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Ronnie Otter

I’m spending the first part of this week in Ottawa for the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the long journey that began in 2008 with the government of Canada’s official apology for residential schools, and which will culminate tomorrow when the commission releases a summary of its six-volume final report. After that, it’s off to the Chicago area for the NAIITS 12th Annual Theological Symposium. It promises to be a full and stimulating week.

I confess, though, that after one day of the TRC I am feeling mostly just exhausted. It’s probably the two-hour time change or a long travel day yesterday or the lack of sleep last night. But it might also be because this is the fourth TRC experience that I have been a part of, and I’m just weary of the words. So much rhetoric, so many words—guilty words, angry words, meandering words, half-hearted words, ingratiating words, showy words, naïve words, and other words besides. So many words.

And after all the words? Then what? A few weeks ago, I spoke with a young South African woman recently about her impression of her own nation’s trajectory after their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Has it made a difference?” I asked. “Are things better for South Africa now?” She paused before offering a wry smile. “No, not really. Not at all, actually.” I wonder if the same will hold true for Canada… God, I hope not.

I felt restless and uneasy all day today. What am I doing here? What possible difference does my presence make in light of these massive problems and huge questions? I thought about just taking a long walk, seeing the sights. Or something. And then, I thought, no. No matter what you make of all the official speeches and dignitaries, all the breathless declarations and frantic affirmations, you need to go and find the story of a real human being whose experience is nothing like yours. And when you find it, you need to just sit and listen.

So, I did. I went and found a story. I listened. And this is what I heard.

Ronnie Otter is a Cree from northern Quebec. He’s probably sixty years old, maybe more. He was raised an Anglican Christian and he remembers a worship service that he attended when he was six years old. The service was in Cree, and he loved the songs. But today the song wasn’t a happy one. Everyone was crying as they sang a song called, “God be with you ‘til we meet again.” And then, after church, the planes came. And the kids all had to squish in tight while the Indian agent and the RCMP officer stood by. Making sure there was no trouble. And little Ronnie looked out the window as the plane flew away and his mom and dad waved with tears in their eyes.

It was in the Sault Ste. Marie Residential School that Ronnie first saw a little boy get beaten with a broken hockey stick. He had seen whips with rubber strands tied to little nuts before, but this was something different. He remembered looking at the person beating the little boy and thinking, “How can you be doing that to a boy? You shouldn’t even beat a dog with a stick…” Here, Ronnie’s voice cracked and trailed off a little…

[I looked around when Ronnie started to break down. It struck me how most of the indigenous people in the room reacted. Nobody looked at Ronnie. Not when he was talking, not when started to cry, not after he started talking again. They mostly looked down at the ground. It seemed to me that there was the pain of a deep knowing in that looking away…]

Ronnie talked about attending public school later in life, about how they would sometimes go to the movies. There would always be movies about cowboys and Indians, and the Indians were always strange, always the “savages.” “I always felt like hiding when we walked out of the theatre,” Ronnie said. I didn’t want to be a savage… But later we would act out what we saw on the screen when we played outside. You be the cowboy, I’ll be the Indian! But I didn’t want to be the Indian. The Indian always died…”

Ronnie talked about his parents who lived long winters without their kids. They told him about how they would sometimes hear a lone voice crying inside a tent for the kids who weren’t there. Pretty soon, you’d hear a voice from another tent. And then another. And before you knew it, the whole village would be wailing…

What an image, I thought. A whole village crying. Can villages cry? Yes, of course they can. What else would they do?

When Ronnie was done, the facilitator got us to form a circle around those who had shared. We joined hands—friends and strangers, indigenous and non-indigenous—and we listened to a prayer for truth, for reconciliation, for healing, for a more hopeful future for the first peoples of his land. Will it happen? Will the TRC lead to meaningful change? I don’t know. Maybe. Hopefully. But I suspect that if reconciliation is ever to even begin, it has to at least start with more people hearing more stories like Ronnie Otter’s.  And with a recognition that more villages need to weep for those that should never have had to.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    How blessed you both were to share in such healing. For Ronnie Otter, for you, for anyone else listening with the heart of Christ. To just speak the simple truth of our suffering and be heard, the true place where healing begins. To listen to the stark, painful words and understand that the suffering of another, is our suffering also. This mutuality; the place where true helping begins. Where reconciliation begins, one to the other.

