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The real Narnia
Today I fulfilled a childhood dream, and explored Narnia. Really.
There is something appropriate in the fact that i entered through a train platform, no less.
For years, taking the train up to Assisi or Florence, one of the stations you pass is Narni-Amelia, and inevitably one thinks of Narnia. But it looks like a small town with little to recommend it, so i have blithely passed on by, spending my rare travel days in more exotic locations. I have always chalked up the similarity to coincidence. Silly me.
Narni is the Italianized name, of course, for a mid-sized town perched on a hill 800′ above sea level, and rising over the Nera river from which it probably got its original name. Settled by the Umbri – neighbors of the Etruscans – sometime before 600 B.C., the village was called Nequinum. As they were wont to do, the Romans showed up a few centuries later, and in about 300 B.C., it became a proper Roman municipality, and, as the original name sounded something like “unable/worthless” in Latin, the name was changed to, you guessed it, Narnia.
As you enter town, remains of an Augustan bridge still straddle some of the valley, built in 27 B.C.. Around the time that Jesus of Nazareth began his itinerant ministry in the Galilee, the future emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva (96-98) was born here. Pliny the Younger (whose description of Vesuvius gave his name, ‘Plinian’, to that manner of volcanic eruption) recommends the baths here. Near the Ponte Cardona is a marker and a sign in several languages indicating that you are now at the geographic center of Italy.*
According to a 2002 biography of C.S. Lewis, by Lancelyn Green,
When Walter Hooper asked [C. S. Lewis] where he found the word ‘Narnia’, Lewis showed him Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, ed. G.B. Grundy (1904), which he acquired when he was reading the classics with Mr Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham [1914–1917]. On plate 8 of the Atlas is a map of ancient Italy. Lewis had underscored the name of a little town called Narnia, simply because he liked the sound of it.
There is no record of Lewis actually visiting Narni, but the name is not the only connection. There is also a Blessed Lucy of Narnia, a 16th century mystic, whose remains were restored to Narni at about the time that Lewis began to think up his Chronicles.I cannot help but think that the fact that a mystical creature is the city’s symbol and coat of arms couldn’t hurt, either.
If you want to go both higher up and further in, two of the features of the town are the Rocca Albornoziana at the highest point, and the relatively recently rediscovered rooms of the Narni Sotterranea, excavated underneath the deconsecrated Church of San Domenico.
As one walks up through the city toward the 13th century castle – built to defend against Saracen invaders – one can imagine inspiration for Cair Paravel. In good shape, with a lot of modern construction to support a small museum, this is the site of some serious summer medieval fair experiences, it seems. Named for Cardinal Egidio Albornoz, apostolic vicar responsible for restoring the military influence of the Avignon popes in the Italian peninsula in the 1350’s and ’60’s.
On the other hand, the history of the underground reads more like Grossman’s The Magicians than Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In the late seventies (more than a decade after Lewis’ death) a small band of young people from Narni had formed a kind of spelunking club, and discovered a small crack that lead into an underground chamber, which turned out to be the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, a twelfth century chapel. Along with the chapel are a series of rooms that turn out to be cells and a torture chamber, used by the Inquisition for a period of about three centuries. Extensive graffiti in one of the cells left by prisoners from about 1745 to 1854. archives related to the activity of the tribunal based in Narni were part of the collection stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte from the Vatican and related to Paris; when the collection was possible to be returned, Vatican authorities at the time sought to preserve only a handful of the Inquisitions records (such as the trial of the Templars) and let the rest to be recycled. One box found its way to Trinity College, Dublin, including some from the Narni tribunal.
Certainly, worth the day trip from Rome!
*Apparently at least a couple other places also claim to be at the geographic center of Italy. The Italian Military Geographic Institute does not endorse any of them, as “”the (Italian) boot is not a geometric design and therefore it is impossible to determine the exact position of the centre of Italy”
Into the Desert
As I continue my research fellowship at Tantur, marveling at the amount of work one can do on a doctorate when one has normal access to a library and is not working four or five part time jobs, I have had some occasions to join the sabbatical program on a couple of their excursions.
For the last two days, we went into the desert: Qumran, Masada, floating the Dead Sea, overnight at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh, Makhtesh HaGadol, and lunch with a family of Negev Beduin.
