Monday, 1 August 2011

La Mano de Dios

Our Lady of Guadalupe
It is one of the most famous, most controversial, and most widely reproduced images in the world. By turns it has baffled, amazed, and captivated men and women on every continent, from scholars and scientists to farmers and factory-workers, janitors and journalists to buskers and bus-drivers. Yet still the questions remain unanswered. How could such an extraordinary thing have happened? Why has there never been anything quite like it, either before or since? And how did both the referee and the linesman fail to notice when 'Blessed' Diego Maradona used his hand to punch the ball over Peter Shilton into England's goal?

There is a very silly film called "Mike Bassett: England Manager", in which, for example, two players from the lower leagues called 'Benson' and 'Hedges' end up in the England team, because Bassett writes his team selection on the back of a cigarette packet. Well, Maradona's goal might have been scrubbed out of the script, for being too stupid. After he scored he was shouting at his team-mates, who knew he'd cheated, to come and hug him, to make it look more authentic. "A little bit the head of Maradona and a little bit the hand of God", as Maradona put it. Last summer i was told about Argentina's last qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup, when Maradona was manager, and they had to beat Peru. I may not get all the details right, but apparently it was pouring with rain, and the scores were level with ten minutes to go. Maradona made a substitution, bringing on a very elderly striker, to huge groans and swearing from the Argentina fans. Then, with about a minute to go - this striker scores the winning goal, giving Argentina qualification. At the final whistle Maradona dived head-long with a huge splash onto the water-logged pitch. Then in the press conference, following an appalling outburst of bad language, he described how he decided to bring the player on, because he could hear the crowd chanting his name!

Since arriving in this wonderful country i've started to form an idea of what made Mexico '86 such a great tournament. It wasn't just the Mexican Waves, or the brilliantly designed 'Aztec' balls. It wasn't just Gary Lineker's goal-hangi...sorry, off-side trap defying goal-mouth incursions, or Maradona's mesmerising run for Argentina's second goal against England, finished off by Terry Butcher (watch the replay). On Sunday morning i got up early to join a procession from the magnificent Cathedral here, to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, two or three miles north. First to arrive was a troupe of young girls, dressed in traditional Mexican costumes, dancing in unison and singing a very beautiful hymn of some kind, possibly in the indigenous Indian language. Then there was a band, of three saxophones, who would echo the melody provided by two trumpets and a trombone, with a great big double bass and a mandolin/banjo type instrument, accompanied by other traditionally-dressed dancers. There were also spectacularly dressed Aztec 'shamans' and other musicians, playing brilliant tunes which i'd never heard before. It was a "special occasion", and i believe this goes to the heart of why Mexico '86 was such a great success. No one does "special occasions" like the people of Mexico.
Musicians and dancers gathering at 'Zocolo' Cathedral, Mexico City, for procession to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
They were marking the IXth anniversary of the canonisation of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary is understood to have appeared in 1531.  Making an account of himself before the local Bishop (who was initially sceptical - non-Catholics might be amazed how sceptical Bishops can be!), on a subsequent visit some roses, which only grew in Spain at that time, miraculously appeared in his 'tilma', a sort of cape woven from the fibres of a cactus. These in turn fell out, to reveal the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, dressed as an indigenous young Mexican woman, with the rays of the sun behind her (Aztecs had worshipped the sun), and her gaze downward, in an attitude of great modesty; conveying the message that she herself is not to be worshipped, but only the One who sent her. Literally hundreds of books have been written about this image, but another important aspect are the sort of 'ribbons' around her wrists; all Aztecs of that time would have known immediately from this that she is expecting a Child, and she is invoked as the Patroness of all unborn children, as well as Patroness of Mexico and Patroness of the Americas.

So on Wednesday the 27th of July, the Memorial of an English martyr called Blessed Robert Nutter, i arrived at last in Mexico, and trekked from the airport to the Basilica, just over six months after setting off from Walsingham, Norfolk. I'd always hoped to do as much as possible on foot. You might say it's something i have in common with former England cricket captain Nasser Hussein. He didn't always 'walk' either.

Here is the message given by Our Lady to St. Juan Diego;

"Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son; let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also, do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folding of my arms? Is there anything else that you need?"

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Way of 26 Crosses

'China Town', Nagasaki
The 13th century Breton knight and adventurer Fulkes de Breaute is rather an obscure figure, but he crops up in unexpected places. A favourite of King John (the 'Bad'), he was made sheriff of several midlands castles (though not Nottingham), and his name is recalled in the name Vauxhall ('Fulkes Hall') on the south bank of the Thames. Funnily enough, it was at Vauxhall station that 19th century visitors from Russia asked "Where is this?"; "Vauxhall" came the reply, for which reason the word for train station in Russian is "Vokzal" to this day!

Kyoto. "Let us dicover the significance of birth and the joy of living"
Sort of similarly, though in fact he takes centre stage in late 16th century Japanese history, last week there was information outside one of the marvellous temples here in Kyoto referring to one Toyotomi Hideyoshi, aka 'Taikosane'. It was the second time i'd come across him; he ordered the Imjinwaeran invasion of Korea in 1592, about which a mini museum in Busan (Korea) tells the terrible story. Then, in "historic, romantic and exotic" Nagasaki, which i reached after a mixture of walking and not walking at the weekend, there he was again in the excellent little Jesuit museum dedicated to the 26 Japanese Martyrs. The first thing one sees there is a beautiful (17th century?) statue of St. Francis Xavier, wearing the traditional garb of a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, with scallop shells around his shoulders. He seems to have been a real 'St. Patrick' of the Far East and Japan, converting hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the first half of the 16th century. Among them were numerous members of the feudal aristocracy, which by the way is another thing Japan has in common with Britain - its own tradition of "chivalry", where the knights of course were known as "Samurais". Hideyoshi however specifically ordered many of the Christian warriors to take part in the invasion of Korea. Then in October 1596 a Spanish galleon, the San Felipe, was shipwrecked off Japan on its way to Mexico. When the crew resisted his attempt to confiscate this vessel, Hideyoshi used it as a pretext to condemn 26 Kyoto Christians, men and boys, 6 foreigners and 20 Japanese, to death by crucifixion in Nagasaki. The most famous of these is St. Paul Miki, a native Japanese Jesuit who would soon have been ordained a priest. From what i could gather they each had an ear cut off before being made to walk 1000 kilometres in January 1597, being martyred on February 6th. The Franciscan St. Felipe de Jesus OFM was able to joke on the way, that "the San Felipe was shipwrecked so that Br. Felipe could go to heaven".
Church of Our Lady, Nagasaki

Soon afterwards Catholicism was banned for 250 years (sound familiar? - oh alright, the Japanese banned ALL Christianity), and there were sporadic further persecutions, but remarkably, when priests returned to Nagasaki in the late 19th century, a group of Christians whose faith had been hidden for generations came and presented themselves.

