We ascended, by car, the 6,200-foot Mount Ventoux (which often features in the Tour De France). I thought of cycling it, but luckily sense prevailed. At the top, unbelievably fit 60-year-old French men arrived after climbing the relentless gradient.
The air was clear and cold and the wind incredibly strong. One could see over mile after mile of country to the snow capped Alps. On a clear day, apparently you can also see the Pyrenees. God’s design or accident of pitiless nature?
We were in Tournon in the Rhone Valley. The town was packed for a fete. Outside the Eglise Collegiale, one could not move for people or for stalls selling every kind of goods. People were tucking in to vast meals. The church door was open and I went in. The vast church was completely empty not a soul. I sat down for a bit.
As is the custom in French churches some gentle music was playing. There was an enormous crucifix on the wall of the nave. If – as I hope – Jesus is still alive, what would he think of being completely ignored like that by the thousands milling about for whom he has died? Eventually, a couple of people did come in and I left. There was a rota left out for those who helped to look after the church. The spaces were mainly blank.
Later, we drove through the Drome countryside past the River Rhone. As I looked out from the hills across this region of amazing beauty, I wondered why worry about money or position when there is such simple elegance to admire in nature.
I was visiting a friend who was house-sitting a chateau. I showed him the boot of our car. Everything in the vast chateau was replicated in the boot of the small car. The tent was our home, the tiny gas burner was our kitchen, the sleeping bags and fold away plastic table our furniture. But it was enough.
Later that evening we camped by a small river. I swam in it. There is something so soothing about swimming in a natural river. Elsewhere in the campsite, people lay stretched out on plastic sun lounges in the blazing heat under faux palms beside the aquamarine, chlorinated water. Here, in the quiet river, the rocks lining the banks were like a Japanese garden and hanging trees overshadowed the water. The river was so clear that you could see a myriad of tiny fishes catching the light at the bottom. This was as good as any church service.
I woke up in the middle of the night, worrying about what to do about various problems and came to a decision. But I could not shake off a vague depression at having made the wrong decision until, in a French garden, I heard the Angelus ring out.
Maybe there is no one left working in the fields of France today, or maybe no one stops when the bells of the local college ring out, but it is a soothing sound of a long history of culture and faith.
I was looking at the round tower of the small renaissance chateau in the Burgundy village of Jours Les Baigneur and then I had a dream about it. I thought my faith was about as strong as the small blades of grass growing at the base of the massive tower. The tower was faith and truth and my efforts were the few blades of grass at the bottom.
Talking of faith, we visited the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay. The Cistercians observed not only a simple way of life, but a simple style of architecture. We avoided the guided tours with their constant noise, and I walked up the great nave of the Abbey Church. I could feel the weight of centuries of prayer. But in the end, Fontenay is only a museum. At one time it was a paper works, with great bales stacking up in the church.
That evening, we walked around the Medieval village of Flaviers and waited for Compline to start in the Abbey. I was astonished, knowing British monasteries, at how many monks kept amassing. Fifty monks singing the Salve Regina is an awesome sound of beauty and faith, especially in the deep twilight of the chapel, with only a few candles and the statue of the virgin lit up.
We went to the Cathedral in Semur-en-Auxois in Burgandy. At first the church, which was heavily restored by Violet Le Duc, left me a little cold. Like many French churches which are maintained by the state, it is a little musty. Like a tourist, I wandered around, impressed by the statuary and the restored medieval wall paintings.
Then my eye caught a statue in the nave of Jesus during his agony. In all previous depictions I had seen him standing. Here he was sitting with his hands bound and a crown of thorns on his head. The fact that he was sitting is important. He looked so defeated and helpless. Not defiant or even agonised as if just waiting miserably for something to happen. And he knows what it is to be.
As I stared at this statue, my mind drifted. I was filled with a sense of peace, joy and the presence of God. Then the moment passed. I was a tourist once more. I walked off but I had to come back again.
