Sunday, 6 October 2013

North Africa's answer to South Africa

At least two caveats should accompany the title to this post. Firstly, i've never been to South Africa. Secondly, the only country i've been to in North Africa is Morocco. And in fact i haven't been here for very long. However, among the countless Barcelona shirts (most of them #10 - Messi), there are occasional South African Springbok rugby shirts, which gave me the idea. I have a mental picture of South Africa as a place with western levels of affluence in some places, though the wealth is not evenly spread, and this is my (albeit limited) impression of Morocco. Walking south from fascinating Fès the other day, there was a restaurant called Titanic which, i kid you not, would have looked upmarket in Knightsbridge, London. However, i've also seen poverty of a kind that is extremely rare in the developed world.

But there's an awful lot of Morocco that is completely unknown to me.
“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley,”*
Without troubling you with details, for bureaucratic and other reasons, most of my time since disembarking near Tanger on Tuesday 17th September, St Robert Bellarmine's day, has been spent in the capital, Rabat; a nice enough place, especially the Casbah, and with the impressive St Peter's RC cathedral, but not usually at the top of visitors' lists of priorities. And this means actual walking has been at a premium, but one way or another i've made it as far as a town called Midelt, amid the commanding heights of the legendary Atlas mountains. This is a great country, reminding me of the Middle East in the summer of 2010 when i was there, during the South Africa World Cup; not least as people flock to cafés, as they did then, to see football (i won't forget Messi's hat-trick for Barcelona against Ajax on my first evening in Rabat). And i've picked up that Morocco has a genuinely strong footballing tradition. At Mexico '86, not only did they hold England to a 0:0 draw - they finished top of the group which included Portugal and Poland! There is mounting controversy over one or two of FIFA's more recent decisions, as to who should host the world's greatest tournament, but for what it's worth, if there was a desire to allow a predominantly Muslim country to host the World Cup, i believe Morocco and Turkey would have to be the frontrunners. 

Excitement to report the other day, when i saw a living preying mantis for the first time (the one i saw near Jericho in 2010 was dead). Then last night, given that it was after dark, i got a relatively excellent view of what seems most likely to have been a Little Owl. And i've had some great food, mostly at very affordable prices. Mind you, i probably wouldn't be the first to note that Morocco is a place where it is deceptively easy to spend money, but as Dr David Livingstone might point out, given the emphasis he put on 'Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation', the economy has to keep ticking over one way or another.

Oh, and i've never seen so many cats. 

*“the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”; from To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough by Robert Burns.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Não tenhais medo!

Do not be afraid!

These words, said to appear 365 times in the Bible, are emblazoned (in Portuguese) across the front of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Fátima, where Mary is understood to have appeared to three shepherd children from May to October 1917, announcing her 'Peace Plan from Heaven' to end the war then raging, and avert future catastrophes. To many Catholics, Do not be afraid revives memories of Blessed John Paul II, and the unstinting encouragement he gave to Christians and people of good will wherever he went, though especially perhaps to the people of Poland in 1979, when he set in train the events that led to the collapse of communism and dismantling of the Berlin Wall ten years later. A section of this once-reviled edifice is displayed near the Basilica, in remembrance of Our Lady's role; not least, JPII credited her with diverting the bullet that was fired at him from point blank range, on the feast of Our Lady of Fátima, May 13th 1981.

I can't make this a very long post, but i can report that, while i did quite a lot of walking in Portugal, i also had to go back and forth to the second city, Porto, to complete a course of injections which i will need, God-willing, if i am to continue to sub-Saharan Africa. Besides some great Portuguese hospitality, the final account will also need to touch on football (the other religion in Portugal), and the local flora and fauna. Specifically, there were a few rabbits, and it was genuinely exciting to see an actual pine marten for the first time in my life, but ornithologically-speaking, there wasn't all that much to write home about... until the morning of Thursday 12th September. I went to the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fátima to find that Mass would be in English, the chief celebrant a priest from Sydney, Australia. Shortly after the homily, a beautiful pure-white dove flew into the covered space around our Lady's statue, and perched itself on the roof of the original little chapel, which Our Lady had asked to be constructed in August 1917. It happens that this was the morning of President Putin of Russia's appeal, in the New York Times, for the USA to pursue a more peaceful approach to the appalling tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria.
"We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Octopus with Roger Moura

At the very friendly and efficient municipal Albergue in Najero, near Pamplona on the Camino Real Francés, high-spirited pilgrims had made up a song, in English, whose chorus was:
"You have to make your way peregrino,
Because there is no perfect Camino..."
It occurred to me that a more useful formulation might be:
"You have to make your way along the Camino,
Because there is no perfect peregrino..."
...even though it doesn't scan quite as well. I say this partly because obviously, we are all sinners, but also because, by God's grace, the Camino as i experienced it was quite near to perfection. Just past the halfway stage, at a place called Bercianos del Real Camino, after a rather paltry 10km walk, an English lady (a few years my senior) persuaded me to stay at the parish Albergue, as there would be a meal, prayers and music as well as an affordable bed. It turned out to be a memorable experience, but later on, when it seemed that i'd been left behind by all my original cohort of pilgrims, i questioned the wisdom of having stayed at a place like that, rather than doing more walking. On the evening of Saturday the 10th of August however, St Lawrence's Day, i came to a place called La Faba, and exchanged pleasantries with Roger, a pilgrim i'd previously enjoyed walking with, who reckoned he could reach Santiago de Compostela by 15th August - the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven. Realising that if he could do it, there was no reason why i couldn't, we agreed in principle to meet up for a meal in Santiago. I visited St Andrew's church in that village (and shall never forget how beautifully a young woman was singing Schubert's Ave Maria), and resolved to pull out all the stops to try to reach Santiago by the 15th. Thanks God, we were both there on the Thursday evening, and Roger treated me to a delicious meal. He ordered octopus, a local Galician speciality, and invited me to try some. It was only later from the email address he gave me, that i could see that his name was almost Roger Moore (though i've changed the spelling slightly for this blog entry, to protect his anonymity). And in case you think i've made this up, the English lady i'd met in Bercianos del Real Camino passed the restaurant just after we'd ordered - i waved to her, and she came inside to say hello. Roger very kindly invited her to join us. So although she didn't know that his surname was (almost) 'Moore', she can testify to the fact that on the Feast of the Assumption, i enjoyed octopus in the company of a person called Roger, in Santiago de Compostela. You couldn't make it up.

   Fairly typical English arrogance, i'm afraid, led me in a previous post to make such a sweeping statement about Blessed John Henry Newman, that he was...
"...certainly the greatest theologian the British Isles ever produced."
The Franciscan church in Santiago de Compostela has a fine statue of Blessed John Duns Scotus (d.1308); a theologian of at least equal distinction. It's almost as if i'd intoned,
"...Fred Perry was certainly the greatest tennis player the British Isles ever produced..."
The following 'Prayer for Mary’s Meals' appears on the back of some excellent little cards that i was able to distribute to people along the Camino:
Our Father
give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us for the times when we take more than our share of the bread that belongs to all. Let us help You fill the starving with good things not with scraps from our table. Teach us how to share what is not ours to keep. Clothe us with Your love that we may complete each good work you created us to do. Place in our hearts Your compassion for each starving child and use our little acts of love so that they starve no more. Amen
The culture of waste in most developed countries is absolutely grotesque. As an illustration (and this also shows how pilgrimage is intrinsically tied to divine providence), i walked virtually the entire way from Tours in central France, to Santiago de Compostela, in a pair of trainers that i found in a bin in Le Mans. They had been discarded, like so much other merchandise, and not least food, that has basically nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Here is Lydia's story, from another Mary's Meals publication that i happen to have with me:
Lydia is four and owes her life to Mary's Meals. Orphaned at 6 months old her grandmother brought her to the centre begging for help. The volunteers took some of the feeding money and bought some milk from a local farmer. As soon as Lydia was two, she came to the centre to eat and learn. She comes every day without fail and is very bright. As I watched her, she finished her own plate and the leftovers from two of her friends. What an appetite!
It is right to emphasise the appetite, but also the fact that Lydia can't afford to be fussy about eating other children's leftovers. Please think about that, and the Mary's Meals prayer above, the next time you are about to shovel perfectly edible food into your wheelie bin. And i confess, i say this as someone who used to be scarcely able to remain in the same room as, say, a piece of fruit that had the least kind of microscopic blemish.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Getting Told Off

Twice since Tours i've been ticked off, but i'm not convinced that the ticker-offers were entirely justified in either case. The first time was on the medium-sized country road leading south from Aulnay, in the Charente-Maritime region of southern France. I was upbraided (mildly, i should say) for being on the road, when the official Camino-Way was through fields some way off. To be honest though, the Camino in France is sometimes absurdly windy, not always very well marked, and on one occasion led to my being knee-deep in water, where the river Charente had burst its banks. Not only that however - a frequently seen 17th century map of the Camino actually shows that the road i was using was the authentic ancient pilgrimage route! Then last weekend i took an excursion to Valladolid, since my parents had sent a package to the Post Office in Leon, but it was closed when i arrived on Saturday lunch-time - i had nearly two days until Monday morning, when it would open. One of several very impressive churches in Valladolid (not least interesting also; they have storks everywhere, in the same way that we have seagulls) is dedicated to St James the Apostle. The altarpiece however depicts him in the frankly offensive incarnation of 'Matamores'- the Moor slayer - on a horse, with a sword in his hand, and two or three saracens prone beneath him. A sacristan told me off for taking a photograph, but in fact there was no sign anywhere to say that one couldn't take photos. Moreover, i was merely talking a picture of the Apostle to whose tomb i am still making my way, God-willing, as a pilgrim. Sometimes one can see that such depictions of St James have been doctored, so as to accord more closely with the Gospel. It seems reasonable to suppose that Spaniards would never need to be touchy about depictions of their patron saint, if such depictions were never actually in direct opposition to the basic tenets of Christianity. Mind you, on one occasion i took a photograph of a deeply impressive crucifix with the flash (since i hadn`t checked to turn it off), during the reading of the epistle, at Mass in a chapel which had a very clear 'No Photos' sign outside (i'd missed it when i went in). So on that occasion at least, i deserved to be told off but wasn`t.
   In the last few weeks it has been a privilege to meet lots of very nice, kind and interesting people, about whom i hope to write more in future, please God. The 'Peaceable Kingdom' in Moratinos deserves a special mention however!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

What's in a Name?

