Monthly Archives: August 2015

Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time


A twelve-hour drive to Carcassonne through rain and traffic jams. No stopping even for mass with six in the car and a ton of baggage.


The basilica at Carcassonne is seething with people, such is the weight of tourists here. Lincoln Cathedral is ten times bigger and more magnificent but there are only a couple of dozen people wandering around at any one time.


The cathedral at Mirepoix is extraordinary. It is one of the widest naves in Europe – so wide that the church appears almost square, like a modern church but it is medieval.


We are staying in the Vieux Presbytere at Orsans near Franjeux. The church is tightly locked and only opened for a service about four times a year, but I get the key and sit alone in its nineteenth century splendour for a time. The blue and gold ceiling is magnificent.

There was a priest living at the old presbytery til the 1940s. His bedroom was next to ours behind the wall next to the altar. What sort of quiet life would he have had in this tiny hilltop village? What would he have done all day? Would he have been an heroic type like the Cure d’Ars? Or a lazy man? Possibly a mixture of the two, I suspect. But he and his world are gone. Now there is a swimming pool where holidaymakers from all over Europe come to enjoy themselves.


We drive one and a half hours to the foothills of the Pyranees to visit a Cathar castle, Perepetuis. First we walk up the steep mountain for an hour and a half. I have never been so hot. I am streaming with sweat. Arriving at the top we are comforted by a man demanding a ticket. We have invaded the Castle by the back way. After words, we drive through the forbidding Gorge de Gambus.


I cycle for four hours along the side of the Canal du Midi. It is a lovely experience. The wheels running beneath one easily. The great 300-year-old trees shading one for most of the time. The sun dripping off the waters of the canal. Only an occasional boat passing through a lock gate. Progress is gentle and smooth. After dinner in the square at Merepois with the whole family.


We drive to Montsegur. Here the Cathars held out for months in 1244 against the Albigensian Crusade. It is a tough climb for Mary and once again we arrive at the top but it is already late and the castle is empty. After the others have left I sit in the ruined old chapel, its roof gone and walk to the edge of the ramparts looking out across the great valley. A church bell sounds in the distance. I feel a great sense of peace and remembrance in this silence of the Cathars, of the desire by their ‘Perfecti’ of a pure life, their feeling that the world around them was irredeemably corrupt and rotten. This is a much more peaceful place than Perpetois with all its clambering tourists.

After we go to the Lac de Montebel. A vast full moon, a super moon, rises up over the lake, sparkling from the orange and reds of the sunset. And after we have a barbecue outside.

Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time


I always love being by the seaside, even the Italian, with its rather ridiculous beach clubs – only a tiny public beach and the rest covered in rows of blue deck chairs and beds and shade from a glaring sun.

But the sea is warm and I miss it as we drive during the late afternoon to Lucca. I cannot see the attraction of sitting by a noisy swimming pool, so I cycle into Lucca and amazingly find the evening mass at St Paulinus. It is all in Italian but luckily there is a mass sheet so I can follow bits.

After supper in the piazza, a magical ride with Mary through the empty dark streets of Lucca, gliding past these ancient buildings.


I visit the cathedral of Lucca: all wandering tourists but kneel in front of the black cross, the source of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, the best part of the visit to the cathedral, which is too museum-like, even if the Tintoretto Last Supper is incomparable.

Then an amiable drive through the increasingly hilly Tuscan countryside to Pignano.


We went for a drive to the Santo Antino monastery, then on to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Oliveto, twenty-six kilometres south west of Siena.

St Antino is still a working monastery, with a small group of French monks serving it. Set in a valley of vineyards the abbey church has an austere Cistercian grandeur.

We drove on to Monte Oliveto, a very different place. A vast set of buildings set in a countryside of stone called Le Crete. The abbey church there is a baroque disappointment but the Chiostra Grande is a wonder. It is entirely surrounded by frescoes detailing the life of St Benedict undertaken by Il Sodoma and Luca Signorelli at the end of the sixteenth century. I am reading Benedict’s life at present but it is much more inspiring to view it by fresco as generations of new monks have done.

