Monthly Archives: August 2014

Twenty-First Week


I suppose this is the key question:

“Who do you say I am?”

For thirty years I have been trying to answer this and I still have no answer. It falls to a simple uneducated man, Peter, to give a firm answer.

“You are the Christ.” (Matthew 16:13-20)

But perhaps one should not be too ashamed of one’s failings. As Paul reminds us in Romans 11 today, “Who could ever know the mind of God?”

Jesus was a living reality to Peter: He was a man like him, standing, talking, eating with him. For us He is a legend, a symbol. Only the deeply religious – and I am not there yet, maybe never will be – these encounter Him in their mind as a living real person, extant as much now as then.

This then is the crucial, perhaps the only really important, question: Who do you say I am.


St Paul congratulates the people of Thessalonika on the fact that their “faith is growing so wonderfully”. I wish I could say the same, mine goes in fits and starts but it is encouraging that even the Archbishop of Canterbury admits that sometimes he doubts if God exists.


A different meeting and a difficult day but I go to Mass in the Cathedral in the evening. If things go wrong it is trite to say that they can be set right just by praying. Sometimes the prayers seem like tears falling on unforgiving and unknowing rock but at least they can be set in context. Perhaps today’s psalm is of some comfort:

“Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad.” (Ps 95)

The relief came that evening with driving up and being back in Lincolnshire.


Oh dear. The invocation from Jesus is a bit hard. Does it apply to us?

“Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones.” (Matthew 23)

I did a surgery today. How lucky we are, how ungrateful for it, compared to what some people face.


As I read back on today’s gospel, I am thinking as I write of three people I knew well who have died within a week. Jim Dobbin, a Labour MP who fought many a battle with me on the same side. Hugh Stewart, a family friend, and Alistair Steele, the maths and running master at Downside, a very positive and kind and great teacher.

“Stay awake, because you do not know the day when the Master is coming.” (Matthew 24:42)


St Paul could not have put it better today:

“The language of the Cross may be illogical, to those who are not on the way to salvation.” (Corinthians 1:17-25)

As I constantly doubt, no doubt I am not on the way to salvation, but this seems a trifle harsh.


I went to our local church and read Psalm 27, Dominus illuminatio mea – The Lord is my light and salvation.

This may be true to a point but how many times a day – once, twice, three times in twenty-four hours. Hardly very impressive, but the Latin is.

Twentieth Week


We went to the new First World War galleries in the Imperial War Museum. They were packed. Of course it is a fine effort but curiously the atmosphere fails to come through. The present in the shape of us the visitors is too obvious an intrusion into the catastrophe.

Perhaps today’s gospel is appropriate:

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already.’” (Luke 12:49-53)

I am not so interested in the debate at a distance as to whether Britain should have entered the First World War as to why the madness of this war started in the first place. To me, all war is wrong except in self-defence. That statesmen would be so casual with peoples’ lives, so intent on ultimatums and their own pride, is staggering. Didn’t they – shouldn’t we? – always want to be peacemakers.


In the Gospel, Jesus today tells us that if he wants to enter Heaven “go and sell what you own and give money to the poor.” (Matthew 19:16-22)

I thought the priest put it well at Mass. It is unlikely that “there is not a single person in this cathedral who doesn’t own more than millions of the world’s poor.”

So it’s not possession of property or money that is the problem, but worrying about it.


Well the answer to the question comes today. “For men” [to give up everything] “this is impossible, for God everything is possible.” (Matthew 19:23-30)


I was in a rush when I put the boat away and locked my keys inside the cabin. I had no others. Why do we fret so about such little incidents?

We forget today’s psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I should want.” (Ps 22)


Publication day of GCSE results. From now for another ten days, households are in tumult about where sons or daughters should go to school. But again everything is resolved in the end to the good.

“The wedding is ready, but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” (Matthew 22:1-14)


Sometimes things appear not to be going well in our life, we descend into a spiral of anger and resentment but really what is the point? One cannot – should not – seek to control the fate of others and within twenty or thirty or forty years we shall be dead anyway. All this so obvious a cliché really but we never learn – we are hard wired to worry, control, and resentment.

In this respect the gospel is wonderfully soothing. It is a rushing stream to dip our heads in but within a day we are thirsty again and in need of its waters.

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:34)


Debates continue, back and forth, positions are taken, trenches dug, and held to the last man or the last thought if they are in our mind. To what end?

Would it not be easier to allow the evening to sweep over us or should we like the Old Contemptibles, fight to the last man as they did one hundred years ago to the day?

“You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say, but do not be guided by what they do.” (Matthew 23:1-12)

Nineteenth Week & the Assumption


I can’t say I warmed immediately to Medjugorje. Of course it is crowded with endless tasteless Marian souvenir shops full of tasteless tack but you accept that. It is an amusing part of Lourdes, too. In no way is it a beautiful town or, like Lourdes, in a splendid location by the rushing river Gave in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The housing is East European apartment blocks. The parish church is dignified as is the domain around it. We went to a pleasant English mass in a simple hall.

Afterwards, after being stuck in a hot, noisy café, I climbed the Apparition Hill. The rocks are very sharp and it is steep, tiring, and hot. It is probably a mistake to go to these places alone. We were told that on Sundays the locals collected on the hill at 4pm, but I wasn’t aware of any particular group. I faithfully said the Rosary as I climbed the hill. I didn’t feel much. And yet…

In the emotion of my dog dying I felt a profound sympathy for all living things, human or animal. It was a good place to be. Bob, our friend, said although he was not religious, there is something about the place, an atmosphere, and he is right.


We made our way to Split. I much preferred the town to Dubrovnik. In Diocletian’s Palace there is a real sense of layered history. His tomb is now the Cathedral.

There is a sense of irony that should beset us all. Here the great persecutor of Christians, his body vanished in the foundations of a cathedral. So are our works crushed by the vastness of history. We die and the world is happy to go on without us in its own direction.

Meanwhile it’s a great place to sit in a café and have a drink in.


We were making our way home: now we were in Venice. I suppose the religious art in the Accademia should be inspiring. True, one can admire it, but does one feel moved? Religious art that hangs in museums is taken away from its natural berth. It is an academic exercise. They said rightly that Titian’s Assumption had to be moved back to where it should be, in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. There it is home in all its glory.

In Venice, I like to escape the suffocating crowds around the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco and wander along the long straight canals in the north. Here I found a quiet church and an evening mass for three people and myself, where I saw this sign up which made a real impression on me: UOMO DI POCA FEDE, PERCHE HAI DUBITATO.

But don’t get me wrong, even art in a museum is inspiring. Look at Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna degli Alberetti: the quietness of the Virgin as she reads is deeply moving. She is waiting…


Near the offices and church of the Order of Malta is a quiet chapel seldom visited where you can see a picture of St George and the dragon. I made the mistake of attempting the long, hot, crowded walk via the Rialto and the Frari church. Feeling ill, I felt I was more like a scene out of Death in Venice than anything else.


We were nearer home, in the Alps near Geneva. In a small chapel out walking I found a young priest saying Mass. It must have been a walking pilgrimage. How wonderful to be here in this simplicity with a young priest and young families in the middle of nowhere… and to greet the great sweep of Mont Blanc outside.


This is always a lovely day, right in the middle of August, a holiday all over Europe. The church in Combloux was packed. I have never seen anything like it. Every square foot of standing room taken in the small village church. The famous simple message simply uttered.


We were back in London after our holiday so I went to the 10:30 mass in the Cathedral. There is no singing at the Saturday Latin Mass in August. There is just a quiet low mass in English. The great doors to the street are open, the hot, dusty Victoria Street a distant echo, a few quiet tourists.

The reading is from the prophet Ezekiel:

“The fathers have eaten unripe grapes. And the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:1-10)

What does this mean? I think it is about this a later time: “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”

Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time


I am sitting on a balcony at Viganj looking at the cypresses shading the restless Dalmatian Sea. One hundred yards to the right there is a medieval church. The bells ring out and I go to mass in Serbo-Croat.

The words I do not understand at all, no matter, the pattern, the form and the essence are the same. I can read the words of the Gospel on Universalis in English and during the long sermon they sink in. It is the feeding of the five-thousand.

The words, many words, float by lost in non-translation. The mind wonders and is still.


We ride across the sun-setting bay to Korčula: this is a medieval walled city and one passes under the winged lion of Venice to enter. Here are stone streets with arched windows reminiscent of the mother city. It is nearly dusk and I come in to the end of Mass, a few old ladies dotted in the aisles, just as the host is raised. Then I climb the belfry and see the sun fall into the sea, the bells of eight o’clock thundering in my ear.


“This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phase or even a sentiment, it is the whole point that this was the very look of reality.”

Is a sunset just a beautiful view, or the sun of science, of a rotating earth and the physical laws of the universe or is it an expression, in garish terms, of a sublime dependence on the immediacy of a God given creation.


