A bank holiday. A beautiful sunny day, the spring-blue sky marked only by a very few fragile clouds. A relief after all that glowering gloom and incessant snow. Sparse incessant snow. Enough to remind you it’s wretchedly cold, but too mean to settle and paint a pretty scene. But then, it’s not Christmas. Not even winter. It’s spring.
So what to do, this glorious day? Something joyful, noisy, wild and abandoned? A walk somewhere pastoral and leafy? A stroll by gurgling streams or crashing waves?
I know, how about joining a load of other people in a big cold place. then reflecting on torture and death?
Atheist-man’s a hard task-master. Lent draws to an end and he still hasn’t ‘done’ the ‘Stations of the Cross’. So that’s where we’re going, this morning. In Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral.
Despite the mood-enhancing sun, my own mood’s far from bright. I’m grumpy. Very grumpy. We drive in silence into town.
It’s quiet, as befits a solemn day. We park under the cathedral. It’s my favourite car park, this one. An odd thing to say, I know. It’s quiet in a padded kind of way, but warm, too. As if some energy lives there, sustaining the great empty church above through its quiet hours. Sometimes when I park here alone I stand and listen a while. No people, just insulation. Hmm.
My grumpishness dissipates. Sun sparkles through the jewel glass that’s everywhere in this modernist interior, pale and subtle, strong and bold, different moods in every side chapel round its circumference, rainbow bright in the lantern above the central altar, the heart of the circle.
We wait for the priest, eighty or so of us wearing coats, scarves, gloves and sober expressions. He arrives in a black cassock with red buttons, looking not exactly mournful but certainly sad, as if some deep, repressed inner torment is worrying away at his head. As it is, I suppose. He is, after all, about to lead us around those 14 ‘stations’, take us through the accusations, torture and condemnation, the gruelling climb and immolation, the death of the man who, just a week ago, rode in glory to Jerusalem.
Another ritual comes back to me without a conscious thought as we follow him from one to two. I genuflect and repeat words I did not know I knew.
The priest weaves magic with humble words. A local man, brought up in Scotland (Scottie) Road, one of Liverpool’s most famous addresses. He tells stories, provokes thoughts.
He has been privileged, he says, to be with many people as they died. Often in pain. How extraordinary to feel that as a privilege.
He talks of the women of Jerusalem, the women of Liverpool. Of Veronica the carer, wiping the face of Jesus with her towel as he climbed his way to death with the burden of the world on his shoulders. Of matriarchy and Mary.
But he also talks of memories. Of loved ones gone. His dad, evoked by pipe tobacco, HP Sauce – and (after a pause and a smile) betting slips. We smile with him. A human being, then.
And so the ritual of the morning over, we drive back home and prepare for the next. Oh yes, the day is barely started, in religious terms.
At almost 3 pm we step into ‘our’ local church and I am gob-smacked. The place is not just full, it’s packed. People are standing. We shoe-horn our way into a row near the back. My view is limited, but Atheist-man being tall can see for himself what he never really believed when I told him – the priest prostrating himself. He turns to me and mouths, ‘he’s done it, he’s lying down.’ Plainly shocked.
I’ll leave it there. You don’t need to know about the empty tabernacle, its doors wide open, the procession, the entire congregation (except, natch, Atheist-man) one-at-a-time kissing the feet of a crucifix at the front of the church.
Or the queue of traffic leaving the car park.
This has been a momentous day for me. How come the sky was not grim? How come the Church was so full? This isn’t the Catholicism I grew up with. It should have been cold and dark and lonely and – yes, gritty.
But it was more than that, even if it was less than that.
And now I’m beginning to wonder about Atheist-man. His grandfather, after all, was an evangelist. A larger-than life Texan with a deputy sheriff’s badge and his own God-channel on the radio. Atheist-man said he could see the appeal, today. The ritual. The priest so obviously a frail human like us. What if he’s catching the bug, after all?
I tell him about the Easter vigil. It’s 9 pm on Saturday night.
Do I want to go to that, he asks?
No, not really, I say.
Thank God, he says.
That’s more like it.
[The black cassock’s red buttons suggested he was a bishop – I checked and he is.]