Monday, 24 September 2012

Mission accomplished

After a short night's sleep, the alarm clock jerked me into life at six, allowing just enough time to have breakfast, start the washing machine, and pack some food for the journey home. Michael took me to the station to catch the 7h10 to Barcelona. This departure time, it was completely dark, and I didn't see first light until the train reached Tortosa, what a difference in the six weeks since I last made this journey. For much of the time, I dozed - first on the train, then during the two hour wait in the departure lounge at El Prat airport, then on the plane, and on the train back to Cardiff, so the late departure and arrival of the flight, and a late train from Bristol didn't have much impact on me. The big surprise was that the sun was shining in a cloudy sky when we arrived. A brisk wind was blowing, and everybody groaned when the aircraft door was opened and it gusted into the cabin. 

I arrived home exactly twelve hours after leaving Vinaròs. Despite a pile of mail to deal with, and unused computers to update around the house, I'm glad to be back again, with happy memories, not to mention photos, and all the reminiscences posted in this blog over the past three months. When I shut my eyes, vivid colours of the Costa Azahar landscape and seashore swirl in my imagination like a kaleidoscope. The region has made a great impact on me with towns and villages boasting a history that stretches back into antiquity, and high limestone crags, eroded for millennia by just wind and rain creating dramatic vistas and challenging mountain roads. Just my sort of country. 

But for me, the fresh discovery of my sojourn has been the Delta de l'Ebre, its running waters, its salt lakes, its foreshore, and its fields of rice growing through summer into autumn harvest time, with all the many subtle changes of colour that entails. I won't forget the flamingos, herons and egrets, but it was the terns, hovering over water channels a few metres away from the road, or offshore equally, diving for fish, which touched me, perhaps because it connected me with the Severn Estuary close to home.

It wasn't an easy time to be a locum pastor, with so many people in the three congregations either coming and going over the summer, or inevitably preoccupied with their own visitors. They were all so much looking forward to their new chaplain arriving. I didn't expect to turn from sharing their joys to sharing their disappointment and uncertainty about the future when he had to withdraw quite unexpectedly. News of his arrival meant that I re-arranged my autumn plans to make way for him. It meant I was no longer be available to stay beyond two extra weeks, and accompany the chaplaincy through the next stage of interregnum. A part of me regrets not being able to be there for them. But two things I have learned about ministry - nobody is indispensible, and conscientious missionaries work themselves out of a job when the time is right. And the timing is never in their hands.

The faithful Anglicans of the Costa Azahar chaplaincy are a credit to their church, supporting and caring for each other, building community with an unusual Christian identity, respected and valued by an indigenous church with historic origins even older than those of the church in Britain. I hope arrangements for a new locum can be made and the process of making a fresh chaplain appointment is expedited without further delay. With declining numbers available to recruit from both serving and retired clergy, this cannot be easy for those in authority. To people on the ground, delay can feel like a matter of life and death overshadowing all they've strived so hard to create over the years. But the Spirit of God has already breathed life into this emerging church. 

Where the Gospel is still preached, by whomsoever is able to preach it, others will gather to listen and pray, and the Spirit will continue to move in times of vulnerability as much as in times of confidence and success.  "I will not fail you or forsake you ...."  (Hebrews 13:5, quoting Deuteronomy 31:8) is one of those promises of scripture to hang on to in times like these. 

Tomorrow, it's back to College to meet new students, acclimatising, and slipping back into routine, not quite the way I was three months ago, but imperceptably richer for the experience and the story I have to tell of my Spanish Sojourn.

Thanks to all whose curiosity has drawn them to this page. My regular blog resumes as soon as I have something worth writing about.

From here you can reach the page 'West of the Centre'

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Last weekend

Yesterday was a day for household tasks, washing, cleaning and tidying the office to set everything in order for the next locum priest. There will be a gap of a couple of weeks unfortunately, so this week I've had to restrict food purchases to ensure that by tomorrow morning the fridge is empty of perishables, and make sure everything else is stored where it can be easily found. That was quite a culinary challenge. We always tend to buy more than we think we need. Draft sermons from two lay worship leaders arrived for me to look over. It's great they are so eager to do things well.