Qumran is the archaeological site between the Dead Sea and the caves on the eastern slopes of the Judean mountains, just over 20 km due east of Jerusalem as the Tristramit fly. Eleven of the scores of caves in the hills contained over 900 manuscripts dating about 2000 years old, most of which include what later became the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther), leading to some connections between Qumran and the treasury of scrolls found in the caves, and this is what drives interest in Qumran, as it is, by itself, a fairly small archaeological site. The scriptural texts were a millennium older than the previous oldest surviving manuscripts, giving us a measure for the development over time, and the impressive consistency.
Masada is a desert fortress situated on a massive mesa 53km southeast of Jerusalem, towering over the Dead Sea. To say it is impressive is an understatement almost as massive. Linked with the Hasmonean Maccabee revolt in the mid-second century before Christ, it was developed on a grand scale under Herod the Great in the 30s and 20s B.C., and used again by the Sicarii, the Zealots, during the revolt against the Romans that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D./C.E. It was during this conflict that the Romans besieged Masada, recounted to us by Flavius Josephus (who was not actually present). The remains of the roman siege can still be seen: several siege camps and a siege wall are still visible from high up in the fortress, as is a massive ramp built by the Romans to access the fortress from the desert floor without having to scramble up the narrow ‘snake path’ that lead to the front gate.
The Dead Sea probably needs little explanation, but it is hard to describe the feeling of getting in and feeling the seemingly unnatural buoyancy, owing to its 35% salinity. It is said that when Vespasian came to the Sea during the Roman-Jewish War in the late 60’s, he threw Jewish prisoners into the sea while bound to see if they really would float – and they did, despite being unable to swim. Then valuable for its salt, now the stuff piles up uselessly as the lake is process more for other minerals: bromides, potash, magnesium. More than 400 meters below sea level (at the surface) and another 300m deep, the salt lake is receding at a rate of one meter (about 3’6”) per year. This is dramatically seen when one comes across one of the spas built on the shore in the mid-1980s – now so far from the water that one has to take a shuttle to get from the spa to the lake. Surprising to me was how many tourists come to Israel simply to spend a week at the Dead Sea for its health benefits, never once spending anytime at the holy sites, exploring the cultural heritage, history, or even political situation of the land.
We then spent the night at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh. The kibbutzim are pretty well known around the world, but maybe only in a general sense. Years ago I remember talking with a group of friends about how we would love to have all the benefits of religious community life without the necessary obligations of living in single-sex communities or that the only state of life option would be vowed chastity. We had images of a large plot of land with cabins for privacy and a common space for joint activities, including a library, fencing gym, dojo, and common area for games and socializing. I do not think it occurred to any of us that we had described something that already existed in practice, so different did it seem than the usual expectation in the States of buying into your own private slice of life separate from everyone around you. This kibbutz is 66 years old, with about 200 members and another couple of hundred residents. Like most, there has been some accommodation to privatization, but education, health care, and culture remain communitarian. Everyone contributes their salary to the community fund, whether physician or janitor, and is given an equal stipend on top of the common needs being met.
The morning took us to what ought to be one of the natural wonders of the world. The Makhtesh HaGadol, or the large Makhtesh, is often referred to as a crater but is something altogether different. Where a crater is the result of an extraterrestrial impact or volcanic explosion, the Makhteshim are what happen when you erode the insides of a mountain out while leaving part of the shell behind. Ten kilometers long and five wide, the slopes of the original mountain are still visible, covered in limestone, while the soft sandstone middle has long since been eroded away. It is more than half a kilometer drop from the top of the rim to the central basin below. In the quiet of the morning, under a hot sun and a cool breeze, we spent some time in quiet prayer and contemplation. Let the words of Elijah’s encounter with God shape our reflection:
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
We then went to the house of the ‘mayor’ of one of the Negev’s ‘unrecognized’ Bedouin communities, Kashem Zaneh, for discussion and lunch. The Bedouin are Arabs demarked by their nomadic desert life – the word itself (Arabic, badawi) derives from bada (desert) and simply means “those who dwell in the desert”. The people of Israel entire were badawi during the Exodus. Yet, the Bedouin of the Negev were often less nomadic than their counterparts in other deserts, the village we visited tracing its history back at least five centuries. Temporary construction marks the villages, not unlike some First Nations reservations I have seen in North America. Corrugated steel seems to be the construction material of choice, along with semi-permanent tents. It was a Bedouin goatherd who discovered the Dead Sea scrolls near Qumran.