In the Cathedral in Fukuoka i met a young Japanese guy who has not (yet) become a Christian, but who has walked to Santiago more than once, and visited Marian shrines including Fatima and Medugorje. He kindly agreed to look after my bulky sleeping bag while i went to Nagasaki, and then wouldn't let me pay anything towards coffees and a great lunch when i came back, yesterday. Living in London from 2003-4, he had his picture taken with Arsene Wenger, who was coach of the Japanese football team before moving to Woolwich Arsenal. Not least as yesterday was St. James's day, patron of pilgrims, i was glad to be able to give him the excellent 'Dazer' dog deterrent, which i'd used successfully on a number of occasions.

There was sumo wrestling on the TV in the bus station in Nagasaki, including at least two European/American gentlemen, complete with amazing hair-cuts and generous beer-guts. Thank goodness there isn't a womens' version, (though frankly it wouldn't look much more ridiculous than womens' boxing or rugby). This however brings me to a much more serious matter. Baseball is a great game, but cricket, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, is at least as good. Yet, are cricket's governing bodies awake to this fact? China is the country that springs to mind, which could easily follow Korea and Japan down the "glorified rounders" route...

Here is St. Patrick's Breastplate;

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, and in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Okage sama de!

This title is the nearest Japanese equivalent, so i'm told, to the Arabic expression 'Al hamdu li laah!', or 'Praise the Lord' in English. Actually though it is often used in answer to queries after one's health - in English we might say "thanks for asking"; it is a more humble way of saying that one is 'fine'. Originally it contains a meaning of 'shade', as if one is expressing thanks for being under the shade of God's hand.

'A-Bomb Dome', preserved for posterity, Hiroshima
Many people will know that it is customary to bow when meeting people here (as also in Korea), but i had never previously seen that this, alongside things like the Japanese readiness to apologise and other firmly established norms of 'politeness', might be yet another similarity (at least in theory!) to Britain. The others are much more obvious, like being an island (or islands) off the coast of a great continent, and driving on the left - and even the weather was grey and showery on the day i arrived. People here also love football; the Japanese women's team have just become world champions, and make no mistake, the guys here aspire to supplant countries like England in the men's version too. But my thoughts have been on a different ball game - baseball. Knowing that i had an appointment with a friend in Kobe, on Thursday evening i took a train to big and bustling (yes, you read that right) Hiroshima, where a huge crowd of 'Carp' fans were emerging from their great stadium near the station. The "A-Bomb Dome" is one ruin which has been preserved, and is a World Heritage site, and one must also devote plenty of time to the Peace Memorial Museum. The individual accounts, especially, of what happened on the 6th of August 1945, moved me to tears, and other memorable exhibits include a watch which has stopped at 8.15, when the tranquility of a beautiful morning was shattered so brutally.

Kobe, Japan
Then i came, on a Bullet train no less, to Kobe, where one might think of the station as a sort of 'Disneyland' for trainspotters. They have various kinds of 'Racing' locomotive here, so that you almost expect the driver to emerge wearing a helmet, and overalls plastered with company logos, before stepping onto a podium and firing champagne corks across the platform. On Sunday i was treated to such wonderful hospitality by my friend, who i'd met on the last day of my visit to Israel last year! And yesterday (though a simple appointment in Osaka proved too much for me to keep, and we missed the first half), it was still marvellous to see the Osaka Buffaloes defeat visitors from Chibo - and we did see a home run.

This morning i've arrived by bus in the far west again, in Fukuoka, hoping to walk at least some of the way to the most important centre of Christianity in Japan, which is Nagasaki.

A Prayer for England

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England, thy dowry, and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee.

By thee it was that Jesus, our Saviour and our hope, was given unto the world; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more.

Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the cross, O Sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold, they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son.

Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith, fruitful in good works, we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee in our heavenly home.


Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Pacific Details

Tree frog
Last Thursday, on the slightly crafty bus i took heading South East from Seoul to Gyeongju, the TV news was dominated by the announcement that Peongchang (South Korea), had been chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. This points up something that few people would be likely to know about Korea; it is 70% mountainous. Furthermore, though some ancient forest has been lost, virtually all the elevations i saw (mostly not very high) were covered in trees. In terms of wildlife, given that summers get so hot, i was surprised not to see any reptiles whatsoever, but saw tree frogs, chipmunks, white herons and great big blue-black butterflies the size of sparrows. There was also a 'flock' of woodpeckers and a squadron of dragonflies - Korea is one of the few places where one can still see them flying in formation (only joking about that bit).

Bulguksa Temple complex, Gyeongju
Gyeongju is a 'must' for tourists, being the ancient capital of the 'Silla' kingdom which emerged in around the 6th century. The adjacent Bulguksa temple complex is a fairly recent though meticulous restoration; and Seokguram grotto is an extraordinary, original 8th century Buddha guarded by suitably fierce looking warriors in a very sophisticated shrine (there's a graphic in the museum in Seoul which shows how it was built).

At the carpark there i put a coin in a telescope and caught my first sight of the Pacific Ocean. Setting off down a winding road, the idea was to walk about 150km to the ferry terminal at Busan, but heavy rain caused delays and then i couldn't find a pedestrian-friendly way out of Ulsan. I must mention however that on Sunday evening a very kind priest there gave me a delicious supper and, after Mass, an envelope containing $100!! I then spent the night on the sofa...which someone had abandoned in a derelict plot of land next to a scrapyard down the road - actually Fr. Philipo would surely have offered me somewhere to stay if he'd understood my situation, but in any case it was good to do more walking in the evening cool.

One more thing i must mention about Koreans - they are outstanding singers. I was already aware of this, having happened to attend a Korean language Mass at Lourdes some years ago. In contrast to the often bleak picture at home (at least in Catholic Churches - though obviously things are better in Wales), Koreans really enjoy singing, and i scarcely heard a duff note in the fortnight i was there.

This morning i've arrived in Shimonoseki, having crossed the East Sea to Japan.

