Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Walsingham, 5.5.06: Banawnuhs and Bilocation

Garden, S. Abbey: perfect English spring day. Rosemary at its glorious peak all around the guesthouse, and a bright but muted pure blue, prolific with bees. An odd plant—coffee—of nodding greenish yellow bells that exude, alternately, the aroma of fresh-roasted coffee, skunk, and, at times, semen. It’s head high, and the rosemary to our waists with gnarled old stems.

Sun is westering in an ancient oak tree over the cloister walls. Rooks crying raucously in nests in its crown. They seem to compete to sound each more ebullient than the other.

One of the younger nuns flies down the walkway between the cloister wall and guesthouse, veil fastened back to allow her neck and ears to breathe on this warm day, the white framing her plump red face. She shouts and shakes: Sorry, just have to turn off me water (me wawtuh). It’s overflowing.

And then she’s gone.

In Worcester, an old woman on a bench in the sun says in a thick Midland accent—she’s talking to a companion, dragging on a cigarette—“If you want to sleep well, take a banana before you go to bed.” We pass her twice more and twice more hear her say banawnuh.

Across the way a man at a stall cries his wares—banawnuhs. It’s as if she’s posed as an advertisement for him.

Dame R., C. and C.’s friend, meets with us in the parlor. Into the middle of a conversation about Mother J., a former abbess and mystic, she casually drops the statement, “She bilocated, you know. She’d be praying in choir and at the same time, the laundry sisters would say they’d seen her with them keeping an eye on them.”

As if you’d say, “Would you care for another biscuit with your tea?”

This garden is so beautiful and so full of peace. A wind from the small valley beneath the abbey is cooling things as evening comes, an east wind. I smell the coffee plant even more strongly as evening falls.

The sign with an arrow saying ABBEY → is next to a beautiful, simple single yellow rose, a shrub rose that was very fragrant in today’s sun.

Emerald green lawn studded with small daisies, a magpie skittering along its edge. An ancient fir presides over the little space.

As in Germany, everything is manicured—even “natural” places like forests, but here with far more skill. The “natural” woods by the old ruined tower at Walsingham were obviously planned and tended, down to the clumps of bluebells and the ivy covering the “woodland” floor. A tree whose roots formed a little harbor of dirt had a flower planted in the space.

I could live here. And yet I know I’d feel—and be—very foreign.

Drive yesterday a blur. It was close and unpleasant, though beautifully sunny. As when we traveled in Ireland together, S. and C. yesterday had a strong tendency to treat me as if I were not there, talking to each other and ignoring my chatter. I fall silent as a way of acceding to the inevitable. Give both maps, directions, a steering wheel, and they become oblivious to social niceties.

A half moon high in the sky though the sun is far from setting. The rooks, now more pacific, swooping past it. It’s as if every moment is portentous.

Have I even written about Walsingham? When one reaches the destination of one’s pilgrimage, all can seem anticlimactic, and there was some of that.

But also a place of enchantment. I know and could feel that people have prayed here for centuries. People need a place to which they can bring their burdens, sorrows, hopes and pains, and know they’ll find a listening ear.

The Anglican shrine was . . . busy. Such a need to replicate every detail of a Catholicism that has, within its own house, fallen into desuetude. There were chapels hither and yon, 19th-century Augustinian priests buried in garish sarcophagi, buckets of holy water, votives galore.

A sign asked that one leave 3 petitions—and 3 only—on a card provided by the place. I’d already filled out the card I’d brought with me, and it had 10 petitions. I put it into the slot anyhow.

What will they think when they read at both the Anglican and RC shrine a petition that the church may recognize and repent of its savagery towards gays?

The Catholic shrine almost deliberately low-key, not having to demonstrate its claim to Marian devotion. It was thronged with pilgrims, many of whom looked Irish. An oppressive heterosexuality about the whole group.

More than the shrines, the grounds of the Walsingham (i.e., Anglican) shrine are memorable—the sweep of greensward with sunshine beaming on it, the ruined tower, the artificial woods. I took delight in C.’s delight in it.

The drive seemed interminable. Not much to say. Minestrone soup at £4.50 at a brasserie attached to a hotel, somewhere west of Leicester. It was a meeting center full of business groups having seminars. All like some bad imitation of a bad European imitation of an American swank hotel.

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