A lapsed Catholic's journey round the shrines of Europe produces some good jokes and poignant writing, says Luke Coppen. But it's a shame he doesn't know the difference between Marianism and Mariolatory
Faithful Departures: Travels with Catholic Pilgrims by Stephen Walsh, Viking f 1 1
0ne can almost hear the strains of Mozart's Requiem as Stephen Walsh prepares to bathe in the waters of Lourdes. A
lapsed Catholic, he lowers himself. trembling. into the miraculous waters. Will he dissolve as the holy water touches his sinful flesh? Or emerge cleansed and gleaming with the brilliance of rediscovered faith?
" 'SEEDOWN!' the Italian voice screams in a most un-Christian fashion, and I try to shuffle round but end up completely on my knees; he who kneels for no one is kneeling now, and by the time I do what I'm told I'm shivering, I'm lost and — irony of ironies — I've put my back out."
That, in a paragraph, is the essence Faithful Departures, Walsh's account of . the travels of an errant Catholic. Wherever the irreverent pilgrim goes — Lourdes, Knock, Rome or Medjugorje — the experience is the same. He searches for spiritual renewal. He encounters unCluistian Christians. He sustains bodily injury.
The water experience sums up Walsh's painful pilgrim experience. "Lost and lonely" in Lourdes. and at odds with the zealous members of the Liverpool Archdiocesan Pilgrimage. he feels a numb indifference towards the spectacle of suffering and redemption. He describes a parade of the mentally handicapped as "a whole line of the shrillvoiced. the slumped, the (God forgive me) slackgobbed, tongue-out. headdown, cross-eyed, thrawn necked, cerebral-palsied, spina-bifidated". He wishes he could feel what the other pilgrims feel. But the closest he gets is a momentary tingle "in my knees and in my groin", which dissipates as he pushes his way back out of the Grotto through the crowd of "Bible-bashers, rosary-makers, prayerreaders, intention-placers, votive offerers".
A meeting with the Archbishop of Liverpool temporarily raises Walsh's sophistry. Every time he opens his mouth, it feels, I have some hope: things begin to make a little sense; if you had been brought up with this every day, you think, things might have been different." But this moment, too, is short-lived.
The sudden appearance and evaporation of hope is belongs to the "doctrinallyno-culturally-yes" tribe of disaffected Catholics, for whom faith is no longer about believing, only belonging. Their dilemma is summed up by Walsh's own credo: "I believe I don't believe, my lack of belief lies just beyond belief."
enclave of Glasgow, he longed to be either a sailor or a priest. Drawing heavily on Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Walsh explains where it all went wrong. (You guessed it: puberty.)
But now, in middle age, there is a part of him that wants to remain faithful to
the child he used to be. He wonders whether he was _ solely to blame for the loss • of that pristine faith. What about his Jesuit school which, he poignantly remarks, had all the trappings of spiritual life,
except spirit and life? Or • the RE teacher who fed the boys useless nuggets of ecclesiastical information ; • ("the vestments are put over the cassock in this ' order: amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole and chasuble")? Or the confessor who loudly inquired ' whether he was having IMPURE thoughts? Or the.' parents who taught him tic tell the truth, until he lost • his faith and they didn't want to hear it?
Aniet ps abretsutr, eFsariet hafdi es /: like a Beat book, • an On The Road ' for the pilgrim generation! ' ' At its worst it's overwriti ' • ten, saturated with puns arid. neologisms. There are even shades of Professor Stanley• Unwin when he describes a
crowd of multinational ' pilgrims: "the Poles gaudy ' in their poverty, the Italians. • svelte in their wealth-y." • ' The book is also full of ' careless errors. Walsh says • "marianistn" when he
means mariolatry, mistakes the French poet Villon for Baudelaire, says that . confession is "now known officially as Repentance", thinks the Italian for foreigners is estranieri and
calls the portable papal ' throne, the "Sedia Gestato, riat". A further irritation is Walsh's failure to draw the ' book to a conclusion. It is' ' only on a weekend trip to • Rome — after travelling in ' circles for 260 pages — ' that Walsh can finally face the truth of his loss of faith. Here he collapses into the very platitudes he has satirised throughout the book. "I suppose I feel thiS ' travel has been a religious' ' experience — that it has redeemed my soul," he gushes. The journey has "made me a whole person -: at last; has restored my . sight; has shown me where,' ' the door was".
The trite conclusion makes one thing clear: Walsh will never regain the -.. pure faith of his youth. The true paradises, as Marcel ' Proust said, are those we ^ • have lost.