Johnson relates in his book how before Muhammad’s time, there were some twenty Jewish tribes in his immediate vicinity. It is obvious that he was hugely influenced by Judaism. What a strange world it would be if he had conquered the entire Middle East not for Islam, but for Judaism. What if the Arabs were Jews and not Muslims? These extraordinary chances of History convince me more and more that all religions have intrinsic worth and are valuable in different ways to different peoples.
What Paul Johnson says is this:
What Mohammad seems to have wanted to do was to destroy the polytheistic paganism of the oases culture by giving to the Arabs a Jewish ethical monotheism in a language they could understand and in turn adapted to their ways. He accepted the Jewish God and their prophets; the idea of fixed law embedded in scripture the Koran being an Arabic substitute for the Bible an addition of an oral law applied in religious courts.
Mohammed’s development of a separate religion began when he realized that the Jews of Medina were not prepared to accept his arbitrary, contrived Arab revision of Judaism.
Had Mohammad possessed the skill and patience to work out the Arab Halakhas, the result might have been different.
Reading Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, one realises the extraordinary course of their history. The Jewish people often seem to have dedicated their entire raison detre and their very being to an idea that there is a purpose to history, created by Yaweh, and have suffered so much for it.
I cannot accept dogmas that state a particular religion or denomination is right and the rest are wrong. How could we know? I see religion as a tool; a kind of key, which unlocks the shutters to various darkened, tiny windows giving a vision of God. The religion is not the final answer, but without some help from those who have gone before us, we are groping even more hopelessly in the dark. This does not mean that I am an agnostic or that all religions are equal or that I value them all equally. I find that the Catholic church, in the profundity of 2000 years of teaching, its spirituality and its concentration on the Eucharist, suits me best. But that is just for me.
What I cannot accept, though, is the uncompromising dogmas of The Watchtower – the magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – which was delivered to my house by two very nice women. I read it this weekend and was told that I have got it wrong and that heaven is populated by exactly 144,000 people. Apparently it says so in the Bible. Despite this assertion, the witnesses say that not everything in the Bible can be taken literally for instance the seven day story of creation. But how can you state that heaven definitely exists for us, let alone that there are precisely 144,000 people in it?
Then again give me the Jehovah’s Witnesses any day rather than the joyless Atheists with their lack of art, music poetry and hope. I remain a questioning Christian pilgrim.
I dreamed that for some reason there was a terrorist attack on London. It was some kind of nuclear explosion. It was all very realistic, yet in the strange way of dreams, it was also not.
At one stage I was in some high vantage point and I was in some high vantage point and I could look over the Atlantic to America, where ships were turning back because of the fallout.
Anyway, the important part of the dream came when I was returning home with some precious water for my children (the mains had been turned off). There was a girl trapped in a cage outside my house – I don’t know why. She was pleading for water and I ignored her because I wanted to put my own children first. Of course, I felt incredibly guilty. It made me realise how shallow are our community intentions.
Today’s reading is from the Book of Judges 11:29-39. Jephthah makes a vow to the Lord that if his war against the Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person who meets him upon his return home. To his honour, that person is his only child, his beloved daughter. It’s a terribly sad story. He honours his promise.
And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.
Would I ever make such a promise? Would I have kept it? I know I would not.
There is a passage in Jenny Uglow’s book when Lords Wyndham and Rochester are talking a famous sea battle with the Dutch. They are discussing whether there is life after death and they say that if either is killed, they will come back from the dead and tell the other. Rochester, I think – but anyway one of them – is promptly killed by a cannonball. He never comes back.
The atheist would say that the fact that he never came back is proof that they can’t, but I often think that we hear an echo of their cries in a distant moment, which is there and is not. But of course they are there and they are not. They are but not here.
… and the angel of the lord appeared to him and said: ‘the Lord is with you, valient warrior!’ Gideon answered him: ‘forgive me my Lord, but if the Lord is with us, then why is it that all this is happening to us now?’