Their political situation is tenuous – full Israeli citizens, and living outside of the Palestinian territories, but restricted to a zone around Be’er Sheva covering about 2% of their traditional range, the 100,000 or so Bedouin have to choose between living in one of about eight recognized communities, giving up their traditional life, or staying on their homeland with none of the benefits of the modern state. We were told the Israeli Education ministry spends as much on transporting the 700 Bedouin children from this village to school 15km away each year as it would cost to actually build a school on site – which is not done because it remains an unrecognized community.
Finally, we stopped at Tel Be’er Sheva, the archaeological site associated with the patriarch Abraham and his first settling in the promised land. A well remains that, though not old enough to be the original, dates back around 2,700 years. We first encounter Be’er Sheva (Beersheba) in Genesis 21, as the place of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, giving the place its name: the well of the covenant, or the well of the seven (the ewes Abraham offered to Abimelech to prove his ownership of the well).
Just a few lines beforehand, however, the first reference is attached ot one of the most significant moments in the Bible for contemporary Israeli-Arab relations. It is from here that Abraham sends away his concubine Hagar and her son Ishmael, who is destined to become the father of the Arab peoples, and the forefather of Mohamed, while Moses and Jesus both descended from the line of his half-brother Isaac.
The archaeological evidence shows habitation back to at least 4000 years before Christ, into the bronze age, an estimated 2200 years before Abraham. According to the Hebrew Bible, this is the southernmost city settles by the Israelites.
Ecumenical “Crusaders” and the other, other Notre Dame
In the weeks following, I attended two ecumenical evenings, of quite different character.
The first was with an informal network that has been meeting for decades, the Jerusalem Ecumenical Friends Network (or some variation thereof). Moderated by a kindly White Father (Missionaries of Africa), about 25 of us gathered in the Austrian Hospice (founded 1863) including representatives of the Anglican, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, and Catholics of Latin, Melkite, and Maronite churches. Focolare and Chemin Neuf were both present. Others are often represented, often including Churches with little or no official dialogue. A pleasant evening and a great way to connect with some of the local ecumenists. From Tantur, the rector, librarian, and myself were present. Simpler in nature, this was the real ecumenists’ meeting; the second was more grand, though a little less on-topic for Christian Unity. The opportunity no less appreciated for that, however.
A few days after returning from meetings in D.C. and at [the University of] Notre Dame, I was privileged again to join an ecumenical group for an evening affair. This time, we started with liturgy at the chapel of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, followed by a reception and dinner at Notre Dame Centre of Jerusalem, just north of the Damascus Gate. (No affiliation of the former with the latter, to my knowledge, but someone recently told me that the bar serves glasses with the monogram ND on it. Will have to go investigate.)
Having been to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on my way to the University of Notre Dame, this makes the third Notre Dame I had been to in little more than a week’s time.
The installation liturgy was accompanied by an impressive Polish choir and included clergy representatives from the Latin and Melkite Catholics, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox, the Coptic and Syriac Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and the United Protestant Church of France. Arab Catholic scouts were present as servers and standard bearers.
In a bit of interesting trivia, I only just discovered that the Centre is actually a Territorial Prelature, giving it quasi-diocesan status, distinct from the Latin Patriarchate, with the Apostolic Delegate as Ordinary. Originally built as a pilgrim house for the French by the Assumptionists in 1904, the Yom Kippur War left it in a state of disrepair. It was given over the Holy See in 1972, and Pope John Paul II established it as a territorial prelature barely two months into his papacy. In late November 2004, just four months before his death, a motu proprio was issued giving control of the Centre to the scandalously problematic Legion of Christ. Given the pope’s known health issues at the time as well as the already well known problems in the Legion, this move was, shall we say, controversial.
The occasion this time was an elaborate ceremony and dinner celebrating the installation of a new Grand Master of the Order of St. Lazarus* and the initiation of several new members from around Europe and the Mediterranean, including an Orthodox colleague I have met here.
