Thursday, 21 April 2011

Open the box

I’ve been hesitating about writing about what is in the box. It seems too public. Too confessional. A little too personal. And yet there is nothing in the box, for all its secrets light and dark I wouldn’t share with a fellow pilgrim on the road to Santiago. I’ve also realised that the box contains some of the milestones of the longer pilgrimage I’ve been on. So here goes.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to dispose of the clutter in my life. The clothes I haven’t worn for a year were ruthlessly separated from the rest and taken to charity shop or dump. My books have almost all gone save a half a dozen too unbearable to part with. Ornaments, pictures, that fancy thing to peel a cucumber and the steak knives still in their box are all gone. The white walls of my home are bare. I’ve done this before in my life when there has been a major change. I’ve had that feeling that I should get rid of everything but never had enough courage or faith or stupidity to do it. Because no matter how hard I try some things just have to stay with me. Someone else can throw them out one day. These are the things I’ve found all over the place and as I have encountered them I’ve been putting them in a box. As if to prevent myself filling it up I’ve put it on a top shelf where it sits both threatening me and tempting me to open it and relive the memories inside. Just one more time. I’ve now opened it to write this.
In a corner is a simple silver box blackened with age. The cover has the head of a Pope long since dead. It contains the rosary beads given to me for my first communion over 50 years ago. I can remember the day if I try. A child in school uniform egged on by proud parents into a church which would fuel a deep ambivalence for the rest of my life. Then my eye is drawn as if to escape the sacred to a piece of paper extracted from an old wallet. Once carefully folded it was looked at so frequently in its day the creases are separating. "My true love hath my heart...never was a better bargain driven." The little boy with his rosary beads could not have known what heartbreaks life would bring and also the joys. On balance I think I have gained much more than lost.
An ancient death certificate describes a family mystery of a long gone relative who died of multiple injuries having fallen from a window. Successive generations always pondered whether he jumped or was pushed. No one was quite sure the family legend had actually occurred until I did some research and obtained a copy of the certificate. The event is confirmed but the mystery remains unsolved.
The cheap leatherette pouch also held a mystery. It came from my parents’ house after they had both died. I remember the day I opened it to find a small cardboard box in mint condition. Unopened. From inside I drew out one by one four medals of shiny metal with crisp new ribbons which had never seen the light of day. I’ve taken them out today. The box is addressed to my father and contains the Burma Star marking his war service in that country. Also there is the War Medal which everyone got. I knew he had been in the war and I knew he had been in Burma. The other two: the Defence Medal for brave conduct in a non operational setting and the Battle of Britain Medal remain surprises. Not only had he not opened the box, he had never talked about what he actually did in the war. Rather he talked about how futile it was, how politicians could never be trusted to genuinely seek peaceful solutions before armed conflict, how his own church was compromised by not condemning Hitler. Some considered his views radical but he won everyone’s respect. He was the man in the street where we lived who wrote letters for people who couldn’t write. Who spoke up for fellow workers. Who had to educate himself but made sure I got and took the opportunities which had been denied to him.
I laugh when I see two other things in the box. My own “medal” presented by President Ortega, the Order of the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution in Nicaragua for work others did supporting medical aid when that country was war torn. And sitting ironically beside it two napkin rings from Charles and Diana’s Wedding. The Old Man thoroughly approved of the first and heartily laughed at the second.
The family photographs are there nestling with memorial cards and funeral Orders of Service. One or two special pens. A small and odd assortment of photos of people I know were family whose only record are the images in sepia tones. If I threw them out all memory of them would be gone
Placed carefully in the box are the photographs of my own children at all the various stages of their development. You can see their impish cheekiness. Their growing sense of adventure. Their beauty which is all the more acute to a father’s eyes. What could not be known then were the profound challenges they would face. But there are some things we cannot change. Sometimes all we can do is pray and when that appears not to work some of us walk.
That brings me to the last items I want to show you. They lie on top of all the things that bring memories of joy or sadness. They are my credenciales. To me more important than the Compostelas rolled into one cardboard tube, the Pilgrim Passports remain separate in all their glory. A glance at the sellos brings instant memories of walking in Spain; of particular places and memorable people. They are records of my journeys of hope because that’s how I’ve come to think about pilgrimage. I think it may be the special gift of the Camino. Pilgrims are hopeful people. We hope for a bed every night. We hope it doesn’t rain. We hope the food will be good in the next village. We hope that our water will last until the next fountain. We hope we will meet someone when we are lonely and we hope that the pilgrim we have met who won’t stop talking will go away. We hope that we can be as nice to other people as they are to us because we are pilgrims. When we go to bed at night with sore bones and throbbing feet we hope it will all feel better in the morning. It always does. So in the end the credenciales represent hope in the box. I’m quite happy with that thought.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Pilgrim Blessing

