My friend Hervé

I was at Mass, in Nantes, on a Sunday evening, and being appropriately prayerful, knees bent praying to prepare my mind for the sacrifice of the mass wondering if I was going to be able to stand up again. Despite my gammy knee, it wasn’t a problem. Mass started, and they were off.  During the entrance hymn, my director of music at my Wind band, but most importantly, my friend, Hervé, accompanied by his wife, and daughter, walk in and sit just in front of me.  We gestured hello, but you don’t interrupt the Word of God, and we saved niceties for after Mass.

It was a genuine pleasure to see him there and not just because we share the same faith, but just nice to see a frightfully nice chap, but also an all-around good egg!  We exchanged conversation and I said how wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to the pub for a pint.  They’d had a long day, but to his utter disbelief, Veronica, acquiesced and we were given her blessing.  I suggested they park in the same place as I usually did and that we meet up.  We both knew where the pub (John Mc Byrne) was and headed off to claim our reward for obvious good behaviour.

They were already at the pub by the time I parked and so I walked up to join them.  Strangely my nose just seems to lead the way!  I saw him standing outside waiting for me and I showed him the best seats in the house, or for me, nearly a home (it’s where I see my friends).  I introduced him to Simon who knows nearly everything about sport, whiskey, and good places to eat in the vicinity, the Rob, whose jokes are almost as cringe-worthy as my own, and lastly to Gavin who is half and half…  Half Scottish and half French.  His parents are obviously to blame.

We commented on how the establishment wasn’t a bar but was a proper pub, and how nice his pint of Irish IPA was.  I persuaded him to taste a pint of O Hara’s Nitro, which is the nearest thing that I found to Yorkshire bitter over here.  We both seem to have similar tastes in beer, which helps in a friendship.  It’s unbearable when one likes lager and the other friend, beer….  It tuned out that he had some homemade Bitter that he wanted my opinion on.  Ah well, there goes a perfect reason to meet up again!  Fortunately, I was going to be on holiday during that week, so we set the date and time said goodnight to each other and headed home.

I asked if I could bring along my portable photography studio to take his portrait and he very kindly agreed.  At the appointed time, on the appointed day, I turned up with my studio and dog.  Molly wasn’t very sure about hanging out with a big very friendly, almost too friendly for her, beautiful chocolate Labrador, who was coming out of puppyhood and entering doggyhood.

I said she could stay in the car and left the windows slightly open so she would be fine and said that I would come back and check on her now and again.  Smaug, the Labrador, was put on one side of the house, and Molly decided she could stay by my side and still be OK.  We tasted the beer and were unanimous in our praise of this wonderful concoction.  Then the photoshoot.  Hervé already knew that I dabble in photography, as do you Dear Reader, and was most impressed when I set up the studio.  I was quite impressed by it too because it was only that afternoon that I had back to revise how to operate my speedlights and trigger.  The first shots were more to break the ice, not just for Hervé but also for me, and already we were getting some good shots.  He played me a recording of a new project launched by the Brass Quintet with whom he plays and has my old horn teacher as the horn player.  It was amazing.  They were playing in church with a massive organ played by the organist from the Nantes Cathedral.  Wow, that is all…

We then go the instruments out.  First the E flat tuba.  I thought, let’s just break him in gently.  Then I went back out to the car to get my horn and make him look like a proper musician with the most beautiful instrument from the orchestra in his hands.  We would suggest to the horn teacher that Hervé had finally seen the light and wanted to convert.  Then we messed it up by getting out his conductor’s baton.  All in all, we were having a laugh, talking, just as friends will be want to do.

I ate with them and by the time I left that evening the two dogs had even sniffed each other and were even respecting their own private space.  That Smaug is one lovely dog and not at all dragonlike as his name suggests.  He’s a big softy.  A bit like myself Dear Reader…

The night of Easter

This might be a bit of a strange post and is more a reflection of how my spiritual life seems to be going and might be a little Catholic. You have been warned.

Do people ever regret Lent? Not the spiritual aspect of it, but the structure and discipline of it. Although I didn’t eat meat or drink alcohol this Friday, it was as if something was missing. I have stopped the daily Rosary but am thinking about going back to it as a daily thing, or at least trying to.

I went to the Easter vigil last Saturday night. The church is in darkness as Jesus hasn’t yet risen, but you know the outcome… There were children giving out candles and the mass sheets. Those of you who know, know, but for those of you that don’t know, let me tell you a bit about how the service goes. The priest and altar boys, there were about 5 priests for this special mass, congregate at the entrance of the church and light a fire. This fire is blessed and represents our Lord’s rising from the dead, and God’s light illuming the world. The Paschal candle is lit from this fire and blessed and will be lit at each Mass during the Year. All our candles given to us by the children are lit from this Easter candle and gradually the church has God’s light lighting up the whole church. This bit always gets me every time.

We hear the creation story. God said there be light, and there was light. God saw the light and said that it was good. It’s not something we hear every day, but there you actually see God’s light lighting up the faithful listening to his word.

The next reading tells us about Abraham and how God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son. Abraham, out of fear and out of love, does this. The altar is made and Isaac realises what is about to happen. Thankfully, God that Abraham wants to do the will of God and passes the test. He sends an Angel to tell Abraham not to do it and sends a lamb to be sacrificed.

These Old Testament images of the Lamb of God have so many parallels with sending his only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice to save us. Jesus knows about the sacrifice even when He is a child with His mother Mary and stepfather Joseph. He knows about the Passion that He will have to endure and accepts it fully. It was one of my many meditations that entered my mind whilst praying the Rosary. Another was, I can’t be the only person making the parallel between the Lamb of God, given to Abraham and Jesus, giving Himself to us?

The next reading is from Exodus and recounts the Children of Israel being led by Moses across the Red Sea when escaping slavery in Egypt. The Angel of the Lord passes over each house, killing the firstborn of each family except in the houses where the blood of a lamb has been smeared on the door. Again. I can’t be the only one that sees the link to the sacrificed Lamb of God saving us? Also, when Jesus left Bethlehem to escape the killing of the innocents by Herod, he escaped into Egypt? Again, one of the ideas that pop into my head when praying the Rosary.

Next is a reading from Isaiah. It talks about how the people of Israel are akin to God’s wife and how he calls her to Him, and how He will treat her, i.e. not like the people of the time of Noah. He tells us how God will have mercy on His people, remain true to them, will teach and love them, and never again abandon them again. I might come back to this paragraph later and edit it. I have just realised that I should study the prophets more. The realisation that we know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

The fifth reading is again from Isaiah and encourages us to trust in the Lord our God. God calls us to Him and reassures us. We have to trust in His mercy as a child would his father. His thoughts are above our thoughts. His way is not our way. But we must listen to His word, which is not sent in vain.

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah

The sixth reading comes from the book of Baruch. The people of Israel are rebuked for not having listened to God. We are taught that wisdom is listening to the Word of God and prudence and through this, we will find peace, unlike some. Let us listen to God’s word, find the great wisdom in it, and remain true.

 Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!

Baruch 4:4

The seventh reading is from the book of Ezekiel. Through their love of idols and worshipping falsehoods, God says how He will reign down with fury, and at the same time, cleanse them with clean water. We will have a new body and a new spirit. Just as at our baptism. Through baptism, we are reborn into our life with God as one of His children.

At this moment the church bells ring out to announce that He is risen. We the recite the Gloria.

Follows an excerpt from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and then the responsorial psalm as in any mass.