Prior to this event, all I knew of the Order was that they had some connection to, or inspiration from, the crusader-Hospitaller order of the same name, and their intentional ecumenical inclusion of members, and their support of a keynote at the National Workshop in Christian Unity in the U.S. It is this ecumenical inclusion – if not explicit goal of Christian Unity – that makes this Order more appealing to some ecumenists than some of the more widely known charitable Orders – such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. (I am coming to think of all of these organizations as elaborate donor recognition societies, or as the Knights of Columbus on steroids. Which is no bad thing, in itself).
I was impressed with the conversations I had, with both officers and guests, including delightful dinner conversation with the local Finnish Lutheran pastor and her daughter, though we shared the experience as sort of outsiders – coming from cultures where the medieval concepts of royalty and nobility have been excised. Many of those present were from European countries where these ideas are still very much alive, if in a different form than was the case when monarchs were heads of government as much as heads of state. That lead me into further investigation of the Order and of the crusader orders in general which are, or claim to be, extant today.
* Five major military-monastic orders were formed in the Holy Land during the era of the first crusades:
- Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (c.1099)
- Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta (Knights Hospitaller) (c. 1099)
- Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar) (c.1118)
- Order of the Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem (Teutonic Knights) (1190)
- Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem (1123).
Some, like the Templars, were disbanded (giving us Friday the Thirteenth as an unlucky day). Others morphed into elaborate charitable organizations, continuing the work of hospitals or support of the Christians in the Holy Land, but abandoning the militaristic aspects after the conquest of Acre in the late thirteenth century. The Order of St. Lazarus survived in this transformed mode, and various attempts were made by popes to merge it with other Orders (Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, the Order of Malta, the Order of St Maurice) throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century. At the beginning of the seventeenth, the Order was effectively transferred from papal oversight to the royal house of France. It effectively ceased following the French Revolution, Royal Protection being withdrawn from the Order in 1830.
Whether it continued then or in what form is apparently a matter of some dispute among historians of chivalrous orders, nobility, and the like.
In 1910, though, the Melkite patriarch and some veterans of the papal army revived the Order as a non-profit charitable association under French law. Its efforts at ecumenical inclusion began in the 1960s, in fidelity to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and in the interest of expanding into the anglophone world.
Ironically, just as the Order embraced these ecumenical values, tensions between anglophone and francophone leadership lead to a schism in 1969 between what became known as the Malta and Paris obediences, respectively. Attempts at reunion only partially succeeded in 1986, when a significant portion of the anglophone members in the Malta obedience joined the Parisian sector, including the U.S. In 2004, a schism within the Paris obedience resulted in an Orleans obedience, under the spiritual patronage of the Archbishop of Prague. Further confusion is caused when, in 2010, some of the original leadership of the Orleans obedience broke away and formed St. Lazare International, based in Jerusalem. Happily, in 2008, the majority memberships present in the Paris and Malta obediences reunited, leaving three main branches of the Order (indicated with their respective spiritual protectors):
- Order of St. Lazarus – Malta-Paris – Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham
- Order of St. Lazarus – Orleans – Archbishop Dominik Duka, OP, of Prague
- Order of St. Lazarus – Jerusalem – Bishop Richard Gerard, emeritus Representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See.
There is also an Italian ‘branch’ that seems to have little to do with the rest:
- Ordine San Lazzaro – “Bishop” Giovanni Ferrando (who appears nowhere in the Italian hierarchy list and whose supposed address is the local renaissance castle…)
If you are interested, more extensive history of the order is provided here by the order itself, and here by a skeptical researcher.
Nevertheless, the charitable work of the Order – mostly hospital and ambulance work – and its ecumenical inclusion are worthy of admiration. All such orders could, perhaps, divest themselves a bit of concerns over nobility and dynastic ties and promote based on merit alone. That being said in principle, my impression of Prince Sixte-Henri and his officers was positive, setting the standard for what one supposes nobility is supposed to represent in the first place.
High Holy Days
A month into my fellowship at Tantur, and though time is flying, it has proved to be just what I needed – an escape from the work and distractions of Rome. Not that the last three weeks have been without concerns, as violence has escalated in and around Jerusalem. Thankfully, Tantur is safely removed from the areas of tension, and spending the day in the library and at my desk is easy to do. There have been some exceptions worth sharing, however.
I arrived in the middle of the High Holy Days, between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the latter of which coincided this year with the beginning of Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice/Time of the Hajj).
Tantur is at the southern end of Jerusalem, about 8km from the Old City, and just under a kilometer north of the checkpoint into Bethlehem. (It is another 3.5km to the Church of the Nativity).
On Yom Kippur a group of us walked into the old city, stopping at St. Clare Monastery on the way. The Poor Clares here arrived from France in 1884. A glimpse into their life can be found online here.
On arrival in the Old City we went first to vespers with the German Benedictine monks at the Abbey of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, just next to the Tomb of King David and the Cenacle (the Upper Room of the Last Supper). Through the construction of the abbey took place from 1900-1910, with the first monks arriving in 1906, the history of the community starts with the 19th century immigration of Germans into Jerusalem, culminating in the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II. During his tour, the Kaiser dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City and donated the land for the Abbey to the German Association for the Holy Land.
After vespers we wend our way down to the Kotel (the Western Wall), just in time to get settled before the shofar (ceremonial ram’s horn) sounded, marking the end of the day of fasting and the beginning of a celebration. This was one of the most moving spiritual experiences, watching the joy and celebration. I had not arrived in the Holy Land expecting this to be on my to do list, but now I can cross off something that belongs up there with Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s, as far as lifetime religious experiences go. It has made me realize that any “bucket list” i might keep for myself begins with unique spiritual religious places/times. Appropriate, then, that my time here begins with Yom Kippur at the Wall and will end after Christmas in Bethlehem.
Quickly added to the list was the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot – the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles – with a friend from Hebrew University. A rooftop Sukkah and a cozy company of guests from both Israel and the U.S. made for a real welcome to this place. I imagine the cultural equivalent to be Thanksgiving – you know you have been welcomed as friend and family when you have this gift!
Three Months at Tantur, Jerusalem
Summer has come and gone, and I find myself checking off something that has been on my “Bucket List” for nearly two decades: Living and research at Notre Dame’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.
I arrived in the Jerusalem late Sunday night, after what felt like a week in transit via Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and Rome. My first thought, as the Nesher shuttle drove under Montefiore Windmill, is that time flies and I can hardly believe it has already been 5 years since my first visit to the Holy Land. That was a 9-day seminar with the Russell Berrie Fellowship, at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Today, I embark on a 3-month dissertation writing fellowship at Tantur. It has taken three years of working multiple part time jobs (university teaching, research assistant, study abroad residence manager, spiritual advisor, international program staff) to get to the point I could take a few months ‘off’ and actually work full time on my dissertation. I am looking forward to it, but I confess it takes a couple days to adjust to having so much time to work on the one thing I never seem to have time for!
Thankfully, Tantur has a library of about 60,000-70,000 volumes on hand, with emphasis on ecumenism and patristics. [By comparison, the Centro Pro Unione in Rome has about 24,000; the World Council of Churches library at Bossey has about 100,000.] The library resources suffered some during the Second Intifada (c2000-2005), and is in the midst of updating its collection – a project I have been asked to help with while I am here, as part of my Fellowship.
The roots of the institute go back to the Second Vatican Council and encounters between Paul VI and ecumenical observers, who dreamed of an international theological institute for ecumenical research and life. The famous 1964 meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives sparked the notion that this would be the obvious place for such an institute to be established.
Before long, Paul VI entrusted the vision to none other than Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. As he looked around Jerusalem, he seemed to find the perfect spot.
Tantur is located on 36 acres of hilltop olive trees, vineyards, and pine. Overlooking Bethlehem, Gilo, and Bayt Jala, a short drive south of Jerusalem and with the mountains of Jordan visible on a clear day, the location has been understandably described as “strategic”. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, this was Jordanian territory, and is ‘east’ of the Green Line but west of the border fence surrounding Bethlehem.
The property itself belonged to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at least since 1869, when it was administered by the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire’s branch of the SMOM. During the Ottoman era, they operated a hospital on this site. Apparently, though, there are ties to this land with the order dating back to their first arrival here – in 1099, with the first crusade.