Here is the Prayer to Our Lady of Namyang;

Dear Holy Mother of Namyang
Who opens her arms of mercy with a smile!
We behold your intimacy of beauteous love
And deep intimacy with the Infant Jesus.
You are the Virgin Mother, born of Immaculate Conception
And holy blessings, who bore and nurtured our Lord Jesus.
Holy Mother of God, we praise you who are also our mother.
Dear Holy Mother of Namyang,
The very sight of the Infant Jesus who hangs on to your garment
Tells us to stay near you and rely on your care and mercy.
Do not forsake us when we cling to you for mercy,
With only our trust and love, and the desire to belong to you;
And therefore let us stay in your house.
Our powerful Advocate Mother who is always with the Lord,
Praying for our cause, to you we entrust our prayer
Confident of your intercession.
Give us your merciful and caring glance
And bless us, our families and our nation. Amen.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Korean Walk

Gdansk, on the Baltic Coast of Poland, can claim the distinction of being the place where the Second World War started, and where the Cold War ended. Or can it? True, notwithstanding the odd 'cold snap' in relations between Russia and western countries, the days of Superpower confrontation are gone. But try telling the people of the Korean peninsular that the Cold War is over. Walking south from the centre of Seoul on Saturday i found my way blocked by more than one "U.S. military installation", not marked on tourist maps. At the free and excellent (not least as they've gone to the trouble of providing so much English translation) National Museum of Korea one can learn that the seventh to tenth centuries were a golden age of Korean civilisation; a time when Britons more or less still lived in caves. But there's scant coverage of Korean history after about 1700, and the 20th century is deemed too-hot-a-political-potato to even mention! By virtue of my earlier route on this pilgrimage, i'm particularly struck by the parallel in the histories of Korea (North and South) and Germany (East and West). Maybe this could be a "way in" to looking at the 20th century?
Fortress at Hwaseong, South Korea

Left: Our Lady of Vladimir. Right: Aerial view of the Shrine of Our Lady, Namyang
Finding places to sleep under a bridge and below the walls of a splendid 18th century fortress, yesterday i made my way at last to Namyang, the National Shrine of Our Lady in Korea, a place dedicated to prayer for peace and reconciliation. On a site where Korean Christians were martyred in the 19th century, the land was acquired piecemeal by the parish priest, and a really beautiful 'Rosary Way', through immaculately tended gardens, has been laid out around a sort of bowl created by fairly steep surrounding hills. Great big granite spheres represent each bead of the Rosary. An amazing thing is that from the air the Shrine bears an extraordinary resemblance to a famous Icon called Our Lady of Vladimir, also known as Our Lady of Tenderness - a little reproduction of which Matt Martin gave me before setting off! The priest who celebrated Mass today was delighted when i gave it to him (hope that's OK with you Matt - he's given me a marvellous picture of Our Lady of Namyang which i hope to give to you), and soon after i was enjoying a delicious free lunch and a free lift back here, to Seoul. Some readers might be a bit sceptical of course, but there it is. When the Pope arrived last year there was an outstanding cartoon in the Sunday Telegraph, of a man saying to his wife over breakfast; "The face of Richard Dawkins has appeared on my piece of toast!"

The best way to see Lake Baikal...
"A Walk to a Lake on the Way to a Church". That Lake was Baikal, which it was my tremendous privilege to see, in fulfilment of a long-cherished dream, last week. The 'Pearl of Siberia', it contains around 20% or more of the world's fresh water, having a surface area the size of Denmark and being unimaginably deep. On an excursion i caught a glimpse of a "Nerpa", the totemic fresh-water seal which is among a host of endemic species of flora and fauna. In conversation with a young Russian couple on board our boat i learnt that "Our president came here" - "Medvedev?", i asked; "No, the other one, what's his name, Putin..." I know it's only anecdotal, but that's not the sort of conversation you'd expect to have in a totalitarian state.
Siberian sparrow

The 'Hail Holy Queen' (Salve Regina) is often credited to Blessed Hermann of Reichenau, an 11th century Benedictine monk and brilliant scholar as well as composer, who spent much of his life in the Abbey of Reichenau, an island in Lake Constance;

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to Thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
V. Pray for us O holy Mother of God,
R. that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Monday, 27 June 2011


After much agonising and soul-searching, i believe the time has come to speak out about Bristol Rovers' decision to sack manager Paul Trollope in December last year. Who on earth did the Board think they would find to replace him? Jose Mourinho? Alan Shearer perhaps? In the end they appointed Dave Penney, and then sacked him after only a couple of weeks - as if Steve Coppell's resignation at half-time during his first full game in charge of City, in August, hadn't heaped enough embarrassment on Bristol football. In a bitter irony, the full details of Fifa executives' deliberations over who should host the 2018 World Cup are only now starting to emerge. Apparently, when they saw 'Bristol' on the list of potential host cities for England's bid, they immediately thought to themselves "Yes, at last, World Cup football at the Memorial Stadium" - only to have these hopes dashed when told that, in fact, it was City who had a half-baked plan to build a new stadium in someone's garden - and the person hadn't even agreed!

On Tuesday there was a last-minute clarification at the Russian Consulate and i had to criss-cross town to change my train ticket; then it seemed really 'miraculous' that i had just enough money, to the nearest 50p, to pay for a six-day transit visa. In addition, the later train meant i had plenty of time to make my way, at last, to Ozjornoje.

At the parsonage of a Church near Ozjornoje
From what i gather, the entire population of a village which had been in Eastern Poland, now the Ukraine, was forcibly settled there, now northern Kazakhstan, during the War. One winter, faced with starvation, the inhabitants made a concerted effort to pray the Rosary for deliverance. The spring thaw came more quickly than usual, leaving a huge lake next to the village ('Ozjornoje' means "of the lake") - full of fish! Their lives were saved, and when the Soviet Union had crumbled in the early '90s, villagers and their descendants set to work building a really beautiful Church, dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Peace - though no priest arrived until it was completed, around ten years later. There is now also a Carmelite Convent and Benedictine monastery, with plans to build a much larger Carmel. Thousands of pilgrims visit, from Europe as well as Kazakhstan and Russia, each year. I was glad at least to be able to walk the last 30km on Friday the 24th June (the birthday of St. John the Baptist), and was given a marvellous welcome and supper, followed by a drive around the lake in pouring rain, by Fr. Lucian, the parish priest. The next day, the 25th of June is (usually) the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Peace. Not least it also seemed providential that i was able to make a "Thank You" card, using a postcard which my Dad had given me when i set off. It features the stained glass window at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Fairford; specifically the "Miraculous catch of fish".

I hope to visit the shore of Lake Baikal in the few days that i have here in Irkutsk before, God-willing, flying to Seoul, South Korea, on Friday.