We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans

We then turn to Luke’s Gospel to hear what happened on the morning of Easter, just after the Shabbat. To those who criticise the Church about the role of women, just remember that it was the women who went to look after Jesus’ body. Not the men. The angels appeared to the women first asking them why they were looking for the living one amongst the dead. They were the ones who received the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Not the men. When they returned to the apostles, nobody wanted to believe them. St Peter, who was the rock, and first Pope had so little faith that he had to check for himself, reached the tomb, saw the folded shroud, and then ran home amazed. It comforts me in my own fragile humanity. During the next week, when Jesus appeared to the Apostles to show them all that He had vanquished death, Thomas had gone out to do the food shopping. He comes back and sees the rest of the Apostles happy, and doesn’t believe them either. And yet the women believed with unquestioning faith. Thomas says he will only believe when he puts his fingers in the holes left on Jesus’ body by the wounds received on the cross. When Jesus reappears, Thomas is told to put his fingers into the wounds of Christ. He does and falls down, saying, “My Lord and My God!” Jesus replies, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe and yet have not seen.” These words bring me so much comfort. I don’t feel blessed every day, but it is nice to know those words. During the consecration, I say those words when the offerings become the body and blood of Jesus.

Now that we have been comforted in our faith, we have the “fun” part of the Easter vigil. Catechumens will be baptised. For the Catechumens, they will be free from sin and their old lives. They will become part of the Communion of the Saints, part of the body of the Church. During the Litany of the Saints, we ask the Saints to pray for us, and the Church. Their intercession is so important to us. The font and water are blessed. We join with them our baptismal promises, reject Satan, all his works, all his empty promises, renounce sin, desire to live in the freedom of the children of God, renounce the lure of evil, so that sin may have no mastery over us, and renounce Satan, the author and prince of sin. These are powerful words and I know they certainly help me reflect on my interactions with others in their world.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist follows and we take Holy Communion, where we become one with Christ in His sacrifice, and partake in communion with Him. He feeds our souls with his body and blood. He is indeed the Lamb of God, which saves us.

The communion is over; we give thanks to God. The priest blesses us. Ite missa est. Deo gratias. We then go back into the world, but reinforced in our faith through the sacrifice of God and the sacraments.

I went to the pub to enjoy my first Guinness after forty days of Lenten abstinence. I was OK, but not quite what I was expecting. Did I miss it? Yes and no, but more no. Maybe this Lent has seen a change in me that I wasn’t expecting. I miss the daily Rosary or at least trying to recite my daily Rosary. I don’t seek happiness here on earth, but I have had profound moments of peace of mind spiritually, and joy in succeeding in my Lenten observances. It has been an entire week since Easter and tomorrow is Divine Mercy Sunday. It feels almost an anticlimax, even if nothing could be further from the truth. Thank you for getting this far in a very Catholic article. I appreciate your efforts. May your God bless you in the same way as mine does me.

Palm Sunday

As a Catholic I celebrate the beginning of Holy Week, culminating on Easter Sunday when we will declare once again, that “He is risen!” We will celebrate the fight of God sending His only Son here on earth as the Saviour of all mankind to vanquish darkness. We will celebrate life over death, the sacrifice of our Lord, and the hope that this gives all of us.

In the Gospel in mass this morning, or last night for me at the vigil mass, we reminded ourselves of the palms laid on the roads by the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, where less than a week later, He would be crucified and sacrificed to save us from our sins. From treating Him like a king, even though he humbly rode in on a donkey, to mocking Him as King of the Jews during His execution. So during the mass, we hear the Gospel of Luke, which told us of His Passion from the entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, His betrayal by Judas, His trials, His crucifixion and death.

This belief in His sacrifice, the power of life over death, is really the crux of our beliefs. *

We prepare ourselves mentally and, of course, spiritually, for this during the forty days of Lent, which reminds us of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and praying just before taking up His public ministry. It also harkens back to the forty years of Exodus that Jews had whilst fleeing Egypt, (where Jesus grew up, following His birth in Bethlehem, and where Herod ordered all the male children under the age of two to be killed during the massacre of the Innocents). Everything just seems to link back. And not just Egypt but the number forty too. There are so many more that I don’t have the space to write them all here.

