If you walk out of your hotel in Rome first thing in the morning, you will find within five minutes a glorious Renaissance church of Mary. (Santa Maria in Aquiro). There were only three of us in the side chapel. Before the reading of the liturgy, we are invited to the back of the Church. I understood why because next thing the priest summons all of us forward to do the readings. Luckily I am not in the first row or I would have had to do it. I can just about read and pronounce Italian but the thought of doing it in public can terrify you.
Afterwards the priest gave us a little card in honour of Santa Maria di Lourdes. “Defendi i deboli, conferma gli innocenti, converti i peccatori, risana gli infermi, consola gli affliti.”
The point of course is that St. John Bosco loved children and Mary chose to appear to a child, Bernadette.
Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is a marvellous film about St. Therese of Lisieux.
There is no music at all, just poetic insight into her way of love being found in the smallest things.
What I found most interesting about the film was its simplicity. Nothing was exaggerated or hurried. The heroism and the drama was contained in a placid acceptance and silence. Here is a concerned renunciation not of the world but of reliance on the world.
I am reminded of the words in today’s Gospel.
It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
This is a film made in 1950. It starts in a pretty miserable frame of mind and it gets even more miserable. It is black and white and the French sound quickly has deteriorated yet its inextricably moving. A young country priest battles with his unpopularity, doubts, and lack of faith, and finally a dose of stomach cancer.
He ends his last days staying with a friend in one of those depressing 1950s towns which I remember as a boy, when France seemed so backwards. Now it has leapt ahead of us. But at the end of the film, the Cure as he lays dying has a blessing from his old seminarian friend who says he cannot give it he is no longer a priest. The cure replies “all is grace, all is grace”.
Today’s reading from Hebrews 10:32-39 might have been intended for him.
Gabriel once more has this strange disconnect between his physical persona and his soul as if they were quite separate. That the soul could be free, that it could leave the body and be somewhere else. That there was a curtain between reality and spirituality but only a curtain, to be opened at the flick of a hand.
Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary by the new and living way which he has opened for us through the veil, that is, his body.
In the Modern Art Museum of Strasbourg is a huge, at least 30-by-20 foot picture by Gustave Dore of Christ leaving the Praetorium.
It is a monumental work of art. Only Christ looks at the viewer. But it is also work of a dark and coming crucifixion, powerful in its grim intensity. Despite its darkness, light seems to leap out like the light Paul saw on the road to Damascus, sudden and determined to illuminate.
These words seemed to come back again and again. Jesus says ‘come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’
In the cathedral chapel the evening before. At early morning mass in the Cathedral today. At early morning mass in the cathedral today and coming across in another church, Eglise St. Pierre.
VENEZ A MOI, VOUS TOUS QUI PEINEZ, SOUS LE POIDS DU FARDEAU
ET MOI JE VOUS PROCURAI LE REPOS
Three times in less than twenty-four hours I had come across them. They bring great joy and solace in their assurance, a helping Lord. Always on the shoulder, invisible, but more real than apparent reality.
In Strasbourg Cathedral there is a quiet place – The Chapelle St. Laurent. And inside are written these words:
Jesus Spricht: Kommt Zu mir alle, die ihr euch plagt, ich werde euch ruhe verschaffen.’
Jesus dit: ‘Venez à moi, vous tous qui peinez. Je prendrai votre fardeau.’
Jesus says: ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’
The three languages seem to unite the message in its simplicity, power, and truth.
Walking up the wold,
The scene came from all time.
And from none.
No sound, no telegraph, no house
Marred this view
Only a flock of sheep
Unchanging, wandering silently
Great valley, stretched away
High hills, all in wintry light
This scene could have been one hundred
One thousand, two thousand years ago.
A Viking raider, a Saxon serf.
A civil war crusader, a Ninteenth Century Landowner.
All could come passing down this path.
And on this hill, without time
And my mind took a sudden shift in realisation
That I am not just in this moment of time
This reality; there is another and another
Unknown, seek it and cannot place it
Present reality’s bands are too strong
And for a moment, I am back here.
Gabriel was travelling and he saw a great industrial land before him. Mighty power stations were belching forth plumes of smoke, the sun setting behind the chimneys, enveloping everything in a pink, fiery, glow.
The curious thing was that even the mighty smokestacks were made beautiful – just by this light. Then he wondered whether the beauty arose from this light, or from a state of mind. Was beauty tangible or intangible, relative or absolute? Or was it, perhaps, directed from afar?
His help is near for those who fear him and his glory will dwell in our land.
