In just about every great spiritual tradition in the human realm, pilgrimages exist and are undertaken as a way to dive deeply into one’s own spirit; to seek a closer relationship with the divine; to fulfill an obligation (like the hajj); or to seek the intercession of a spirit, or God. In the end, every pilgrimage is meant to be deeply and profoundly transformative.
Haitian Vodou is no different, and there are several celebrated pilgrimages extant in Haiti today, each of which has associated visions, apparitions, and sites. An incomplete list includes:
- Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours / Our Lady of Perpetual Help, held in late June in Port-au-Prince and other places, and is dedicated to the Ezili lwa;
- Sodo / Sault D’eau, held on July 15th in the eponymous town (also called Ville Bonheur), also in honour of Ezili (and the most famous of these pilgrimages). Depending on who you ask, this pilgrimage is associated with Freda or with Dantor, but the Wedos are featured as well;
- Sen Jak / Ogou Feray celebrated in Plaine-du-Nord on July 26th;
- Gran St Anne Charitable / Ti Saint Anne, held in late July in Ansafolè;
- Notre Dame de L’Assomption on August 15th, near Cap Haitien, Les Cayes, and Port-au-Prince and again honouring Ezili lwa (see a pattern?); and
- Sen Filomez / St Philomena / La Sirene, on Sept 5th, in Limonade.
Pilgrimages in Haiti are influenced by Catholicism, but also by Central African ones as well, themselves combining both Catholic and older practices. However, my own recent journey did not take place in Haiti, but here in Canada, and the remainder of this post will be a sort of gonzo travelogue about the experience. Maybe with a little overt Vodou in it. Maybe not. Roll the dice, dear reader.
The Road Inward
I am myself possessed of a restless nature and enjoys a lot of solitude, as well as travel–wanderlust is and always has been a key and formative element in my makeup and is reflected strongly in my own Legba. Recent events inspired me to make a domestic pilgrimage, as ones in Haiti are currently out of reach for me, in part to feed my appetite for travel, and also to seek a measure of peace and healing that is much needed – I was reminded of a Canadian musician, the late Neil Peart, who had lost his daughter to a tragic accident and his wife to cancer soon after, leading him to set out on a solitary adventure over a year to seek healing and new meaning (he chronicled this sojourn in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, which I heartily recommend). I might not have the ability to wander like Kwai Chang Kane or The Littlest Hobo (hi, Canadians!) for a year, but a weekend was certainly in the cards.
My chosen destination was Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and the Sanctuaire de Notre Dame du Cap, a sacred site I had originally planned to visit in late October. Like many such places it has a history and tradition of miracles, such as the opening of the eyes on a statue of Mary in 1888; the formation of a needed bridge of ice on St Joseph’s Day in 1897; and reports of miraculous cures beginning in 1892. Catholicism and Haitian Vodou are deeply interwoven historically, iconographically, and spiritually (stay tuned for a soon-to-come post on that), so such a journey, I mused, would honour my lwa. Divination had revealed their eager support, so on a hot afternoon in the earliest days of a nascent September, I tossed some food and a bag into the car and set out on the ten and a half hour drive to Trois-Rivières.
As the trip began, I whispered a few prayers for a safe and successful journey, then asked the car to play some music. Set to randomize the thousands of songs squirreled away on my phone, the Gods of Techno-algorithms chose appropriate Peart lyrics to christen my travels:
Spirits fly on dangerous missions / Imaginations on fire / Focused high on soaring ambitions / Consumed in a single desire / In the grip of a nameless possession / Slave to the drive of obsession / A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission…
Well, then, a finer lyrical omen could not be asked for.
During Vodou ceremonies we penetrate more deeply into Ginen in stages, through what might be thought of as a series of locks or concentric circles, leading us ever on from the outermost to the center, the mundane to the spiritual, the personal to the collective. A pilgrimage, undertaken with a sense of spiritual openness and awareness, does the same, being a ceremony in and of itself; thus the roads on which I traveled became a manifestation of gran chemin, the great road to Ginen, sanctified, manifested, and opened through song and prayer as surely as it is at a fet. Throughout the drive, my mind keyed to look for the lwa, I would see and consider their presence everywhere.
The first few hours moved me from the Atlantic coast, across Nova Scotia, towards the narrowing of the land where it meets New Brunswick, all of it ancestral land for me, whether by virtue of my European ancestors who lived here, or by the Mi’kmaw blood I carry, far older a presence in this region. Liminal, in-between spaces are central to many spiritual paths, including Vodou, and the passage from outer to inner moves through them naturally and necessarily. The long drive took me through these spaces where sea (Agwe and La Sirene) met land, then along the lonely highways through central New Brunswick where untamed wilderness is broken only by a ribbon of human-wrought asphalt. The empty highways, in the middle of nowhere, are also a liminal place, dancing between endless forests (Gran Bwa) and mountains along the black arterial ribbons connecting small islands of civilization. Even road signs became markers of cultural and lingusitic boundaries, red octagons shifting their verbiage from the English stop in Nova Scotia, to the bilingual stop / arrêt of New Brunswick, and finally the solely French arrêt of Quebec; a passage from one stage to another along the gradated spiritual vector of the journey, moving through successive shifts towards my destination. A manifestation of Legba, both as the guardian of doors and gates (as liminal as it gets) and as the wanderer.
