So, here we are. The rabit piligrimin has settled into a new routine. Stumbled into it at the end of a long road. Ex-seminarian, ex-Franciscan friar, ex-part of the special club of male clericalism, and yet – mysteriously – full of wonder for God’s plan and believing that He has led me all the way and never failed me. I have no more desire to pursue vocation: I have put everything into that for several years and have been treated utterly appallingly, to the extent that I am amazed how loveless the Church can be. But the God who founded it is the God of Love who does not change, and convinced that His plan is right for me, I am at peace in this strange moment in which I find myself in Spain at the end of a life of changes, strangely at home in surroundings that feel as if I have returned to a place I have always longed for and yet have never seen.
This little chapel, the hermitage, is the place where Sunday Mass takes place – after the Rosary prayers said by the faithful few, who are almost exclusively the women of the local community – and I go quietly in and take my place at the back of the chapel. Anonymous. For nobody has spoken to me in the weeks I have been here, neither in the main parish church of S. Bartolomeo down the hill at Thursday evening Mass and Benediction, nor up here in the hermitage on a Sunday. I am the foreigner. The odd Englishman who comes to Mass, unlike the other English all around the place who are to be seen in the bars, or buying the Daily Mirror in the newpaper shop, or trying to find bacon and frozen Yorkshire puddings in the little local supermarket which has more English voices than you find in the budget Lidl supermarket in Canterbury these days!
And I am glad to remain at the back of the church, unwelcomed and anonymous. It is more honest than the fake bonhomie one sometimes experiences in the ‘peace’ at Mass. Last Sunday I turned to the woman nearest to me, smiling and saying ‘La paz de Cristo’, but received in response a cold glance and a muttered ‘Paz’; the offered hand quickly withdrawn. Excellent. I love it. So genuine. It reminds me of all the trials I have been through in the Catholic Church since I converted. And yet I am still here, after a brief and – perhaps understandable – fleeting return to the CofE when I could stand the pain no longer… Yet I returned. An exile at the back of a foreign chapel. A hermitage.
It was built, so tradition has it, on the site of a primitive building erected as a church in the Reconquista, when they took this region from the Moors. This is a place that was once a killing field, then a mission field as Christianity was re-established. It became a killing field again in the 1930s, with communism and fascism fighting for the minds of people who only knew hunger and oppression. The sons of the families chose their daggers: right or left, fought each other and died for nothing, as ideology gave way to tourism and now, economic collapse.
Coming down the hill from the hermitage after Mass last Sunday, with the parish priest’s words still going around my head, I admired the view of the Puig Campana, the beautiful mountain that I can see from my rented farmhouse. “Lazarus,” said the priest in his homily, “means ‘God is my help’.” I don’t know what his sermon was meant to tell everyone else, but I just came away with those words and kept repeating them. Two days into the working week, I am still doing so. It is a good prayer.
God is my help.