A Shrine to Punks and Saints
My childhood wasn’t exactly typical. I grew up with some amazing opportunities and also some great difficulties I had to overcome. My parents were hippies. Well, my mom was a hippy and my dad just sort of played along. We lived on an organic rhea farm (rheas are like smaller ostriches) in southern Ontario and were part of a traditional rural Quaker meeting. My mom was American and had spent her college years before she met my dad praying with the Huichol people and eating peyote in the deserts of southern California and Mexico. I grew up with sacred yarn paintings hanging over my bed and we used to pray with God’s eyes and hawk feathers when I was just a little boy. So, in my earliest spiritual formation, I was immersed in two different traditions. Quakers, at least here in Canada, are very open-minded about learning from other traditions and I happily grew up with both ways side by side and no sense of conflict between them. I started going to ceremony with the Algonquin people in Quebec when I was twelve years old and that was when I had my first vision in my first sweat lodge. The eagle came to me in a powerful way but I was too young to know what it was saying to me.
My parents both suffered from mental illness and our home was quite dysfunctional. The family split up and we sold the farm when I was about ten. By the time I was fifteen both parents had kicked me out of their houses. I bounced around from couch to couch for a while but after a few months I was living under a bridge in a nearby small city. I lived on the streets for about five years, sometimes staying with friends, occasionally having my own place, but often sleeping in the park and bank lobbies. Even during those years I continued to make my annual pilgrimage to Maniwaki for ceremony. I spent time with an elder named William Commanda and learned a great deal from him and the other elders who gathered there every summer.
Since I was homeless, I learned a lot about what it means to be cold and hungry during those years. I also became very heavily involved with all kinds of drugs and started selling them to support my habit. One of my favourite drugs was PCP and I had to go all the way to Montreal to get it reliably. I used to hitchhike between Ontario and Quebec moving drugs along the way. What I bought in Ontario I sold in Quebec and what I bought in Quebec I sold in Ontario. I lived on the side of the highway out of my backpack. I was a punk in a community of counter-cultural rebels. We were nomads by choice and rejected mainstream society and all kinds of government. As anarchists we spent our time hopping trains, living in squats, panhandling, and partying. It was here that God first called me into a life of religious devotion and I would like to share that story with you now.
This story is about how the Thunderbirds called to me and brought me home to their sacred mountain in northern Ontario where I now live. But, even though it was to a life of indigenous ceremony I was being called it was through the image of Jesus and Mary that they spoke to me. I did not know at the time that I would become a Christian and dedicate myself to Celtic Christianity. On one of my trips to Montreal, which I usually made with my friend we called Batman, another friend we called Lanky wanted to come along because it was his birthday and he wanted to party with me and Batman. All three of us were dealers and we often worked and partied together. We brought another friend along and the four of us hitchhiked to Montreal in two groups. Lanky and I arrived first and because Montreal was Batman’s home turf we didn’t have anything to do until they caught up.
So we went to a bar and started drinking. When the bar closed we went across the street to a pizza place to keep drinking, as is common in Montreal. While we were there a couple of very young sex workers came over to us and were trying to get us to take them home. They only spoke French and we only spoke English so communication was difficult but after a while they had convinced Lanky to go with them. I knew they were way too young and that this whole situation was nothing but trouble so I dragged him out of the pizza shop and onto the street. We had no idea where we were going or what to do. I figured we would stumble our way around until we found a park we could sleep in.
But, something neither of us expected happened instead. While we were standing on the sidewalk too drunk to know exactly what to do, a cab pulled up and a white guy with dreadlocks came out and walked straight towards us. He said, “Hi, my name is God, do you need a place to stay tonight?” We said yes and got in the cab with him. He took us back to his apartment, fed us, and let us sleep on his couches. Now as much as I always had a spiritual side, even in my anarchist years, I was definitely not a Christian. To me the church was just like the government, corrupt and controlling. It was everything I rebelled against. But this guy who called himself God was quite accommodating and we needed somewhere to crash.
Lanky wasn’t exactly a stable person. He got upset in the middle of the night and disappeared. In the morning I called his cell and tracked him down. He was freaked out by the whole God thing and was crying by himself in a subway station. We met up with Batman, who had finally made it into town, and tried to put all that behind us. Since it was Lanky’s birthday Batman pumped him full of PCP while we were panhandling during the day. Some French Catholics came to give us sandwiches and tell us about Jesus while we were sitting there. They gave us these little cards with pictures of saints on them and told us about God. This was a pretty normal thing, people give you food and in exchange you have to listen to them preach a little. After they left I stuck the little cards in my pocket and we went about our business.
