Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘pilgrimage’

It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.

Don Bosco Relics Pilgrimages to Westminster Cathedral  by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying – devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.

I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.

I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.

I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.

When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!

Read Full Post »

Why is it that tourists want to see Michelangelo’s Pietá in St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but show little interest in searching out other staggering works by the same artists just a few minutes away? Only certain stellar works have this mysterious power to attract huge crowds.

Tourists in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

Martin Gayford thinks it’s because contemporary cultural tourism is not about our appreciation for art or the pleasure we take in visiting new places, it’s about a raw obligation we feel to pay homage to certain objects, and to tell ourselves and others that we have fulfilled this obligation. He recalls standing in front of the Pietá:

Around me there broke a ceaseless tide of humanity. Some, a minority, simply looked at it, one touching family — from, I think, South America — holding tiny children up to gaze at the distant Madonna with her dead son. Most simply took a photograph, often on their mobile phones. As I stood there, a burly American shouldered his way forward, bent on displacing a small man of East Asian appearance who was busily snapping on his iPhone, and as he did so he assertively barked out, ‘Next!’

He had, I realised, understood precisely what was going on. This mêlée in which we were jammed together had nothing to do with art appreciation. It was a queue to take a photograph. The urgency of the desire to capture the famous object on your camera makes it nearly impossible to contemplate. Every day at the height of the season, thousands of pictures are taken of this object, all largely identical and all bad — since it is impossible to get a good image of a work like this from 20 feet away through glass.

Gayford notes the suffering that the tourists have endured to get this close to the sculpture: the Roman heat, the queues, the airport-type security. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

But in a way, modern tourists are more like pilgrims than the damned. They share the same focus on a few closely defined sights. I saw a similar torrent of humankind — indeed much greater — at the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam at Mashhad in eastern Iran, all bent on getting to the grill that surrounds his tomb. Once there — a place too sacred for unbelievers to intrude — they cling on to ironwork, which is worn away steadily by their touch so that every few decades it has to be replaced.

The contemporary tourist-pilgrim must visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, ‘Pietà’, and ‘Moses’, just as in France they must form a crocodile round the flower beds of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or in Egypt sweat it out at the Pyramids of Giza. Enjoyment has little to do with it.

The mystery, perhaps an insoluble one, is what anyone gets out of mass cultural tourism. The appeal of other varieties of popular travel — the beach, the pool, the ski slope — is obvious enough. But what satisfaction can be found in pounding round hot and packed streets, probably following a guide with a little flag, and stopping at certain points to take a photograph of something the appearance of which is completely familiar to almost everybody alive in the first place?

The difference between modern tourists and the visitors to shrines and relics is that religious pilgrims get some spiritual benefit — at its most concrete, so many years less to spend in Purgatory, a step towards salvation. Whereas the 21st-century, postmodern tourist gets nothing but a digital photograph, perhaps to be posted on a social-networking site sometime later. As a reward for the expense, the weariness, the sunburn, the boredom, the hours spent at airports and in coaches, the sore feet, the headaches, it just doesn’t seem enough.

It’s the same for me whenever there is a new ‘five-star’ exhibition in London. Yes, a genuine excitement, but also a sense of obligation, and a fear that if I miss it this will be a failure of duty, and I will be forever relegated to the ranks of the culturally unwashed – those who were simply ‘not there’. Our language reflects this, when we talk about a ‘must see’ event.

I’m getting better at saying to myself ‘What would you actually like to see this afternoon? What would you enjoy?’ Perhaps this is just part of growing up.

Read Full Post »

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have arrived in Britain, as they begin a month long tour of the country. They are stopping at numerous churches, monasteries and Cathedrals (including York Minster), with time to take in a hospice for the dying and Wormwood Scrubs prison. They will spend the final week in London, ending with four days in Westminster Cathedral. There are so many articles you can read about the visit – here is a recent one from the Guardian, and from the Telegraph.

St Thérèse in England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Just to get the facts: These are some bones of a young nineteenth century French nun, carried around in an ornate casket for people to venerate. To any hardened secularists it must be baffling; and to many Protestants it will be a confirmation that the Catholic Church is stuck in an age of superstition and medieval heresy. But to Catholics it is the most natural thing in the world to pray to the saints, to visit a shrine, and by extension to go on pilgrimage to those places where the memory and the mortal remains of the saints are preserved. The tour of St Thérèse’s relics is a pilgrimage in reverse – she comes to us and saves us the bother of taking the ferry to Normandy.

I won’t give a big theological explanation of the meaning of relics. There is lots of information on the official website of the Catholic Church. I just want to point to the sound instincts that lie behind the desire to venerate relics and draw closer to the saints. There is a human instinct to honour the dead, to visit their graves, and to believe that their relationship with us is not just a memory but a continuing presence – one that is strengthened by our love and devotion. There is a Christian instinct to ask others to pray for us, especially those who seem close to God, and to believe that these bonds of prayer and love aren’t broken by death. Why would someone pray less or love less just because they had gone to Heaven?

And there is the instinct of all those in need to seek out help wherever they can find it. The overwhelming evidence from history and recent experience is that people’s lives are changed when they come to the relics of a saint with faith and an open heart. So it is no surprise that ‘the poor’ – whether their poverty is material or emotional or spiritual – are flocking to St Thérèse. It’s not desperation; it’s just an honest confession of weakness and need; and an acknowledgement that here is someone who understands, someone who can help. Not someone who takes us away from God, but someone who helps us draw closer to him. Not someone who distracts us from believing in Christ, but someone who helps us to see what that belief really involves, and gives us the spiritual support we need to live it.

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux travelled through Eurotunnel and arrived in Kent today for an historic first visit to England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

There are not many places in our culture outside the confessional or the therapist’s lounge where you can express your deepest human and spiritual needs, and believe that there might be a way of meeting them. How wonderful that for a few weeks now people can go to Thérèse, and in her company go to God, with honest and expectant hearts.

[I gave a retreat about the life and significance of Thérèse this summer. Click here if you want to listen to the talks.]

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,201 other followers

%d bloggers like this: