I WAS a sceptic when I went on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
There were a dozen of us. We came from different backgrounds and religious traditions but each was on some sort of spiritual quest. By the end of our week together in Bosnia most, possibly all of us, had experienced something extraordinary.
It is a place where visionaries say they see apparitions of the Virgin Mary. None in my group claimed such a thing. There was, however, something about the place that affected us. Perhaps it was being away from home and spending time in prayer and contemplation in the company of strangers that made such an impact.
Perhaps, as one of our number suggested, if enough people visit one place in quest of something spiritual, their combined intent leaves its mark. It is the sense we feel inside a set of standing stones - or in the lofty grandeur of a cathedral.
Why am I mentioning this? It is because of the dreadful helicopter crash in Glasgow. Even before the search of the Clutha public house was completed, the people affected and the wider community turned to the church.
Hundreds of people from all religions and none attended a service in Glasgow Cathedral. Close by the Clutha, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia said a special Mass at St Andrew's Cathedral. Throughout Friday night priests from the parish were on hand to help the injured and waiting relatives.
In the wake of the shootings in Dunblane in 1996 something similar happened. The community turned to the church. In Dunblane Cathedral there is a standing stone to commemorate the children and their teacher. Three local churches also have a commemorative window.
Survivors of last month's typhoon that devastated the Philippines read religious books at a time when they might have been expected to rail at the heavens.
In times of tragedy and disaster we turn to the church or to the spiritual. I wonder why.
I put a similar question to the leader of our pilgrimage to Medjugorje. She travelled there time and time again. Why? It was, she said, a place where she had found a new meaning in life. It was also somewhere she took people who had lost a child. "What else can I offer them?" she asked. It was a good question. What indeed?
There are people bereaved and brokenhearted after the helicopter crash. Their pain will still be with them when the camera crews have packed up and gone away; when the city gathers itself together again and moves on.
What can their friends offer them? We occupy a time and a place in the history of civilisation that purports to have the answer for everything. We can surround ourselves with goods and chattels with a computer click. We have a vast choice of food in and out of season. Our clothes are cheap and too often made by child slaves on the other side of the world. We can see any of a hundred films in our own sitting room and download all the books and music we desire.
We have household gadgets and private cars and yet we never have enough. Then, when we are hurt, our prized possessions turn in an instant into "stuff" of little value or comfort.
We discover we can't buy balm for emotional wounds.
As with most disasters, so it was in Glasgow last Friday night. There were people killed, people injured in body and shaken in mind. There were some who walked away and who may feel survivor's guilt and others who just can't believe their luck. Their lives will be different now. Like the ripples from a stone in water, their families are and will be affected.
When they go in search of answers, I don't think they will look to their credit card.
At this time of year we have an annual discussion about how the celebration of the birth of Jesus has been hijacked by a mammon fest. No, say others, it was a pagan festival of midwinter rebranded by Christianity.
Maybe we see, in the light of this crash, that it might have been a good idea to keep Christmas as a spiritual landmark.
I am not beating the drum for organised religion but credit where it is due. The rescue services have been justly praised, the medical profession too. Perhaps by their nature the churches do not seek praise but despite their shrinking congregations and lowered stipends, they were on hand and willing to serve from the get-go.
And surely we should pay heed to the need they were answering.
Despite the recession, materialism, consumerism or consumption - whatever you like to call it - have not loosened their grip. In the run-up to this Christmas it is the same. If we have cut back of late, it is not through a newly found wisdom. It is because personal debt, job insecurity and worry about the future have demanded a tightening of belts.
But news that the economy is growing will no doubt encourage us to spend a little more. We have even had a speech from Boris Johnson, Mayor Of London, to the effect that greed is good. It is, he says, a valid motivator for economic progress.
It is also, as the Pope has been saying, a false God.
On Sunday, I read an informative and revealing account by a man who recently survived a stroke. He has, mercifully, returned to near-normal health but along the way he said he learned a big lesson.
He recuperated with the help of family and old friends - some of whom had fallen by the wayside from accident, neglect or general business. It was, however, these relationships that sustained and healed him. What mattered, when his brain was ceasing to relay his commands, was his connection with people and theirs with him. It was friendship - another of those qualitative entities that cannot be seen and touched and certainly cannot be bought.
That love of one's fellow man was something Glaswegians recognised in themselves in the immediate aftermath of the crash and over the weekend. We are told repeatedly we have lost the habit of neighbourliness. Our cities are supposed to be peopled by strangers with little or no community spirit.
It was, therefore, comforting to have such tangible evidence that selflessness and courage were in such rich supply.
We saw it also when the soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death on a London street. Two women passing by went to kneel by the dying young man. And we saw something of the same bravery and fellow-feeling in the people who ran towards the Clutha after the helicopter plunged into it - and the people who delayed their own escape to help others.
Our society focuses on celebrity, on visible appearance and conspicuous spending and we wonder why increasing numbers of us need the crutch of alcohol or anti-depressants to get us through the day.
Then something tragic catches us unawares. Death falls out of the sky. And at a terrible price we find ourselves reminded of who we really are and of what it is that really matters.
And we won't find it in the shops.
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