Quite a lot actually, especially when it's for a child who is set to become the constitutional monarch of a realm comprised of several ancient kingdoms and principalities, one of which is due to vote in a referendum on independence in September next year. For the benefit of anyone who hadn't noticed, 'George' is the name of the patron saint of England. Not of Scotland, nor of Wales, nor Ireland for that matter. It's a great name, of course, and Georges V and VI, at least, appear to have put barely a foot wrong, not unlike our own much-loved and respected Queen Elizabeth II. However, in the current political context of the referendum on Scottish independence next year, alongside all the many and various things to recommend it, it has one or two niggling difficulties, shall we say.

Still, it could have been worse. 'Edward Longshanks' or 'Jimmy Savile' are two examples that come to mind, and there are probably others.  

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

So - you have a Ph.D in walking?

A question put to me here on the Camino by a young woman from Mexico. Very funny.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Apologia Pro Via Sua

Blessed John Henry Newman (d.1890) was among the most brilliant intellects of his generation, and certainly the greatest theologian the British Isles ever produced. His autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defence of One's Life) was first published in 1864. Notable among his other works is The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated,
"...the basis of a characteristic British belief that education should aim at producing generalists rather than narrow specialists, and that non-vocational subjects - in arts or pure science - could train the mind in ways applicable to a wide range of jobs"*.
Whether this work was uppermost in the minds of the grands fromages at the University of St Andrews in the early 1990s, however, is a moot point. You see, when i enrolled at St Andrews in the autumn of 1993, the academic year consisted of three terms, broadly unchanged from the way it had been in the early 15th century, when the university was founded (this year marks its 600th anniversary; 1413-2013). There was Michaelmas, starting around the feast of the Archangel Michael on the 29th of September; Martinmas (St Martin's Day, 11th November), and Candlemas (2nd February, also known as the Feast of the Presentation). You studied your subjects, obviously, and you submitted essays; but if they weren't quite up to scratch, or if they were marked down for being a bit late, it didn't matter - one took exams at the end of the year, in order to qualify for the next year's study. Like the vast majority of my peers, i cleared this first hurdle, after the first year, without any difficulty. For a number of decades however, St Andrews has put a particular emphasis on optimising its contingent of wealthy North American students. 'Semesterisation' was one of the key outcomes of this drive, motivated by the prospect of more dosh. So my second year was divided into two semesters, and you picked up a certain number of credits for the essays that you produced, which would be totted up at the end of the year, to see if you qualified, in my case, for Honours Level study. The end-of-year exams were replaced by more 'life or death', and more demanding, 'retakes', for which you had to come back to St Andrews during the summer. In other words, without any consultation, and for reasons other than academic, the system changed. Most students were able to adjust, but a few, including myself, were not. There was now a much greater emphasis on 'coursework' - effectively, you only took exams if you 'failed' the coursework element. Leaving to one side the suspicion that coursework is the academic equivalent of the 'high heel shoe', lending an artficially contrived semblance of intellectual parity between men and women - i've always been a slow writer, and a bit of a perfectionist. As during my first year, my essays were invariably late, by a few days or even weeks. That meant they were marked down. The upshot is that i don't have an honours degree. One of my tutors in the Mediaeval History department, who knew how good my essays were, was disgusted when i told her about this, but there it is. It's like having a certificate to say that you've passed your cycling proficiency test, rather than a full driving licence. Later on it meant, for instance, that i was seen as expendable when i studied to become a history teacher on a failing PGCE course. But i was very fortunate in the sense that, having dropped out of university altogether, i could go back and complete my 'general' Arts degree. In that year i became a Catholic, taking for my confirmation the name 'James', in St James's Church, St Andrews. In the last few days, here on the Camino (in Latin Via = Way) de Santiago, i have clarified for myself that my Christian name, James, is from the Apostle St James 'the Less', whose feast is celebrated with St Philip on the 3rd of May. My confirmation name however is from St James 'the Greater', the 'brother of Our Lord', patron saint of pilgrims, to whose tomb, God-willing, i am now making my way, in order to pay him homage. I hope to make this pilgrimage useful for Mary's Meals, and i also hope, with God's help, to write about it afterwards, under the title;
The Very Last Crusade.
25th July 2013, Feast of SS James and Christopher; Burgos, España.
 *Robert Anderson, quoted in Wikipedia. John Henry Newman incidentally, acutely anxious to do well, broke down in his final examination at Oxford University, and was awarded only a third class honours degree.

This year's commemoration of Santiago has sadly been turned into a day of mourning, as a result of the appalling rail accident, near Santiago de Compostela itself, yesterday. To any readers who are so inclined, please say a prayer for the victims of this tragedy and for their families. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Via Turonensis

Near St Martin's Basilica in the stunningly beautiful old quarter of Tours, there is a small museum devoted to the history of the shrine. It features a list of famous pilgrims, among them St Clothilde (d. 545AD), the second wife of the Frankish king Clovis I. Above all (though she also won fame for her charity towards the poor and almsgiving), St. Clothilde is remembered for the decisive part she played in her husband's famous conversion to Christianity, which might in fact be called the "Baptism" of France. Noticing however that Blessed John Paul II's visit to Tours, in 1996, is only hand-written, as an addendum to the text about famous pilgrims, i decided to suggest to the attendants that they might reconsider this, since he may one day, perhaps even quite soon, become known as John Paul the Great - only the third Pope in history to be accorded this dignity, if it happens.* But the other link here is with Pope John Paul's famous challenge, in 1980, to the people of France: 

"Eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?"
And indeed it might be said that France's collective memory of her baptismal promises has been a little bit hazy at times - but at least the French don't appear to have suffered one of those massive traumas that lead to total memory loss, like the English! Mind you, it's not entirely the fault of the English that (unlike the French), there were no massive public demonstrations in support of traditional marriage. As i have explained to a number of terrifically kind and helpful French people over the last few weeks, when the subject has come up in conversation, the UK campaign against the homosexual assault on marriage and the family was hampered to some extent by our heritage of reform. It was quite natural that Protestants should take the leading role in the campaign, but it is undoubtedly the case that they were reluctant to allow Catholics to be excessively visible.

