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From Peapods to Faith

2 Jul

Yesterday, I did something I have not done in quite awhile.  I sat in the afternoon sun shelling peas.  Nothing remarkable in that, you might think.  Except that in the four and a half years that I have lived here in Spain, I had never seen peas outside of a jar or out of the freezer.  That was until last Monday, when I visited the town of Gernika.

Monday is market day in Gernika.  It is a traditional market with lots of stalls laden with flowers,  fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, one or two with embutidos and swirling crowds of eager shoppers.  As we explored this typical bit of Basque life, we sampled some cherries, a slice of tomato and a piece of cheese before we happened upon a stall with fresh peas in the pod.   I promptly – and with hindsight rather rashly – purchased a whole kilo.  Hence my sitting in the sun, shelling peas.

As I sat, I was reminded of the times I used to sit on one of the low walls, which flanked the few steps leading up to the front door of my grandparents’ house, shelling peas with my Grannie.  Like her, I love to eat the peas raw as they come out of the pod and am renowned for adding them to salads.  But the peas were not the only thing to link Gernika with Grannie in my mind.

Gernika was bombed to near destruction on the afternoon of 26th April, 1937 – also a market day – by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion at General Franco’s request.  There was an appalling loss of life.  This reminded me of Grannie, who lived through the worst bombing raid on Portsmouth (24th August, 1940), in which 1,000 people were killed and more than 1,200 injured.   Though not on the scale of the attack on Gernika, which had been the Luftwaffe’s training ground of World War II, she had had an additional worry.  When the air-raid sirens sounded, my grandfa, then a naval Captain, would jump on his bicycle to ride through the falling bombs to reach the Portsmouth Dockyard where he was stationed.

The previous Sunday, I had been reminded of my grandfa as I was sitting in the small ermita of San Juan Gaztelugatxe. I was listening to a Mass in Euskadi that was entirely unintelligible to me, my mind had wandered and I had started to think about Grandfa.  It had less to do with the unintelligibility of the service than that the chapel has a very nautical theme in keeping with the fishing industry that has supported the Bermeo region of Vizcaya over the centuries.  Affixed to the wall behind the altar is a ships propeller, above which the prow of a fishing boat, adorned with the head of John the Baptist and with a large cross acting as its mast, has been mounted; model ships dangle from the ceiling of the nave; the arch at the entrance to the chancel is flanked by the brass, green and red running lights of a fishing vessel; there is an oar alongside the northern, seaward wall; and the walls are decorated with pictures of whaling and trawling.

My grandfa spent some 47 years in the Royal Navy and could not abide the prophecy of that other St John that “there was no more sea” (Revelation 21:1c).  But it was not just the maritime theme of the chapel that sparked my reminiscence, but my grandfa’s strong Christian faith and ecumenicism.  Baptised and raised in the Church of England (his godfather after all was Supreme Head of that Church), he was to become an elder in the Church of Scotland and serve on the General Assembly.  Yet, he found the infrequency of the biannual communions insufficient for his spiritual needs and so used to go up to the early morning Mass in the small Roman Catholic chapel of Kilmahew.  He had little patience with sectarianism irrespective of its source and I learnt much from him.

And so here I am emulating my grandfa’s ecumenicism: a regular attendee of a Roman Catholic parish –  into which I have been welcomed despite my obvious heresy –  some 1,300 miles and 40 years away from the Church of Scotland parish in which I was raised.  I hope he would be proud.