So, traditionally we are bound by rules of fast and abstinence. Traditionally, we would give up something to try to add to His sacrifice and our “little sacrifices” as Ste Theresa of Lisieux said, would bring us closer to God. As children, we were told to give up sweets, and I remember being told not to just give something up to do something else by our local bishop. I took this on board when at high school and once went to daily mass for the whole of Lent. This year I was influenced by some of the older men in my village who were known for giving up the demon drink for Lent, and us weaklings would look at them with great admiration. This year, I tried the same thing, and, thank God, I have kept it up. There were a few times at the pub when ordering a coke, I received blank stares, like what the f is wrong with you man???? But as Lent drew on, people got used to it and I could just have to say Carême so that people would get it. All this is on top of the no meat Wednesdays and Fridays, with a little extra fasting just to remind you of the seriousness of Lent. That was slightly harder. We also try to get at least once to confession before the end of Lent to prepare our souls for the feast of Easter.

The extra thing I tried to do, was to say a daily Rosary, which our Protestant friends told me is just idolatry, and worshipping Mary, instead of going directly to Jesus. Unfortunately for them, they don’t seem to have grasped what is so important about the Rosary of Our Lady and her role in Jesus’ life.

The Rosary is above all a contemplative prayer, asking Our Lady to intercede for us to Jesus, whilst meditating on fifteen mysteries or events in the life of Jesus. These mysteries fall into three groups, the Joyous mysteries, the Sorrowful mysteries, and the Glorious mysteries. You have ten Hail Marys per decade (or event in the life of Jesus) which gives you something akin to a metre or acts as a pacemaker. I would urge you to click on the Rosary link to find out more and it’s a website that I use regularly to help me get through it.

When I started doing it every day for Lent, it was slightly arduous to begin with, like taking up a new sport. Easy to be distracted during the meditation, and some days I just couldn’t do it. I would actually fall asleep on occasions! I would even go as far as saying that it was a grind, but as the days went on, I started seeing the benefits of this spiritual exercise. It really is an exercise but becomes easier. I certainly feel better thanks to the daily recital. Maybe I should do the same for this body of mine.

I wish you all a very Happy Holy Week and Easter. And as Padre Pio once told us, pray, hope, and don’t worry!

Riding the waves

I have missed you Dear Reader since I wrote my last article 20 days ago. There goes my idea of writing every week out of the window. I have been going through a rough time lately as far as my mental health is concerned. Let me reassure you that I am still alive, but it’s been like riding a roller coaster of emotions.

Stephen Fry once said that depression is like the weather. It exists. We don’t know how it starts, it’s just there. It’s part of our everyday life. We’re not in the depths of melancholy every day. We even have good days. We even have great days where it seems that nothing can go wrong.

However, when it does go wrong, it can go very wrong, and go very wrong very quickly. You of course try and fight it. Which is perfectly normal and a rational thing to do. But this of course takes an awful lot of effort and leaves you shattered. When you are shattered you feel your energy levels gradually diminish, and when it happens to me I seem to have a few basic tasks that I can carry out. One of the hardest of these tasks is to get out of bed every morning and affront the world. But you do it. Because you have to. You drag yourself to work. You manage to do the basic stuff so as not to be noticed. But you withdraw. You are no longer chatty. You avoid people and only talk when necessary.

You start to get feel the presence of “darker” thoughts which become increasingly darker. You start to think the worst, but the you remember that you are so bloody useless that you can’t even tie a proper knot. Yes. My incompetence has saved me once again!

Another of my basic tasks is to go to mass. It was a couple of weeks ago. I was still going to the cathedral on the Sunday night for the music. That night, my body may have been there but by mind was in turmoil. Little did I know that I was already getting better. A voice in my head said, well now, if you’re here, then it means you haven’t given up yet. It was a voice that comes to me now and again. It’s a voice that is the opposite of the voices trying to put me down. Imagine watching a cartoon where you’re thinking, and on one side you have a daemon trying to drag you down, but on the other you have an angel trying to pull you back up. One is violent in its very essence, whilst the other is pure love and gentleness. It’s at moments like this that I know God exists. God is love and where there is love, there is God. This is such a great comfort to me during these dark episodes. Maybe depression is a truly religious experience?