*the others being Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Sacred Heart

One of the numerous 'beginnings' of this pilgrimage was my second departure from Blantyre, Lanarkshire, on Saturday 4th May. After Mass at the Church of St Joseph there, (conscious of my hope, at some point, to visit Fatima, Portugal) i had in mind to light a candle before the statue representating Our Lady's Immaculate Heart - but the rack was full. Next to her however, was Our Lord, and His Sacred Heart, before whom the candle rack had just one empty place - at the top centre. Fast forward to Friday 7th June, and the last, somewhat bad-tempered kilometres to marvellous Mont St-Michel. I tried to flag down a horse-drawn carriage, with a full compliment of day-trippers and other visitors, to no avail. It was then explained to me, at the Tourist Info office at the foot of the steep little Mont, that they couldn't look after my baggage while i went up. Climbing wearily, i saw that Mass was celebrated in the extremely beautiful Abbey church at 12 noon each day - it was nearly 12.30, so i assumed i'd missed it. Amazingly though, as i finally entered, the Gospel acclamation was being sung. I was unable to follow the text at the time, but here is the Gospel for that day (Luke 15, 3-7):

Jesus addressed this parable to the Pharisees and scribes: "What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."

I've been told that if one is at Mass in time to hear the Gospel, one can receive Our Lord in Holy Communion (providing certain other conditions apply). Since the Eucharist is a remedy, and not a reward, as the priest gave his homily (in which i could make out some references to Jesus's Heart, so terribly wounded, and His great love, even for those, like us, who have wounded Him), i realised that i would be able to receive Communion. Then, it was only during the dismissal, after Communion, that i understood from the priest's words that on that day was celebrated the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart!

There is so much more that i could say about France, but because libraries open at funny times, and there aren't many internet cafes, i'm unable to say it in detail. Yesterday though, at the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours in Liguge, where i was accommodated by the very kind Benedictine community, i met a young man from the USA with excellent French (much better than mine). I mention this, because it happens that i was less impressed by a North American fellow who came into a cafe where i was, in Normandy. He asked for a glass of Calvados, without even knowing the word for 'please' in French. Not that i've ever been tempted to ask for a glass of Calvados. Ever since one or two regrettable experiences in my teenage years, i've been affected by a condition which might be called 'Scrumpy-Jack-na-phobia'. A fear of ciders.  

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Boulangerie - Tapisserie

Greetings from Bayeux, where the somewhat pricey internet café confines me to perhaps fewer words than usual. Faced with over-subscribed crossings from Ireland to France at the weekend, partly due to the simply immense summer holidays enjoyed by a certain proportion of Irish schoolchildren, i was fortunate to get a berth on a ferry which left Rosslare on 30th May, feast of St Joan of Arc, arriving Cherbourg on 31st, the feast of the Visitation. Subsequently i've made modest strides towards Mont St Michel, but have come by train to Bayeux from Coutances today, partly to pick up a package sent to the post office here by my very understanding parents(!).
   After a lunch of typically French pain and fromage, i made for the Tapestry, telling the story of 1066 and all that. Almost half is devoted to the visit of Harold, as Earl of Wessex, to the continent, at some time in the later years of King (St) Edward the Confessor, and his solemn oath of allegiance to Duke William; thus demonstrating the impeccable credentials of the Norman claim to the English crown. But in any case of course, it's all a very long time ago, with virtually no bearing on British society in 2013. Such descendants of those Norman invaders as there are, can be found in the most humdrum of occupations, such as Foreign Secretary (William Hague) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osborne).
   Even without the Tapestry, Bayeux would deserve to draw numerous visitors to see the spectacular cathedral, where i hope to attend Mass in honour of today's saint, Clothilde (about whom more later, God willing), in a few minutes.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Why Oliver Cromwell's beatification process was mothballed

Two Olivers, one a hero, the other a villain, must feature in any account of the historic town of Drogheda. St Oliver Plunkett was Archbishop of Armagh (Primate of Ireland) from 1669 until his execution on trumped-up charges of treason in 1681. The renown of his pastoral and administrative virtues was so great, not least his unstinting efforts to improve educational provision for both Catholic and Protestant youth, that not even a Protestant jury would convict him in Ireland. So he was re-tried at Westminster Hall in London, and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. King Charles II refused to spare his life for fear of inflaming anti-Catholic sentiment, exemplified in the previous generation by Oliver Cromwell (Charles I's murderer), whose head was still at that time displayed on a spike outside Westminster Hall (following his posthumous execution at Tyburn in 1661). Besides succeeding where Guy Fawkes failed, Cromwell was the architect of a campaign of exceptionally violent repression in Ireland, ruthless even by the standards of its day, most infamously his massacre of the Royalist garrison at Drogheda in September 1649, along with 'an unknown but significant number' of civilians (Wikipedia). St Oliver Plunkett's head, meanwhile, is displayed in a very un-grisly way in my opinion, reminiscent of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh, in Drogheda's St Peter's Church (with various other artefacts including the door of his prison cell at Tyburn), drawing huge numbers of pilgrims since its arrival from Germany in 1921. Alongside it is the following prayer:

Glorious Martyr, Oliver, who willingly
gave your life for your faith,
help us also to be strong in faith.
May we be loyal like you
to the See of Peter.