Judges 6:11 – 24
I was lying awake at night, grappling with some unthinkable problem as usual and I asked the Virgin Mary for her opinion. She was very punctual in her advice. She said: “If you cancel the agreement now, you will have paid the deposit for nothing and get a plan to pay for this in easier installments!”
People will think me a nutter if I say I talk with the Virgin Mary and of course, I don’t. I think. I pray and a thought comes into my head. The atheist would argue that this is pure self delusion. Do all one’s thoughts just come from within one’s own head? Perhaps they do – or do they?
I am reading Jenny Uglow’s A Gambling Man – a history of the first ten years of the reign of Charles II. It is a fun book but curiously depressing. Everyone seems out to climb the hierarchy and the world is a cynical, weary place. This passage from John Buchan interested me.
We can make a catalogue of the moral qualities of the greatest leaders, but we cannot exhaust them.
First, of course, there will be fortitude, the power of endurance when hope has gone. The power of taking upon oneself a desperate responsibility and doing all. There must be self-forgetfulness – a willingness to let worldly interests and even honour perish if only the task is accomplished. There must be patience, supreme patience under misunderstandings and setbacks and the muddles and interferences of others. These must be resiliance in defeat; a manly optimism which looks at the facts in all their bleakness and yet dares to hope. There must be a sense of the eternal continuity of a great cause, so that failure will not seem like the end and a man sees himself as only a part in a prededicated purpose.
And another quality will not, I think, be lacking in the greatest leaders – I mean human Sympathy.
We don’t make men like John Buchan any more. His novels were wonderful – I love them all – but his integrity was also wonderful.
Today’s reading from Matthew 19:16-22 is appropriate. It starts:
There was a man who came to Jesus and asked: “Master, what good deed must I do to posess eternal life…”
There was still no wind, but what little was behind us as we drifted back down the western side of the Isle of Bute. And over the sea to Androssen. We were utterly becalmed with not a cloud in the sky. I plunged into the cold sea and easily kept up with the boat.
It was the feast of the Assumption, although there was no question of going to mass. I did, however, read the Magnificat, propped up on the fore deck.
The glorious poem of humility and acceptance seemed to chime with the moment.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit exults in God my savior!
He has looked upon his servant in her lowliness,
and people forever will call me blessed.
I found this wonderful poem for sailing by Walt Whitman (1819-92)
Take Ship, my soul
Joyous launch out on trackless seas
Fearless for unknown shores to sail
Chanting a song pleasant of exploration
Away, brave souls!
Farther and farther to sail!
O daring joy, but safe
Are they not all the seas of God
O fairer, fairer soul.
With continually no wind on a cloudy day, we motored up the west coast of the Isle of Bute and moored on the far north shore near the Kyles of Bute
Here, the channel mirrors the clouds of the sky for a gloriously clear evening in the Scottish Highlands, with the most extraordinary subtle light. The atmosphere was only punctuated by the occasional ‘plop’ of Gannets catching fish.
Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you.
I say to you Lord “You are my God.”
A friend was taking me sailing in his boat in the Western Isles.
We took a stiff breeze on a sunny, chilly day with the wind coming on a broad reach from the North, over the Isle of Arran.
We moored at Lamlash. Here everything is so quiet after Cornwall. There are hardly any cars here. The roads are as empty as they were in my boyhood in England in the 1950s. The night sky is beautifully clear with shooting stars.
For a last time, I ran along the Cornish coast path and bathed in a quiet pool surrounded by rocks.
All this week I have been reading of the trials and tribulations of Moses as he seeks to lead his people to the promised land. Today, Joshua is given the task. Now he crosses the Jordan River.
When Israel went out of Egypt,
The house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became His sanctuary,
And Israel His dominion.
The sea saw it and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
The little hills like lambs.
