I went down to the Abbey to celebrate the Abbot’s 25th anniversary of his priesthood. A restrained and thoughtful service, only the gentle chants, no glorification.
I found out that the Abbot is just one day younger than me: born on 21 July 1950. I said to him I might not be able to make his 50th anniversary. He said he hoped we might if we were the same age. But death does not worry him. It is only a culmination of his life.
I went to see my boat. It is in a bad way. Up in dry land, the mast down, the paint badly eroded by age. This little boat is the best part of forty years old.
But Naomi will rise again. It will be rigged and re-painted. I cannot let this little ship die. Boats unlike cars are remarkably capable of resurrection. That is their charm.
The day of the big vote on Iraq – sorry, Freudian slip: Syria. I spoke eventually, put my view across. I wanted to vote against, but the PM appealed to me personally, said it would weaken the government, so I relented and abstained.
I am proud to have voted against the Iraq War. I would and said I would have voted against any real war this time. The important thing is that enough of us stood firm. It won’t happen. Peace has been given a chance, but at what price?
I was back in the silent local medieval church, looking at Psalm 5: “Ponder my words, O Lord. Consider my meditation.”
This is what we hope for. That we are listened to. We want it. We half believe it.
And now into this rural silence are beginning to break the sounds of the hounds of war in far away Syria. Hatred and violence are edging outward.
A quiet day in the country. It is so very quiet here and in the warmth if you sit outside all day you can start to listen to the silence, the gentle sound of the breeze, birds, even insects and watch a bee bumbling for a minute at a hive.
By the evening, sunlight was streaming through atree where thousands of midges danced. I tried to watch the flight of one: impossible for more than a few seconds. They were endlessly moving but never going anywhere, like us.
In the morning I went to the church and looked up Psalm 4: “Hear when I call O God of my righteousness.” What does it mean? Is the psalm talking of one’s own righteousness or others? Is God listening?
To Him are we just a cloud of midges dancing in the evening sun?
Sunday was the last day in our parish of a visiting priest, Father Francis. If anyone doubts the value of a holy life, a celibate life, devoted to God, look at a man like this. He told us it was 58 years to the day since he had left home to become a friar. He is 75.
So many people at 75 live fundamentally selfish lives. Here is a 75-year-old travelling the country giving weekday masses to 5 or 6 people. His sermons were brilliant.
This Sunday he preached to the value of entering by the narrow gate. Fundamentally the message is always the same and nothing new. What pleasure can be got and given just looking after five people. For more than those given by people with great positions.
Why are we full of resentment at our lot? However happy, we always want more. I would have loved to have had a chance to do more in government. It has not happened.
I mentioned this to a priest: he gave me good advice. The Holy Spirit, least regarded of the Trinity, is the fire, the pilot light of perseverance that keeps going. Keep plodding on, said the priest. Ask the Holy Spirit for help.
Start every day with this prayer: “Come Holy Spirit, be my best friend. Fill my heart and enkindle it with the fire of your love.”
And at the end of the day say: “Holy Spirit, how did we get on?”
I was dreaming. I was in a London bus: my father called to me from the valley. He was there, clear as daylight in every detail. I was busy, a job to do, I stayed in the bus. The bus was empty. So too was the flat I let myself into.
Why is it in dreams that we live in what is correct, not in the present? In my dream my father was alive. I could see him anytime. But of course in reality I have not seen him for twenty years. He has been dead for twenty years.
If I had been aware of this in my dream I would have rushed over, eager for his news. But in dreams or my dreams we are only allowed to speak to live people. Perhaps it is because our inner consciousness has no experience of death, so imagination cannot pass over.
The reading today is about Naomi who goes to live in Moab. My little boat is named Naomi. I did not give her this name. I always wonder why she got the name. Anyway, Naomi returns and so has my little craft so far every time.