By your intercession and example
may all hatred and bitterness
be banished from the hearts
of Irish men and women.

May the peace of Christ reign
in our hearts,
as it did in your heart,
even at the moment of your death.
Pray for us and for Ireland.  Amen.

There's so much i could say about Dublin's buzz, the soul of Belfast, and curiously the festive spirit in the village of Naul on the old road that leads south from Drogheda, among other things, but they shall have to wait, either until the final write-up, God-willing, or until a later post. I've come to Ballina, County Tipperary, on a slightly cheeky stagecoach, to be looked after by a very kind cousin and his family, and must be on my way to Limerick before nightfall. May the Good Lord bless you wherever you are!

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Island of Saints and Scholars

On Friday i called in to Keegan's very finely decorated, wood-pannelled Bar, in Armagh City, to ask if the barman would fill up my water bottle. He did so, but i was summoned over to a gentleman a few meters away. Shortly afterwards, this fellow was fixing me with a direct stare and gesticulating, as he got up to leave, saying:

"If you move from here I'll wring your neck!"

He was going round the corner to buy me a spectacular portion of cod and chips! Bringing it back however, he made clear that i would have to wait until midnight before eating it, as it was Friday, and he had just returned from Medjugorje on Monday - where Our Lady has been urging observance of a fast, on bread and water, on Wednesdays and Fridays, over the last thirty years. And of course it didn't do any harm that he knew of Mary's Meals, from the cafe in Medjugorje. The fish and chip box happened to be covered in superlatives, like 'succulent', 'delicious', 'excellent', and most frequently of all - 'hot'. But the meal was certainly cold by the time i had it for a very early breakfast, at dawn, in an abandoned shed whose entrance was barely visible from the roadside some miles south of there.

In Scotland i was constantly(!) showered with donations to Mary's Meals, and generous support of one kind or another has continued in Ireland, all the way down here to Drogheda (ie on both sides of the political divide). Near Dundalk i was taken in their car by a solicitous local couple on a detour to the Shrine of St Brigid, at Faughart, learning there about the reed cross which the 'Mary of the Gael' is said to have sewn together, for the edification of a dying chieftain, to whom she administered the rite of baptism. From the hill-top there, shrouded in mist, could be seen the 'Gap of the North', or 'Moyry Pass', where numerous battles have been fought, this being a point of access to Ulster, not encumbered by forest or mountains. And one of these, in 1318, claimed the life of a personage who inevitably caught my eye, and whose burial place is believed to be on that very hill-top - Edward Bruce, a younger brother of the more famous Robert.

On the way here to Drogheda on the feast of Pentecost yesterday, a fellow among the crowd at O'Connors Gaelic Football ground saw me pass by, and signalled that i should go over and watch the game. Never having seen it before, that half hour or so was a revelation in terms of the game's skill, speed and fluency. And feeling especially worn out as i came near here last night, a kind lady offered me a lift which i couldn't refuse, and took me to the excellent 'Spoon and the Stars' hostel, where i was made to feel truly at home, and slept brilliantly, having been treated to pizza and great company (to the point where i could even forgive the co-proprietor's wearing a Chelsea shirt this morning...).

There's a certain irony in the popular stereotype of the Irish, among English people especially, that they somehow lack intelligence. Their loyalty to Christianity, of principally the Roman Catholic but also the Reformed varieties, has contributed to this, but how far does this merit their designation, for so many centuries, as second, or even third class citizens?

While there are people of every race and creed in Ireland, it isn't the Irish who took away the legal protection for unborn children, resulting in a demographic situation in England where literally hundreds of schools now have no, or only dwindling minorities of ethnically British pupils, and where cities like London, Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds and Leicester have growing "Muslim neighbourhoods" - and who can blame Muslims for having the common decency to respect the human rights of their own dear unborn children?

It isn't the Irish who stubbornly persist in exploiting human embryos for research purposes, even after scientific progress in the area of stem cells has made this totally unnecessary, as well as barbaric.

And it isn't Irish politicians who have arrogantly decided that marriage was up for redefinition, to suit the faddish whims of an increasingly witless, moribund culture - or Irish politicians who fancy that, once marriage has been mucked about with once, it won't happen again.

From today's morning prayer in Magnificat, a monthly magazine which a friend gave me before i left:

"Beside the river that watered the garden of Eden, God offered the first couple the choice between obedient love and self-seeking death. The choice remains ours to make each day."

Friday, 10 May 2013

Ayr on a Shoe String


How does one economise on a journey from Dalmally, near Oban, to Ayr - going via Moscow?