In the afternoon, while visiting the bottle bank, I made time to stand and stare at the waves pounding on the beach, counting three people and a dog enjoying the sea. All the Costa Norte beaches are pretty quiet now that it's not quite so warm and overcast for much of the day. I wish I could take the beach and the music of the waves home with me to Pontcanna. The roar of the river Taff passing under Blackweir Bridge doesn't quite do the same for me. I struggled to stay awake to the end of this week's episode of 'Inspector Montalbano', not because it was un-engaging, but because I felt tired after my excursion to Tarragona, tired anticipating my journey home and a change of routine.

This morning the intense humidity returned, with overcast skies. It was most unwelcome after a few cooler windy days. I felt as if I was running a temperature, but not so. There were good congregations for the Eucharist. Twenty in Vinaròs and over fifty in Alcossebre, more people are returning from summer vacations elsewhere or arriving for late holidays. Former Chaplain Paul Needle and his wife Linda joined us at Vinaròs. Paul played piano, duetting with Ken on his  Euphonium. I was surprised at how few people seemed familiar with the last hymn I chose: "Go tell everyone the news that God's kingdom has come." I'd hoped would cover the subsequent farewell with a note of exuberance. People were very warm and appreciative as I took my leave to get to Alcossebre in good time. 

I really had to keep checking my speed as I drove through Vinaròs and then Benicarló, something I don't usually find a problem, and I wasn't late. Nervous about making my final journey? Taking my final service? It was, in any case, a day to remember and reflect on journeys of discovery made over the past three months, and how much I've enjoyed this particular experience of gap-filling ministry. I've had no trouble finding my way about in a new environment or making myself understood. The only thing that has caused me trouble is the high level of humidity. Does any in-comer ever get properly ascclimatised I wonder? How long does it take?

The singing at Alcossebre was vigorous and enjoyable. I had time to chat with the worship leaders about preaching and service taking, before and after the service. Then I went to visit and pray with Ray, now back at home in nearby Las Fuentes after his spell in Castellón hospital. I'd only been to his place once before with Les and Brenda. This time I had to find the apartment with only the address for a guide. I was pleased my memory served me quite as well as it did, and arrived just as Ray was entering the building, having gone out to bar for Brunch. The exertion made him quite tired, so I only stayed a short while before heading home for a late lunch of paella, prepared last night to give me a head start. Then, more washing and case packing. Early start tomorrow. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

St Matthew's Day in Tarragona

After a couple failed attempts recently I finally took a train to Tarragona for sightseeing. The excursion using the RENFE Regional Express cost less than fifteen pounds. It meant changing trains at L'Aldea-Amposta, with a short wait in between trains. Most disconcertingly there is no signage of any kind on the platform five where we were deposited and picked up from. The train announcements were clear, but I'd hate to be deaf in a situation like that. By the looks of it, the station although complete, is not yet fully furnished like others on this line. I was aware of the anxieties of other travellers, in both directions.
Tarragona station is just north of its busy shipping port (a counted ten ships at anchor waiting off shore), close to the sea shore. It's about a kilometre walk following the shore line north, but going up hill toward the town centre, ancient and modern. From the brow of the hill is a marvellous view of the the bay, and of the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, sitting just behind the beach and railway line.
Its surroundings have been made into a park, and behind the park inland is a large restaurant on a terrace, taking advantage of the view. I couldn't help noticing a stylish glass and chrome lift installed to give access from street level above to the restaurant. 
The other side of the street is the intact Praetorian Tower, the ruins of the Forum and Circus, surrounded by a mixture of buildings both modern and a few centuries old. Remains of the century Roman colonial city built of golden hued limestone appear all over the town centre, some times cordoned off for paying customers, other times, just there in the middle of one of several plazas as a decorative feature. Right in the heart of the old Roman quarter stands the magnificent 11-12th century cathedral.

