A shorter version of this story was published in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.
Staged as a play, the Rev. Mia Anderson’s life would have a plot full of twists and surprises.
Act 1: A young Canadian actress sets off for theatre school in London, England, and soon is acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Act 2: She tends sheep on a farm with her husband in southern Ontario.
Act 3: As a priest in Quebec City, she becomes a shepherd of a different sort, using music, a garden and a labyrinth to rejuvenate the parish.
Act 4: She steps into a different kind of spotlight when one of her poems wins a $20,000 international prize
The play may seem to be about four different lives, but in each there is an artist contemplating and seeking to express something about truth, the divine and human life.
Anderson grew up in Toronto in a family that was not particularly religious. She watched her mother write poetry, and her parents took their children to the theatre from a young age. Theatre grew in importance for her.
Early in her acting days, she appeared in summer theatre festivals in southern Ontario and did two seasons at the Stratford Festival while still an English major at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. She travelled to England for classical theatre training, and soon an audition led to a role in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night. Looking at the posters for the show in the London Underground, she recalls thinking, “Here I am, this hick from the colonies, and here’s my name for doing Shakespeare up on the walls of London…This is really mind-boggling.”
Anderson went on to do more Shakespeare at the Ludlow Shakespeare Festival in the ruins of a medieval castle, repertory theatre and to act in the Royal Shakespeare Company, eventually acting in experimental productions with prominent English director Peter Brook.
After four years, she returned to Canada, finished her undergraduate degree and then an M.A., and was once more performing at the Stratford Festival. (See photo below: Playing Julia in the Stratford Festival’s 1975 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Robert C. Ragsdale)
In the early 1970s, she also staged her own one-woman CanLit-based show, 10 Women, 2 Men and a Moose, which toured nationally. In that show, Anderson performed pieces drawn from contemporary Canadian literature such as Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs, Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. Atwood injected some comedy, not only from her novel but also with a personal suggestion that Anderson include another bit of Canadiana-an audio recording of a Quebecois hunter’s practical instructions on how to attract a moose. The second act opened with Anderson just quietly sitting on stage in dappled light, like sunlight through forest leaves, while the recording played. “People fell about. It was so funny because it’s telling you how to imitate the sound of the female peeing in the water of the marsh because that attracts the male,” she said, laughing. “So, thanks to Peggy for that idea. That’s why the moose is in the title.”
And the sheep? While teaching at the University of Guelph, Anderson met her husband, Archdeacon Thomas Settle, who was dean of arts at the time. He had been a Methodist minister in England, but came to Canada as professor of philosophy. After they married, it was Anderson’s idea to live on a farm and raise animals in addition to their other careers.
Anderson says her interest in religion began long before she met her husband as a personal search, “sort of like a wisdom tooth, that kind of started up and receded again,” she said. She became familiar with Anglican worship while at Trinity College, and in England had attended an Anglican church. Along the way, she studied Aikido, a Japanese martial art that has a spiritual side, and the hands-on healing practices of Japanese Reiki. Later, she and Settle were confirmed as Anglicans and studied healing ministries with the Order of St. Luke.
Together, the couple began attending St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Elora, Ont. Anderson loved singing there so much that she later joined the choir at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Huron St. in Toronto, commuting from the farm twice a week. That musical experience was also an important part of her spiritual development, she said. And it was while singing there one day in 1996 when she heard a call that said “I should be a priest.” Although she had been interested in contemplative prayer and healing ministries, until that moment, “it had simply never crossed my mind that my relationship to the church would be as a priest,” she said. At first she dismissed it because of her age and the cost of training, thinking it was “some…stupid idea of my own brain.” But then she noticed that the idea had begun to “inhabit” her, and she began an intense discernment process. Obstacles she had anticipated seemed to be swept away. Three weeks later, she enrolled in a divinity program at Trinity College. In 1998, she interned with Bishop Rowan Williams, another poet-priest, when he was still in Wales.
Ordained in 2001 at Saint Michael’s Anglican Church in Quebec City, the only parish in which she served, Anderson found lots of work to be done there. The average age of parishioners was 75. The neighbourhood, predominantly francophone, assumed that an Anglican church would be English-only and have nothing to offer them. During Anderson’s time, Saint Michael’s became a bilingual parish. A garden and labyrinth were built on church grounds to serve as an invitation to the surrounding community, and hymns were also sung in French. When Anderson left, the parish was still small, but the average age was 34.
Her theatre experience proved useful. “One wants to have some of the elegance of liturgy, the flow of it, the shape of it, when it peaks and when it unwinds, all those theatrical values,” she acknowledged, but said the connection to drama is sometimes overrated. “The high point for me is always prayer…it’s the cure or care of souls, as the old expression goes.”
Anderson has also published books of poetry. Poetry, she said, seems most closely connected with her work as a priest. “The thing that astonished me…was to find that the sermons and poetry come from the same source inside me.” That might not be true for other poets or priests, she acknowledged. “But it’s probably in the area of just how mysterious it is trying to put the faith into words, and it is mysterious trying to put whatever it is a poem is grasping for into words. That is the parallel.”
Now retired from parish ministry, she and Settle live in the country in the Portneuf region along the St. Lawrence River. When Anderson’s poem “The Antenna” won the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2013-selected from more than 2,000 entries from 70 countries-she kept reminding herself that the praise and attention were a fleeting, if much appreciated, experience. And the $20,000 prize didn’t hurt. “Poets don’t get that kind of money,” she said.
In 2012, she published The Sunrise Liturgy, a meditative poem sequence that brought theology and poetry together with inspiration from the St. Lawrence, which her publisher Wipf and Stock described as winding across the page as “a tidal presence at once natural and mystical.” A new book, Light Takes, due to be published in August, is less overtly religious. “I suppose [that] I less and less put the theology in the forefront because it is such a secular age,” said Anderson, “and I want to be talking to people who wouldn’t really want to have anything to do with church but we might still have a conversation.”