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  1 Association for the Sociology of Religion 81 st  Annual Meeting: Engaging Religion in a Contested Age  New York City, NY August 11-13, 2019 Marie-Ève Melanson PhD Candidate, School of Religious Studies McGill University, Montréal, Canada Sacred Land and Secular Concerns: When the Archangels Disregard Zoning By-Laws In 2007, a spiritual movement from France known as the Christian Essene Church  bought a 103-acre former hunting lodge located in the municipality of Cookshire-Eaton in the Canadian province of Quebec for $1,1 million. The aim of the community was to establish a religious commune. The charismatic prophet-founder of the Essene Church, Olivier Manitara, claims that, as he was travelling to Quebec in 2006, he encountered the “spirit of the Maple,” a representation of the collective soul of the Quebecers, who directed him to establish a new Essene village in Quebec – the so-called “Land of the Maple.” Following this revelation, the Archangel Raphael appeared to Manitara and provided him with a fuller description about the lot where the village was to be built. As related by Manitara in his books, the Archangel stated: “It will be a land near the mountains, with great trees, at the center of which water flows” (Manitara 2015a: 48). As it so happened, the Essene community was already considering the purchase of the former hunting lodge in the village of Cookshire-Eaton, which corresponded with Manitara’s visions.   The srcinal plot contained two temporary residences, hunting cabins, and a few dirt roads. Over the next decade, the community built not only additional houses, but also sheds, barns, small bridges, communal buildings, roads, temples, and various places of worship – slowly transforming the land in a small village that the Essenes call among  2 themselves the Maple Village. As new members joined the Maple Village, its population expanded to approximately 150 people today, including numerous children. For the Essenes, the possibility of living at the Maple Village is highly attractive. Because the land is believed to have been chosen by the Archangels, its habitants are able to realize their vision of ‘sacred ecology’ – a form of ecology that is concerned with the divine character of nature, and humans’ spiritual connection to it. The practice of sacred ecology involves the continuous worship of nature.   According to the Essene cosmogony, the material world – that is, the earth – was cut off from the divine world thousand of years ago as sick and egotistical Angels who wanted to exercise their power in a world outside the divine invaded the minds of humans. In doing so, they broke what the Essenes call the “alliance of the Light” that united the two worlds, and humanity has since then been alienated from the divine. That is, in fact, until Olivier Manitara, the spiritual leader of the Essenes, was visited by the Archangel Michael in 2002. In this first encounter, the Archangel informed Manitara that he had been chosen to be the representative of the earthly world in the divine world and that, as such, he would be called upon to transmit and disseminate messages from the divine to humans. As Manitara accepted this role, the alliance of the Light was renewed and “reactivated.” Following those events, Manitara and members of the Essene community sealed spiritual alliances with three other Archangels: Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. According to the Essenes, these four Archangels all incarnate on earth through an element of nature (either fire, water, air, or soil), which places nature at the centre of the Essenes’ system of beliefs and practices of worship. Contact with nature is thus, for the Essenes, the main way to maintain contact with the divine and safeguard the “alliance of the Light.”    3 For this reason, the Essenes think of themselves as the “keepers of the Tradition of the Light.” By paying due worship to the four elements of nature in which the Archangels incarnate, the Essenes consider themselves to be the devout guardians of the alliance with the divine. This worship needs to be performed individually on a daily basis, and collectively at various times, most importantly at each solstice and equinox in a three-day ceremony called the “Round of the Archangels.” But moreover, paying worship to the Archangels also implies to implement various requests that the Archangels communicate to Manitara, which most often concern the construction of new temples and places of worship within Essene villages.   Another way of ensuring that this alliance is maintained is to stay away from technological distractions. For many Essenes, technology is a “dead world” that the divine forces will never approach. The overconsumption of technology closes off the soul and  body from the divine. As the keepers of the alliance of the Light, the Essenes believe it is highly important that they, personally, are not distracted by the technological world. Life in a cloistered and religiously oriented community located in the wild enables them to care more faithfully for this alliance with the divine. If the Essenes fail to protect the alliance of the Light, the alliance risks breaking, and humanity would then be plunged into a great darkness since the minds of humans would be – perhaps permanently – alienated from the divine.   The Essene community in Quebec came to the public’s attention in 2016 when the Maple Village became embroiled in a legal dispute with the municipality of Cookshire-Eaton, where the village is established. As stipulated in the deed of sale, the land purchased in 2007 fell under the  Act respecting the preservation of agricultural land and agricultural  4 activities . This prohibits non-agricultural related development on protected areas, deemed suitable for agriculture. Those areas represent only 2% of the total territory of Quebec; the remaining 98% do not have hospitable climate for agriculture (Commission de protection du territoire agricole 2018).   In 2015, the Essene Church received a notice from the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land, supported by the municipality, stating that 33 of their buildings were illegally constructed. The notice ordered the Essenes to (I quote) “demolish or displace all residential and accessory building … [and] dismantle all installations and buildings dedicated for worship” (2016 CanLII 64417 (QC CPTAQ), para. 30). The Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land and the municipality insisted that, because the land is suitable for agricultural use, it must be protected from any  form of urban development. The Essenes responded that general laws such as the  Agricultural Act   should not apply to their case since their land was their monastery which was established at the request of the Archangels. By building their village, they claimed, they are therefore exercising their fundamental right to freedom of religion. The Essenes thus filed for a declaration of invalidity of the zoning by-law at the Superior Court of Quebec. The date of the Essenes’ hearing at the Superior Court of Quebec is scheduled for early 2020. In this second part of the paper, I wish to draw attention to some of the challenges that reconciling the Essenes’  peculiar religious view of the land with that of the secular courts could pose in their upcoming hearing.   The first challenge that the Essenes face is rooted in the wide divide between two worldviews; that of the Essenes and that of the law, in particular their respective conceptions of space and time. As many scholars have noted, the law organizes the world  5 in such a manner that, although can be at odds with religious visions of the world, always take precedence by the force of its authority in the liberal state. This call for conformity to the law’s peculiar conception of time and space is referred to by legal scholar Benjamin Berger (2015) as the “aesthetics of religious freedom.” This divide is made evident in the case of the Essenes. The Essenes worship nature. But clearly, their claim to the right to practice “sacred ecology” does not equate with the state’s definition of “land protection” and its implementation of agricultural zoning by-laws. Here, the law and the state conceive of “agricultural land” as a natural and economical resource  that serves the greater purpose of producing food supply to ensure the  physical well-being of populations. Law’s conception of space is grounded in the physical world, which can be zoned through boundaries that, although invisible, determine whether religious activities on a certain parcel of land can be considered as legal or not. For the  purposes of the law, this invisible boundary has concrete effects on the spatial organization of the world. This secular understanding of the land as solely a material resource conflicts with that of the Essenes, for whom the “lack” of boundaries between the divine and material world implies that they need to pay homage to the land. For them, the land is above all a  spiritual resource  that serves the greater purpose of maintaining the connection of the human soul with the divine world. Moreover, according to their conception of time, this is essential to ensure that the humanity does not break the alliance of the Light and descend into darkness for many years to come.   The “aesthetic of religious freedom” is also, according to Winnifred Sullivan (2018 [2005]), is linked to the private, voluntary, individual, textual, and believed Protestant forms of religion that have become a part of the secular organization of the world.


Oct 7, 2019

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Oct 7, 2019
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