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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Let's get theological

Wednesday 15th June

I spent a good 45 minutes in the church. In part, because I'd arrived too early to check in to my hotel room but mostly because the place absolutely captivated me, set my emotions on a precipitous edge. For a start, just the feel of the place: it's stunning altarpiece and ornate side chapels. 

 Then, due to the presence of a host of Virgin Marys (is there a collective noun for this?). I counted six: Our Lady of Salette, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Montserrat and Our Lady of Guinea.

Four were too pale, too Anglo-Saxon and/or too straight but Our Lady of Guinea and, of course, my patrona for this trip, Our Lady of Montserrat are, in their own way, quite queer.  

Finally, being in this beautiful church made me think about the queerness of my own theology and Catholicism. The French Catholic Church, though much reduced in number, is still a powerful institution, deeply reactionary and conservative. The church of St Pere undermined that paradox; I was overcome by the sheer beauty, an affect which, one could argue, opens up a conduit to the Virgin Mary and/or God.

You pays yer money and you makes yer choice.

When I was a teenager and found mass desperately dull and boring, I used to while away the time imagining the church as a concert venue: perhaps this was the origins of my rock 'n' roll theology. The choir makes a perfect stage: the vocalist - centre stage at the altar, obviously, the priest; the lead guitarist, the deacon, to her/his right hand; the second guitarist and bassist, the altar servers, to the left. And at the back, the drummer. To be honest, I'm not sure where the drummer fits in ecclesiastically but there you go. Before the altar, in the pews and the nave would sit (and stand and kneel) the worshippers, hanging on every word and chord. 

With its backlighting and illumination, the church of Sant Pere would have made a rocktastic setting for a couple of hours of nineteen-eighties, big-haired, bubblegum pop-metal. But here the queerness of my Catholicism reached its limit. I couldn't countenance the fantasy becoming reality; would have considered it sacrilegious, even conjuring up the image in my head made me feel uncomfortable.

It's a weird one, full of paradox and inconsistencies but such is life. I can't help thinking my visit to the church of Sant Pere was pre-ordained. The perfect place to start the Summer of Sweat.

Santiago/Sant Jaume/ San Jacques in the church of Sant Pere, Prades. This man follows me everywhere and I don't even like him!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

TransCatalunya Day 1

Paris in the spring; Paris in midsummer; Paris in the rain, the swollen Seine.
Paris in between stations on a grey Wednesday morning, only a week from the solstice. A murky dawn thick with diffused light, the clock tower of Gare de Lyon a beacon amidst the hubris. I come homing in - the lady's on the road again, wearing different clothes again ... actually, they're not. Same old jumper, leggings and boots: the ubiquitous garb of the itinerant. 
The TGV lumbers out of the station, an athlete reluctant to get into its stride. South of the city the landscape opens up and it feels grim up north. Blue-grey scudding clouds, endless fields reaching out to a flat horizon, and everywhere standing water.
On journeys such as these it's my wont to watch from the window at the flashing-by countryside and imagine myself moving in it, through it and across it, with all the zeal of a middle-aged nun hurrying to Sunday mass. I think of my spiritual landscapes: these flatlands, like the Spanish Meseta to which I'll return in six weeks time, are purgatorial landscapes. Every step you take puts another metre between oneself and the devil; draws you closer to the edge of heaven.
The TGV slips into its stride and picks up the pace, slicing through the showers and silver curtains of rain. It is a train with single-minded trajectory, hemmed in, ploughing its own, purpose-built furrow. It broaches no obstruction: nothing stands in its way. No level-crossings, no lumbering freight trains, no overgrown sidings where time sits idly, all dressed up and no place to go.
Sister Sian, the apostle of slow travel, hurtles across central France at over 200kmh, not quite the speed of sound but fast enough to put the weather behind her. The land begins to unfurl itself, as if God had taken hold of her tectonic fireside rug and given it a gentle shake. Shallow, wooded folds and a smattering of settlement now. 
Looking out of the window of a passing train is an acquired taste. For most, watching the grass grow would be more captivating but do you know what? I am the sort of person who could sit in a sun-drenched field and watch nature creep up and over me: day after day, month after month, year after year. Into eternity. I am the land, the land is me: together, we are God.
Summer 2016. The colours of France are all wrong: grey and green and splattered with mud. It's only close to Nimes that nature begins to get her act togther, with the cypress trees and Mediterranean scrub, olive groves, craggy scarps and lavender. Journeying south in the TGV is a bit like travelling in a time machine, speeding up the seasons such that the sodden barley of the Ile de France is ripe for reaping in Languedoc Roussillon. Beyond Nimes the fast tracks are still under construction and the train slows into steady trot through the hinterlands of the Mediterranean coast. It feels good to take it easy. Up at five to catch the TGV at six, the mad dash from Paris has taken its toll. By the Canal du Midi I sat back and slept.