As a mini-series within my summer series of Canadiana blogs, I want to write about some “sacred places” in Canada. What makes a place sacred? In some ways I believe there is no such thing as one place on earth that is any more sacred than the rest. Divine encounter transcends political boundaries, religious temples, and geographical barriers. The ancient people of Israel learned this in their wilderness wanderings and even “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The mission of Jesus, God incarnate, was to bring together heaven and earth for whomever and whenever and wherever. Yet sometimes places become sacred because of repeated divine encounters there. In the Bible a pile of stones was often set up to mark a divine encounter and so the place itself took on spiritual significance—it became a holy place. More recently, the ancient Celts believed that there were “thin places” where the line between things of earth and things of heaven was a bit “thinner” than elsewhere. One of these places that I have visited is the Isle of Iona; and indeed, I experienced it as a thin place where I encountered God in a new way. Is it perhaps that it is remote, stark, barren, and away from the distractions of centres of power and commerce?

In a world of rapid mobility and human displacement, there is new interest in the importance of place [See Leonard Hjalmarson’s No Home Like Place]. Perhaps this is especially true for Europeans who are known for global exploration and colonialization, and even truer for my ancestors, the Dutch Mennonites, who moved from the northwestern lowlands of Europe to the Danzig delta of Poland to the steppes of Ukraine to the plains of North America. What is a sacred place for people on the move? We are learning the importance of place from the indigenous people of North America who became displaced due to the occupation of their land by European conquerors and settlers.

Are there sacred places in Canada? My blogs will focus primarily on places that have become sacred for me because of my experience there but often my experience is only one layer of many spiritual experiences of generations before me. I was reminded of that this summer as we celebrated 100 years of my wife’s family farming the same piece of land in the Red River Valley. The place has fed and sheltered—with the planting of trees—five generations of Penner families. It has become sacred space for them as they have depended on God and the weather for their sustenance: from the first Penner who lost his wife at 46 and farmed the land as a widower with ten children to the present generation who face huge debts in uncertain economic times. Yet it was sacred space long before it was divided into English style section, township, and range which now define the farm. It is Treaty 1 territory, the home of Dakota and Ojibway nations who hunted bison here for thousands of years before a European plow carved up the land. They also depended on the land for food—and also had to shelter themselves from the cruel winds of a prairie winter.

In the spirit of this connection to the land, to place, and to the recognition of God’s often mysterious work in those places, I will present most of my blogs in the form of poetry written while at a place, about a place, and experiencing God in that place—a geography of the Canadian soul, so to speak. After all, poetry is heart language; it is language that uses metaphor: something that is known, tangible, and sensual to speak about something that is less known, intangible, and often mysterious.