The tale of Jephthah (Judges 11:29-39) is tragic. He makes a vow to sacrifice the first person to emerge from his tent if he defeats the Ammonites and it turns out to be his daughter, his only child.
Is he to be commended for holding true to his vow? Yes, but he was prepared to be unthinkingly ruthless with someone else’s child.
This is the way of those with power I find, and their decisions seldom rebound on them. Asquith losing his son Raymond in the First World War is a rare exception.
The reading today from the Book of Judges 9:6-15 is most interesting and pertinent. Ambimelek it seems a rather nasty man has killed loads of people including his brothers to become King of Israel. The dream of his brother Joatham brings him down to earth.
The trees debate amongst themselves who should be king. The olive tree, the fig tree and the vine all decline the offer. Why should they want to be the tallest in the forest when they can produce the delights of oil, wine, and fruit? Only the useless thorn tree takes up the offer.
What does this tell us? We strive for position, for kingship in many forms, but we ignore what we already have and give and what by position we could lose. Let the thorns be happy in their positions.
Gideon starts weak as a second generation Israelite who never knew Moses yet only becomes strong with God’s help.
The Gospel today about the rich man having no more chance of reaching Heaven as a camel threading a needle is not so much an attack on wealth but on dependence.
Those who are rich or powerful rely too much on themselves. True happiness can only come with a sense of dependence on the ultimate, wherever that may be.
What does the refusal of the young man to give up his wealth say to us? Here he was being offered a position as the thirteenth disciple. He had obeyed all the commands of the law. Yet he walked away, sadly.
I realise that because too I am not prepared to give up everything I too walk away sadly. Yet is it not the will, the lack of interest in ambition or home enough? To wear the essentials of some small property lightly disregarded but necessary like washing teeth.
We all walk away, sadly because there is one thing we will not give up. Is it, for me, still ambition?
But all this is idle speculation. Look upon the clouds swirling around the full moon. That is the reality of the instant.
The Gospel is particularly demanding today and our sermon drummed it home. Christianity is not easy. The choices can lead to strife in the home. But do entirely free choices lead to any less strife?
Before I went to bed I looked at the full moon in the clear Lincolnshire sky, the craters on the northern rim close enough to be touched. The Lord of the Rings had just finished on the television, the music as the credits rolled inspiring. The garden and the valley entirely, magically clear in the full moonlight. Magical.
I went for a walk up the hill, beyond the lake. It was deep twilight, almost dark, a tinge of a lighter sky in the far west. Here in the Lincolnshire wolds, all was quiet. There were sheep high upon the hill and I sat down on the cool grass beside them.
In the far distance upon the horizon, a bright light remained. Something quite prosaic no doubt, a barn door open, even a harsh security light, but here in this comfortable gloom it held a hint of hope.
Thus in an empty country, long ago, a vague questioning wind the only sound, most shepherds have sat long ago and seen a light and wondered what did it portend and, curiosity aroused, they walked towards it.
I for my part walked slowly back into the dark valley to the yellow light of my cottage.
We had to drive back to London for A-level results. So it was a long haul, ploughing up the motorway for twelve hours at 110 kmh, hardly stopping.
I looked longingly at the distant churches flashing by in the French countryside. Perhaps there was a nice mass going on there, but maybe not.
We ploughed on.
In today’s reading, Moses looks down on the Promised Land from Mount Nebo. In the past, I imagine him standing on a little hill looking over a green and pleasant land, beyond a good sized river.
Yet when one stands on Mount Nebo, the view in reality is intensely forbidding. There is no green: just a vast view of burning desert. One looks down from a great height over the Dead Sea and the Jordan is only a distant trickle. The mountains, white, yellow, bakingly hot and dry, rise out of the heat, haze before you.
But the vision of Moses is all the more profound for this. His imagination must have stared beyond what befell his eyes in to the future when his people would make a garden beyond this desert.