People generally notice that I’m not so well only after I’ve hit this rock bottom and am back on the way up. I have friends that are Catholic also, and have helped me more than they realise. Others offer simple kindness, which is another form of love. Others will just listen and not treat me as if I’m a headcase even though I might feel like one. This again is pure kindness. this kindness is like a breath of fresh air and so precious to me. I would really like to thank those of you but I can’t thank you enough.

My mental health is like being a sea. I am the ship, and get battered about by the waves. There is always a real risk that I may sink and cease to be, but when I’m at the very bottom of the wave I know that I will start to rise again. Sometime it takes a little longer than I may first have hoped. But I will rise.

I have accepted this as being part of who I am. I am fully conscious of when I am starting to stumble. I know the signs. I know what I am looking out for. Can it be cured? I don’t honestly know. There is certainly no quick fix. There is no pill that you can pop that will make everything right again. At best it offered me an automatic pilot for a given period of time.

Some have said that I suffer from Hypersensitivity. I was given a book as a present from a friend and have actually started reading it. I don’t know what to think about it yet. I’m not a great believer in self-help books and don’t believe there is one solution for everyone, let alone for myself. All I know at the moment is that I am feeling better, and am feeling ready to ride the waves one more time.

Christmas 2019

Merry Christmas dear Reader. Ok. I know I’m a little late but that’s fine. Most of these blog posts have that impression of being slightly out of sync like a news reporter talking live from outside Parliament, or a badly dubbed film… trust me, I will wish you a Happy New Year by the end of June, I just don’t know in what year yet.

Christmas has been great this year. For those who know me I’ll just let that sink in. For those of you who know me as a tea drinker and cake eater, I mean cake amateur, this is the first Christmas where I have not been depressed for so long. The others can come back now.

I always make a difference between Christmas, and the secular Christmas , which is all about joining the orgy of consumerism, eating,and drinking. The kind of Christmas we have in France, buy all this nice food, buy all this nice wine, buy the expensive presents for those you love, and you will have happiness and people will love you. They’re so good at fooling us that we fall for the same bullshit year in, year out.

The Christmas I had this year was post Lourdes and my return to the Church. I still bought presents for my family, and loved the presents my family gave me. One was a machine that made tea. And I’m always so wary of people that claim that it is possible to make tea without using boiling water, scalding the teapot first etc. This machine is actually rather good. Will wonders never cease?

Right. Back to where I was. I travelled though Advent and what the readings in Mass during Advent teach us. I went to confession to prepare my soul. I asked God to bring my family together and celebrate the giving of Christmas the way that God gave us Jesus, Emmanuel, or God amongst us. Maybe before I was the problem, because this year I was in such a different place mentally.

We have a tradition of always having somebody over for Christmas who is alone or not with their family for Christmas. This year, it was a friend of Killian’s whose family had just suffered a death. He needed to be elsewhere as a self preservation mechanism. The table was laid out with finger foods, but the good stuff that makes this meal special the way Christmas is special. There was wine and beer. There were Christmas crackers that had been spotted my daughter in the shop where I get various cakes and sweets. The French don’t do Christmas crackers, and my son’s friend was slightly put off by the English tradition of putting a stupid flimsy paper crown on. but he did it and we all had a good time. I had just one beer so I would be clear to go to midnight mass.

Midnight mass started with a service at 23h30. As I drove up to Nantes there was hardly anybody on the roads. I parked and had never seen so many spaces in that car park. As I walked though the Quartier Bouffay, I could see nobody on the streets. I could see windows with lights on, and people around tables. As I walked pas the Sainte Croix church, I could hear the singing of hymns already celebrating Christmas. I saw the Soldiers guarding the Church just in case. I wished them Merry Christmas and felt thankful that it wasn’t cold. I walked on past Decré, past the Place de Pilori, and on towards the Cathedral. As I advanced, more people seemed to join me. Otherwise Nantes was sitting down to eat.