Here is Our Lady's message from 25th June;

“Dear children! Give thanks with me to the Most High for my presence with you. My heart is joyful watching the love and joy in the living of my messages. Many of you have responded, but I wait for, and seek, all the hearts that have fallen asleep to awaken from the sleep of unbelief. Little children, draw even closer to my Immaculate Heart so that I can lead all of you toward eternity. Thank you for having responded to my call.”

Sunday, 19 June 2011

"No Go" Mongolia

It's touch and go. In the "Applicant's statement" section of the English language application form for a Mongolian visa i wrote;

'For nearly five months i have been travelling as a pilgrim from England, walking across the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Poland, then using transport, as well as walking, across the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. With God's help i hope to reach the Pacific Ocean, and somehow cross to Mexico, to the famous Basilica (Church) of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Germany it was wonderful to meet a Mongolian lady called Ajusch; she sang beautifully and played a two-stringed instrument ('dombra'?).Then in the Ukraine i visited a place called Zarvanitsa, where the story is told of a monk who had fled from Kiev at the approach of the Mongols in the 13th century - an Icon of the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream. In Russia it was fascinating to pass through Kalmykia and visit the Buddhist temple in Elista. Part of my degree was Mediaeval History and i am very interested in Genghis Khan and his descendants. I also think snow leopards are magnificent.'

American citizens can just waltz into Mongolia without so much as a 'by-your-leave', so i really didn't anticipate much hassle; but i don't think the consul even read this bit of the form when at last he was available to discuss it, a whole week after i'd arrived in Almaty. "Tourists don't engage in charitable activity" was one of the things he grumbled, directing me to apply in London or Irkutsk; but there was no chance of getting a Russian transit visa without the Mongolian visa. I've since learnt on very good authority* that one should expect at least three visits to get visas in such circumstances - but i already had my train ticket for Irkutsk and time seemed to be running out. What i've done, then, is bought a plane ticket from Irkutsk via Khaborovsk to Seoul, South Korea - the Russian consular officials here in Astana (again) will need to see this if they are, please God (Blessed John Paul II - please pray for us) to issue me with a suitable transit visa in the next couple of days.

Kazakhstan's space-age capital, Astana
Astana was a pretty run-down sort of provincial city until it became the capital at the turn of the Millenium - you can still see the 'shell' of the old town amid the shiny new high-rise edifices. One lunch-time it was nice to be treated to 'khumus' - horse's milk, before using a lift which had to be paid for by credit-card. Kazakhs also drink camel's milk, though i haven't come across it, and go in for an only-partially-successful sort of carbonated yoghurt drink. Historically the Kazakh people lived a nomadic life on the Steppes, in 'yurts', a sort of tent; which is where our phrase "yoghurt-weavers" comes from. One also has to mention the silk road, major branches of which passed through Kazakhstan.

There are around a hundred different ethnic groups here apparently, of whom Kazakhs and Russians make up a big majority. Thankfully however, although the country has its fair share of '21st century' problems, ethnic tensions are not much in evidence. At least partly this is because it was never conquered militarily by Imperial Russia, but rather the local rulers invited the Tsar to come and protect them from some threat or other in the beginning of the 19th century, as the lesser of two evils.

The Hail Mary is also sometimes called 'the Angelic Psalter';

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee;
blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

*my Dad.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Real Big Apple

Practically the Himalayas
Officially the mountains which rise spectacularly to the South of Almaty, Kazakhstan's "former, warmer, and cultural" capital, are called the 'Tian Shan', but they're practically Himalayas, and may as well be called Himalayas for our purposes. For this reason, Kazakhstan might be designated the true "Switzerland with Minarets" beloved of Afghanistan-watchers, except that mountains aren't really typical Kazakh terrain, and nor are there actually very many minarets, though it's not unusual to see Mosques under construction. The name 'Almaty' is derived from the Kazakh word Alma, meaning Apple, and apparently all domestic apples trace their origins to this region - the city was even once famed for its own, huge, variety of apple. An extremely tenuous link with New York lies in the fact that Blessed John Paul II made a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2001; arriving in a predominantly Muslim country just days after '9/11'.

The Real Big Apple
The following is from a book called "Cycling Home from Siberia" by Rob Lilwall; it gets close to the sort of difficulty i've been having with bureacracy here - my current "excuse of choice" for not doing very much walking of late;

"The Office of Visas and Registration hides in an unmarked office, unadvertised on a random street...[it] opens late, seldom and closes ten minutes before it opens, except on weekdays and days beginning with 'S', when it doesn't open at all."

First Russian, then Chinese officials, when available, told me that my status in Kazakhstan precludes my application for a tourist visa. In Lvov the Russian Consulate actually had to bend the rules; but i was wrong to suppose that this is widely practised. So i took a bus here to enquire at the surprisingly weather-beaten Mongolian Embassy - only to find it closed, as the Consul is in Astana until Tuesday or Wednesday. It's all a bit 'up in the air'. Even if, please God, i can get a Mongolian visa, i'll need a Russian transit visa, perhaps from the Consulate here - flights to Ulaan Baator are only once a week, and booked up long in advance. The thing is, if my experience in Astana is anything to go by, the Consulate may only deal with visa enquiries on alternate Fridays, from citizens aged 65 and over, accompanied by all four grandparents, etc, etc...
Orthodox Church, made of wood, Almaty

Today is Pentecost, and it happened that i was given a lift to the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity this morning in the company of the local Bishop, who is a relatively young Spaniard. He led us in a recitation of the following famous Russian prayer to Our Lady (here translated into English);

We fly to Thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Ascension Day.

Kazakhstan, to borrow Neville Chamberlain's ill-famed phrase, is "a far away country about which we know little"*. This is one reason why 'Borat' was allowed to make such a savage mockery of it, and escape any meaningful charges of racism or xenophobia (the other reason being that Sacha Baron-Cohen is himself a member of an ethnic minority, so it must be 'kosher' - poppycock). Personally i wasn't tempted to see the film, as Baron-Cohen's first incarnation, Ali "Is it because I is c**p?" G had ushered in a new 'dying away' of British comedy, which remained more or less in the doldrums until the National Theatre of Brent's magnificent skit "How i done the Bed" was aired on Radio 4 last summer. As Alexi Sayle put it in a recent retrospective; "A great deal has changed since i invented alternative comedy".