Fr. Hesburgh convinced Paul VI to purchase the property from the Order in 1966, for $300,000, just a few months shy of the Six Day War. The initial cost of building the center was estimated at $1 million, for which Fr. Ted looked to the generosity of I. A. O’Shaughnessy (known on campus for having donated the funds for the Arts and Letters College). Notre Dame leased the property from the Vatican in 1967, but building had to wait during the conflict, after which Israel now controlled the territory. By the time the center was constructed in 1971, the cost had doubled. The first year of operation was 1972.
Anticipating the renewal of the Vatican lease of Tantur to Notre Dame for another 50 years, starting next year, the University has approved a strategic plan that would propel the Institute to its next phase. The original vision of a resident community of scholars has ebbed and flowed, and most of the people who come through do so either for sabbatical or short term programs, in addition to ND’s study abroad programs in the spring. There are currently three of us considered resident Fellows or Scholars: A Church of England priest, a Jewish biblical scholar, and myself. There is also one seminarian intern/program assistant. There are about twenty people here on a three-month sabbatical/continuing education program, mostly Catholic priests (with two Anglicans). It is easy to envision something like the Lay Centre in Rome as a model for the community life here, with a more explicit focus on ecumenical dialogue.
I had finished most of this post at the end of my first full day here; this morning (Yom Kippur/ Eid al-Adha) I heard the news of the shooting death of a 19-year old university freshman at a security checkpoint from a Mennonite peace worker. It is a somber reminder that even as I am here to get away from the distractions of the world to write and research, and as quiet and peaceful as things appear from this hilltop retreat, the complexities of the situation here, and the tragedies, require our prayer for peaceful resolution. And deeper understanding. I am no expert, and I hope the next three months bring me to a deeper understanding and solidarity with my brothers and sisters here – Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian.
Quinque annis fui Romae
I am not a classicist, so any Fr. Reggie disciples out there, be merciful with my occasional Latin.
It seems more and more my posts begin with “sorry I have not written in so long…”, but then so do most of my emails.
A new semester has begun for U.S. study abroad students in Rome, and in the miracle attributable to Our Lady of Climate Change, while Calgary experienced the hottest summer on record in 75 years, Rome has been topping out at a pleasant 27°C [80°F] or below since I have been back. That’s practically Halloween weather!
My adjunct professorial career continues with two courses this fall: Catholicism Today, and the Theology of the Church in Rome. I will also be serving as the Academic Success and Spiritual Life/Campus Ministry Advisor for one university, where i now reside. No longer the graduate assistant at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, my academic focus should allow time for more writing. Mostly, i hope, on the dissertation, but also a bit on this blog!
And there is so much to share.
Personally, summer included two seminars – one online on the ordination of women to the diaconate in the Church’s past, present and future; and the other in Greece on Orthodox Theology. I heard the clearest and most concise explanation of the filioque issue ever, and my faith in its ecumenical resolution is now certain. Then there were visits home to Seattle, to the Canadian Rockies and Calgary, and a wedding in the Colorado high Rockies above Denver. Hiking, camping, road trips, and fog so thick you would not be able to see a volcano if it were right in front of you. More on all of that soon. Pictures too.
Broadly, the Vatican Bank’s been getting cleaned up, the world is at war and in large parts oblivious to the fact, Christianity has been all-but extinguished in one of its ancient patriarchates, a Pan-Orthodox Council (inshallah) is promised, and there are some rather nervous prelates around Rome. June saw the third installment of the very successful Receptive Ecumenism conferences, and as people trickle back in from vacation around the Eternal City, all eyes are on the Synod for the Family – including a heavyweight book of ‘loyal dissent‘ announced this week.
I just had to say the blog will continue despite its lengthy pauses of late!
Summer Stage III: Backpacking in the Balkans – Bulgaria (by way of Bucharest)
The night bus from Chisinau to Bucharest was a beautiful new small bus, but traveling on potholed country roads, it was not a restful ride. At the border, we had to stop and wait for an hour for no apparent reason – we were the only travelers there. We stayed at the spare apartment of a young Romanian lawyer met through couchsurfing. He was a gracious guide and host, generous to a fault with his time. Having seen much of the city the day we arrived in Romania, we spent the evening with good food and inexpensive beer on the university campus looking at the stars.