In the last few weeks more e mails have arrived from pilgrims than ever before. The pilgrimage season is up on us and pilgrims want to find out about latest updates to the guidebooks, advice about accommodation in various places or just to chat through e mail about the mounting excitement as the departure date approaches. I really enjoy this contact. It is as if I can walk with them without actually being there. Sometimes pilgrims e mail en route to let me know how it is going or to pass on information to others coming behind them. Whatever the reason it is great to hear from them especially when I get the final e mail saying “I made it!”

Recently I’ve had several such e mails from pilgrims about the Camino Inglés. This is a splendid little route of 5 days walking from Ferrol to Santiago. It has its challenges and pilgrims are well advised to do some preparation and training in advance. Just because it is relatively short doesn’t mean it is easy all the way! That is why it is a real blessing for me to hear about pilgrims arriving in Santiago at the end of the route. They write with huge enthusiasm and sense of achievement.
Talking of blessings. I’ve had several e mails in the last year asking if I know of a Pilgrim Blessing which pilgrims can be given before they set out. Sometimes pilgrims want to ask their local priest or minister to do this for them. Information is fairly difficult to come by and some of the texts are medieval sounding translations of medieval blessings. So when musical friends Elena and Piotr announced they were going off on the Camino Francés from León to Santiago next week it provided the ideal opportunity to write a blessing for them. This morning they received their blessing, scallop shells and walking sticks and a bottle of wine to toast their departure. Here is the text for anyone who wishes to use it:

Father God we pray for these pilgrims Elena and Piotr who are soon to leave these shores to travel to the tomb of St James, The Great in Santiago de Compostela. In doing so they will honour St James, apostle, friend of Jesus and martyr for his faith.
That faith has a long tradition of pilgrimages, of the faithful travelling to holy places for religious reasons. The very word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin “peregrine” which means “foreigner” or “wanderer”; someone who travels in faith to another place in a journey set apart from their normal lives.
For this reason Abraham is recognised as the first pilgrim described in scripture because he was called to journey to the land chosen by God. Centuries later, Abraham’s descendents embarked on their pilgrimage to the Promised Land from Egypt. The birth of Jesus himself is marked by the pilgrimage of the Magi, the three kings who followed the star to pay homage to the messiah and it is recorded that Jesus himself travelled on pilgrimage many times to Jerusalem.
We pray that Elena and Piotr be inspired by these examples of pilgrimage described in Sacred Scripture.
Father God we ask you to bless these scallop shells, the traditional symbols of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela – we pray that Elena and Piotr bear them proudly to their destination at the tomb of the apostle.
Father God we ask you to bless these sticks symbols of the support Elena and Piotr will receive from friends old and new who they will meet on the way.
Father God we ask you to bless Elena and Piotr. May they travel safely and enjoy days of happy and prayerful companionship and nights of restful sleep until they reach their journey’s end.
Together we say the Pilgrims’ Prayer:
St James, Apostle
Chosen among the first
You were the first to drink
The Cup of the Master
And you are the great protector of pilgrims;
Make us strong in faith
And happy in hope
On our pilgrim journey
Following the path of Christian life
And sustain us so that
We may finally reach the glory of God the Father
Elena and Piotr as you go from this place to begin your final preparations, leave with the love and fond good wishes of all who know you. Bow your heads as we pray for God’s blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your cheeks.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The wine could not have been more appropriate for a musical pilgrim. I intend to celebrate with it myself when Lent is over!
Do you need a priest or a bottle of wine for the Blessing I can hear you ask. The answer is that you don’t need a priest – do it yourself. Simply read it aloud or better still read it with someone else particularly if you are going with other pilgrims. Bless each other. However whilst others may disagree I’d say the wine isn’t optional.