What ails you, O sea, that you fled?
O Jordan, that you turned back?
O mountains, that you skipped like rams?
O little hills, like lambs?
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
At the presence of the God of Jacob,
Who turned the rock into a pool of water,
The flint into a fountain of waters.
We climbed Pentire Point into a cloud. Up on the top one could see no horison. Even the sea below was part obscured. A warm, swirling mist was about us.
The atmosphere was similar to that at the crest of a high Scottish glen or an Alpine foothill.
I was thinking of the gospel reading of the 19th Sunday in the year. When I awoke with worry again and again during the week, the words came back – not to haunt, but to console me.
Jesus said to his disciples: “there is no need to be afraid, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Luke 12:32 – 48
“There is no need to be afraid, little flock” are the words which come back to me over and over again.
We cycled 28 miles from Padstow to Bodmin and back. The route is flat. We glided over the ground, eating the miles with such ease and speed past the wide, sunny estuary with its boats, to the narrow woodland path under dripping trees.
We walked from Port Quin to Port Isaac, inland, then back again along the incredibly steep coast path. Before the afternoon, the low clouds cleared and there were breathtaking views over a clear sea, as blue as the Mediterranean but far more noble in its swirling tides and waves washing on the rocks.
As I wondered what to do about my fears and doubts, I thought of today’s reading.
If your faith were the size of a Mustard Seed, you could say to this mountain: “Move from here to there.”
As I lay up the grass
high above the cliffs
Gulls weaving above
For a moment time stopped
And there before the great majesty
Of black cliffs, towering green slopes
Crashing waves and vast heaving sea
I saw before my eyes a tiny beetle
In sharp focus, and far below the waves
The glory of the view, all obscured
The beetle indifferent to his surroundings
As happy here as in an urban dung heap
Place need not be the only harbringer of happiness.
And then I stared at the blade of grass
clinging to the towering cliff
And now all time stopped
In blissful silence all thoughts dispersed
‘Till the harsh voices of walkers appeared
The spell now broken
And I went upon my way.
And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.
And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.
And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:
Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.
And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.
And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.
(Luke 9:28 – 36)
My watercolour of the church in Daymar Bay
We walked to St. Enodoc Church in Daymar Bay.
Here, after the noise and surfing bustle of Polzeath, it is warm and calm. John Betjamin is buried here. I sketched a water colour on the sloping churchyard at the back of the church (below). This tiny church was, for many years until the restoration in 1863, actually buried in the sand.
It is quite a contrast to the mighty Basilica of St. Mary Major. Strange how the same religion can produce such contrasts in style and atmosphere. I think I prefer St. Enodoc. There could be no more beautiful spot in the entire world.
Reading for today (Book of the Apocolypse):
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
We walked along the cliffs to Padstow. Once in Daymar Bay, the wind died down and it became calmer. On the way back, the sunset was glorious, the sea inky blue, the sky shades of orange, yellow and the lightest blue. This 4th of August is the feast day of one of my favourite characters – St. John Vianney (1786–1859). Favourite because he did nothing in his whole life. He was just the parish priest from an obsucure parish.
He was remarkable for his sheer holiness; by the time of his death he was attracting thousands to confession. In a sense, he just was. He did not write anything or do anything of great importance.
In a sense, I see a sunset on the ocean as inspiring a life like this. They don’t do anything; they are utterly simple. They just are and in contemplating them, one can just be and pause in the moment.
Reading from today’s gospel:
And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.
Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.”
I went to the small chapel at Polzeath. Transformed from an old Methodist chapel into the ‘tube station’ for surfers (but still used for worship on Sundays), I am used to churches being three quarters empty, or at the most three quarters full. This place was seething. There must have been over a hundred people crammed into this tiny chapel.
Everything was done by song. The story of Zaccharias was read from Luke, accompanied by a play and a crossword game. The spirit and energy of the congregation were marvellous to behold.