Very simple really. After East Kilbride, you take the A719 via the village of Moscow! At Craig Lodge, Dalmally, where Mary's Meals is based, it was splendid to stay in a beautiful room under the special protection of St Patrick (who i've seen more than once claimed for Scotland in the past couple of weeks). I also spent an extra night in a beehive cell, like those inhabited by the very earliest Christian missionaries to Scotland and Ireland, on the mountainside above Craig Lodge, reading part of St Adamnan's extraordinary Life of St Columba, and a short treatise on St Kessog. On the way down to my second visit to the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, there was outstanding free accommodation and hospitality from Rev Dane Sherrard, a Church of Scotland minister responsible for the above-mentioned account of St Kessog, who specialises in pilgrimage at Luss (a friend of my Dad's), and from Fr Willy Slavin, the parish priest of St Simon's church in Partick (a Scot who has in fact a better claim to be Bristolian than i have, being born and baptised in Filton). Every year there is a walk from St Simon's to Blantyre, to commemorate the inestimable help in learning Latin given to the young David Livingstone by Fr Daniel Gallagher, enabling him to matriculate as a student of medicine at the university of Glasgow. Something i learnt at his birthplace museum in Blantyre (for which Fr Slavin bought me a ticket), inclines me to believe very strongly that, even if the international media don't know anything about the walk i hope to do, Dr David Livingstone himself does. As a result of the extra night in Dalmally, i left there on Wednesday 1st of May - the 140th anniversary of the death of Dr Livingstone, in the early hours of May 1st 1873. Previously i had left Blantyre in the week of the 200th anniversary of his birth: 19th March 1813. Interestingly, both these dates are feasts of St Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. And here's where i do a bit of speculation. Scotland has very long established links to Malawi, dating from Dr Livingstone's journeying there in the 19th century, hence the place names Blantyre and Livingstonia. And there is no better single representative of these enduring ties than the work of Mary's Meals, originating there, and now helping a quarter of a million hungry schoolchildren in numerous countries around the world to receive a meal in their place of education . So i believe that Dr Livingstone is no less keen to tell the world about Mary's Meals than any of the tireless volunteers, employees and helpers who generously devote so much of their time and resources to it.

This journey is principally inspired by the film Child 31, which i cannot reccommend highly enough:

Apologies for being a bit remiss in keeping this blog up to date - and i only have a few more minutes in this library in Newton Stewart, Galloway. Thanks be to God however, the knee has been fine. I'm currently on my way, God-willing, to Whithorn, where St Ninian built Scotland's first ever church, dedicated to St Martin of Tours (a special Protector, with St Joseph and Dr Livingstone, of this pilgrimage) - and i now hope, with God's help, to continue not via England, but via Ireland.

Monday, 8 April 2013

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"[1]

The David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, Lanarkshire, 22nd March 2013
The preparations and first days of this journey, in which God-willing i hope to walk as far as reasonably possible from Blantyre, Lanarkshire, to Blantyre, Malawi, have done nothing to diminish my conviction that there is an intrinsic connection between pilgrimage and divine providence. 'Northern Cross' is an annual religious roam from various points in southern Scotland and northern England to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, partly inspired by the 7th century peregrinations of St Cuthbert. When i signed up to be part of it in February, i already had the outline of an African enterprise in mind, but i wasn't certain initially that there would be any connection between the two treks. With about 10 days to go however, not only was it reported on BBC radio, that the week of our departure from Lanark would see celebrations of the bicentenary of the birth of famous African missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone, in Blantyre, just up the road from Lanark; but a google search of 'Blantyre' brought up the one in Malawi, which turns out to be the very place i hope to reach, with God's help; it was here in 2002 that Mary's Meals began! I would not have expected to be doing another of these walks, but the premiere of 'Child 31'[2] in Glasgow last November got me thinking about how i might try to be of further assistance, not least as i had just finished writing the account of my Mexico mission. Needless to say, i am immensely privileged to have an opportunity to try to do this, and i pray that i may never pass up any chance to thank the Lord for His goodness to me.

Naïve clouds over Dalkeith; Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh in the distance

   Having said all that, on Friday morning, on my way to Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, as naïve clouds with ruled-line undersides sailed serenely across the cobalt heavens above, my knee went. I ascribe this principally to walking too far too fast, after stopping over Easter at my home in Berwick-on-the-Scottish-side-of-the-Tweed.[3] It means however that i'm under doctor's orders to rest and recuperate, which i've chosen to do here in Dundee, staying for a few nights in a youth hostel occupying a fascinating merchant's house known as 'Gardyne's Land', dating back to around 1560, with some sections even older; "...the only complete domestic survivor from the time when Dundee was Scotland's second city." From here i hope to make my way to St Andrews, then west to Dalmally, where Mary's Meals is famously based in a shed.
   On my arrival in Blantyre in the early evening of Thursday 21st March, i had every reason to think that a night out in the snowy open air lay before me. I might have known however, that after Mass in St Joseph's Church i'd be spontaneously invited to a prayer meeting, where everyone knew all about Dalmally and Mary's Meals, and that having given me a significant amount of sponsorship money, one of their number (a Protestant, as it happens), would offer to put me up on his sofa! Next morning i was taken to Blantyre's David Livingstone centre in this gentleman's car, then up the road a few miles to visit a priest friend of his, Fr Dominic Towey, at St John the Baptist in Uddingston, where around £130,000 has been raised by parishioners for Mary's Meals over the years. He gave me a blessing and yet another kind donation, after which i put up very little resistance to the idea of driving to Carluke, leaving only a modest amble to St Mary's Church in Lanark, where i fell in with the cheerful troop of Northern Cross pilgrims from a range of denominations, whose excellent company i would keep on the way to Lindisfarne.