In the plaza outside its gothic decorated west front is an imposing ancient house (now somewhat dilapidated and in need of restoration), said to have been a residence of the Archdeacon of Tarragona, built on the site of a Roman Temple. Across the road, in a mediaeval house with a modern entrance extension is the Tarragona biblical institute. I got the impression that the city doesn't rest on its laurels, but remains a cultural dynamo for the region.
The church building complex is entered from the north side, where a fine gothic cloister is situated. It is unusual in having a series of chapels built in to its perimeter.
Several of these are still used for current devotional purposes. Large ancient rooms off the cloister belonging to the Chapter, plus the old Sacristy house a remarkable collection of high quality mediaeval religious art, beautifully displayed, well conserved, a collection any national  museum would be glad to possess. 
The Cathedral nave has a romanesque high stone vaulted ceiling and octagonal lantern at the crossing between nave and chancel, and a beautiful gilded gothic high altar reredos. I think there were a dozen side chapels in all, but I may have miscounted. The fine baroque organ case is but a shell at the moment, as the organ has been taken out for restoration. Work on a building of this majesty is never ending. It's quite encouraging to see how much of it is in good repair, well looked after, and well used for prayer.

All around town there was an abundance of portable toilets, like Cardiff on an international match day, only much more generous provision. A bit late for the tourist season, I thought. But then, I noticed the festive banners in honour of St Tecla the Virgin, said to have been one a St Paul's travelling companions. Her feast is this coming Sunday, she's patron saint of both the city and the Cathedral. I imagine the entire weekend will be one of celebration, to judge from concert stages being erected in plazas, and in the cathedral. Banners of the saint, mixed with the Catalonian flags flutter in the breeze everywhere.
After three hours of walking and photographing in the sun, I was pretty tired, despite fortification from pizza and beer en route. I returned to the station, but found I couldn't get a Regional Train connection until five forty, so I made the circuit again, and took some more photos. I was glad to get on the train, even if it was so full I had to stand until it got to Salou. A lot of young people with holiday cases in tow are on the move this weekend. Some coming into Tarragona for the fiesta, others heading for the beach one last time before the start of a new academic term, no doubt.

I was glad to get home and eat, but thrilled with most of my pictures. You can see them here


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Deaconing day

Today is the forty third anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate and the beginning of my public ministry as an Anglican cleric. I'm amazed to think of places I have been and things I have done over the years since,which never would have happened had I not been called to ministry. I never think about what might have been if I hadn't said 'yes'. I can only be thankful for the wonderful experiences that have been mine, right down to this day.

The neighbourhood had a power outage for 45 minutes, just at breakfast time, but it came back on in time for a cuppa, before heading out to El Portal drop-in centre on my bike for the last time. A fairly new brick built apartment building in the vicinity of the church is being demolished, causing disruption to traffic and gathering an audience of spectators to watch the demolition machines at work.

Nobody seems to know why the building has to come down or what will replace it. Standing there wondering was for me a case of deja vue. It was like being back in Cardiff city centre in the first weeks after redevelopment work started, and not a single notice had been put up to advise the public of why 'new' (i.e. 30 year old) town centre shops and library were being visited by bulldozers. This time, if I knew why it, would be a bit of a challenge to explain to passers by with my primitive Spanish.
Several Moroccan women came in to look at autumnal clothes, recently extracted from storage in the Vicarage garage. I had an impromptu in situ session with Brenda on the liturgical texts she is preparing to preach on in a few weeks time, sitting with other visitors chatting, drinking tea and catching up. It was nice to see Robert and Kay, back again briefly from Belfast. The last time I saw them was when we waved to each other from our respective Easyjet boarding queues at El Prat airport in mid August. I learned that Ray, whom I visited in Castellon hospital is now back home in Alcossebre. I'll get to see him after church on Sunday. It's all part of the everyday richness of ministerial life I'm glad I can still enjoy in retirement. 

I rode home for lunch, refreshed by light rain. Cloudy autumn skies and cooler winds are now making a regular appearance. Quite sorry not to be staying on and enjoying this kinder weather, not to mention church community life.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Sea food anniversary

Today is the forty second anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. This morning I met with chaplaincy worship leaders for a session to prepare them for the month ahead, as there may be a couple of Sundays before a new locum chaplain arrives. The overall decline in available clergy numbers makes it difficult to find replacements at short notice, if at all. My generation was when the first sign of decline in congregations and numbers of vocations to ordained ministry began to be noticeable across the church as a whole. 

