessions (the first is at somethinggrand.ca). To enter the powerpoint PDF, click on the link below!


Mapping with our Feet: the 2017 Bishop’s Retreat for Clergy in Film

with thanks to: Kevin J. Baglole, retreat registrar, James Brown, pianist, and Dr Sara Parks, for illustrations

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/205084982″>Bishop's Retreat Full Film</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user32514305″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

You’re What? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?

Helsinki harbour in ice

When I walked by the Fazer chocolate shop and teahouse, there were two young women standing outside, shivering in heavy coats and aprons. “Do you have hot chocolate?” I asked them in English. They nodded enthusiastically: yes! And for free! So I had some hot chocolate and drank it while looking for the Kappeli, where I was meeting my afternoon appointment, a professor from the Greek Institute.

What a great welcome to Helsinki. And in February, too.

My first full day in Finland was a busy one. At breakfast I met Teemu, who came with two of his children. He was to be my “barefoot” (as the Helsinki locals call themselves) guide. But a last minute situation meant we could only visit over breakfast. “I love Thunder Bay,” he confided. “I go there often. Canada is a good country. Almost great.” He smiled, that same quiet, ironic smile I’ve seen on so many Finns. Waiting for me to get the joke.

I bought a one-day transit pass and hopped the #9 streetcar to the Kallio area. I was treated to lunch and my first Laskiaispulla, or Shrove Tuesday bun, by Heidi R., a pastor, journalist and passionate interfaith worker. The pulla was amazing – but really, really hard to eat! And hard to eat during a radio interview. We spoke about Finns in Canada and the USA, my two documentaries, and the Camino de Santiago. The interview, once edited, is supposed to be aired on Finnish national public radio at some point in the next few months.

After, Heidi took me on a quick tour of a building I’d passed and wanted to see, the Kallio Church. The style, inside and out, is “Finnish Art Nouveau”, says the pamphlet. It looks a lot like Art Deco to me. It’s beautiful, and I loved the altarpiece of Jesus with the local working people of the neighbourhood.

Then it was back downtown by metro to meet Mari R-S, an academic whose work I had seen in the library and whom I had contacted. She brought her new four-month baby, and I managed to steal some time to hold him while we talked about tourism and pilgrimage. We also talked about rashes, and allergies and how much babies sleep (or don’t)! There was more Laskiaispulla, which of course had to be eaten.

After Mari left I walked up to the Cathedral. There was a pastor sitting in the corner, to whom I introduced myself. She seemed a bit confused, but friendly. “You’re what? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?” I told her I wasn’t quite sure how it works, but that it does. She smiled and shook my hand. I’m not sure she believed me, just showing up like that, unannounced. Finns would never do that.

On the way back to my hotel I did some tourist shopping, and then had just enough time to change before meeting Kati B, a former church council member from the Finnish church in Montreal, and Mari T, a journalist who worked at Isien Usko and Kanadan Sanomat, for dinner. Both have now returned to Finland. Over salmon burgers and fish we talked about Canada and Finland, about how long one can be away before they ‘stop being Finnish’ and how long it takes to be Finnish again after coming home. “Maybe our generation is more used to this in-between feeling of never completely belonging in any one place,” said Mari. I believe that in our globalized world, that might be true of many people.

After dessert I walked the two of them to their tram. Tomorrow I fly to Rovaniemi. I’m thankful that the Suomi Conference has sent me here “to experience Finnish culture”. There seemed to be quite a bit happening, even in what was just my first day!

laskiaispulla Shrove Bun

Heidi Rautionmaa Kallio church

Jesus and working class clearest

The Fourth Question

map in a cup

Last fall, when I was at the pilgrimage conference in Virginia, one presentation in particular caught my eye. The title of the paper was: The Fourth Question. It was a perfect hook. Of course I immediately wanted to go to hear that paper. I didn’t even know what the first three questions were. That didn’t matter. All I REALLY wanted to know was what the “fourth” question might be.

When we got to the session, the presenter turned out to be a scholar who had walked to Santiago in Spain back in 1979, when there were not as many people walking it as today. She’d walked it again recently, so she is a Camino veteran. And she said that in her experience, when you’re a pilgrim walking the trail, and you meet someone new, there are, almost inevitably, three questions that come up quickly in conversation, and one question you try to avoid.

The three questions that automatically come up are …… (want to guess?!)

The first question: where are you from?

That makes sense, I guess. It helps situate you. It establishes relations. “Oh, you’re from Canada. I have a sister in law who moved to Toronto….maybe you know her?” That kind of thing.

The second question has to do more with the trail. “Where did you start?” This is a bit more subtle. But having been on the Camino, many of us there knew what she meant. There’s a kind of pecking order among pilgrims, even if there shouldn’t be. If you started at St Jean Pied de Port, you’re doing the long haul. If you started way back in France somewhere, or up in Germany or the Netherlands, and have walked the whole way, then you’re really hard-core. And if you started out from a taxi that morning five kilometres down the road, well then you’re a beginner. So that’s the second question. It helps establish status, I guess. Although maybe that’s not such a good thing, it’s human nature.

So where are you from, and where did you start? The third question, the one that follows, is a bit like the second: “how far are you going?”

This question, she explained, is a bit exploratory as well. Because now you know where the other person is from and how serious they are, you also want to get an idea of where they’re headed. Given the fact that the trail can take over a month to walk, if the other person is going all the way to Santiago as well, then there’s a good chance you’ll bump into each other again. Maybe that would be nice. Maybe after a few minutes of walking together you already know you don’t really want to share days and days more time. Either way, it’s good to know where they’re headed.

And that, she said, is the list of the USUAL questions one pilgrim will ask of another in the first few minutes of polite conversation.

Of course, by that point all of us in the session are waiting on her every word. So? So? What about that fourth question?

“Now. The fourth question we pilgrims normally try to avoid asking each other…” she said, “begins with the word “why“….”

Jesus never ever asks the word why when he meets the disciples of John. It’s interesting. But I think it’s worth noting that he actually DOES ask almost the same thing in other words. When Andrew and the other young man start walking after Jesus, Jesus DOESN’T ask them where they’re from, or how far they’re going. According to John, he says this: what are you looking for?

In other words, why are you walking, here with me?

The WHY ARE YOU HERE question isn’t one that only pilgrims avoid. Sometimes it feels like it’s the one question that we, as a society, are keeping ourselves away from more than anything. Our too-too-busy lives, our 60-inch flat screens, our constantly being plugged into one form of distraction or another, our fixation on celebrities and sports….all of it adds up to an uncomfortable conclusion. If an alien from outer space, or someone from the distant past, were to walk into our world and look around, they might well ask themselves “well it’s clear that these people are trying to avoid something, but what is it?”

Perhaps at least one of the things we’re trying to avoid is this: things didn’t quite turn out like we expected them to. Most of us have been taught that if we try to be good people, and if we make money – a fair bit of money, we hope, and if we have children and buy a house and get a job and take a couple of vacations every year and do well, we’ll be, if not happy, at least content.

And some of us are. But if that script were generally true, then we wouldn’t be drinking too much, and watching an average of four hours of TV a day, and becoming overweight by eating when we’re not hungry, and taking pills for every twinge of depression and anxiety. We’re an overmedicated, underslept, over-stimulated, under-engaged and under-exercised, apathetic, wilfully ignorant and sick society. And because of where we live and how much we make, we’re suffering all this while actually being the most privileged general population in the history of the planet.

For us, the fourth question crosses the polite social fences we set up to protect ourselves. Why are you here? The fourth question represents the moment of risk, which is scary. But it’s also the moment of promise. Why? Because the fourth question is an invitation to relationship. “Why are you here?” (whether to a pilgrim or a friend or neighbor) means, or at least it should mean “I’m asking you this question because I care enough to hear the response. And I will honour it. And I may challenge it. BUT. Asking it will mean that we will walk away from this encounter, at the very least, having made real, human, community in this moment with each other.”

By asking the question “why”, Jesus invites Andrew and the other to contact. And they pick it up by asking Jesus another question. That’s how conversations go. They ask “where are you staying?” But this time Jesus cuts to the chase. It’s no more polite conversation but as Messiah and Lord, an invitation to community: “Come and see”.

Why are we here? is one of those big, existential questions. Maybe it doesn’t have an easy answer. But if we don’t even ask it, we’re avoiding one of the main reasons for being conscious (what they used to call ‘having a soul’).  We could do worse than to hear the words of Isaiah: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations…”

The fourth question is one that, pilgrims or not, we should be asking ourselves and each other more often. Why are you walking this way, this lifestyle, this dream, this job, this home, this retirement, this path? Is there another way to walk? The Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, has chosen you. As Jesus says, Come and see. May we hear the question, and the invitation, and follow the fourth question to whatever blessed and challenging places it may lead us.