    And those well meaning or otherwise, trapped within the ceremony of “truth and reconciliation”, do they come in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What truth and reconciliation can they really offer if they don’t? At best the weakly rooted, blown over by every other political whim on the landscape. At worst…..a lot worse.

    They are not to convict us. We are to help convert them. We are to rise above our contempt for their processes. We are to pray for them. Help them if called.

    And what of those who came in the name of Christ? Those who betrayed the faith as political agents of the Crown. Those who misunderstood the faith and saw violence as a just solution. Those who understood the faith and yet still acted as silent accomplices. Those who came in our name, under our banner. What are we to say of them?

    We must say their shame is our shame. Their sin is our sin. We must say to all Ronnie Otter’s that if the Church every moves in that direction again, we will stand against the church. We will stand with Ronnie Otter.

    June 2, 2015
  2. mike #

    “So much rhetoric, so many words—guilty words, angry words, meandering words, half-hearted words, ingratiating words, showy words, naïve words, and other words besides. So many words.

    And after all the words? Then what? A few weeks ago, I spoke with a young South African woman recently about her impression of her own nation’s trajectory after their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Has it made a difference?” I asked. “Are things better for South Africa now?” She paused before offering a wry smile. “No, not really. Not at all, actually.” ….

    What does it take to initiate and affect an authentic psychic change in individuals..in a society..in mankind? My immediate answer would be a spiritual awakening through Christ but I’m not so sure anymore that it is the ONLY means of change. It would appear on the surface that humankind is progressing/evolving and making gradual but significant strides in civility/equality/human rights just fine without God….or is it?(without God). just thinking out loud here.

    June 4, 2015
    • Paul Johnston #

      In an old REM song, they used to sing, “not everyone can carry the weight of the world”….I think they had it right by half. No one can.

      What a life in Christ calls us to do is to “carry the weight” of our own existence, partnered with Christ. Living through Christ. When we are so able, when we are doing this truly, the fruit will be an ability, again with and through Christ to bring others to this relationship. In Christ’s economy, it seems to me, we mostly change the world one heart at a time.

      Is the world fine without God? First I must ask myself if I’m fine without God. What has every other resource or approach to living that was apart from Christ done for me, and those hearts placed close to me? In the end, it has never been enough. Not for me, not for those around me.

      Never enough. Always settling for less. Always battling a pride that insists I’m on the right course( apart from Christ)

      And then the epiphany. It has only been in relationship with and through Christ that I have ever been fulfilled. Ever been at peace. What is true for me is true for everyone. We are not as different as we think. As pride and ego would have us believe. We are all same substance with different form

      At our source we are all one with God and creation, with and through Christ.

      June 5, 2015
      • mike #

        Good stuff, Paul. I have to say that I’m impressed with the seriousness with which you have implemented the Pontiff’s directive to get out there and Evangelize more. I applaud the fact that ,as a Catholic, you have chosen to lift up Christ above the Institutional Church. …I always appreciate your informed and thoughtful comments 🙂

        My comment: “It would appear on the surface that humankind is progressing/evolving and making gradual but significant strides in civility/equality/human rights just fine without God….or is it?(without God).” was pondering whether or not God may be actively behind Mankind’s evolutionary progress DESPITE it’s unbelief.
        I could/would never question the existence of God per se, It’s only the mystery of His Essence that I have trouble definitively defining 🙂

        June 5, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    “The mystery of essence”. Thank you for this phrase, Mike. I think you point in a true direction. Perhaps first though, before looking to fathom the unfathomable, we might first look at ourselves. What is this “mystery of essence” that plagues us. Why am I so convicted in Spirit and yet often conflicted in my actions; my choices. Why is it that my words and actions too often (or at least often enough for me to notice) don’t line up.

    For me, it is the mystery of myself that I often struggle with, before any other concern. Looking at it from this point of view, God appears to be perfect simplicity. No mystery at all. God is that through which all my outcomes will be reconciled. Surrendering my “mysterious self” to Him who is all loving, all perfect allows my Creator to make me all loving, all perfect.

    It is not to say that this process happens in a moment, rather it almost always takes a lifetime and beyond. It is to say that this process can only begin when a person chooses Jesus consciously, each and every day, in each and ever action. Chooses to forgive and be forgiven, in the name of Jesus Christ. Prays daily, honestly, intimately each and every day with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Let Jesus in and the mystery of a mans essence plagues him less and less with each passing day.