I walked across Rome to St. Peter’s. The sun was setting and a small crowd was gathered around the enormous life-size crib in the square. It was late afternoon and the queues were gone. I hurried into the great empty space and as is the way in St. Peter’s immediately found a Mass and it was being taken by a cardinal.
I struggled with the Italian a bit – which I am trying to learn – but it didn’t matter. Latin is so close to Italian that if you give your responses in Latin while the rest of the congregation give theirs in Italian the words don’t jar and scrape as in English or even French, they just merge into each other.
Pater noster qui es in coelis / Padre nostro che sei nei cieli
After Communion, I stood at the side of the nave and looked up and down this soaring space. It is a stunning experience to walk past the high altar and look into the grave of Peter who started and completed his life so modestly and ended up under all this. I thought of the previous day’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter sent them all out of the room and knelt down and prayed. Then he turned to the dead woman and said ‘Tabitha, stand up!’ She opened her eyes, looked at Peter, and sat up, and Peter helped her to her feet.
(Acts of the Apostles 9:31-42)
Gabriel was lying awake. His thoughts gathered like waves and in his mind’s eye until, at last, he seemed to kneel before his Guardian Angel.
‘Help me!’ he pleaded, but no answer came, so he persevered. Eventually, one word came from the figure:
So he prayed, and the decades of the Rosay came and went – Joy, Sorrow, Light and Resurrection. And then sleep closed in, but one point of light appeared. He felt the presence of the Virgin Mary, who consoled him and seemed to tell him to accept.
Gabriel was wandering what directed his consciousness. Could it just be a chemical impulse in the brain? That might explain how he might lift his right hand, but what was it that made him know that he was? It came from nowhere and in his consciousness he met Melchizadek, who had also come from nowhere.
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.
So his awareness of self came from nothing being. It came, perhaps, from something in the depths of his soul. Consciousness cannot be seen or measured. There seems no first mover in this metaphysical world. It just exists.
You are a priest for ever. A priest like Melchizadek of old.
And this sentence rang like a mantra in Gabriel’s mind, striking something deep on his being.
Professor Richard Dawkins seems perplexed by the same idea.
Gabriel was thinking on today’s Psalm. ‘The Lord keeps his covenant ever in mind.’
He thought that maybe there were different levels of insight. At the first level, we exist and stay alone. At the second, we are tested intellectually by day to day problems of life. At the third, we begin to think spiritually and enlarge our outlook away from ourselves to our soul and to the eternal. At quiet times, he tries to push his way of thinking to the third level.
Gabriel was watching a programme on the BBC, Horizon, on the different conceptions of reality.
Apparently reality is not as certain as it seems. Advances, particularly in the field of quantum physics, point to inexplicable phenomena which don’t follow the rules of conventional science. Perfectly respectable physicists argue for parallel universes and strange links between time and space, further complicated by curious physical effects of observation. The straightforward, textbook physics I was familiar with no longer seems to hold the entire truth.
Perhaps we are moving toward a realisation that the architecture of the universe, including ourselves, stems from a will of a single, powerful entity. These curious advances at the edge of knowledge seem hugely more mesmerising than the questions of daily life.
Gabriel woke in the middle of the night. Some mean or ugly thought had passed through his head – but it had done some good, because at that moment, as clear as the strongest daylight, he seemed to know something for certain.
What was clear was that he must love those closest to him and show his love. The thought was absolutely clear. It was as if there was a right battling against a wrong.
I was hoping to go to Mass. Instead, I had a chore to do. I went on a Boris Bike through the pouring rain to collect the car from a service station. When I arrived, I couldn’t find a docking port for the bike anywhere nearby. I was forced to walk for what seemed like miles through South London in the pouring rain, only to find the garage closed. I took a bus home and arrived wet and cold.
At home, I leafed through the National Geographic news section. One of the photographs was of a monastery in Bhutan. It was twilight, and only the monastery was lit up by the dying sun. The rest of the hills were dark blue grey with a thick mist enveloping them. The caption mentioned that the Guru Rinpoche flew into the Himalayas on a tiger to dispel evil.
Looking at this monastery, bright in the landscape on a distant hill, embattled yet enduring, was reassuring.
There was some row at home about nothing and I went for a walk to the cathedral and the liturgy was over and only the evensong Rosary group was left.
The Rosary at first sight seems either pointless or a mere mantra, but the repetition is deeply soothing precisely for that reason. It was coming to the end of a sorrowful mysteries. They rolled by – the compelling and violent story: The agony in the garden, the Trial, the flogging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. Each reached its inevitable conclusion, interspersed with the quiet decade of five Hail Marys – a gentle counterpoint to the struggle of defeat and of life.
Gabriel glanced up at the clock and the strange time and date. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the first month of the eleventh year. He wondered if he could ever just be truly happy in the present.
