Sunday, 5 April 2009

Pilgrim People - A life in the day of Gareth Thomas

Last year Gareth made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela walking 2000kms from Worcester. He is now studying for the priesthood in Rome.

My alarm wakes me at 6.30 from a dream in which I was in the role of youth chaplain on the rooftop of a hostel in the middle of a Judean desert, helping a student construct an electronic robot lama from microchips, diodes, pipe-cleaners and cotton wool, as we struggled to make sense of an instruction manual printed in German. I have a lukewarm shower and I do not attempt to de-construct the dream. My room is on the top floor and there is a good view to the west, the direction of the Mediterranean sea which can be reached after an hour’s bike ride.Palm Sunday looks like being a bright sunny day.

It is now 6.50 and while shaving I wonder how many donkeys are preparing to go to church today? I remember reading a book about planning parish liturgies for Holy Week, and it advised never to get a donkey involved in the Palm Sunday procession, because the donkey becomes the main attraction and Jesus gets eclipsed.

I wonder how many donkeys were made redundant because of that book?

7.10 Dress for Morning Prayer is informal, but I wear my suit trousers to save time changing later. I have a few minutes to spare before Morning Prayer so I look at my revision list and think about priorities for study. The real problem is that I haven’t understood even the basic concepts of the Metaphysics course we began weeks ago and there will be an oral exam on it before long. I decide to use some of my free time today to find a way into the subject.

7.25 I walk down three flights of stairs to the chapel, past the portraits of popes and previous rectors of the college. I’m carrying my metaphysics text book and a teabag. On the stairs I meet two fellow seminarians heading for Morning Prayer. We wave a wordless greeting because we are in our fourth day of silence, a period of pre-Easter recollection that will continue until Tuesday of Holy Week.
I sit in my place in chapel and in the few minutes before Morning Prayer, I look at my book. Its title is simply Metaphysics. The title alone is enough to conjure up that feeling of nausea that first swept through me at the age of eleven when I was the only one in my class who dared to ask “What is the point of algebra?” because I genuinely did not understand. It is the same now with metaphysics

We begin Morning Prayer at 7.40 We sing Psalm 118 and I am struck by the way the line “the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” occurs shortly before “blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord”. I hold onto these two lines, as they suddenly seem new and exciting. I let the rest of Morning Prayer drift around me and stick with these two lines from the psalm.
It is 8.10 and I take Metaphysics and the teabag to breakfast, which is a silent meal during this recollection period. I say grace and cross myself before sitting down and I catch a smile from the student opposite me. I realise I’ve just made the sign of the cross with a teabag. My breakfast is Bran Flakes with a sprinkling of muesli, one slice of brown bread with home-made marmalade, a glass of orange juice and a cup of weak tea from the pot enhanced with my PG Tips pyramid teabag. I finish breakfast quickly and take Metaphysics into the garden to sit and read for a while. The Roman sun is hot already.

9.30 The morning retreat conference is given in the common room and the subject is human development in formation. It starts from the familiar premise that life in a seminary years ago was very different. Feelings had to be suppressed, but now that has long been recognised as a mistake and we pay a great deal of attention to our human needs. As the speaker develops his theme, talking about intimacy, sexuality, bereavement and mutual dependence, I remain with the opening premise and reflect upon it. Is it true?
10.30 I go back into the garden with my Metaphysics book. The terrapins are surfacing in the pond. There are five of them, in different sizes, and I have been watching them a lot recently. A pair of terrapins crawl out of the water and sit in the sun, completely still, basking. I suddenly find myself playing with the question, “What is the point of terrapins?” It becomes an important practice metaphysical question, and it doesn’t make me feel nauseous. It’s fun.

11.45 We are in the college garden in formal dress, ready for the Palm Sunday procession and Mass. No donkeys will be involved at any stage in the proceedings. The Gospel is read, in the garden, and starts with the account of the collecting of the donkey that Jesus will ride into Jerusalem. I picture the donkey. I think of Barbara Reed’s donkey who goes on pilgrimage to Compostela with her: Daly, a rather angelic looking animal even if she has a reputation for occasional stubbornness; and I think of Rebecca in Moratinos and her donkey troubles a short while ago as reported on her blog. I remember the Dutchman I met while walking through Tours on the way to Compostela: he was riding a little blue cart pulled by a small horse. I suddenly snap out of it. There you are: it is true what that book said! Donkeys are a distraction in the Palm Sunday liturgy.

13.00 lunch time. We listen to the Concerto de Aranjuez while eating in silence and I remember walking across La Mancha in 1971 pretending to be Don Quixote and arriving in El Toboso expecting to see the real Dulcinea at any moment. I look around me at my fellow students, eating in silence, and I am sure that they have probably all done similar things.

13.45 Coffee after lunch in the garden. I look at the terrapins again. There is definitely something metaphysical about them. They have the answer. I decide to go for a bike ride, but not to the coast. Just a little circuit around Rome.
15.20 I arrive at a viewpoint on the Gianicolo looking out across Rome. My ‘little circuit around Rome’ started as a full-pelt ride down the Via Ostiense, then I raced past the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia, whizzed down to Piazza Navona, crossed the Tiber and raced past St Peter’s, then up to the viewpoint. Breathless, perspiring, I buy a beer from one of the stalls next to the equestrian statue of Garibaldi and look at the view across Rome. There’s a momentary sense that – even with all the restrictions of seminary life - this is a kind of freedom I haven’t had for many years. I just stand there and reflect on that for a few minutes, enjoying the beer, the view, the sunshine, and take some pleasure in the sparkle on the recently polished spokes of my racing bike.

16.10 Back at the college, I have a shower and book my laundry slot for Monday afternoon. We have a washing machine on each floor and we book a time slot. I spend another half an hour on the Metaphysics book.

17.00 Second conference of the day. I’m not really receptive to another hour of input, so I just let it go over me and don’t really take it in. There is a time for this, but it’s not now. I consider the metaphysics problem. Can I really work it out with terrapins?

18.00 After the conference is finished, I go to the art room and collect my painted crucifix which I’ve been working on for several months: oil paint on a gesso ground in a recessed area carved into African mahogany in the shape of a Byzantine cross. Once again, I find myself next to the pond with the terrapins. Working quickly, I sketch the figure of Saint Francis and on the other side of the Christ figure I sketch in the figure of Saint Clare.

While I am doing this I am simultaneously glancing at the terrapins. My brain seems to have switched on again as I’m still thinking about the metaphysics problem. I’m going to work out a way of interpreting all the problems of metaphysics as a conversation between terrapins: as if one of them is trying to explain to the others an answer to the problem “What is the point of terrapins?”

19.30 Supper is followed by adoration of the Holy Sacrament at 20.30, then Night Prayer at
21.15, after which I’m ready for bed.

PS: Posted at 9am Monday 6 April:

3.30 in the morning. I woke up to find the whole building shaking.It seemed to last about half a minute. My first ever experience of being in an earthquake. I stood in the corridor with other students and we wondered what the procedure is: should we go outside or not? Scary.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Johnnie for asking Gareth to contribute - after following his pilgrimage last year it's like catching up with an old friend's new venture.
    And how amazing that it was the day of the Italian earthquake - our hearts are reaching out to those who are affected - those bereaved and those whose lives are turned upside down.