    Keep Jesus out and everything about us remains as, “mystery of essence”.

    June 6, 2015
    • mike #

      Good solid teaching, Paul. Thank you 🙂

      June 7, 2015
  4. mike #

    “In the natural course of spiritual growth, one goes through many ups and downs. Some of these seem primarily determined by the experiences of daily life: frustrations, successes, losses and failures in work or relationships. Some may be related to deeper psychological issues, old psychic wounds and resentments that surface in response to introspection or some symbolic trigger. Some are physiologically determined, resulting from changes in brain chemicals. All of these are primarily within the realm of one’s psychology, but they will inevitably affect and be affected by one’s prayer life and spiritual awareness. As we have seen, for example, depression may interfere with prayer, and experiences in prayer may contribute to or alleviate depression.
    Dark night experiences, I think, need to be seen somewhat differently. There are many authoritative descriptions of the dark night, and people tend to view it in different ways. For me, it is most helpful to see such experiences as not being influenced by one’s personal psychological responses. They are deeper and more profound than any of the “ups and downs” of the spiritual life, regardless of how dramatic or painful the latter may be. To be fully accurate, one should probably not call the dark night an “experience” at all. It is more a deep and ongoing process of unknowing that involves the loss of habitual experience. This includes, at different times and in different ways, loss of attachment to sensate gratification and the usual aspirations and motivations, loss of previously construed faith-understandings, and loss of God-images. Accompanying this, of course, are loss of self-image/importance and of preconceptions about one’s own identity.
    All of these losses go on gradually, as part of the continuing process of “unknowing,” deepening humility and self-abandonment. In terms of the dark night, we can hardly even use the term “realization” in it’s normal way, for what is involved is more a subtraction of prior knowings than an addition of new insight. The dark night then, is not so much an experience or phase of development but rather the essence of one’s ongoing spiritual journey. However, one does notice or recognize this process more acutely at some times than at others, and these “noticings” constitute what we may call experiences of the dark night.
    one may proceed a way along the spiritual path, experiencing a variety of more superficial ups and downs without being fully aware of the inner changes that are taking place. During this time, attention may be directed primarily to the experiences of prayer and the consolations and desolations that represent the surface waves of the journey. But underneath there is a deep and strong current in which one is likely to have been caught without noticing it. At some point an awareness of this underlying process begins to take place–without understanding and without bearings. Here one may begin to experience drifting in darkness, a recognition of not-knowing . It may well appear that there is no worthy guidance in this drifting, the current is too deep and subtle to be identified. One may feel quite literally at sea, and utterly dependent upon and abandoned to the unknown and unknowable essence of God at the helm.” ….from:”Care of Mind/Care of Spirit” by Gerald G. May, M.D.)

    June 7, 2015
  5. The “Dark Night” is a Catholic contemplative understanding. To my limited knowledge first explained as such by the Discalsed (barefoot) Carmalite monk, St. John of the Cross. In the tradition of the Desert Fathers, St. John’s experiences were born of lengthy fasts and meditations. To me St. John’s experiences, like those of his contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila, are extraordinary for two reasons. They are fully purgative and happened while they were both still alive. The “Dark Night” is that purgation, that time on the cross, that ALL who claim allegiance to Jesus will be called to endure. The dying to self, essential before a resurrection in Christ is possible. Keeping focussed on the goal this purgation is attainable. It was attained by these two saints, while living. It will be more likely true that for the many it will be attained after death (Purgatory). How painful it will be is likely determined by how hesitant we are to surrender our old selves. Make no mistake though, Jesus will not lose even one that is His. All who are of Him will be purified.

    June 7, 2015
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, Mike I sincerely thank you both for this/these opportunities to convene as brothers, in Christ…sometimes families are fractious ;)…these conversations have become an important part of my deepening conversion. I truly hope they are useful to both of you in this regard.

    Sometimes my wife, Sharon tells me that I need to become a better listener. There is always truth in her understanding of me. She loves me so.

    I’m still a work in progress. Please bare with me and test and reprove what concerns you. You are good men trying to find your way to holiness. I value your opinions.

    June 8, 2015

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