Here are all the scenes of this beloved story: the rich young nobleman at school in Rome towards the end of the fifth century; he sets off for his hermitage at Subiaco; the Devil tempts him; he performs miracles such as the mending of the sieve; he helps people with their problems (someone who is over-ambitious for office, the poor sinner in debt); and here is described his death.

How much more lovely to read a man’s life in pictures than in text.

“Come Benedetto fa tornare nel manico uno roncare che era caduto nel fondo del cago.”


I do a long drive to Assisi. It is hot and busy on the Italian race tracks and people are irritated. But I spend a quiet two and a half hours in the Basilica. At first I am just a tourist, listening to the audio guide about the Giotto frescoes but then the atmosphere seeps into the soul. You go down steps through the cloister and into the lower basilica and finally into the crypt chapel and the tomb of St Francis. The crowds are large, a continuous stream of people, yet prayerful and respectful; many people just sitting quietly in the pews.

I sit next to a Franciscan monk who blesses me. Sitting again quietly in the upper basilica, the frescoes have a new force. It is healing and peaceful to see St Francis giving away his very clothes and lending his cloak to the poor knight. It is so much better to pray a fresco than just see it as another art object, a fairly primitive one at that


We walked for three hours to San Giminignano. It is of course the number one tourist trap in Italy so it is nice to spend three hours walking there through a national park, looking at the sunset. Of course the church was closed but if you walk up the ramp and look through the metal grille you can see a nice fresco of the Annunciation.


What can one say about the Uffizi, the scale of the collection of Italian art dwarfs anything in the Louvre or the National Gallery. The beauty of the Filippo Lippi Virgin and Child is stunning or in the Annunciation in the first room – Mary reels back in shock and anguish – and of course Leonardo’s Annunciation which once I attempted to paint as a copy. But when it comes to religious art, keeping them in rooms in galleries is rather sad. It is the message that is important.

Eighteenth Week & the Assumption


We drove to Tasch, below Zermatt, to start our walk; a long car journey of fifteen hours. We pick up Nicky and Theo, exhausted after doing the west way through the Black Forest. After a slow start, we walked from Zermatt to St Niclaus. All downhill, but still a six-hour walk and we arrived very tired at 9 pm. Dark, with the lights of the village twinkling below us and an immediate offer of a spaghetti carbonara to the exhausted travellers.


Nicky and Tamara walked the 900 metres up to Jungen. I took the cable lift. There is a small chapel up here and I prayed on my iPhone alone in the small alpine chapel, the door open behind me. Coming out there is an incomparable view like no other of the Mattertal valley below a deep cleft. At our level of sight, the huge mass of the Dom, the highest mountain entirely in Switzerland at 4,545 metres.

The others arrived breathless from the valley as I sat alone in the garden of the small restaurant and we made the long exhausting ascent to Augsbordpass at 28,94 metres through a stony valley with no water but still ploughing through a patch of hardened old snow.

And then a long descent to Guben, through quiet pastures and then steep climbs, drinking thirstily from mountain streams.

We arrive at Gruben (1,822m) again exhausted and wondering how we can do another twelve-hour walk the following day.


We decided to do a detour to the Hotel Weisshorn. Another fine day as we climb up and over the Meidpass (2,790m). This is a less tiring day. I am slow but so too is Tamara. And arriving at the hotel at 6:30 is a relief. I flop down with a cup of tea. I look for Mont Blanc in the distance but it is in a haze. We can see the Weisshorn mountain. The pass is the linguistic frontier of Switzerland: German to the east, French to the west.

Everyone has been very polite but from now on I feel happier, able to talk to the locals. In this wilderness you can hear nothing of the busy world and sitting on top of the lovely pass I can talk quietly to Tamara.


The Hotel Weisshorn built in 1882 is full of character: bowls for washing outside every room, creaking wooden floors, and small wooden rooms with windows opening out over a precipice. But the Hotel Schwarzhorn also is a world apart: the road leads nowhere. You feel this is a hotel out of the late nineteenth century.


A lovely walk before a very steep knee-crunching descent. I found a lovely stick coming down through the forest at Zermatt.

At Zermatt after supper I go to look at the church. To my amazement it is open. All dark inside, its doors wide open to the village street. It proclaims a wonderful truth, the openness of God. Why can’t the doors of all churches be left permanently open? I sit peacefully in the gloom for a moment, the interior lit gently by the lights of the village outside.


We cheat a little by taking the chair lift half way up the Sorebois at 2,847 metres. There were great thunderstorms in the night and as we descend from the pass light clouds and then heavy mist obscure the bright blue Lac de Moiry. An exhausting climb, utterly dreadful evening at the Cabane de Moiry (2,825m), an austere modern place above the glacier.

It has taken us the best part of a week to do what Theodore did in two days, running. My walk is very slow but at age 65 I have an excuse climbing up to my overnight stay over boulders at nearly 8,000 feet altitude.

This is a bleak Mordor type landscape – a vast expanse of void of glacier. Something out of the Ice Age.

As I write this I am in a very different landscape in the shade looking at a Tuscan lake, cypress trees and warm yellow stove, and red houses – a bit like Pitt Cottages, although a little warmer.

SATURDAY – Feast of the Assumption

I sleep badly, worried about waking up early as I always do. I feel ill at 6:30 in the morning and worried about the steep walk down over those slippery rocks. But it is fine.

We set off at 7.20 and get to the car park in good time at the bottom of the glacier for the bus at 9.16. As the bus glides down so easily to Grimnetz I remember it is the Assumption.

Luckily and beautifully we arrive in time for Mass. The priest is drummed and piped in and lovely to have Mary arrive half way through the Mass. At the elevation of the Host, the drums and pipes start again – amazing. The priest is retiring. He has a strong local accent and I only catch bits. He goes on a pilgrimage up a mountain and is taking an eraser with him to wipe away the past and the future. It is cold but we feel pleasantly tired and fulfilled after our six-day walk.

A long drive then up through the mist over the St Bernard Pass or rather through the tunnel and then down into a very different world on the Italian coast at Sestri Levante.

Seventeenth Week & St Ignatius


A quiet Sunday in Lincolnshire. The first reading is very confusing especially as I did not have a text to follow.

“A man from Baal-shalishah bringing Elisha the man of God bread from the first fruits…”

But of course it’s all a foretaste of the feeding of the five thousand.


Every day this week I have run to our local church to read a psalm – just one – and meditate on it. And every day my knowledge of the life of St Benedict has come on.

Psalm 47: Omnes Gentes Plaudite: Clap your hands together, all ye people


Psalm 48: Magnus Dominus: Great is the Lord and highly to be praised


Psalm 49: Audite hoc omnes: O hear this all ye people

Later on I reflected particularly on the lines “For he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth, neither shall his power follow him.” Wonderful words. We would never say that of someone nowadays. “and neither shall his pomp follow him” but we are all a bit pompous, full of pomp, at the centre of our little universe, with all the people and planets revolving around us.


Psalm 50: Deus Deorum: The Mighty God, even the Lord, has spoken

FRIDAY – Feast of St Ignatius

I tried to go to Mass at Market Rasen today because it is the feast of St Ignatius – my favourite – but it was in Caistor so I bought some walking shoes and walked six miles to Tealby and back. At the church there, sitting alone, in these magnificent surroundings, I read.

Psalm 51: Miserere Mei Deus: Have mercy on me, O God, after thy great goodness according to the multitude of thy mercies, do away mine offences.

Again the language is amazing – “according to the multitude of thy mercies…”


So the holiday continues, a time to forget politics. A difficult feat given what’s happening at Calais. What a mad craze. A Christian should surely give the migrants a house and we would if it was just 5,000 – but let in 5,000 and 10,000 will come tomorrow or 20,000 in the next month.

Psalm 52: Quid gloriosus? Why boastest thou myself, thou tyrant that thou must do mischief?