- What is Northern Light all about?
Northern Light contains prayers, reflections and photographs that sketch a spiritual geography of Canada. They are responses to a series of questions: Where is the sacred present in places from Cape Spear in Newfoundland to spring in Iqaluit in Nunavut to Vancouver Island forests? How can the sacred be found in the various patterns in the landscape across the country? For example, I re-imagined Canada as a traditional cathedral where we enter between the western mountains and go down the Trans-Canada aisle. I also explored ways in which the sacred stories could be re-imagined in a Canadian setting. So, I have the Visitation taking place at Pearson Airport in Toronto and the journey to Emmaus along the red roads of Prince Edward Island. The prayers and reflections are accompanied by my photographs that evoke the essence of the writing.
- What inspired this book?
The idea started in November of 2018 at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto. I was discussing Mary Jo Leddy’s book, Why Are We Here? A Meditation on Canada with Novalis publisher, Joe Sinasac. Through my lens as a Catholic writer and teacher, Mary Jo Leddy’s book suggests features of the spiritual landscape of Canada. After talking with Joe about the book and being particularly fascinated by the exhibits of the Indigenous peoples, I wondered how I could sketch Canada’s spiritual topography using prayer, reflection and photography. I wove threads from my experience for these sketches. I was born in the same small English town as William Wordsworth and played on the banks of the same river where he had played as a child. Much of his work focused on exploring the presence of the transcendent in the English Lake District. Before becoming a religious educator, I was a naturalist with the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority and a geography teacher. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ energized my conviction that ecological conversion to a deeper and healthier relationship with the creation would lead to planetary healing. Northern Light celebrates our part with creation by seeing Canada through sacramental eyes.
- What would you like your readers to know about this book?
Two things: Visio Divina and photography as prayer. I used a process rooted in Visio Divina for many of these prayers, reflections and photographs. Visio Divina is a way of contemplating the sacred in creation. You start by imagining a place that you know or a piece of art or the photos in this book. You contemplate the image and pay attention to what you see and feel. You rest with the image looking for ways in which the sacred can be encountered. Sometimes it helps to have some guidance at this point, so context about a place, painting or photo can be explored. Then you are asked to see how this encounter can change you or help you enter a deeper relationship with God. It is what Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie calls “action” or action. What action will we take because of this experience. For me, I would write a prayer or reflection or take a photograph.
The photos don’t just illustrate the prayer or reflection, they are ways of connecting with God themselves. Photography can be a prayer form. It is more than capturing a flower or a landscape. It is allowing creation to capture our hearts. A photograph that is taken with “eyes of the heart” brings us to wonder and to marvel at the beauty, intricacy and wisdom of creation. It can offer glimpses of the touch of the creator.
- What have been the greatest rewards in writing this book?
During 2019 I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time in all of our provinces taking photographs of these beautiful places. On many of these expeditions, my wife, Tina, accompanied me. We had both had a difficult few years in dealing with our ailing parents, so this was a time of healing. Creating Northern Light was a deeply moving way of putting me in touch with the Creator, as well as some of the sources from which I drew inspiration: the wisdom of the indigenous people, the dedicated company of Catholic educators, and those spiritual leaders who are seeking solutions to the ecological crises that should not be separated from the other major injustices of our time.
- What have been the greatest challenges?
Trying to cull the prayers, reflections and photographs into a 112-page book. It grieved me to eliminate some of the items from the book. Novalis has been very generous in expanding the page numbers. It was envisaged as something smaller, but they enlarged the book to accommodate the materials. Even so, we had to place twelve prayers, reflections and photos on the website. The advantage for the reader is that these materials are free! I have also placed some of the photographs on my website. The power of Visio Divina is better grasped if you participate in one. Novalis has kindly placed two videos of me using Visio Divina on their website. Bringing a book to publication during a pandemic brings a unique set of challenges. We will have to be creative in reaching out to people in new ways to overcome the isolating effects of Covid-19.
- Can you share your favourite prayer from this book and a little bit about it?
This is like choosing between one of your children! Nevertheless, I think that this prayer has lots to say to us during this uncertain time. We are not alone; the saints are with us. There is a reference here to Baycrest in Toronto. My mother-in-law is in this facility, suffering from dementia. The saints that have cared for her during this time are to be blessed. The photograph is taken looking up at the Winter Garden. It is very fitting that our heavenward gaze is framed by a halo.
The Saints Are Among Us
St. Peter sits on a rock contemplating his locksmith shop in Bonavista.
St. Paul crosses the country on a train, sharing his wisdom at every stop.
St. John writes his gospel as the bald eagles soar overhead on Salt Spring Island.
St. Jerome translates the Bible into Latin with a lion curled at his feet in Calgary’s Central Library.
St. Patrick walks among the green fields of Prince Edward Island talking grace to all who will listen.
Saints Cyril and Methodius celebrate Mass in a Ukrainian mission outside Saskatoon.
St. Agatha comforts the nurses at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto.
St. Augustine debates with St. Thomas at St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton.
St. Francis preaches to the snowy owls outside Iqaluit.
St. Anthony runs the lost and found at Halifax Airport.
St. Catherine kneels in prayer in a Fredericton hospice.
St. Marguerite Bourgeoys leads another class into wisdom in a Mount Royal classroom.
St. Vincent de Paul invites another lost wanderer from the cold streets of Thunder Bay into the shelter.
St. Thérèse and St. André clean the convent with a holy radiance in St. Boniface.
St. Kateri guides the hikers through the Mont Orford woods, making us aware of the sacred layer.
Loving God, open our eyes to these and all the unnamed saints among us.
–Les Miller retired as Religious Education, Family Life and Equity Coordinator with the York Catholic District School Board and then taught with OISE (University of Toronto), York University and Niagara University. He has written or contributed to over 20 books in the area of spirituality and Catholic education.