Anyway, just over a week ago i arrived here in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital of the last ten years or so. Registration of my passport was more of a rigmarole than i'd anticipated, but late on Tuesday afternoon i finally set off, heading North in the direction of an extraordinary place called Ozyornoje, the national Shrine of Our Lady in Kazakhstan. That evening and overnight however - would you believe it? - i came down with a heavy cold. Having spent the night in a derelict house, on Wednesday i didn't get far before deciding to take the next available transport back to the city. This turned out to be a mini-bus, on which i got into conversation with a guy the same age as me, Volodya, who offered to put me up(!) in his house in a village some way outside the city. So i ended up staying there in great rustic simplicity but also comfort, resting and recuperating until Friday morning, when i set off along the railway towards Shortandy (don't try this at home). The thing was though, i was only about 70% recovered, and too weak to cover the whole 35 km, so in the early evening it was great to be offered a lift by some guys doing work on the line. They had a kind of soviet equivalent of a jeep, and the young guy at the wheel clearly relished taking us along a very rudimentary and bumpy track; the nearest thing i've ever experienced to rally driving.

I was shown to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, where i'd been told the community might give me a welcome (they turned out to be the same Order of St. Vincent De Paul as are in Kharkov, Ukraine), arriving just in time for Mass. I know it's a cliche - but i can't tell you how nice they were! Having put me up on a great sofa bed, in the morning i was brought really tremendous bowl of porridge - my very favourite. "World Porridge Day" is a Mary's Meals initiative, due to be celebrated, worldwide, on the 10th of October. They've teamed up with the organisers of the World Porridge Making Championship in Carrbridge, in the Scottish Highlands, part of the reason being that many of the school meals which Mary's Meals provide consist of a sort of "souped-up" porridge; see "".

I've come back to Astana because tomorrow, Inshallah, i hope to make enquiries about applying for a new Russian visa. So i haven't reached Ozyornoje yet, but hope to say more about it in another post.

The sisters at Shortandy are also of the same order as St. Catherine Laboure, whose famous 'Miraculous Medals' bear the following inscription;

"O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee."

*used in reference to Czechoslovakia after the Munich conference of 1938.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

From Russia with Lovejoy

I suppose alarm bells might have started ringing when i started saying things like "Pilgrimage is not an exact science". Around lunch-time last Tuesday, walking on from Elista, a strip of black cloud appeared overhead, and there were rumbles of thunder in the distance. The first drops of rain meant i could put on the excellent German-made poncho which i'd bought in Lvov, tipped off about the shop by an Englishman, David, who works with the children in Bortnyky. Then however the rain became heavier, the thunder and lightning drew closer and closer. I was praying to all the saints i could think of, and began an 'emergency novena' of 'Memorare's (see below), as recommended, i believe, by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. When it started to hail i knew that i was going to be right in the eye of the storm, and noticed a drainage tunnel under the road. Diving for cover as if i was literally 'under fire' (that's how it felt), i threw my things towards a dry patch of 'mud' inside the tunnel and crawled through a big puddle to the same place, sitting there for 40 minutes or so while the rain lashed down and there were barely any intervals between flashes of lightning and immense crashes of thunder.
Newly-weds inside the walls of the Kremlin, Astrakhan

After it cleared some of my stuff was a bit wet, and i saw the first tick of my walk - they also can kill, by transmitting lethal infections. When a lorry pulled over shortly afterwards i was in no mood to refuse a lift. Kalmykia people, the driver told me, are none other than the descendants of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, put in this part of southern Russia by Peter the Great. To cut a long story short, the Steppe here is 'semi-desert', and a few days later, after some walking but more lifts, sooner than expected i was in Astrakhan, at the mouth of the mighty Volga river on the Caspian Sea. There is a remarkable 18th century Catholic Church there, as well as an impressive Kremlin, with a Chapel housing relics of St. Cyril, the great Apostle to the Slavs.
The Kremlin, Kazan, with Mosque as well as Cathedral

Then i decided to take a train to Kazan, with an even more famous Kremlin that contains a beautiful Mosque; breathtaking 'frescoes' and Iconostases in its Churches and Cathedrals, and home to a very important 'miracle-working' Icon, the Mother of God of Kazan. In soviet times it was in Fatima, Portugal, then it decorated the wall of Blessed John Paul II's study in the Vatican. He long wished to return it to Russia in person, but in the summer of 2004 it was freely given. I actually believe that the brutal siege of the school at Beslan, which happened a few days afterwards, was an expression of satan's rage at this event.

Among other prayers i said a 'Memorare' for Christian Unity before the Icon, which was being venerated in turn by wonderfully reverent schoolchildren;

Our Lady of Kazan
Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to Thy protection,
implored Thy help or sought Thine intercession,
was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence,
I fly unto Thee, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother;
to Thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in Thy mercy, hear and answer me.

Then in the evening i couldn't resist a visit to the cinema to see the new, 'vaguely familiar from last time' Pirates of the Caribbean flick, featuring Ian McShane, whose inimitable curls graced our television screens in the mid to late 1980s as the lovable rogue antiques dealer, Lovejoy. He plays none other than Edward Teach himself (the very same) - 'Black Beard'.

My short visa (20 days) has meant it was impossible to do this part of the journey entirely on foot, and this morning i've arrived by train in the big city (sort of in the Urals?) of Chelyabinsk. On Saturday, with God's help, i hope to reach Kazakhstan.

Here is Our Lady's message from 25th of May;

"Dear children! My prayer today is for all of you who seek the grace of conversion. You knock on the door of my heart, but without hope and prayer, in sin, and without the Sacrament of Reconciliation with God. Leave sin and decide, little children, for holiness. Only in this way can I help you, hear your prayers and seek intercession before the Most High. Thank you for having responded to my call."

Monday, 16 May 2011

Two legs good. Four wheels bad.

   On my return from last year's pilgrimage i was able to use the notes i'd taken to write an account of the journey, called "Our Lady and the Tramp". Some time ago i thought of an excellent title for the account i hope to write of this trip, but i can't let on, because if i don't make it to Mexico it would make me look a little bit silly, and furthermore, it won't work properly unless i really do walk a considerable part of the way. From American films etc, i'm aware that instead of a figure walking, or standing, to indicate when one should cross the road, they have signs which say "WALK", or "DON'T WALK". I need to walk, but the danger is that, instead of asking "Have i cheated over the last few days?", i could soon find myself asking "Have i actually done any walking recently?".
The Steppe, Stavropol region, Russia. Ride 'em cowboy!
   At least on Saturday i had quite a long walk, from a town called Ipatovo, where there is a well-known brewery, to Divnoye, in the North East of the Stavropol region of Russia, where Mikhail Gorbachev comes from. Without trying to hitch a ride, i actually turned down at least ten offers of lifts, before accepting one for the last few kilometres, from a very kind (Russian) Baptist pastor, who took me to stay with a marvellous family of no fewer than nine children. Somehow they made space for me, and it was a great blessing to join them for their service on Sunday morning. Then yesterday evening i walked on into the vast expanse of 'Steppe' which characterises this region, except that after a time it became very marshy, with reed-beds on both sides of the road. Last week i reached a village, also in the Steppe, where the locals were quite clear that there were not only wolves, but wolves with a reputation for killing people, so when i found a little abandoned hut in which to spend the night, i took pains to block off all the windows and the entrance; i was reminded of the refrain; "I'll huff, and i'll puff, and i'll blow you're house down!". Last night i settled for a patch of dry ground under a bridge, comforting myself with the thought that you don't really hear of 'marsh wolves'; and although Russia has many of the same things that America has, there are no alligators. With the sound of a Bittern 'booming' in the distance, and myriad birds and frogs making all sorts of other noises, it occurred to me that, apart from insects, the only danger might be that i'd be disturbed by a 'National Geographic' camera crew.

    Then this morning i accepted an offer of a lift to this 'small city', Elista, in the Kalmykia region of Russia. The driver pointed out that, oddly enough, we actually passed from Asia back into Europe (i hadn't been aware of being in Asia at all), but in lots of ways this place feels Asian. The people almost all look Asian-Chinese, and i was dropped off next to an impressive Buddhist Temple, containing 'the largest Buddha in Europe'.
   Without any pretence to logical ordering, here is a beautiful 15th century prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham;

O gracious Lady, glory of Jerusalem,
   Cypress of Sion and Joy of Israel,
   Rose of Jericho and Star of Bethlehem,
O gracious Lady, our asking do not repel,
   in mercy all women ever thou dost excel.
Therefore, Blessed Lady,
   grant then thy great grace,
   to all that thee devoutly visit in this place.

Monday, 9 May 2011

"At a boy!"

The title of this post is the closest equivalent in English to a favourite Russian expression, "Molodyetz!". My Russian isn't great, but it's been useful in the Ukraine, especially as i moved further East, and for example in the city of Kharkiv/Kharkov, where i was kindly put up by the community of the St. Vincent de Paul centre which is part-funded by Mary's Meals. St. Vincent was a phenomenal exemplar of apostolic charity in 17th century France, whose biography includes abduction by pirates (though best not to 'go there' again for the time being), and my impression was that the centre is a worthy heir to his wonderful work. Early on the next day i was on a train to Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, where another very kind priest allowed me to stay; he is someone who as-it-were had temporarily disappeared from Mary's Meals' radar.

Rostov-on-Don, Russian Federation
Actually, Ukraine has been not quite a "Roller-Coaster" ride, but i must confess to having used almost every other conceivable means of transport, short of air travel, to get to where i am now; Rostov-on-Don, Russia. So from that point of view "Molodyetz" ought not to be directed at me, but i've found it necessary to be a little bit flexible...

Tongeren, Belgium
There is lots more i could try to cover, but i must mention the truly wonderful town of Tongeren in Belgium, which "no one has ever heard of". There is a beautiful Basilica at the top of a hill, with other lovely mediaeval churches on the surrounding streets, and i think it is no exaggeration to bill it as a sort of 'Belgian Chartres' - do visit if you happen to be in the vicinity.

Here is Our Lady's message, dated 25th April;

“Dear children! As nature gives the most beautiful colors of the year, I also call you to witness with your life and to help others to draw closer to my Immaculate Heart, so that the flame of love for the Most High may sprout in their hearts. I am with you and I unceasingly pray for you that your life may be a reflection of Heaven here on earth. Thank you for having responded to my call.”

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Skeleton Coast

Without so much as a Spanish silver dollar* to show for their three recent voyages to ports on the South coast of England (Exeter, Southampton and Bournemouth), Bristol Rovers are far from out of the woods. In fact, a 'skull and crossbones' might be used to denote those results - and it remains to be seen if our hopes of playing League 1 football next season lie buried somewhere in one of those grounds. League 2 of course isn't 'Davy Jones's Locker', nor is it '20,000 Leagues under the Sea'; but relegation to the Blue Square Premier division, only a string of bad results away, is really the football equivalent of 'walking the plank'. And although there are still points to be won, "Greavsie's Law" applies in these circumstances - "It's a funny old game". I think it was a game against Port Vale which Rovers needed to win in 2001, facing the same danger. They dominated for 90 minutes, but still lost 3-0...

'Kievska Pecherska Lavra' (my Kiev photos were a mixed bag)
Today i've reached a town called Piryatin (i kid you not), on my way, please God, to the eastern city of Kharkiv, where Mary's Meals operate. I returned to Kiev/Kyiv (Ukrainian spelling) by mini-bus on Monday and was delighted to be able to pick up my passport from the Kazakh consulate, with a one month visa. If i'm able to make it there, God-willing, i hope to apply for another Russian tourist visa, and perhaps one for Mongolia... but i mustn't get carried away**. On that visit to Kiev/Kyiv i stayed at the TIU Backpackers' Hostel, which is at least as deserving of a mention as the other place, and did some sight-seeing on Tuesday 26th April, which happened to be he 25th Anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. There is Andrijvs'kyi Uzviz, a street which winds down from a very graceful Church dedicated to St. Andrew, on the site where, according to legend, the "first-called" Apostle erected a cross. Another 'must-see' is the Kievska Pecherska Lavra (roughly translated as "Cave Monastery"), a complex of beautiful Churches and monasteries, with a network of narrow underground passageways in which generations of holy monks are buried. It is probably the most important site in Orthodox Christianity outside the Holy Land.

It seems to me that at one time, the thought of visiting Kazakhstan would call to mind the so-called 'Great Game' - the rivalry which defined the relationship between the Russia and Britain in the 19th century. In the 21st century however, it's the 'Beautiful Game' which fires the imagination of people on every continent. I believe Russia should look at 'Mexico '86' as the model for the tournament they hope to stage in 2018...

*aka a 'piece of eight'.
**i'm supposed to be walking, after all.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Mary's Miles

   On Saturday 22nd of January, St. Vincent's day, there was a little crowd of very kind people to see me off from Temple Meads station, Bristol. To Mary and Mat Martin, Paulo Nurse, Jon Bela and my folks - many thanks. At Paddington i'd arranged to meet David Hothersall, to discuss this blog. He'd brought a leaflet in French about "Monsignor Vladimir Ghika", among whose sayings was;

"Si tu sais mettre Dieu dans tout ce que tu fais, tu Le retrouveras dans tout ce qui t'arrive."*

   Our meeting was also when the idea of calling it "Mary's Miles" came up. Just to clarify, it's not actually "Mary smiles", and especially not perhaps today, which is Good Friday, when the Church commemorates the fulfilment of Simeon's prophecy, that "a sword will pierce" Our Lady's Heart. "Mary's Meals", however, is such a magnificent charity, that it may very well prompt Our Lady to smile from time to time.

