This day is always special for me because of the Feast of St Ignatius, a saint whose life has meant so much to me. I still remember going by chance to a dusty church on a hot morning and hearing in the homily the story of his life, the start of a book I wrote.
But this was not what struck me about the Mass today. I could not read up the Gospel readings before I was in France so I concentrated particularly hard. It was a simple one to understand from St Matthew about the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.
I had been tossing and turning all night worrying about money. I knew immediately that this reading was the perfect antidote.
So, dear Gabriel, take one day at a time. Tomorrow will look after itself and if you worry about money, think of the loaves and fishes! That sometimes, something can come of nothing, and often something can come of very little.
I cycled the thirty miles from Lourdes to Pau and in the rhythmic movement, after a swim in the Lac de Lourdes.
We had a service of the anointing of the sick. This is the most beautiful service in Lourdes where, to accompaniment of Taize-style chant, the sick are blessed and then anointed with holy oil. I was only making the pilgrimage for the OMV which my daughter helped run. It is a pilgrimage for young people and older visitors should not impose themselves.
But a pilgrimage to Lourdes is all the same unless you have a job to do, are in an equipe, and have to go to the hospital at dawn to help get the patients up. It is trite yet true, Gabriel, that things are so much better if one is helping others.
Friday was the day of departure. A profoundly depressing experience but I overcame it by sitting in part of the Grotto sketching, attempting to capture the rocks. The Gospel reading was about Martha and Mary. Actually a contemplation! I had just the day before for two and a half hours waiting in the queues for the baths. This is seemingly an enormous waste of time but did it matter? No, what else was I going to do? And there is that wonderful, refreshing moment as with a prayer one is plunged into the holy water. It is worth it, Gabriel, just to sit for two hours doing nothing.
I walked down to the Grotto. It was after 1:00 am and raining continuously. There was hardly anyone there. I stood inside and the light outside shone through a wall of rain pouring down outside. It was almost as if I was standing beside a waterfall. There was water everywhere: outside, dripping down the rocks, in the running spring at the side of the Grotto. But not cold uncomfortable water but warm, soft, summer water. Here was I alone in a spot where, if the Virgin Mary had appeared anywhere on Earth in the past two-thousand years (apart from Palestine, two-thousand years ago) it was here. If. If.
It was a moment of profound peace and joy. I knelt in the grotto and looked up at the statue in the niche. In the misty darkened rain encircled in light from the streaming single spotlight, the statue seemed almost alive. I could have stood there forever but eventually instead I lit a candle and walked slowly up the hill. Go to the quiet places, Gabriel.
During the night I realised that there are worrying thoughts and depressing thoughts. The latter are much more dangerous. We ‘worry’ about money, or our health, or our children; we get ‘depressed’ about the shape of our life.
But in a place like Lourdes, Gabriel, your prayer life can become so much more intense that with prayer and through prayer the ‘worries’ and depressing thoughts fall into place. In the great scheme of things, they are nothing compared to a sense of wonder and delight in creation.
How could we have doubted that we should go to Lourdes? After a long drive, eleven hours from Paris, we arrived as the pilgrimage went off to night prayers.
Looking across the Prairie to the Grotto, it is a beautiful experience. The person in charge explained the deeper meaning of the Hail Mary to us. First of all it is the words of an angel, then of Elizabeth, then of our own prayer.
Try, Gabriel, to go on pilgrimage. Some theme will always come to you. For instance, as I got out of the car I suddenly felt depressed at some of the futility of my working life, that I wasn’t achieving anything.
At night prayers as we explored the Hail Mary, I realised that this is a prayer not just of praise or for the end of life but for its difficulties or if ever we feel depressed.
We set off on our pilgrimage: the start of a long drive to Lourdes. But everything delays us: money, work, chores, letters to write. At 5 in the evening we have still not left.
In an instant, the decision is made. We raced for Dover and then at Calais drove really slowly because we had underestimated our petrol but we were on our way.
In the readings today, the question asked is what is the Kingdom of Heaven like? “Like a pearl found in a field.” But what is the Kingdom of Heaven really like? Obviously something worth giving up everything else for, but what is it really like? Tomorrow we start a pilgrimage to help find out.
There’s been a horrible outrage in Norway. The truth is that some kind of latent racism lurks in all of us. I look at it this way: would I really enjoy a world composed entirely of people like me? Wouldn’t it be rather boring? And what happens in Heaven? Is there a heavenly England with cricket fields and mock tudor houses and in another part a heavenly Saudi Arabia of sand and mosques? Heaven is a single unity or it is nothing.
My mind was elsewhere crossing the road through roadworks at the Brompton Oratory. I looked the wrong way and suddenly a great blaring of horns, a motorcycle swerved past me. If it had been a buss I might have been flattened in that incident. Then the dream I had had before of stepping out of the back of the church into a beautiful open country would have been fulfilled.
So think of the present and don’t worry about the future, Gabriel, but look where you’re going!
Physicists at CERN in Switzerland believe that they have found the ‘God Particle’ that turns matter into mass – Higgs Boson. No doubt this will be used to defeat the prime mover argument – that God is necessary to create something out of nothing. But matter, mass, energy all must come from somewhere. So, dear Gabriel, persevere, have hope.
I was in a Mass for the dead. The priest was clothed in black. The service was so dignified that one could not conceive that the hopes expressed were in vain.
The thought came to me in conversation with an atheist friend that really all we are is a few electrical currents in the soft tissue of the brain connected to an inanimate body composed largely of water maintained by a muscular pump. But do we have to base our belief on such a depressing dead end? Cannot fact be turned by belief?
Yesterday I had this view of the huge fields of barley swinging in the wind. By coincidence, today’s reading is about the Kingdom of the Lord being a field of wheat sown with darnel. My advice is always try and visualise.
I was now in a field of barley on a windy day. It was bending in the breeze and was as profound a statement and as beautiful as any choir.
I had a dream that I was in a well-known church in the middle of London. There was some outdoor event going on and I went out of the back. To my amazement, I was in open country. There were great crowds and I had difficulty in getting a place to see anything. I climbed into a stand which didn’t have a very good view. I was about to climb out of the back but couldn’t find my shoe.
Then, to my delight, the stand moved off. First, it was a kind of open-air bus. Then it became a boat and plunged into a huge lake with a wonderful view of what was happening on the lake. I was not quite sure what but some sort of interesting religious event. The boat now careered off up a mountain path and in a trice we were far above the lake and the crowds. I could still see the London church but it was in a beautiful landscape, more like one of the Italian lakes than anything else. Then, unfortunately, I woke.
Apparently in former times, when we relied so heavily on healthy oxen to do our work for us, each yoke had to be tailor made for the animal lest it develop blisters. Thus when Jesus in today’s reading says “Shoulder my yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30), the burden he knows really will not so much be “easy” as in the modern English translation but be well fitted, as in the Greek, to our needs.
The reading today is from Exodus 3:1-6,9-12 and is about the burning bush.
“Moses looked; there was a bush blazing but it was not being burnt up.”
To me the moral of this story is not just that some miracle is taking place but that reality is suspended, that the spirit is everlasting and is not burned up by the fires of nature.
I was not on the sea this week again but on the water, the Thames in the annual rowing race between Lords and Commons. We had practiced and little went right but people just turned up on the day and they were good. I asked one if he had ever rowed before and he replied “Yes, only the Atlantic!”
The boat fairly singed through the rough water. Again as in sailing there is something spiritual about an eight moving in unison, then one of us caught a crab and with shouts we came to a juddering halt.
We imagine Saint Benedict, the Patron Saint of Europe and the founder of the hugely influential Benedictine Order as a great man in his time, but the truth is that he didn’t found anything. Born in about 480 he simply set off into the countryside to pray alone, was joined by a very few companions and jotted down on the equivalent of a piece of paper a few ideas as to how they might live. This is the rule of Saint Benedict.
We needn’t worry about what the people with big jobs are doing. Most jobs are unimportant. It’s ideas that count. The very first word of the Rule is: Listen.
This is the Sunday that we acknowledge the travails of seafarers. Appropriately, I was sailing this weekend, but I am hardly the last of the great mariners, I’m so timid that in a strong breeze I didn’t get out of Portsmouth Harbour and only with my mainsail up! But I was on my own, and handling even a small ancient little boat like mine alone in a breeze is hard work
Alone, with the water creaming down the side of the boat, there is something spiritual about sailing. If all goes well, for a few moments one is at one with nature and then you have to go about, ropes have to be pulled, the deck tilts alarmingly and the moment is lost but he important thing is that you are in the moment, in The Power of Now.
I met someone who is doing a physics PhD next year. I was asking him about quantum mechanics which fascinates me; in particular the notion that by observation we change reality. I feel this shows that ‘reality’ is not as real as it seems and may be governed by non-reality. We were talking about the milliseconds after the Big Bang being investigated by CERN in Switzerland. Apparently the latest theory is that external force got things going. “Who was it?” I asked. “Could it be God?”
I love the touching scene in today’s reading when Israel at last is reunited with his son.
Israel said to Joseph, ‘Now I can die, now that I have seen you again, and seen you alive.
It was my son’s last day at his school. And we had Benediction in the Little Oratory. The service in Latin is so short, so beautiful, that it is intensely emotional. I left the school forty-eight years ago and now my son has left. I will go back. There will be other boys in their light blue jackets, but no son. Time passes. That is the only inevitability and if we cannot rejoice in it we can accept it, with, with not, a little tear two.
After Mass in the crypt chapel of the House of Commons, I sat alone. Above the chapel is St Stephen’s Hall, the site of the old House of Commons. As I sat alone in this ancient medieval crypt chapel I could hear the rumble of feet above me, heading about their business through the Hall. Somehow the business of the noise above me and the emptiness of the silence of the chapel summons up the two words of spirit and reality. One so much more sought after than the other.