Posted by universalis on 31 July 2006
This is cheating, in a way, since the Carmelite Church in Kensington Church Street is my parish church. My excuse is that it isn’t the parish church of most of my readers; and that it exemplifies yet another aspect of the theme of the Sign of Peace.
I was in the church one Sunday as Mass was just beginning, and I happened to be praying hard for someone I’d met once or twice there before. I hadn’t seen him for some time and so it was one of those rather complicated for-him-or-the-repose-of-his-soul prayers. Then I looked up and saw, walking up the aisle, a little stiffly, but walking all the way to his usual place in the front, the man himself.
I went up to the front row to keep him company. It was only when I got there that I became aware of the details of his appearance: long grizzled stubble, purple hair, and a short black pleated skirt over black tights.
This is a very good test of a congregation!
They passed the test brilliantly. No-one stared, and at the Sign of Peace they all shook his hand in the usual way (even the woman behind us who was wearing her Hermès scarf with the label showing: I still regret not telling her). He received Communion and was driven home again by his nephew. It was the last time that I saw him.
He used to worry that Our Lady would be angry with him if he forgot to bring her statue whenever he went into hospital but I’m sure she didn’t really mind. He wasted his life and he died mad. Pray for him.
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Posted by universalis on 27 July 2006
Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico and the poorest. In the lowlands it is intolerably hot and humid, but at an altitude of 2000m, San Cristóbal de las Casas is cool and refreshing, wrapped (in September) in an almost perpetual mist. Many of the plants in the forest don’t even bother with putting roots into the earth: they simply stick themselves onto a convenient tree and absorb the mist and the dew.
Compared to Oaxaca the city looks poor and run-down. The buildings are lower, the streets narrower, and the beggars are persistent and importunate, lacking the dignity of their Zapotec counterparts. In nearby villages the churches have been taken over by strange syncretisms combining Maya beliefs (apparently without the blood-letting), Christian personalities and elements of African divinities. The ex-churches are full of greenery and the chapels of the Apostles are turned into shrines, with each saint’s statue converted into an idol before which offerings are placed. It demonstrates the indiscriminate self-abasement before the numinous that must have covered the whole of Europe before Christianity arrived to liberate us; and incidentally provides good business to the guides who lead tourists round the villages and devote some of the proceeds to alleviating the squalid conditions of the inhabitants.
At Sunday evening Mass in the cathedral, the floor was strewn with pine fronds. I don’t know whether this was to make people feel more at home if they were used to the green pagan temples of the villages, or simply a practical local substitute for a carpet.
I have commented on the Sign of Peace before. Here is a counter-example to what happened in Paris. Next to me, but crowded as far away from the central aisle as possible, were an Indian family. They were very shy and reserved. I looked at them; they looked diffidently at me. I moved over and gently offered my hand to the nearest one.
All the shyness disappeared and they all wanted to shake hands with me. Every one of them, in that row, and the next row, and the row after that. I had to shake them all, young and old, two rows forward and two rows back. There was such joy in their faces.
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Posted by universalis on 23 July 2006
The Hôtel des Invalides is one of the great achievements of the age of Louis XIV, both as a building as an institution. Housing old soldiers and an army museum, it is an expression in stone of the glory of French national pride, impartially embracing kings, republics, empires – for all are French and therefore worthy of honour.
My sister (a military historian) wanted to see the museum; my mother and I wanted to go to Mass; and I had a suit. Accordingly we turned up at the Invalides on Sunday morning: we might be civilians and we might not be French but we were, after all, Catholics.
The back three rows of the church were a solid mass of scarlet uniforms of straight-backed officer cadets. We went further forward, where it was pretty empty. The Mass began: it was unmemorable until the sign of peace.
When the sign of peace first came in I waged a long campaign against it – I was 16 and willing to fight any trendiness my elders sought to impose. I called it “the most divisive innovation ever made” (or some such resounding phrase). This is true to some extent, since you never know, if you’re a stranger, what the local community expects you to do and who you are expected to do it with… but naturally one mellows with age, and so when the sign of peace came at the Invalides I turned round and offered my hand to the lady in the row behind me.
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Posted by universalis on 19 July 2006
I don’t trust Mass-spotters – those people who collect Masses just for the sake of it, accumulating variations in vestments, ritual, and so on. They have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. They are treating a sacred Act as an object of study.
I am reminded of the hero of Patrice Leconte’s film “Ridicule”, whose entire future in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles hangs on a single engineered “chance” meeting with the King. “They tell me you can make an epigram on any subject” says the King. The courtier looks humbly at the ground. “Let me see you at work,” the King adds. “Make me an epigram on… Make an epigram about Me”. We hold our breath. The courtier gives a diffident glance up at his lord. “But, Sire – a King is not a subject”.
The King of Heaven is not a subject; and his banquets are not there for us to give Michelin stars to them.
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