"Look at the Star, call upon Mary;
With her for guide, you shall not go astray.
While invoking her, you shall never lose heart;
If she walks before you, you shall not grow weary,
If she shows you favour, you shall reach the goal."**

   Of late i've been thinking a little bit about the "backpack project" (see, because my own little backpack has been great, though one of the zips is starting to play up. I'm attached to it not least because i bought it second-hand from a shop in Lockleaze, Bristol, named after St. James (Patron of pilgrims), which happened to be the local parish church. Good zips are very important on a trip like this, and i've also been reflecting on the feathers which line my sleeping bag. It's all very well to look at birds and remark how pretty they are, and how beautifully they sing, but of course some birds are also incredibly "hard", withstanding temperatures the very idea of which would strike terror into the hearts of most humans. Hence feathers are used for things like my sleeping bag.
Independence Square, Kiev/Kyiv
   Thanks be to God, i'm in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and have spent a very comfortable night in "Dream Hostel". Later this morning i hope to attend a Good Friday service at the nearby St. Nicholas' R.C. Church, though Catholic and Orthodox Easter, happily, coincide again as they did last year. I've often been touched by the particular warmth and generosity of people in this country, but also by their very great faith, in spite of up to 70 years of atheist communism. A standard greeting, which one often hears in the west especially, is "Glory to Jesus Christ!", to which one replies "Glory forever!". Part of the explanation for this is that soviet rule was of a shorter duration there, only around 45 years; much of western Ukraine was in Poland until World War II. Visible directly opposite here meanwhile is a huge stadium, under construction, where it is hoped that the final of 'Euro 2012' will take place - Ukraine and Poland are to host the tournament jointly.
    A word of caution to anyone heading East towards Kiev from the Ukrainian village of Vchoraishe. If your map is like mine, the next village is marked as 'Andrushki', but there is a signpost pointing you towards 'Andrushivka' as you leave the village. This is the road i took, which meant i actually spent part of Sunday evening walking West, but by that time it didn't seem worth retracing my steps. At the same shop where i bought the map, incidentally, i also bought a copy of 'Treasure Island', in Ukrainian translation, the quintessential swash-buckling adventure yarn, as a gift for the wonderful orphanage/school run by Miles Jesu in Bortnyky. I had an especially pleasant stay there at the beginning of this month - and have since been reminded of the utterly dreadful circumstances which are the fate of so many young boys (and girls) who aren't so lucky as to be taken in by places like that. For more information please contact; ''.

   Treasure Island features Bristol of course, one of whose most (in)famous sons was one Edward Teach, aka 'Blackbeard'. To this day, Bristol's world-famous football team, playing in glorious blue and white, are known as "The Pirates"...

A very Happy Easter to one and all!

*If you take care to put God in all that you do, you will discover Him in all that arrives."
**Prayer attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Friday, 15 April 2011


It might slightly alarm my parents if i go into details about exactly how i came to be on the road which led to this wonderful small city/town - but it is truly wonderful! A few days ago i reached a part of the Ukraine where, to my surprise, statues of Lenin are still standing. The people in general are just as nice as they are further West, but it is a little bit "wilder" - as indeed i had been warned by a friend in Lvov. It was a great surprise then to see a huge baroque, very Catholic-looking Church as i approached. Here is part of the English-language description i was directed to;

"In the 18th and 19th centuries the monastery at Berdichiv became the centre, not only of religious life and the cult of Our Lady in Ukraine, but also of culture and charity. By means of its printing press and school it played a very important role in promoting culture and education. The Shrine of Our Lady became the spiritual capital for the Roman Catholics of Ukraine. It was considered a holy place, a place of the Lord and a point of pilgrimage for those wishing to give honour to Our Lady as well as those wishing to do penance in the hopes of reconciliation with God."

For all i knew, from seeing it on the map, i thought it's chief interest might lie in the "Berdi" part of its name, which is a bit like "birdie"! Any royalists among you will be glad to know that i said a decade of the rosary in front of the Icon of Our Lady here for the intentions of the royal couple, Kate and William. On the subject of 'birdies', there've been quite a few woodpeckers recently, and it's always nice to hear their "drilling". Last night i found a berth to sleep in an abandoned sort-of look-out tower, and had a nice view of a nuthatch this morning, and might add that it was actually really comforting to hear, from there, the horn and then the whistle (especially) of trains as they approached a nearby railway crossing.

Friday, 8 April 2011


Pilgrimage is not an exact science. Does that mean it would be ideal if i was only able to use the rather drastically short-term 20-day Russian tourist visa i've just (thankfully) been able to pick up here in Lvov, to amble around the far western fringe of Russia for a few days, and then take a train to a place from which it might be possible to fly to Mexico? Not really. 20 days however is scarcely enough time to travel across Russia in a passenger aircraft, let alone on foot. As a now-fairly-seasoned pilgrim, i trust in Divine Providence, that if more walking is required of me, a way will become apparent.
On Wednesday i reached yet another famous Shrine; that of the miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Zarvanitsa, which appeared in a dream to a monk fleeing the Mongol invaders in 1240. It was especially nice to be there yesterday morning for the celebration of the Byzantine-Rite Annunciation (they accept the Primacy of Rome but still follow the Orthodox calendar - it gets rather complicated...), not least because our own national Shrine to Mary, at Walsingham, is imbued with a particular orientation to this Feast:
Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham with Cardinal Basil Hume and Pope John Paul II, Wembley Stadium, 29 May 1982
Our Lady promised,
"All who are in any way distressed or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succour. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my 'Salutation', when St. Gabriel told me that I should through humility become the Mother of God's Son."*

Hence actually, it seems that although pilgrimage doesn't look like an exact science at first, we may hope that in the Divine plan there is extraordinary precision in the timing and pathways which Our Lord is preparing for us. 

Before finishing i must mention my tremendous gratitude to Sir Richard Beresford-Wylie, who very kindly donated a battery-powered 'Dazer' canine deterrent device, which i haven't actually needed to use yet, but which enables me to walk with greater confidence - not least as only the other day i had my first "Little-Red-Riding-Hood-esque warning about wolves! Incidentally, a few years ago there was a great deal of negative press in Britain about 'Hoodies' - yet Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood (cousins?) are two of our most enduring and important cultural icons!