If you’re open enough you can sense the shift as you travel over land and cross boundaries–I knew the moment I crossed into Quebec, even before signage changed; Quebec has always been its own thing, La Nouvelle France, eventually distinct from Acadia, and the egregore of the surrounding land and people simply feels different, just as it always has when I’ve driven to Maine and felt the psychic change from Canada to the United States.
The Trans-Canada Highway continues along towards the mighty Saint Lawrence River, then turns west at Rivière-du-Loup to follow the shore. The region, Bas St-Laurent, is stunning. Perfectly flat, fertile, nearly utopian farmland (Kouzen) stretches out, running up against sudden and steep crags of rock that jut up suddenly from the ground as if dropped there by some ancient and forgotten Brobdingnagian hand, crowned with trees and dwarfing the houses, barns, and silos. Surrounded by land and peoples that have been firmly, unapologetically, and unashamedly French for centuries, I found myself beginning to sing the Priye Katolik, consisting of French Catholic prayers and songs that open many Vodou fets. “L’ange de Seigneur dit a Marie…” Fitting, that the first line of the song references the coming of Gabriel to Mary, just as I, certainly no angel, was on my way to her, and the Haitian spirits masked by her face.
Sunset–another liminal time–had passed. A vital element of pilgrimage is the subtle and not-so-subtle shift of our focus away from the regular existence of mundane life into the sacred and a deeper level of awareness–our own personal, spiritual flashlights settling into a laser-like focus. As the last rays of day vanished, I passed through a crossroads–a fitting place to witness the shift from solar Legba to lunar Kalfou. At moments like this time shifts, from a sense of chronos–the mundane time in which we live–to kairos–timelessness, but also the exact, opportune moment to move; a moment of profound, temporal metamorphosis for the meandering spiritual wayfarer.
An hour or two further along the shore brought a turn northwards, and I crossed the St Lawrence over the Pont Pierre LaPorte (liminality again), circled the outskirts of La Ville de Quebec, and turned onto Autoroute 40, for the last 90 minutes, shrouded in the blossoming night, to Trois-Rivières. I was physically weary at this point but a burgeoning excitement kept me mentally alert. While I love writing the journey itself, and the unashamed solitude that gives easy rise to my prayers, songs, and a deep seated pacific sensibility, there is also an elation in the completion of another chapter.
Just after one a.m. I pulled into the parking lot of a motel, paid for a room, and was happy to find how easily my rusty French was promptly oiled here in French Canada. The clerk handed me my room key–“Chambre 1111, monsieur, situé à l’arrière de l’edifice.” Room 1111. Well, ok then. “Tabarnak,” I thought with a frothy mixture of amusement and wariness. Thanks for that.
Eager to complete the first half of my travels I rose early, showered, and dressed. As I slid into my car, a man and his daughter began to load a pickup truck nearby, chattering away. After I moment I realized they weren’t speaking French but Kreyol–Montreal has a large Haitian population and is only 90 minutes up the highway, but it was significant to hear at that exact moment. Seconds earlier or later and I’d have missed this. I drove off, and arrived at the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-Du-Cap, the sun already shaking its surly fist at me, early to bake the town with its late-summer fury.
The basilica is a magnificent building and a testament to the glorious art of which humans are capable. I do love to visit such sites, regardless of their religion of provenance, and cathedrals have been my favorites for years. St Mary’s in Halifax, Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, AL, and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, AL have been the most moving for me, but here in Trois-Rivières the feeling is different. Perhaps it’s the French Canadian culture, or the fact that of all the sites I’ve just listed, this is the one with the living mythohistory of miracles. It may be that I am visiting this one on my own, with the mindset of a pilgrim. It may be a combination of all these things, or of something else. I couldn’t say. It just is, and often, in matters of the spirit, it’s better to sink into them with warm acceptance than to analyze them into oblivion.
I entered the basilica through the open doors and found my breath taken away. The faint smell of incense perfumed the air and the flickering of hundreds of candles in various stations around the room danced. It was beautiful, yes, with a sense of the sacred, but not yet what I was looking for, although it was one of the final gates through which I passed, moving from the mundane town around me into firmly sacred space.