For those who may wish to use older forms of Pilgrim Blessing here are some more:

"In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, receive this pouch, habit for your pilgrimage, so that, castigated and corrected, you hasten to prostrate at Saint James' feet, where you yearn to arrive and, after having completed your journey, you come to us delighted with the help of God, who rules over the world without end. Amen.
Receive this staff as support for the journey and your efforts during your pilgrimage so that you are able to defeat the throngs of enemies and thus arrive safely at Saint James' feet and, after having completed your journey, you come to us delighted with the consent of the same God, who lives in and rules over Heaven without end. Amen."
And another which is the text of a medieval rite dated 1078 preserved in the Missal of Vich Cathedral, Barcelona, Spain. At the Abbey of Roncesvalles the blessing is used at the end of the Mass for the blessing of pilgrims passing through.
Priest: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Response: Who made heaven and earth.
Priest: The Lord be with you.
Response: And also with you.
Let us pray.
O Lord whose word makes all things holy, bless we beseech you these emblems, rucksacks and staffs to be used on this pilgrimage. May all those who carry them arrive safely at the shrine of St. James the Apostle, the objective of their journey. We ask this through Christ our Lord.R: Amen
Presenting the Rucksacks
(When presenting the rucksacks the priest says: “In the name of the Lord”)
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, shoulder these rucksacks which will help you during your pilgrimage. May the fatigue of carrying them be expiation for your sins, so that when you have been forgiven you may reach the shrine of St. James full of courage, and when your pilgrimage is over, return home full of joy. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R: Amen
Presenting the shells and other emblems
Receive these shells and medals, as signs of your pilgrimage. With God’s grace may you behave as true pilgrims throughout your entire journey and be able to reach your objective, which is to visit the shrine of St, James and gain indulgences. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R: Amen
Blessing the Pilgrims
Lord Jesus Christ, you taught us through the Apostle St Paul that here below we have no lasting city and must always seek the heavenly city. Hear our prayers for these pilgrims we commission. May the Holy Spirit breathe his grace into their hearts; may he enliven their faith, strengthen their hope and feed the flame of their love. May they thus make their pilgrimage in the true spirit of penance, sacrifice and expiation. May the same spirit purify their minds from every evil thought. May he defend their hearts and give them the constant help of his protection so that they can reach the objective of their journey safely and by means of this pilgrimage they are now starting merit to come one day to the heavenly Jerusalem. You who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
R: Amen
May the Lord always guide your steps and be your inseparable companion throughout your journey.
R: Amen
May our Lady of Roncesvalles grant you her motherly protection, defend you against all dangers of soul and body. Through her intercession may you arrive safely at the end of your pilgrimage.
R: Amen
May St Raphael the Archangel accompany you throughout your journey as he accompanied Tobias and ward off every contrary or troublesome incident.
R: Amen
And may almighty God bless you, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
R: Amen
Go in the peace of Christ
Translated from a French version of the Latin original by Brother David Leo fsc.
Copies available from the Confraternity of St James

Friday, 1 April 2011

Thank you St James

I never thought it I would ever become scared to visit a blog…especially my own. However dear readers those of you who call in here occasionally may have noticed that for the last 25 days I haven’t written a word. I’ve had thoughts about things to write about. I’ve even logged on. But whenever I see the countdown clock I experience a rising panic that I am running out of time to get everything done. I’ve been busy.
The last 26 days have been crazy. First I had to cram in social engagements before Lent began on 9th March. These started with lunch with Adrian and Paula who are thinking of walking the Via de la Plata. He is a lawyer to trade now a judge, she is an academic specialising in education. They are also pilgrims.
I encountered them on a hot, sunny afternoon on the Camino Portuguese. They were carrying substantial rucksacks but they walked with the steady and determined pace of experienced pilgrims. It turn out they had walked the Camino Francés from France and enjoyed it so much they were exploring other routes. After the Camino Portugues they went on to walk the Camino Inglés.They have also walked to Finisterre. Adrian and Paula walk every step of the way and carry every ounce of their kit on their backs. It is also their preference to sleep in good hotels each night. We laughingly call them the “Parador Pilgrims”. They stoutly defend their right to continue to do what many medieval pilgrims did who slept in inns along the way. At least they aren’t being carried by servants like some in the past! The meticulous planning and booking of the itinerary is down to Adrian who has made his plans available on his website. To see it go here.  Adrian and Paula are fast becoming firm friends. Another gift of the Camino.