Red Squirrel. An hour or so after seeing it we came to a sign next to the road, saying that Grey Squirrels were introduced in 1872.                                                                                                                                

   Our walk, in which pairs of us took turns to carry an 8 foot wooden cross, was characterised by sometimes heavy snow falling on us during the day, followed by often wonderful hospitality being showered on us in the evenings. Over a Passover supper on Maundy Thursday Lauren, one of a brother/sister duo who were outstanding ambassadors for California, invited everyone to share their high and low-points. It didn't come to me at the time, but a high for me was the fish and chips we had for supper in Biggar, after we'd been invited in for a cup of tea in 007's kitchen (you had to be there), and i'd been to Palm Sunday vigil Mass at the Church of St Isidore of Seville, which is actually the converted front room of someone's house. I was technically fasting from fish and dairy products for Lent, but the chip shop had inadvertantly given us an extra portion of haddock, so it seemed rude not to help find a home for it! Besides this, there was a rare lowland sighting of a red squirrel on the way to Selkirk, and a really super supper in the Manse there (as also in St Boswells and Kelso), where a parishioner introduced me to Robert Burns' 'Selkirk Grace':

'Some ha[v]e meat and canna eat,
And some wad [would] eat that want it;
But we ha[v]e meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.'

1955 tractor to escort us over the river Till
In Kelso i must never forget how Helen, our organiser and leader on the Lanark leg, rescued me from a deep hole i was digging for myself, when i ventured the opinion that perhaps our trifle could be described as 'Scotch', by virtue of the fact that Rev Tom had been, in his words, 'stingy' with the sherry he put in it - but i wasn't suggesting Scottish people are stingy! "How could you be", asked Helen, without missing a beat, "when all the available evidence is so stacked against such a conclusion?" On Maundy Thursday we visited the battlefield of Flodden, whose quincentenary falls in September this year, and sang a few bars of 'Flower of Scotland'. Soon afterwards there was an Indiana Jones-esque moment when a thick layer of moss had to be removed from a signpost, directing us to Etal; then we saw an otter in the river Till, across which we were graciously escorted in a cart behind a tractor driven by a gentleman farmer from central casting. Then there was the final tramp on Good Friday, much longer than i expected, in bare feet, across the sometimes thick, always cold mud and occasionally sharp seashells, to Holy Island; taking care not to stray the wrong side of a row of wooden markers (tree-trunks driven into the mud), where there is treacherous quick-sand. The camaraderie and hymn-singing with a great assemblage of other pilgrims was memorable there, and our being snapped by a large contingent of press photographers. Brian (Lauren's brother) came up with the best joke of the day, when he asked one of the organisers, "How many photographers have you lost over the years?"
   Here in Dundee it happens (providentially) that i've been able to meet up with a couple who i met at a pro-life conference a few years ago. She had an outstanding letter published in this weekend's Scottish Catholic Observer, which i feel obliged to reproduce here:

Charity begins with the basics of life

"I refer to Mary McGinty's article, [SCO February 22], and wholly agree that we must be careful when donating to charities if we do not wish to compromise our beliefs.
   Some months ago, in the letters section of your paper, a dismayed parishioner had expressed concern that the parish priest had sanctioned the display of a poster promoting a Christian Aid event. The priest said that Christian Aid did a lot of good work. It is true that it does do a great deal of good, but it also funds 'reproductive health' projects, which in essence means the carrying out of abortions and distributing abortifacient contraceptives and so on to young girls in developing countries. Unfortunately, several other well-known charities do the same.
   What the charities should be doing rather, is working to bring a reduction in maternal deaths. Well over 90% of the world's maternal deaths take place in developing countries. The majority of these deaths are easily preventable by basic healthcare and living conditions, which the rest of the world has long taken for granted.
   If only charities, such as Christian Aid, would help these types of projects instead of putting funds into population control, women in developing countries could be properly looked after during childbirth."

MB Kobylarska O'Sullivan

[1]Attributed to HM Stanley, November 1871.
[2]A very powerful documentary about Mary's Meals by Grassroots Films which i cannot recommend highly enough.
[3]more commonly known as Berwick-upon-Tweed.

[some names have been changed]

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

XV Rome: The Eternal City

Minor ailments notwithstanding, it was wonderful to be visiting Rome, my excuse being that i’d been invited to a wedding in Calabria, in the far south of Italy, taking place at the end of the week. It meant that i could see the Vatican and the captivating interior of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time - on my only previous visit, as a feckless atheist teenager, i’d been wearing shorts and wasn’t allowed in. On Sunday 7th August i went to Mass in the little chapel at the airport, before taking a bus into town, from which could be seen a poster about an anti-war demonstration on the day before, 6th August, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Before long i was in St Peter’s Square, but though the weather was more or less perfect, i realised my cold would preclude me from queueing to go inside the great church. After some time in an internet café, a nap on a park bench, and pottering about near the Colloseum, after dark i found a nice not-too-expensive hotel near Rome Termini train station. Feeling better on Monday 8th August, St Dominic’s day, i opted for an organised tour of the Vatican museums, with a young guide from the US, featuring of course a stunning wealth of breathtaking masterpieces, not least frescoes by Raphael and some very worthwhile daubs by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, the subject of a Russian language book which i bought for a friend. Also on sale was a well-thumbed copy of the second part of Pope Benedict’s epoch-defining biography of Our Lord, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Any doubts over buying it were dispelled, when i opened it to a page with a little fold in the corner, to find a commentary on these words from St John’s Gospel:
St Peter's Basilica, Rome

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” [John 17:20-21]

“For this the Lord prayed: for a unity that can come into existence only from God and through Christ and yet is so concrete in its appearance that in it we are able to see God’s power at work. That is why the struggle for the visible unity of the disciples of Jesus Christ remains an urgent task for Christians of all times and places.”