In a way we've been preparing in different ways to cope with the impact of decline ever since then, and training lay people to participate in and take responsibility for continuity of pastoral care has always been a feature of ministry for me and my contemporaries. So, I was glad of the opportunity do do something which is a key part of my experience, to support and encourage them. They are keen to work together to make the best of a situation that has emerged for them unexpectedly.

After the meeting I drove up to El Perello to be taken to lunch by John and Isa at a quayside restaurant in the fishing port of Ametlla de Mar (pronounced 'Ameya' de Mar in Catalan). It's the next place along the coast to the north of L'Ampolla to boast a railway station. It was one of those memorable meals, entirely of fresh seafood. 
The first course was a huge dish of mussel, shrimps and razor shell clams from the Delta all perfectly prepared, which we all shared with relish. Then I had lubina a la plancha on a bed of steamed sliced potatoes, followed by melon. As we ate we could see large tuna fishing boats as well as smaller craft arriving and queuing up at the quay next to the fish depot on the other side of the harbour to deliver their day's catch before they berthed elsewhere. Every now and then, someone would go past in a vehicle or on foot, carrying containers with which to carry away their purchases. You don't get fish fresher than this.
It was a noteworthy occasion for Isa, her first proper outing after more than half a year of confinement following medical treatment. As it was six months after a planned birthday meal she didn't get to go out for, we proclaimed it a halfth birthday celebration, as happens among Hobbits.

After the meal we went for a walk up and down the quayside and promenade, glad that the rain held off while we did so. In fact it rained for a while as I drove home in the dark, after a very special and pleasant afternoon of food and table talk. Elsewhere the rain was much heavier, the streets of Valencia reported as being flooded by sudden a downpour. Even so, it will take a lot more than this break in the weather to fill the empty reservoirs in the Tincada de Benifassa.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ascent to Morella

I meant to go to Tarragona on the train this morning, but didn't have enough energy to make an early start, so I did some shopping and cooking, then finally broke out my my lethargy mid-afternoon with a drive up the N232, all the way over the Querol pass (1080m) to visit Morella. I stopped at the Carlos VII hotel and restaurant at the top. It was closed, but the gates were open so I went in and took some photos.
Above the restaurant on a rock platform 30 metre above is a statue of Christo Rey looking East. It was inaccessible, part of a grazing enclosure. The reason the domain had its statue of Christ was obvious, as one of the buildings had once been a chapel, now converted into an attractive dining room, with glass doors looking eastwards. No longer an Ermita, but still active in the hospitality business. 
From the escarpment behind the restaurant I got my first glimpse of Morella, illuminated by afternoon sun on the western horizon.
The town is wrapped around a mountain sitting in a confluence of valleys. It's in a strategic position in relation to two mountain passes on the route between the Ebro river valley and Valencia. At a distance the mountain looks conical, flat topped like a volcanic table mountain. This flat top is part of the huge fortress, built by El Cid in the eleventh century, commanding  heights so steep there's no need for a protective crenellated perimeter wall to shoot from. As you approach the town from the south below, the view is reminiscent of old bible engravings of the 'New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God'.
Mediaeval walls in pale golden limestone 150 metres below the fortress summit are intact and in good condition. The town buildings sit comfortably within them. I say comfortably because the streets are just that bit wider than other hill towns, it doesn't feel as cramped. It's home to just 2,800 people, but gets lots of visitors. Views of town and countryside on all sides are breathtaking. I was fortunate to find a parking place near the Torres de Sant Miquel - the north gate, one of seven.  From there I walked up as far as I could. In a cul de sac above the town's Basilica de Santa Maria la Major, is a old franciscan convent now being converted into a Parador hotel. You can access the fortress grounds from here for a few euros, but I resisted the temptation to climb the last hundred metres, as closing time was near, and this is a place to be savoured, not rushed!
The convent buildings and huge chapel will be renovated and converted to offer hospitality, modern style, as a business like the Hotel Restaurant Carols VII down on the Querol pass. There was another old church building in the town, and it has been converted into  health centre. How appropriate. I'd wager there was a time when the church authorities and town council would have worried over these buildings, no longer sustainable in use by a population which has more than halved in a century - especially as they began to show signs of neglect. It's good to see their re-purposing reflects their original values and use. There's a large empty 18-19th century school or college building on the hillside adjacent to the basilica. I wonder what use will eventually be found for it?
The basilica, named after one of the main Curial churches in Rome, is big enough to serve the town's present population, and is interesting in its own right, with a huge stone choir loft supported by gothic vaulting in the western penultimate bay of the nave.
It has a decorated spiral staircase, perfect for processions up and down. In the next bay along on the north side at loft level is a remarkable organ case. The organ console is in the choir loft. I couldn't find out anything about the church's music programme, but such a superb environment must be an inspiration to musicians. The apsidal sanctuary is covered in gold baroque ornamentation from floor to ceiling, in contrast to the thirteenth century gothic of the rest of the building. The church isn't well served for natural light, but its tranquility makes it more numinous than gloomy. I noticed rice underfoot in the plaza outside. There'd been a wedding earlier in the day.

