Wednesday, February 15, 2017


For Valentine’s Day this year I spent some time looking at a heart covered in red cellophane; at least I think it was cellophane, and –to be entirely truthful- I could not reliably make out the heart, but I was assured that it was there, and that it had magical properties. It was the heart of Saint André (or Andrew) Bessette (Born Alfred Bessette) of Montreal. Millions of people, or so I have read, make pilgrimages to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in order to pray before the remains of this saint and be healed. I am sure many more come to stare, like I did, unconvinced that the semi-transparent box actually held the preserved human remains it is supposed to.

The Oratory was completed in 1967; just in time for EXPO67. I find it interesting how much of Montreal can be dated to EXPO67. There is a high-rent gated community called “Habitat 67” that looks like an epileptic seizure realized in gigantic Legos. There is also the 76 meter diameter class 1 Frequency 16 Icosahedral Montreal Biosphère in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène. Île Sainte-Hélène itself is a product of EXPO67 having been greatly enlarged by the addition of ejecta from the excavation of the Métro de Montréal which was inaugurated on October 14, 1966; just in time for EXPO67.

On July 1st 1867 the confederation that realized the “British North America Act of 1867” produced "the Dominion of Canada", which at the time consisted of just four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. EXPO67 was timed to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this, and because of this the Nation of Canada is also celebrating its sesquicentennial (150 years) this year. It is easy to draw parallels between this Canadian celebration and the US celebrating the July 4th signing of the Declaration of Independence (from England), but the Canadians did not officially separate from England until April 17th 1982 with the signing of Schedule B of the Parliament of the United Kingdom's Canada Act 1982. There are, apparently, other factors which also confuse the age of Canada, but this year is undeniably the 50th anniversary of EXPO67.

It is also the 150th anniversary of the return from the United States to Montreal of Brother André.  In 1863, he had moved, at age 18, to the US; this was in the middle of the American Civil War, and the year in which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Upon his return he would begin in earnest the miracle working that would eventually make him a saint.  André would eventually heal thousands of people in the name of Saint Joseph. There is a chapel in the Oratory which is partially lined with crutches, canes, and I thought I even saw at least one thing that looked like part of an artificial limb, from people cured by the divine powers wielded by Frère André before his death in 1937. On 23 May 1982 Pope John Paul II cited the 1958 healing of Giuseppe Carlo Audino’s cancer (this would have been 21 years after Frère André’s death) as evidence in support of Frère André’s beatification.

There are three parallel staircases of 99 steps each which lead up to the Oratory. The center section is made of wood, and in summer is reserved for pilgrims to take on their knees, since this apparently imparts extra power to the magic of the heart. In the winter only the wooden steps are cleared of ice, the sign that says “RESERVE aux pèlerins qui grimpent à genoux” is gone, and the other staircases are closed to traffic. So I took “Le chemin des pèlerins qui grimpent à genoux” (not on my knees though) up to the Oratory; as I did so I pictured the less contritely penitent saying prayers for each step, and feeling their weight of sin and persecution lifted with each stair. On the way out I ran down the steps; making sure to hit each stair, and imagined myself adsorbing the collected experience and heartfelt emotional intrigue each pilgrim left behind. In the end I didn’t pick up anything I could sense but the feeling of having cleverly manipulated some heavy-duty theistic iconography, and this video.

At about 5pm on 16 May 1973 Bobby Addlin and Peter Fryer stole Saint André’s preserved heart. Bobby and Peter were two-bit thugs who wanted to make a name for themselves, and noticed that the reliquary was secured by just two easily-picked locks. One of the problems with magical physical objects is that they can be stolen. On 3 March 2012 the preserved heart of Saint Lorcán Ua Tuathail was stolen from the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, his magic bones having absconded during the reign of Henry VIII. André’s heart was returned on 21 December 1974. Lorcán’s heart and bones remain at large. Bobby and Peter have not been entirely forthcoming with what they did with André’s heart during the 645 days they had possession of it; I imagine them eating or smoking a little of it like people during André’s lifetime did with Egyptian mummies to get some magical benefit.

The Oratory was unfinished at the time of André’s death, but he left instructions to have his heart removed and preserved as a relic in order to provide protection for the building. During the 30 years after his death that it took to complete the Oratory the theological foundation of the church shifted slightly. Far away in Italy the meetings collectively called “Vatican II” would publish a series of documents that would instruct modern Catholics on how exactly to mesh with an increasingly modern world. The Oratory is filled with art whose inspiration dates to the time of Vatican II, and it is very interesting.

I am not a fan of the idea of miraculous cures.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I abhor the idea. I think they detract from the work and effort needed to realize a world where only some diseases can be reliably cured today, and whose tomorrow will see more cures and fewer instances of pathetic suffering. Did André actually cure thousands of people during his lifetime, or was he just convinced that a lie in service of what he thought was a greater good –the idea of saving immortal souls- was worth it?

Many people who observed André’s miracles saw him as a sham. Dr. Joseph-Albin Charette (School physician for the school where André worked as a doorman; André was illiterate much of his life) is widely quoted as calling him “Graisseur de frère” (Brother Greaser) because of the St. Joseph oil André applied to sick people; the reason he is widely quoted is that the legend goes on to say that Dr. Charette became a true beleiver when André miraculously cured his hemorrhaging wife.Why wouldn't the thousands of other people the doctor undoubtedly saw being cured cause him to believe before his wife started bleeding? 

André was small, and frail, and he often had bizarre ideas that passed as inspired solutions to mundane problems. By the accounts of those who brought sick people to be healed by him his success rate was far from enviable. It is possible that the sheer volume of people who came to him for cures resulted in a natural level of miraculous recovery that eventually numbered into the hundreds. The recollections of his powers all tend to focus on a few anecdotal cures, and the impact his personal humility had on those who visited him.

No customer of a modern cure, theist or otherwise, would not want to know the rate of success for their proposed cure. They would want to know of side effects, and who made the observations that suggested the cure was better than any placebo treatment. God is not subjected to the kind of scrutiny that strips away the fumblings of cognitive dissonance, with a God-based cure you can only look to your faith for answers and proof. If your faith is not strong enough to know the statistics you might be able to strengthen it by taking a hundred steps on your knees, which, if you needed a crutch like the hundreds who were cured by André to walk, would be a little bit ironic; in that case you should hope that an atheist or two has run down the steps in the off season to get the appropriate irony in order.

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