One kilometer. An automobile at highway speed would cover this distance in less than a minute. Happily, a ship on the water takes far more time and does an infinitely more graceful job. Such was the case aboard the ferry Alphonse-Desjardins between Lévis and Quebec City. Miss Patty and the children and I had travelled to Quebec in order to research her French-Canadian genealogy. This project brought us to churches, cemeteries, and archives in the small agricultural villages on the South Shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Afterwards, we went into the city to sightsee. As we had not taken a voyage aboard a ferry anywhere in a long time, we opted to leave the car in Levis and sail to Quebec City. Admittedly, bridges have spanned the Saint Lawrence for many years, but there’s nothing that can beat going what some would call the old fashioned way.
The two cities lie on opposite shores of the Saint Lawrence just about a kilometer apart from each other. A fleet of two vessels, the Alphonse-Desjardins and her sister, the Lomer-Gouin, crosses the stream at half hour intervals daily. Each voyage takes about ten minutes. This time involves undocking, maneuvering away from the quay, crossing the river, aligning the ship with the next dock, and mooring. These are not the voyages on which speed records are set, nor are they intended to be, nor do the passengers want them to be. For while the obvious objective is to go someplace, a less obvious but equally important objective to enjoy, however briefly, a shining moment of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi.
As the ferry eases away from the land, its gentle motion through the water becomes discernible in a subtle and peaceful way. It is a relief to have broken the chains that hold one to the ground. In mid-river, a slight breeze courses downstream. On a warm and humid day, this cool and gentle air feels heavenly. Combined with the slight undulation of the hull in the river and the faint vibration of the deck plates, the effect is peaceful and soothing in an other-worldly way. Time seems to stand still as one surrenders oneself to the enjoyment of these simple but magnificent sensations. One sees that the ship is approaching the opposite shore, but the gentle motion and the cool breeze are so soothing that one wants—even half expects—them to last forever. Unfortunately, they do not. As the ferry slows to make the dock, she comes into the lee of the land and the heavenly breeze is lost. Soon after, the gentle motion ceases, and one is forced down from a state of bliss to contact with the pedestrian earth again.
Such moments of communion with a higher ethereal plane come every so often in life. Typically, they take place in the temple, but they can happen elsewhere, too. Often, they occur on or near the sea or one of its tributary waterways. This should not be surprising, for many people find solace in the sea, a soothing sense of peacefulness not ordinarily found on land. The French would call it the quality of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi, the quality of I-don’t-know-what, that ineffable something that one knows is there but finds difficult to define. We may also call it the still small voice, the Spirit of the Lord speaking to our souls but not in any human language. When the Lord addresses us in this way, these are precious moments. Unfortunately, they cannot last forever. But fortunately, they do come, even if only rarely and briefly, and we can remember them always.
For one brief shining moment on the Saint Lawrence River, the Spirit of the Lord spoke peacefully unto my soul.