I went to mass in the local Augustinian hostel. A delightful small mass, very simple and, in its way, spiritual. The chapel is a modern one; the clear windows looking out over the Mont Blanc range.
This week is the feast day of St Jean Frances de Chantal (1572-1641), a mother of six children. When her husband died, she became a disciple of St Francis de Sales and founded the Order of the Visitation.
Strange to be sitting here in places where she must have walked and ridden, looking at the same countryside that she and Francis looked upon.
In today’s Gospel, we are told “Unless you change and become little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18). But what does that mean? A charming thought at first. It’s true that little children are spontaneous but they can also be, well, shall we say very difficult and self-absorbed too. But it is an honest self-absorption, a living in the present, an absence of regret for the past or ambition for the future.
I was lying awake as usual and, as usual, looking through the window at great skies and mountains. How absurd the notion of an Abrahamic God was. But then, why these signs all about us? Why the feeling of peace in the chapel this morning? The feeling we are not alone?
I thought of the dead being present. Immediately the unpleasant cold shiver came. But then I lay still and asked the dead to gently touch my palm, my right one. Immediately I felt a feeling of warmth in it. Then I asked them to touch the left and I felt a feeling of warmth there.
I feel asleep. I dreamt that I saw the Virgin Mary, a very rare sighting in my dreams. Then, unprecedented, she said something. But what? I woke up. I couldn’t remember except that it was something very ordinary.
For one like me whose faith is as great as a pathetic little pea, this is all I am granted.
But when people guided by a kind of insular reason claim the futility of faith, they should for a moment, in the still of the night, open their hearts.
We decided to miss Mass in packed Volterra: the underground car park, the noise, the clicking mobiles. Instead we set off on the road to a small, ordinary non-tourist local Italian town. For all that, a gem set upon a hill. I love the way that on Sunday morning the men sit in the cafes.
The first church was chiuso. So that was that. But then one persevered, rounded a corner and found Mass, at the Gospel. Try as I might I could not understand it. For the (long) sermon, a cafe beckoned outside. And then back for the Eucharistic Prayer. A confused way of attending Mass.
Why in England cannot life on Sunday proceed in a cultured way? No chain stores, a few cafes, people nipping in and out of Mass. What was the Gospel reading? No matter. I caught just enough. Have no fear.
I awoke before six to see the dawn and the sun breaking cover over the lake. I then went to help work the fields.
Our job was the Sisyphean one of looking for rocks in the field and mounting them in little piles for collection later.
The fields are covered with rocks. By eight, the sun is burning. There were four of us: my two sons, myself, and the farm manager. At first there was something soothing in the simple labour. Later it just got exhausting, but an experience to be savoured. Next year the rocks will rise up again and all our labour will be for nothing. And the year after that for aeons of time the rocks will keep rising.
Perhaps one day they will invent a little robot to walk the fields, picking up the rocks. And then something will be lost.
San Gimignano is a glorious little town. And in revenge, it is besieged by tourists, by the likes of me, the strangely anonymous.
Towers rise up in motley profusion, a tribute to vanity. What purpose do they serve? We were there are night. We touched another car while parking. A voluble argument ensued. Our Italian protagonist pointed exultantly to a blue mark on the front of our car. But his own car was green. “Voi machine e verde” had no response. We gave him our name and address and left him talking on his mobile phone. (To whom, I wonder).
Naturally the Duomo is closed at night, but on the side, by the ugly apparatus for collecting tickets, you can peer through the grill at the Annunciation. One presses one’s face against the metal and looks upon this peaceful joyous scene. No one else in the piazza seemed interested.
The angel holds her palm up to Mary, as if warning her of her awe-ful fate. What is the angel pointing to warn of? We know of course, yet we wonder. The angel is confident, serene, almost imperious, bearing the message of her Master. Mary sits demurely in her comfortable Italian home. She looks downwards, pondering. What will her answer be…
The scene through the distant grill is so enticing that I could barely tear myself away. The grill is the world that separates our understanding. I went off down the ramp to buy my ice cream.