Humans have occupied this mountain since the bronze age. Greek, Romans, Visigoths and Moors in turn occupied this mountain and built on it. On the north side are the remains of an aqueduct. In its present form it's a fourteenth century construction, but who first had the idea and built the prototype? It appears the Moors named the town Maurela, after conquering it in 714. There's so much to understand and absorb about this place, it really merits a stopover visit. Perhaps we can do that when the Parador opens.

You'll find more photos here

Monday, 17 September 2012

Power outage

Somewhat lacking in sleep, after Saturday's late night out, I summoned enough energy to preach on a favourite theme, the mystery of the Cross at Vinaròs yesterday, as Friday last was Holy Cross Day. Then drove to L'Ampolla to celebrate the Eucharist and preach the same again. I enjoyed it more the second time around, not least because the Parish Church of Sant Ioan Bautista has a life sized crucifix in mediaeval Spanish realist style mounted behind the altar, and I was able to turn to this when I referred to it, so my preaching perhaps contained a little more footwork than usual. 

In conversation afterwards I discovered that one of the worshippers knew Ty Mawr Convent in Gwent because an aunt of hers had been a nun there all of her adult life. Sister Sheila Mary, someone I'd known and taken communion to in her cell, during my visits there when I worked for USPG 25 years ago. Ty Mawr also has a life size crucifix on its east wall, but no other decoration, unlike the frescoed Sant Ioan Bautista Parish Church.

We picnicked in the Sant Jordi campsite after the service, then I made my font farewells to this kind and welcoming group of faithful people who had made me feel at home with them. Then I drove up into the hills below El Perello to visit Isa and John, drink tea and talk spirituality with them one more time. It's always stimulating, and time passed effortlessly, despite my sleep deficit.

I woke up at three o'clock in the morning to a buzzing sound which was hard to locate given how sleepy I was. I discovered that there was an electricity outage, stumbled around the house in the dark, learned that no fuse switch had been thrown and concluded it was an external fault about which nothing could be done. The buzzing I discovered was emanating from a socket mounted electronic device which broadcasts inaudible sound waves repellent to mosquitos. Its internal battery was draining without a power source, reducing its emission to an audible sound, which woke me up.

Power had not returned by the time I got up, so I consulted neighbours John and Maureen. They had power, but knew of a problem which has afflicted groups of houses in this vicinity in turn, kicking some of them off-line. He checked the distribution box to confirm it, and then very kindly rang the supply company on my behalf. They also boiled a kettle for me so I could make a pot of coffee. Thankfully I have not had occasion to use the freezer for food storage since I've been here, so there was no anxiety about food melt-down. 

By eleven thirty, the repair crew had arrived and were on the job, sparing me the worry about how I would charge my mobile phone. I brought my solar charger with me, but not the proprietary USB cable to connect it up, only the plug charger. I'm puzzled about why I left it behind, having fussed so much over the bits and pieces of tech kit I did bring with me. If only there was a single universal standard for such equipment - but that would reduce the money making potential for all these gadgets which now rule our lives with their not so convenient conveniences.

Quiz night again tonight at Vinaròs camp site. I hope I don't return to find the 'leccy has gone off again.