[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
* * *
“I forget,” said Jean-Marc. He knit his eyebrows and thought, “Actually, now that you ask me…” I waited, expecting a clarification, a long-buried recollection“I never knew. I never thought to ask.”
There are about 3,000 croix de chemin (wayside crosses) along the byways of rural Quebec. People like Jean-Marc tend to them each summer: painting, restoring, cleaning, weeding and watering the gardens at their base. Like many caretakers, Jean-Marc refers to the cross he maintains as “his.” It was erected by his grandfather in 1948 and has been on the family land for three generations. It is the materialization of a prayer, the “tangible architecture,” as Anderson Blanton puts it, of a vow. It was in this context that I posed the question to which Jean-Marc responded above: Why did your grandfather put it up? What was the vow?
In general terms, most of Quebec’s wayside crosses were constructed to mark or commemorate an event, as a gathering place for families in a rang, to fulfill a vow or to secure future protection. (A rang, literally “a row,” is a rural grouping of houses strung out in a line, usually a few kilometers long, based on the seigneurial system.) The details can be hard to come by. In the 1970s, a survey of over 2,500 crosses found that in at least 62% of cases no one knew why a cross had been erected, though it was quite recent, usually within a generation. In many other cases, the reason was vague (“a vow, I think”) with no defining details. Jean-Marc’s response, in other words, is typical. While the object is carefully maintained and recreated, the stories that cling to it, the original prayer-stories that impelled its construction, are often lost.