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.”