February 1, 2011 Volume 24, Number 17
The God-shaped vacuum at Place des Arts
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
It took an evening at Place des Arts in downtown Montreal to jolt me into a realization of how the gap between “us" and “them," the Church and the world, may not be as acute as I have started to think it is.
The ongoing secularization of Canadian society over my lifetime can sometimes make me think that I live in a society that is virtually pagan. All we have left is the trace of our Christian roots. This interpretation can be useful in explaining a lot of the problems we face in societythe seeming decline in generosity, the difficulty of church ministry, the shift in acceptable mores and behaviour.
Living in Quebec, where the influence and impact of formal religion seems to have evaporated over the 50 years since the “Quiet Revolution" seemed to change everything, it is easy to buy that interpretation of reality. The sense of loss hits its peak around Christmas as the frantic pace of a commercial bazaar overwhelms the actual history the holiday celebrates. In fact, the use of the phrase “happy holidays" instead of “Merry Christmas" clinches it. Yes, the whole country is just going to the dogs!
When my wife, Eleanor, and I went with friends to a concert at Place des Arts, the concert hall in downtown Montreal, we expected an evening of good music, dancing and acting. It was a show about Quebec Christmas traditions, set in a mythical 1880's Quebec village. A series of Christmas season scenes was played out featuring the advent of hockey season, the shopping rush, preparation for Christmas and Christmas itself. Some of it was folkloric, some of it was humorous; one scene was a bit risqué.
With the next scene change we arrived at December 24. Three lonely figuresa cook alone in a lumber camp, a mother estranged from her daughter and a girl away from her motherwere reflecting on their loneliness and disappointment as Christmas eve fell. They talked about their disappointment and the conversation slowly morphed from a soliloquy into a sort of prayer.
The scene modulated to show a churchstained glass windows, pews, soloist, organ and choir. The organ started and the soloist began to sing the great French Christmas carol Minuit Chrétien (O, Holy Night). The soloist sang the verse, the choir joined in the refrain and I could sense something change in Place des Arts.
After the second verse, the refrain was repeated and the three lonely figures who had started this particular vignette joined in the chorus. The audience that had been laughing seven minutes before was riveted and still. And when the song came to its conclusion, signifying the end of the first half, the entire auditorium spontaneously rose to its feet.
I was so moved that during the intermission I called a friend to tell him about it. What had happened? Was it the sense of connection with Quebec's historic landscape? Was it just the power of nostalgiaa longing for something from the past? Or was it something deeper?
French Christian thinker Blaise Pascal coined the term “the God-shaped vacuum" to describe the inherent longing for transcendence and reality, for relationship with God that is at the core of our being as humans.
Maybe Pascal's observation explains what was happening at Place des Arts that Friday evening. In fact, his notion of the God-shaped vacuum is really rooted in Scripture. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we read how God placed eternity in our hearts. And in John 1:9 Jesus is described as the light Who gives light to everyone.
Maybe, just maybe, the gap between us and them is not all that great. We are all driven by the same hunger, the same God-shaped vacuum. Maybe the gap is not that great after all.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International of Canada.