   Walsingham is almost unique, outside the Holy Land, in holding a place in the affections of the faithful of all three major branches of Christianity, making it the ideal place from which to set off, on Christian Unity Sunday,  on an expedition dedicated to the cause of Christian unity; “…so that the world may believe”. My prayer has been that God would take this pilgrimage as His own and use it expressly for this most dearly cherished aspiration. Because Christian unity is a matter of life and death. Not only in terms of the eternal salvation of the souls of people who can make themselves seen and heard (important as that is), but concretely, Christian unity is a matter of life and death for those who are hampered in their ability to be seen or heard. Who could have imagined, in the age of the electron microscope, that the course of western history would take such a barbaric turn, as to see the condemnation of our fellow human beings, deeming them fit for nothing more than summary slaughter, for the ‘crime’ of being invisible to the naked eye? These are our children - the most precious members of any and every society. These little infants are the future of our society. They are the teachers, nurses, builders, doctors, train drivers; sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandparents of the future. Or at the other end of life, how could we have become so unfeeling as to give credence to the notion that our fellow humans can be considered as no more than burdens, inconvenient remnants of the past, no longer worthy to occupy space on earth, for whom there must be a conveyor belt into the grave? Never has there been such merciless contempt for the weakest, most utterly defenceless members of our society as there is now. Christian disunity, insofar as it impedes efforts to speak out on their behalf, is the end of the world for those people who depend on someone – anyone, to speak for them. And ironically, given that selfishness undoubtedly is at the heart of our cultural malaise, this obligation to speak out is firmly rooted in self-interest. How many times must we see the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, before acknowledging that they apply to us, here and now?

“First they came for the communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a communist
Then they came for the socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me”

“And Jesus knowing their thoughts, said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate: and every city or house divided against itself shall fall.” [Mt 12:25]

   When the tour had finished i came round the Vatican’s magnificent outer walls, and back to St Peter’s Square. After an hour or so of joyful wonderment and meditation inside St Peter’s Basilica, and praying at the tomb of Blessed John XXIII, i took a photo of a pair of Swiss guards, and called out the name of San Dominico to some Dominicans in their distinctive black and white habits. The journey by train to Calabria allowed me to make yet another pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, to Bari, at whose thousand year-old Basilica i could pray for young people and the cause of Christian unity before the tomb of St Nicholas of Mira, the fourth century Bishop so dearly beloved of Christians, and indeed Muslims, and above all children the world over. May he please pray for us.     

   Mount Etna, the active volcano on the island of Sicily, fumed dramatically in the background as we celebrated the wedding, not far from Reggio di Calabria. Boarding another locomotive, i headed home via the enchanted Alpine scenery of Austria, before arriving in Munich, where it proved helpful to be able to fix myself up with one last improvised sleep, in the basement of a recently constructed apartment block. On the next day i economised by taking a train with numerous connections to Dusseldorf, including a passage through the valley of the Rhine, encrusted with seemingly dozens of fairy tale castles. An overnight coach from the Ruhr passed through Brussels on its way to Calais, from where we crossed by ferry to Dover, before reaching London on the morning of Monday 15th August, when the Church traditionally marks the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven.

   In expounding the relative merits of the three principal prayers of each decade of the Rosary, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be, Blessed John Paul II stated that the summit of contemplation is focused on the last:

"To the extent that meditation on the mystery is attentive and profound, and to the extent that it is enlivened - from one Hail Mary to another - by love for Christ and for Mary, the glorification of the Trinity at the end of each decade, far from being a perfunctory conclusion, takes on its proper contemplative tone, raising the mind as it were to the heights of heaven, and enabling us in some way to relive the experience of [the Transfiguration], a foretaste of the contemplation yet to come: 'It is good for us to be here!'" [Lk. 9:33; RVM, no. 34].

   So conceivably, one might conclude from this that while the Rosary is a Marian devotion, in which Our Lady as it were takes us by the hand and leads us through the life of her Son, nevertheless its apogee, the Glory be, transcends Mary, and lifts our thoughts above the one who, after all, is but a mortal; the Mother, yes, but also a mere creature, in need of her Saviour, like everyone else. Could this be the key to unity? Must we moderate our devotion to Mary, seen as she is, even by some Christians, as a distraction, or worse an infantile preoccupation, an idol, even. Not on your life. Among human beings, nobody’s perfect – except St Mary, the Immaculate Conception.[1] On one level, the Glory be is a prayer of acclamation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary; she who is, uniquely in our race, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: World Without End. Amen.

[1] “The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.” [Wikipedia]

Musicians and dancers gathering at Zocalo Cathedral, Mexico City, to mark the IXth anniversary of the canonisation of
St Juan Diego, 30 July 2011