The Bishop said mass and the music was special in a way that only Christmas music can be. Despite being part of the body of the Church and celebrating mass like so many other Catholics in the world I felt alone. I was missing having my family by my side. I would have to wait for the next day, Christmas Day, to be able to have my wife and two children with me. That made my Christmas. That and really good tea, and some lovely Christmas cake with cheese on it…

PS. It’s actually the Epiphany today today, so technically I’m not late yet.

Mass in the Cathedral

If you’ve read the Lourdes article then you’ll know that I am a practicing Catholic, and after a break away from the Church I’m trying to get back to Mother Church. It was Sunday, and well, I hadn’t been in the morning as I could see the clock turning. I remembered a friend telling me about the 7pm in the Cathedral. I know it sounds like it could be a horse race (try the 7pm in Nantes…) but I thought I could make it.

I’d been in town taking photos; now there’s a surprise! Trying somewhere different in town where the last time I had gone with a film camera and messed up my film development. That will be for another article though.

A friend of mine is very very pregnant and about to pop. I found out when she told me on Facebook but I hadn’t got around to seeing her during her pregnancy and I was so happy for her and her partner be able to start a family. It couldn’t happen to nicer people.

Hang on, I’m missing bits out. So we’ve done photos. Check. We’ve done pregnant friend. Check. Have we done cake? Ah. Not yet.

Ok. Back on track. Right. So I have a pregnant friend about to pop and I asked if I could pop round for a cup of tea. She said yes of course, and I couldn’t turn up empty handed now, could I?

I know a place that does rather nice macaroons. The really nice French ones. The really nice French ones that everybody says, “We can’t eat all those,” but invariably prove ourselves wrong. I saw all the flavours and had to have three of each. I must have come away with about 30 of them. There was chocolate, praline, pistachio, almond, vanilla, lemon, raspberry, mango, salted butter caramel, and I think that was it… oh OK, not thirty, but nearly…

I arrived with my meager offerings and was promptly told that I shouldn’t have, but a large plate appeared and the macaroons were ready to be “tasted” flavour by flavour. We drank Ceylon tea, and talked about the fast approaching birth, and how people should stop giving expecting couples advice on how to raise their children. So I gave them unwanted advice on how to raise their children. Whatever you do to your children, do it with love, and you won’t go far wrong. Time flies like and arrow, and fruit flies like a banana. Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave and head off to Mass, hence the name of this article…

I am obviously a fool. My wife will confirm this. I trusted my GPS to get me to the church on time. Reminds me of a song… I was at the underground car park with only ten minutes to spare before mass. I was at the underground car park with only ten minutes to spare before mass, and, with this very pressing need to pee. That’ll teach me to drink so much tea in so little time.

I remember reading once that “a Gentleman should never run” and with my level of unfitness it has never been easier to be a gentleman… but I will accept walking at a brisk pace. I arrived at the cathedral doors and entered, trying to catch my breath, and compose myself. I saw the Père Hubert already dressed in his robes and in the starting blocks. He gestured to me as if to say, don’t worry son, you’re not late yet…

The music is amazing. They have the Cathedral organist just whacking one out on his massive organ. Yes. You know what I mean and I certainly don’t mean that! This is church after all!

Mass took its usual course but with the echo I couldn’t make out what the people were saying during the readings. The place seem quite full and I was very impressed by the whole feeling of the mass. Looking towards the high altar all light up. And the columns taking our prayers directly to God. I went to communion and regained my seat. At the end of Mass I recited the rosary as if to say thank you and please look after my family. Then I heard a bell being rung as the sacristan told people that he was going to lock all the doors and make sure every one was out. There was a small boy with his parents who seemed really impressed by the whole shebang.

Afterwards, I headed off to the pub for a couple of pints. Well, not really, I just had to find a place to pee!