I went to a service in Nairobi. I could not find a Catholic Mass. It was upstairs, an unlikely ‘church’ with a corrugated tin roof and open sides. 6,000 feet up the sky was cloudless, the air coming through the open sides cool. I was the only white person there.
The sermon was in Swahili and English. I wasn’t sure I understood the English any more than the Swahili. At the end of the long sermon I left but, in the road, heard them singing. I returned. The chant was endless, repeating, rhythmic. I went with flow. I was wondering whether to put my last 1,000 Kenyan shillings note in the box. I left, then returned to do so. As I walked down the stairs, they were singing ‘Jesus is the Truth’ or something like it. That service was more memorable and did more for me than two dozen traditional liturgies in England.
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I was steering a small dhow made entirely of bits of wood attached to a hollowed-out tree trunk, the sail with many holes. A young man was balancing gracefully on the outrigger. For some reason religion came up. This young Mombasa fisherman seemed very well informed. He said ‘The human race is the tree, religions the branches, and we are the leaves.’ I suppose it is a cliché, I don’t know. I have not heard the phrase before. It seemed remarkably apposite and full of wisdom to me. We are all a unity. The human race is one great tree and all religions stream from us and flow back to the same roots.
Photo by Stephanie Kalber (copyright)
A pilgrimage even to Walsingham always takes off slowly in the mind. I was wondering whether to go to confession and didn’t really have the energy. Sitting in the rebuilt church of St Mary’s, an acceptance slowly came to me. I went and talked about my inability to accept things as they are and my place in it. The priest was kind. He said something which made a deep impression on me. “Man is measured not by what he can be but by what he is.”
In other words we should accept that. Yesterday indeed is history tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. But we have to ask ourselves what do we really want. I was thinking of this that night in the pilgrims’ hostel.
I don’t really want to “do God’s will”. I find that trite, but I do want to find God. The emphasis being on the word “find”. I don’t yet with all my belief believe in a transcendent God and therefore the most important thing to do is to find him. It might happen tomorrow or it may happen as I lie dying but that is the most important thing. And then we can concentrate on what is the most important “ambition”. All the other disappointments fall into place. They are merely busy byways along the main road.
We think we come to a place like Walsingham by accident but such perceptions and insights are vouchsafed to us in a place like this that perhaps Our Lady did really appear to Lady Richeldis in 1081. Certainly Richeldis believed so; and in a very real sense we feel her here.
As we lighted our candles and processed home down the quiet high street and said our night prayers in the garden, a deep happiness and peace descended on all of us. I went to bed and the others went to the pub!
My son was working in the British Museum and showed me round the back areas. In one of the rooms, under an old polythene sheet one of the curators showed me an ancient bronze door. He thinks it might have come from the Temple in Jerusalem and been looted by the Babylonians. It still has the axe mark where it was cut in half. It was strangely moving to look at this. What had it seen?
We went to the Cathedral in Sion in the Valois of Switzerland. The church is up a hill with a small opening into the choir. It has an ancient simple Romanesque air. We were visiting an old lady in a nursing home. She is very old, inside the room it was silent, outside children could be heard playing. The end and the beginning of life, connected by a slender thread. We were travelling through Dijon. In the cathedral there is an ancient medieval statue of Our Lady of Dijon. She is credited with saving the main town from destruction as the Germans withdrew in 1944. She seems worth praying to and I have tried it. It seems to work.
A friend in London was asked me during the day as a device for useful meditation to think on the presence of God. It seems to work.
I sat on a tree trunk in high fell country and tried to settle my mind. Every time I got angry or felt resentment or jealousy. I would say ten Hail Marys. That would be a lot of Hail Marys but the fear of it seems to work a bit.