He remembered the words of the priest on Sunday and the advice that the first thought of the day should be:
‘Lord, let me dedicate this day to you. Let me live it as you would wish.’ And he thought of today’s psalm, No. 104:
Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people.
Would he have the courage to do it?
Gabriel was half asleep during the night, thinking about today’s reading:
And Jesus said to them: Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men.
He saw in his minds eye himself now walking along a river at home. He saw himself fishing as a boy and a young man and a friend of his, Mark, was fishing with him.
And Mark’s thoughts seemed to penetrate into his own.
‘If we follow him we can become fishers of men.’ And the call strangely seemed insistent. It kept coming back to him – try as he could to avoid it.
Gabriel stood in front of the crib in church. Previously, cribs had struck him as being a harmless piece of pap; naïve imagery, perhaps for the greater benefit children. But sitting in front of this crib, he was overcome by its profound beauty and symbolism.
He thought on the psalm of today:
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Gabriel thought of the courage of the French monks murdered in 1996. They had been given every opportunity to leave, but their courage had sustained them. Ultimately, they had decided to confront violence with a love of all people and of peace. Gabriel paused in his journey and watched the story retold in ‘Of Gods and Men.’ In one of the last scenes, when Brother Luc puts on a tape from Tchaikovsky and they await their fate with resignation, tears poured down his cheeks.
The abbot of the small community leaves a message full of hope and reconciliation with Islam. A truly great man, living a life not in some great European monastery with a fine Abbey Church, but only with a complete moral simplicity, caring for his neighbours – the local Arab villagers.
In one touching scene, a Mullah sings from the Koran of the love of god and a Christian monk listens entranced.
When the film ended not a single person in the cinema – not Gabriel nor anyone else – stood up to leave as the credits rolled. They were too dumbstruck by the story of love and courage.
Now Gabriel was dreaming again. He was in a busy city again. He set off early and parked his car because in a nearby shop was something of great value. For free, he could have a book which introduced a text in English and another language so skilfully, it seemed, that he could have learned it effortlessly.
But the only book left was torn and marked and did not seem to work as well as the others. This saddened Gabriel because he always wanted to be skilled in foreign languages. To his horror, when he left the shop, his car was gone – she space obvious and bare. It had been towed off to the car pound. There was no alternative but to go home and admit defeat and heavy expense.
And then he woke.
To his great relief it was all a dream. The car was not lost! A way out of the dilemma had been found totally unexpectedly.
And he thought upon today’s reading about the wedding feast at Cana:
Fill the jars with water… Draw some out… The steward tasted the water and it had turned into wine.
Gabriel was still perplexed. His vision of the two cities, the town and the cathedral, had left him wondering what should be his course now . That night, he had a dream. A publisher was talking to him in some room (it seemed to be underground).
“I have great news for you,” He said. “That book of yours – the fantasy novel – I will publish it. I am sure it will be a great success.”
But Gabriel thought: “I have written no such novel… This is a dream! I have written something serious and no one is interested in it. He continued on his journey sadly, but once again he met John. The old man was sitting by the side of the busy road as the drivers sped by indifferently on their business. Although John’s soothing words could not comfort him, he did say one thing and Gabriel pondered long on it:
Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the straps of his sandals. (John1:6-13)
Gabriel dreamed that he was lying on a great stone slab. The slab was floating in a vast, turbulent sea.
It was not sinking, yet his thoughts were sinking into sadness. So he stepped off the stone and plunged deeper and deeper into the icy depths. He had always loved water. Here he was suspended, free, the cold barely touching. It seemed as if he swam down and across many miles and he was with nature. And the words of John came back to him: ‘We have passed out of death into life.’
Gabriel walked slowly from the city and wondered at the words of John. Today – ‘As John stood there with two of his disciples, Jesus passed and John stared hard at him and said: ‘Look, there is the lamb of God.’ Hearing this, the disciples followed Jesus [John 1. 35 – 42]
‘how lucky to be alive at that time. Surely no one would have passed up the opportunity of following the corrective force of world history, whether you believe in him or not.’
‘Surely,’ he asked himself, ‘if I had been alive then, whatever position was open to me at the Emperor’s Court, whatever the power and glory available – whatever riches at the Greatest Phoenician trader – I would have given up anything to be there. And when I arrived at that little sandy, impoverished village, there would have been thousands, if not hundreds of thousands there before, if everyone else at that time had been given the opportunity.”
But Gabriel stopped a while in the City’s supermarket and thought as if of a sudden: ‘But that message is still there. I am the passer by. Why don’t I; why can’t I follow the way painted by John too?