As evening came we started heading back to the squat where we were staying. It was an old abandoned factory and we were sleeping on some scaffolding in the basement. We had a little nest that was all our own up there. Different groups of punks had different parts of the squat that were theirs. Lanky was still a little freaked out about staying at God’s house and so I decided to start messing with him. We were all really high on PCP at this point and reality starts to dissolve when that’s the case. I told him that my initials are JC just like Jesus Christ (my name is Justin Coutts) and that my mother’s name is Mary and my father was a carpenter (both of which are true). I convinced him that I was Jesus and he started freaking out saying that he must Judas then because he is always messing everything up. I thought it was hilarious so I took all my little saint cards and decorated our scaffolding like a shrine to Jesus and Mary. Someone even had some little candles to bring it all together.
We were staying in the squat of another street punk we called Manix (because he was pretty manic and unpredictable). He ate a bunch of PCP too. You’ve probably seen when a rock or a cloud looks like a face, sometimes we see faces in random things. Manix found a dirty crumpled up piece of packing tape and the dirt on it looked like an evil man’s face. He started petting it and whispering to it in the corner calling it Satan. I thought that was hilarious too. But Lanky, all of a sudden, decided that he was going to “go on a crusade to save Manix” and he took the tape from him and threw it off the scaffolding (which was about 10 feet off the ground). Manix freaked out, grabbed Lanky by the shirt and tried to throw him off the scaffolding as well. Lanky lost his balance and began to fall but Batman was able to grab him just in time and we pulled him back up to safety. He likely would have been seriously injured had we not caught him as it was just concrete below.
Manix kicked Lanky out of the squat and I decided to go with him because he wasn’t able to take care of himself. God had given us his phone number in case we needed him and I wanted to call him but at this point Lanky was too freaked out to ask God for help. So we spent the night sleeping at a table in a 24 hour coffee shop. In the morning I was fed up with Lanky and told him he owed me a bus ticket because we were going back to Ontario and I didn’t want to hitch hike with him anymore. He agreed that was fair and we started to walk to the Greyhound.
Now, both of us were dealers and both of us had cell phones (back when flip phones were a thing and all they did was call or text). Since we weren’t in our home turf our phones were off and in our backpacks to save the batteries. While we were walking to the bus station both our phones started ringing at the same time and both of us had messages from our girlfriends back home that we needed to call our mothers. Neither of us spoke to our families and so it was a very odd thing. We decided we had enough of spooky signs from the universe and we agreed to ignore them and pretend we didn’t get them.
When I got back home I came to a party where my girlfriend was. She was all high on acid and came up to me adamant that I call my mother. She knew I didn’t talk to my mother and when I asked her later she said she didn’t know why she was so serious about it. Again, I tried to ignore it and move on. A couple days later I got a random email from a friend of mine who was always a spiritual companion saying that she got a message from the universe that I was avoiding something important that I needed to do but she didn’t know what it was.
So I caved. I hitchhiked back home and showed up at my mom’s house unannounced after several years of no contact. I told her I got high and God told me I needed to talk to her but that I didn’t actually want to be there. She asked me to go to a place called Thunder Mountain to a fasting camp led by an elder named Isaac Day. I arrived at Thunder Mountain a week or so later a haggard street punk who hadn’t been sober in years. It was there that I learned to be a firekeeper and it was there that I found myself, got sober, and dedicated my life to prayer, fasting, and serving the people. I spent about a decade as an oshkaabewis (helper and apprentice) to the elder there until he retired a few years ago. But the rest of that is a story for another day.
Both Jesus and the Thunderbirds called to me. They would not let me ignore them. They grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me out of a nomadic life of drugs and crime and into a spiritual life of healing and prayer. Thank you Lord Jesus and miigwetch Nimkii. I am forever in your debt.
Justin is a Celtic Christian teacher, an Anam Chara living on Manitoulin Island in Canada. He leads an online community called New Eden Ministry which seeks to create a sacred space on social media for those called to the contemplative life and the Celtic way. His work seeks to bring healing to the church which has lost its way by bringing back a love of nature, an emphasis on equality and simplicity, and the importance of our inner teacher. You can learn more about his work by visiting: New Eden Ministry