It is eight o’clock, again the bells are peeling out the hour. I am tired. After a thirty year break I have tried wind surfing. The young fly across the water like angels, turning, swooping in and flying out again. The old like me falter, glide a few feet and fall.


We went in Bob’s little boat up the sound from Korčula, its medieval walls fading. The light was brilliant, blending on hill and water. We were grateful when passing hills soothed the eye from the sun’s bright rays. In a quiet village round a bay an old man opened the locked village church for us.

The sun shone in a fierce narrow beam down the length of the dusty aisle.

“There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.” (Matthew 17:1-9)


We went to the island Melijd where two lakes shone a brilliant blue. In the middle of the larger was a monastery. Monasteries which now are closed and half-ruined the haunt of hot tourists are sad things but in the beauty of the spot an echo remains of the divine. I sat in a quiet corner and tried to sleep, every few moments a new group of people chatter, stare, and walk out. There are terraces and Roman ruins to climb, a café to drink in, the lake to swim in. It is not so bad but the heat is crushing, extinguishing all thought.


The reading today is from the minor prophet Nahum, he writes in a vivid style about the fall of empire:

“Woe to the city cloaked in blood, full of lies, stuffed with bounty, whose plunderings know no end … Nineveh is a ruin. Could anyone pity her? Where can I find anyone to comfort her?” (Nahum 2:1 3; 3:1, 6-7)

Nineveh is Mosul where now the Christian Assyrians are being held and being martyred.

I went years ago to his tomb at Alqosh in northern Iraq. It is sadly dilapidated. It is a strange echo from the past, standing in a place like that is an experience you cannot forget. In a narrow side street in Korčula is the museum of icons where few people visit attached to small gem of a church. The icons stare out in silent witness.


We learnt today that our beloved dog William who gave only love and loyalty had to be put down. I was anguished that I could not be with him at the end in Market Rasen. The visit to a broiling Dubrovnik besieged by tourists seemed as barren as dust with the news, but we were on our way now to Medjugorje, turned back at the rather grim Bosnian border because we had no green card. We persevered the next day.

Seventeenth Week


We have made our way to Finisterre, the end of the known world ’til 1493.

At sunset at 10pm we watched the sun sink into the sea.

Finis Terra. Deo gratias.


I am reading G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Life of St. Francis’. He is, I know, a much-acclaimed author. I find him rather dated. He seems somewhat pretentious, pompous and self-regarding but I agree with him in this: there is no point in just writing a biography of a medieval saint. The stories of St. Francis are so well known. Just repeating them again seems to have little point. They are more interesting as an allegory.


This is the eight-hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. Francis. He is supposed to have walked the Camino of Santiago. I thought of him as I trudged those weary miles.

We went to the Franciscan church in Compostela to try and get some sort of certificate of our walk. We got to catch the start of a wedding instead.


We got to the mountains at Combloux by 8:00 and in the twilight I decided to walk. I passed by the Augustinian house and walked into the chapel. The nuns, five of them, trooped in. I think they were a bit surprised to see me and they sang compline. Strange to be sitting in that modern room looking through the plate glass windows towards Mont Blanc listening to the familiar words sung in French, but a moment of stillness too and peace after an eleven hour drive.


The nuns had told me mass was in the village church at 9. I walked there, Mont Blanc shrouded in the mist. It is difficult to follow every word in French but the essence is there, something about gathering the flock.

After I tramped up the mountain, then on a chair lift to the very top and walked back through the silent pine trees. It is very quiet here. I thought of the last time I was here, the snow falling off the bough and them lifting from the released weight.


We drove across the flat hot north Italian plain for twelve hours ending up near Rijeka on the northern Adriatic coast.

I was dipping into G. K. Chesterton when driving as a passenger. For all his self-regard, his prayers are always littered with insights like this one – “Rossetti makes the remark somewhere, bitterly but with great truth, that the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”

Is this fair? Cannot the atheist thank luck or fate or circumstance, but it is good to thank God. Does it do any harm?


They have just built a new motorway in Croatia and one avoids the coast road, hurtling south through an extraordinarily empty landscape. It is more American than European. And there are great areas of unclaimed land, of slums.

Chesterton says that “the transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution by which one for whom all things illustrate and illuminate God illustrates and illuminates all thought”.

It is rather like the reversal whereby a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower and say afterward that all flowers reminded him of this lady. So is all nature, beautiful in its grandeur diffused with God in God or as all nature a pointer to the work of God.