Across the parking lot and under the trees I went. The sanctuary is large and more than just a building. The Stations of the Cross and the Mysteries of the Rosary are outside, in the form of beautiful statues running through a garden shaded by tall and sturdy trees. The black squirrels as large as small cats familiar to those living from here to Toronto scampered across the grass, and I looked up to see starlings sitting on the shaded branches. St Francis would have loved it. I explored further, and found a statue of Mary on top of a steeply pyramidal pillar of mortared stone. It immediately reminded me of the grotto by the peristyle in Haiti where my kanzo took place in 2017, sheltering a statue of Notre Dame de Mont Carmel (Dantor / Zila). Then the stone Rosary Bridge, built to commemorate the miracle of the Ice Bridge, draped with a gigantic rosary of shaped and forged steel (Ogou Feray). The entire site was blanketed by a quiet aura of peace, of subtle joy, and of the presence of spirit.
I finally entered the Old Shrine, the stone church in which the statue’s eyes had opened on three priests over a century ago, and where Fr Luc Desilets had discovered a pig chewing a rosary in 1867, and found what I was looking for. The basilica is grand and glorious, but this smaller shrine is where spirit truly dwells, among the trees and flowers and trusting animals. I looked up at the statue, Mary standing on a sky blue, starry dome, her foot resting on a golden serpent (being a very meaningful and personal sign of my own Freda), with two ophidiform curls around the pillars flanking her, bringing to mind, immediately, Dambala and Ayida. The entirety of this trip had been dedicated to them–Dambala, Ayida, and Freda, and here they were, together, the three of them masked in Catholic imagery, flowers in Freda’s colours on the altar.
Blissfully and surprisingly alone in the shrine, I softly ran through the priye katolik, then songs for Dambala, Ayida, and Freda. The presence of the lwa was strong here, surprisingly so, until I heard Kreyol again from the door–two Haitian Canadians also visiting the shrine. Another overt sign of the presence of the lwa here in Quebec, among the ex-pats of the land where Vodou survives in unbroken tradition. I offered quiet prayers for those I know who have died, for loved ones, and perhaps most importantly, for those who have no cause to deserve them. I spoke to the three lwa I had called, telling them of why I was here, what I sought, what I needed, and agreeing to requests they made. I sat in silent communion with them, the beads of a rosary given to Freda slipping between my fingers as I alternated between Catholic prayers and the langaj we use to call our lwa. As I finished, others became to come in for Mass (in French), for which I stayed. The priest was a kindly old man, white haired with bright eyes, delivering a clever and humorous homily; we spoke after the service and he reminded me in many ways of Dambala–something that amused me in that soft way that makes one muse, “well, of course…”
A deep sense of serenity had settled over me; an oft-repeated piece of advice from my spirits over the last year and a half had been remember who you are. With weight off my figurative shoulders, surrounded by peace, I truly felt myself again for the first time in a long time. This was what I had come seeking, and here I found my own personal miracle, in a Catholic site that, knowingly or not, was a touchstone to the lwa.
And Home Again
The road back home was, as such things are, an exercise in reversal, but a successful pilgrim returns home changed. It’s a common feature of mystical traditions to refer to the world as illusory, a mask that sits over reality and the truth of things–the modern metaphor might be the graphics of a video game that draw the attention with their beauty, but are simply a prettier manifestation of the code running behind them. In the context of Vodou it would be apt to say we are spiritual beings having a human experience, rather than physical beings having a spiritual one–rather than being illusory, the world is crystalized spirit, moving comparatively slowly. And as spirits bound in matter our bodies are subject to those physical limitations, but the journey of the pilgrim runs on two levels. Firstly, the travel through the physical world, but this is merely a representation of the true, second level–the journey inward. Spirit is unbound and unconstrained by the physical limitations of our bodies, and travel to Quebec was not a requirement of coming to the lwa, of course. The real journey was the interior one that was simply spiritual code masked by the graphics of physical movement.
A wrong exit on the way home took me into a town in New Brunswick, near the Maine border, called Grand Falls / Grand Sault, and the accidental discovery of the magnificent waterfall that lends its name to the town. I stopped there for a while to commune with the rugged beauty of the unexpected, seeing it with eyes that were different than the ones that began the trip–familiar, but changed. Back on the road again, I thanked my spirits for traveling this road with me, as Leonard Cohen sang,
She took his blonde Madonna and his monastery wine / this mental space is occupied and everything is mine / he tried to make a final stand beside the railway track / she said the art of longing’s over and its never coming back.
The lyrics gave me cause to chuckle, painting with words images that hold personal meaning to my relationship with my spirits–both Haitian and ancestral. Writing now a week after my visit to the Shrine, I find myself still moved by its beauty and grateful for the experience and its gifts; after all, the one certainty in life is change, and it falls to us to navigate that awareness with dignity.