Then just before Ash Wednesday a different group of friends assembled for a final evening of festivities before the rigours of Lent began. I’ve told you before about the dressing up and partying that goes on in Galicia during Carnaval…that was replicated by friends in London who even included a re-enactment of La Quemada, a potion of homemade liquor set alight and served accompanied by a long poem about the witches and spirits of Galicia. During the high jinks of the evening I realised that if I hadn’t walked that first Camino I wouldn’t have been sitting there with all of these friends.
But as Lent began so too did serious preparations to go to Spain. First though there was the important matter of Brendan’s funeral. There were very few people there. “I’ve outlived them all” was his boast. I played and a young actor who Brendan had mentored recited the most beautiful sonnet. Then an older woman spoke. She was an actor too and wanted to thank Brendan on behalf of her whole profession for the help he had given her and many others as struggling young actors, “he fed us, tutored us and loved us” she said. To the strains of the Beethoven he had requested the curtains in the crematorium closed on Brendan for the last time. We all applauded.
I then launched into emptying cupboards, packing boxes and opening files which haven’t seen the light of day for years. I’ve been rigorous with my clothes – out have gone the city suits, the shirts with cuffs and the silk ties. That stuff was easy and I’ve made numerous journeys to local charity shops. More difficult were the books. I made the mistake of lifting one off the shelf and opening it before deciding if it would stay or go. 30 minutes later I was still thinking about it. “You’ll never get to Spain at this rate” I thought. So with a large leap of faith I’ve ditched most of them and a few lonely tomes now sit on the bare shelves waiting for transportation.

If the books were bad, sorting the music was worse. To be honest like many other musicians I’ve been hoarding for years. After several attempts I eventually disposed of my collection of musical hall scores from before World War 2 and lots of other pieces. I don't  think I'm likely to need the music for the Can Can. Do you?  Donations to local music teachers followed and gradually I am working my way along the shelves. I hate this bit.
At one point I felt the anxiety rising again – “Will I be ok”, “Will it all work out?” “Should you stop this nonsense now, John?” Taking a break from packing and worrying I got on with another project which has been waiting for some time, writing a guide to The James’ Way a new walking route in England devised by the Confraternity of St James. It covers 70 miles from Reading to Southampton and goes through historic sites, beautiful countryside and wonderful English villages. The route is dotted with 12 century churches, gorgeous stretches of river walking and frequent choices between having lunch in an ancient country churchyard or the local village pub. The route can be walked in 5 stages returning to London or another base each night or sleeping over on the way. The guide is largely written and when it is finished I’ll tell you much more about it. It will be published on the CSJ website as an on-line guide and I predict this route is going to become a “must do” for pilgrims in the UK and from abroad. When you see the pictures you may agree.
I very much enjoyed the walking and the writing. I could leave to start walking in Spain right now. But first of course I have to find tenants for my property and there is the little matter of getting all my stuff over there.
As I told you I had been plagued by estate agents when I made initial enquiries. They added to my feeling of panic. So I told them all that I would select one and get back to them one month before I was due to leave. I did that last week. They appeared literally almost instantly with cameras and clip board. Viewing hours were arranged. Each Saturday and Sunday 10 – 1.30 pm and each evening 5 – 8pm. With the thought of strangers coming into my home I started cleaning the place. Again.
Then I called in to see Don Antonio in La Terazza to ask if he could recommend a company to take my stuff to Spain. I should have known. “Si señor, my very good friend, he has been to this place many times, he delivers many things between Galicia and Londres. “ Without a pause, Antonio phoned the chap in Spain. “Si, si, si, si, si, 15 boxes, Santiago, si, si.” Antonio put down the phone and beamed. “It is all fixed, he comes to Londres twice a month. He will come on the date you tell him and deliver 3 – 4 days later.” Phew. What a relief.
With one problem solved I steeled myself for the invasion of the house viewers poking around. I decided to go out and leave it to the agents. So last Saturday to avoid the first of them off I went to walk the final stage of the St James’ Way from Winchester to Southampton. Exhausted I got back to find a note from the estate agents. “First viewings went well, we have client who wishes to lease your property at the price we asked for a period of two years.” Deal done. I can stop cleaning.

I’m on my way. St James, if you had a hand in this – thanks.