 *to 'Richeldis de Faverches', Lady of the Manor of Walsingham, c.1061AD.  

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Lvov at first sight!

   Thanks be to God, on Sunday afternoon i reached this very beautiful city by bus! Cheating again! The thing was, i crossed over into Ukraine from Poland and, as it was a Sunday, was keen at least to visit a Church. The police in the little frontier town of Krakovets however were clearly not enamoured of people `hanging around`, and i was told gruffly (though without any menace) that i must be gone within half an hour - after being escorted to first one, then a second Church. I then gave the fare for the bus to one of the guys, who paid it to the driver, specifying Lvov, about 65km away - and i didn`t offer any resistance! You might say i could have got out long before Lvov, but i reasoned that i might have been stopped by police again, who could conceivably have been in contact with the Krakovets folks.
St George's Cathedral, Lviv/Lvov
    So i`m here, and wonderfully blessed to be able to stay in a house run by the missionary order `Miles Jesu` (Soldiers of Jesus). An initial Russian visa, hopefully, is being arranged, and i`ve been able to see this beautiful city as if for the first time - a hefty layer of grime has been removed since i was last here, in January 2008. It deserves to take its place in the first rank of marvellous metropolises which were hidden behind the Iron Curtain for all those years; with Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Dresden, Tallinn, Vilnius and others. Another `revelation` to me on this trip was Erfurt, in the former East Germany. On the last walk i was very impressed by Verona. Shakespeare wasn`t joking when he called it `fair` - blimey! It looks a million Euros. Well, i defy anyone who`s actually been there to smirk at the idea that `Romeo and Juliet` could almost equally have been set in Erfurt, without sensibly losing its romantic credentials.
   Hope to be here in Ukraine for quite some time. Since this pilgrimage, like the last one, is dedicated `Totus Tuus`, all for Mary, i`d like to finish with the most recent of her messages from Medjugorje, from 25th of March (the Annunciation), which a friend kindly sent to me;

“Dear children! In a special way today I desire to call you to conversion. As of today, may new life begin in your heart. Children, I desire to see your ‘yes’, and may your life be a joyful living of God’s will at every moment of your life. In a special way today, I bless you with my motherly blessing of peace, love and unity in my heart and in the heart of my Son Jesus. Thank you for having responded to my call.”

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II - please pray for us!

Christ sculpture, Kolbuszowa
   I must thank David Hothersall, who i met in Jericho on the penultimate day of the last pilgrimage, and his people at Kinlan Communications (hope i've got that right!), very much for going to the trouble of setting up this blog - such things are not exactly my forte. Progress in Poland has been a little bit patchy, but thankfully today i'm in Kolbuszowa, edging towards the Ukrainian frontier. There have been lots of nice people here; and a score of 'two' on the free-hotel-room-o-meter so far. Among other things i've also been struck by the presence of very tall Crosses in the forecourts of most of the Churches. There was a similar one outside Westminster Cathedral to mark the Millenium, but after a year or so it was removed to obscurity, somewhere in Yorkshire i think. I can't help thinking there's an ambivalence towards the Cross among Christians in Britain, which might partly account for the emptying pews...
    On May 1st this year as many as 2 million people (many of them Poles, of course) are expected to be in Rome for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II. Here i could make a little confession; it is not quite clear how i'm going to get a suitable Russian visa for this walk, but i have reason to believe that JPII can help. The hospitality of German people didn't come as such a great surprise to me* because of my experience of the World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005. At an event there a young Russian lady gave an account of arranging the paperwork for her group of Russian pilgrims. When all seemed lost, and the correct visas looked like they'd never be forthcoming, she had an inspiration to visit a Church and pray for the intercession of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II - and felt absolutely confident that this would have the desired effect. Sure enough, when she went back to the relevant authorities the visas were ready for collection!

"If we do our best, God will do the rest"**. Another sort of 'motto' last time was;

"Some days one makes great strides, while others are more pedestrian, but i suppose you find that in any walk of life. Still, hope it's a step in the right direction."

Yesterday, leaving Mielec, i was NOT walking in the right direction, but thanks be to God, i was able to take a "Benediktynska Ulitsa" (street) which led me back onto the right track. One other thing...on Sunday i enjoyed some yoghurt coated apricots which my Mum sent out specially for me and couldn't help wondering - why ever do people bother to take the yoghurt off in the first place?!

*in February in Germany i only had to pay for 4 or 5 nights' accommodation - local people gave me places to stay and even a hotel and youth hostel let me stay for free, besides quite a few nights in the open of course.
**this was a favourite saying of a Scottish Benedictine Prioress, Mother Mary Garson

Friday, 18 March 2011

An "e", not an "a"!

   No need to go into  details, but  confusion between these letters has been the reason why it took so long for this blog to get off the ground! -Yet "on the ground" is where i've been for nearly 2 months, and, thanks be to God, this afternoon i've reached a village called Naglowice, in the Swietokrzyskie region of Poland - i belive this means "Holy Cross". A few days ago it was marvelous to reach Czestochowa, the famous Shrine to Our Lady which is the heart of Poland's extraordinary Catholic faith.
Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland
   On Wednesday 26th January, just before crossing the river Stour which marks the frontier between Suffolk and Essex, i noticed a scallop shell lodged in the foliage of a bush. I nearly didn't pick it up(!), but now i'm very glad to have it, the traditional symbol of pilgrimage, long associated with the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. I did one of these walks last year, to Jerusalem, also with the aim of raising money for Mary's Meals, whose focus on providing a single nourishing meal each day at school enables some of the very poorest chidren in the world to get an education; their only long-term hope for escape from poverty. A difference between this pilgrimage and the last one, besides the fact that i've brought a camera this time (tho' only 'film' pictures - not sure how to post them on here), is that the toggles on my great 1975 vintage army sleeping bag which someone gave me actually work, which they never seemed to before!  Incidentally i remain intrigued by the possibility that  this sleeping bag has some of the oldest  still-in-active-use  Velcro  anywhere in Europe, if not the world!  I won't make this a very long post - some words about the phenomenal kindness and friendliness of so many people in Germany can wait for another time - but suffice to say; Bristol Rovers' win against Tranmere shows there's still some fight in 'em! It's a case of "All hands on decks" for the Pirates if we are to avoid the drop! No team is too good to go down!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Setting off - 22 January 2011

I set off from Paddington this afternoon on the train to Kings Lynn. From there I will get to Walsingham in Norfolk, and visit the shrine to Our Lady. The walk begins on earnest on Sunday. A friend asked me today how I felt about the whole treck ahead. All I could say us that after a couple of hours walking, you might as well keep going!