Text: selections from Isaiah (“make straight in the desert a highway)
The music album and graphic novel “Secret Path” by Gord Downie are about a 12-year-old boy, Chanie Wenjack, who tried to find a way home in 1966. Chanie attempted to walk from his Indian Residential School in Kenora Ontario to Ogoki Post, where his family lived.
Chanie had been forced to leave his family in northern Ontario when he was nine years old. The government sent him to a church-run school where he was miserable. So, we can understand why he escaped from his school and tried to walk home.
But even those of us who are content with life sometimes lose sight of our sacred values and yearn to find a way home.
Today I reflect on the life of Gord Downie and his work “Secret Path” and how they might inspire us to find our way back home to Love.
Downie was known for his rootedness in Canadian history and culture. Whether singing about hockey, the painter Tom Thomson, or miscarriages of justice like that involving David Milgaard in Saskatchewan, Downie introduced his fans to aspects of Canada they might not have learned in school.
While music is a universal language, Downie and The Tragically Hip sang in a Canadian key. But even as Downie was rooted in time and place, he was far from uncritical. He honoured his roots but also raised awareness of the social problems that flow from them.
Downie was loved for his ability to express a full range of emotions. This was one of the main impressions I got from The Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last August in Kingston Ontario — which, incidentally, is not only Downie’s hometown but also my own. Downie moved effortlessly from ecstasy to rage, from sadness to hope, and from despair to heartfelt desire. In his own awkward way, he danced and sang with a heart that was hard to ignore.
In exploring his roots and expressing his emotions, Downie grew to be his own unique self. His voice, movements, and spirit were unmistakeable. Along with his band-mates, he showed his fans how to remain present to life’s joys and sorrows. Downie was a singular performer, which is why so many will miss him.
Like all good artists, Downie collaborated with others. First and foremost were the other members of The Tragically Hip. I was touched by the love and support they showed one another in their final televised concert last August.
Beyond the Hip, were all the people from whom Downie drew inspiration. Included in this large group, is Chanie Wenjack whose tragic story inspired “Secret Path.”
Then there are the non-musical people with whom the Hip collaborated. Kim and I watched a documentary on The Tragically Hip’s 2016 final concert tour on Friday, and it laid bare the large network that creates a tour — managers, sound and light technicians, costume designers, and workers and artists of many kinds.
Downie pursued a music career out of love, and it was fueled by loving relationships with other musicians, writers and activists. Creating music, books, and meaningful events requires community, and in this is another way in which Downie’s life provides a model.
Downie also used his career to speak truth to power. By loving Canada in all its specificity, Downie became more aware of the shadow side of its colonial past. His graphic novel and album “Secret Path,” have made a significant dent in Canadians’ ignorance of the Indian Residential schools that blighted the country from the mid-19th Century until 1996.
Downie’s love for Canada meant that he worked to understand it, warts and all. This shows how love need not blind us to reality. Instead, at its best, loves takes us more deeply into reality in all its messiness.
Downie spent his 53 years learning about the world and trying to make a difference. When he was told in December 2015 that he had fatal brain cancer, he didn’t diminish his efforts. He become more involved. He stepped up his support for First Nations communities and their struggles for respect and reconciliation.
Downie also continued to grow spiritually. He wrote the 10 poems that became the songs on his album “Secret Path” in the year before his cancer diagnosis; and I think this work shows a lot of spiritual wisdom.
After the second-to-last track, which we heard earlier this morning — “The Only Place to Be,” and during which Chanie Wenjack dies — Downie finishes the album with a simple song called “Here, Here and Here.” It presents a vision of resurrection. Like a wise elder, Downie suggests that death is not the end. Instead, it is a reunion with the Love from which we have come. The track suggests that even when our Secret Path doesn’t take us to the place for which we yearn, we all eventually return to the one Home that truly matters .
Downie modelled spiritual growth for us. He honoured his roots. He learned to know and express his feelings. He became his own person. He relied on collaborators and a host of inspirations to express and receive love. He spoke out against injustice, and worked to make a positive difference. He never stopped learning and changing. He created work that can help us be present to the moment. In all these ways, Downie showed us a Secret Path home.
In the famous reading from Isaiah that we hear today, the prophet talks about making straight a path in the desert, a way through the wilderness that will return us to God.
In these tumultuous days of increased fear and racism, many of us are searching for this path; and like Chanie Wenjack, we may struggle to find it.
But Downie’s life and work reminds us that we have fellow pilgrims on the road, and role models who can help us find the broader way.
And so, I pray that we will continue to walk a path of faith hope and love. May we love the path and share news of it with family, friends, and neighbours so that it does not remain a secret. It is a path home to the Love from which have come and to which Chanie Wenjak, Gord Downie, and all of us eventually return.
Thanks be to God.