Micah and I walked through the entrance of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, a sprawling basilica in Quebec dedicated to Anne, the mother of Mary. I turned the corner and saw a pillar covered in crutches, canes, and braces of all shapes and sizes. My eyes filled with tears at the sight of these painful remnants. A tiny pair of grey boots with pink Velcro straps hung in the middle. I thought about the little girl they once belonged to. Some of them, the worn wooden canes and crutches, looked as though they had held up the sick and the weary for many years. There was no plaque, no booklet on a nearby table, to explain their stories. No explanation was necessary. They were all testaments to healing.
A half million pilgrims come every year to the basilica to pray to Saint Anne for healing. We heard them, a family huddled together on two pews in front of a chapel which is said to hold a relic of Saint Anne, praying the Rosary in Spanish over and over again. I knelt beside a woman in front of a statue of Saint Anne. I picked up the same plastic covered prayer card that she held in her hand and silently read it. It became my prayer, too.
After walking around the sanctuary, and filling out our own prayer request cards for healing, Micah and I visited the gift shop. There we bought a small plastic bottle to fill up with holy water from one of several faucets scattered around the outside of the basilica. The water, said the sign, came from an underground spring. "I need more!" I said laughing, though Micah knew I meant it. He walked to our car and got an empty Diet Pepsi bottle and filled it up with more holy water. After anointing ourselves with it, I placed the two bottles on the inside of the passenger side door. And then we drove on, because we're the sort of pilgrims who believe healing extends far beyond the church's walls.
We drove to Quebec's North Coast region, winding along the Way of the Whales. A ferry carried us across the Saguenay Fjord. Late in the afternoon we arrived at our campsite and began setting up our tent on the St. Lawrence River. Just then, two minke whales surfaced directly in front of us. The sound of water blowing through their blow holes filled us with awe and reverence.
We spent the remainder of the evening scanning the water for more whales before the sun set on a magnificent day. More whales didn't come, but a double rainbow that lasted a full fifty minutes did. When we weren't remarking on the beauty of the sky, Micah was observing the way the changing tides transformed the color of the water. This was holy water, not only because it's a protected marine park, home to whales and seals and a vast world beyond our sight, but also because of the way it invited us to sit, be present, and return to gratitude. For those precious moments we were healed: of the busyness of trying to get somewhere, of the need to have things go exactly as planned (our whale watching kayak excursion was cancelled due to the threat of a storm), of the belief that contentment can be found beyond the stillness of our own hearts.
After returning home from our 4,700 mile road trip it is comforting to know the healing we experienced in sanctuaries of stone and water is still ours. Not because it resides in the two plastic bottles of holy water currently sitting on a shelf in our bathroom closet, but because it inhabits every moment of peace, gratitude, and contentment. All pilgrimages lead to the same destination: a realization that the divine is in us.