I was in the Pitti Palace. Great swarms of us flowing through the great rooms, gorged on renaissance Holy Families, saints, and Madonnas. Huge groups barked at in Russian, world famous masterpieces stacked one above another. The senses dulled, I took refuge upstairs, here in the rooms devoted to nineteenth century Florentine art. In peace, the rooms empty, a few drift bored past monumental Risorgimento battles.
And then, in one quiet corner, I stopped. Here by Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905) was his Interno di Oratorio. It is painted in exquisite detail: the light plays on the polished wood of the Oratory, the walls are white and vaulted. Delicate prints are on the walls. And kneeling before was a Carthusian or Carmelite monk. His face is hidden under his hood. He is praying.
What is he saying? We do not know – it does not matter. We can feel his concentration, the intensity of his thought. This unknown picture by a forgotten artist in an unknown corner does more for me than all the Raphaels and Titians and Tintorettos.
It speaks of a certain presence, of a determination by an ordinary unknown man to see the divine. And now, when I look at it again, I see myself, ghostlike, reflected in the glass of the picture, and I line up my camera. I am barely there, but there all the same. As we all are, if we wished it.
I was climbing up the ladder out of the water, my feet upon the rings. By some queer trick of light as I looked down, the ladders rings were reflected as if in reality in the water. If I put my foot on the real ladder, it rested there on a solid thing. But if I place my foot upon the shadowy water, it just went straight through. This must be how a dead person places his feet. Where he walks, he walks through solid things as if they were not there. A dead person walks through solid walls, seeing them, but they have no effect. Thus for this fleeting moment of time in this one small spot, I was a dead person. But the effect was not unpleasing. Christ passed through walls, but He was not ghost – unlike any other dead person before or since. His friends could touch and feel Him.
Do dead people know the fact that they pass through our world with no effect? That they see but cannot be seen? Only sometimes felt? What an unbearable gulf there is between them and us. But I do not believe that they feel pain. But only if they can gain a greater thing than any of us, they can touch the hem of Christ and feel His wounds: we cannot. So after a while they must weary of this world, our world. They cannot change and drift away happily into that other: a world of no reality to them.
Hours later, alone in a quiet dark room, closing my eyes, I thought I detected an echo of a dead person. An illusion, no doubt, swiftly passed. But are they all around us? Even in this new house? Can they lead us kindly there?
The Duomo of Volterra. The tourists wander back and forth aimlessly, reading in bad translation a description of the minor masterpieces. Then, through a half-open door of a side chapel, I see a biretta’d priest shifting through a door, his gold vestments aglow in the half-light. Half guilty, I follow him through the door. He is saying Mass. Tridentine. Half a dozen in the chapel.
This Mass, half – almost wholly – forgotten, so rare. An image into boyhood past of vague memories and long silence. The priest is French but his homily so quiet, so distant. Like all this Mass that I scarcely hear, save an injunction to prayer, and talk of Elijah and tents. Does Peter want them there to pray in peace? The Mass continues in long silence and quiet Latin, the Host is raised. Communion taken reverently, kneeling on the tongue. I, the last of the six.
I leave past the aimless picture stores and out in the glaring heat of the piazza. I dodge out and think of the long silence in that chapel. I never saw the priest leave. Was he there?
Siena. Great shafts of hot sunlight break down on the Campo. The tourist groups move like starlings. They never disperse, always looking outward, not at each other, but never wandering. How do they avoid bumping into each other?
The Duomo is chiuso, naturally. A stolen peek around the shoulder of a bossy lady on the ‘No Entry’ sign. The picture gallery is chiuso.
Finally, I take refuge in a local church. It is empty. The cooled sun streams through a stained glass window. The crucifix is lit with a rainbow of light; shifting colours illumine it up. St Dominic, clothed in white, kneeling at the Cross.