A slow train took us the next morning to Veliko Tarnovo, a hidden jewel of a town in central Bulgaria. Our hosts there were Anita and Stanislava, the two Bulgarian students who had participated in Lingua Franca in Romania, who were studying at university in Veliko.
“Hidden valley fortress town” is the phrase that came to mind to first describe it. This ‘city of the Tsars’ was the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire (12th-14th century), and the remains of the imperial fortress sit like a crown atop one of the three ridgelines, the patriarchal cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos as the crown jewel. We stayed at the most comfortable hostel I have ever encountered, a few minutes walk from the Tsaravets fortress, which, by the way, lights up at night in a (normally) music-synched light and laser show.
Anita and Stanislava outdid themselves as hosts, starting with a massive meat-filled dinner on the first evening (after 10 days of vegetarianism at Lingua Franca). Walking around town and up to the university for a starry overview of the town at night. Visits to Preobrajensky monastery, tucked up on the ridgeline across from its brother monastery – in view but so far away!
When I first came to Europe, Prague was the place to go for cheap beer. Now they tell me the Czechs come to Bulgaria for the same reason. Throw in some shopska salad, cheese-covered French fries, and all manner of grilled treats, and it is hard not to like the fare here.
I would go back to Veliko in a heartbeat, maybe stay a long stretch enjoying the quiet, the greenery, and the monasteries. Having a couple new friends there certainly does not hurt either!
As the four of us were getting on a train to Burgas and the Black Sea, Anita’s phone was stolen. Sometime in between getting out of the cab and buying the tickets, it disappeared. The police response was impressive, though. Not only did they send officers right away to take a statement, they actually came and looked around, asked questions – I do not think you would see this in Italy or the U.S. for a missing mobile!
While she dealt with the insurance, the remaining three of us plugged on, taking perhaps the slowest train ride I have experienced since a childhood trip on the Snoqualmie-North Bend local line. The buses make the same trip in half the time, we were told! But Burgas is worth it, a port city on the Black Sea (second largest on the Bulgarian coast) with a friendly pedestrian down-town and sprawling sea garden, it is busier than Veliko, but has its own charm. Beach fare included sprat, fries and cheese, local beer and the ubiquitous rekjia (not in that order).
The most luxurious travel of the entire summer was the night train from Burgas to Sofia. I slept as comfortably on that train as I have in any hostel, and better than some. The room was big enough to do morning calisthenics in, even… if I had any such discipline.
Summer Stage III: Backpacking in the Balkans* — Moldova
Meeting two Moldovans during the Lingua Franca summer camp convinced me and the friend I was traveling with that we had to visit this landlocked country between Romania and Ukraine. As one of my friends informed me via facebook while there, some studies list it as the least visited country in Europe. From Iasi, the regional capital of the Romanian state by the same name, we found an antiquated 15-passenger van that was the primary form of public transit. The van had to be pushed or towed every time it stopped; on its last breakdown, the driver just had us all get out on the outskirts of the Moldovan capital. Thankfully, Moldovan taxi drivers are considerably more affordable, and more honest, than some of their Roman counterparts.
The capital of Moldova is Chisinau (pronounced Kish-ih-now), and we found a new hostel just behind Malldova, the nation’s largest shopping mall, a twenty minute walk from the center. You can see most of the capital core in an afternoon of walking around, including a giant chess set conveniently located between the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Nativity and the National Assembly.
In 2009, after communists won a majority of parliamentary seats, Moldovans joined the ‘Arab Spring’ and there were massive demonstrations, including setting fire to the main federal buildings and even burning the original copy of the national constitution. One of our Friends referred to it as the ‘forgotten revolution’ because of the relative lack of attention they got, despite timing it to join the wave of uprisings that made the western news cycles.
Today, as you walk down the sidewalks, nearly every corner boasts a small bar – basically a keg with a plastic counter built over and around it – where you can buy a pint of Kvas for about fifty cents. Housing was about seven euro a night, and twenty euros was enough to cover a full traditional meal at an upscale restaurant, complete with a bottle of aged cabernet, for two.
While in Chisinau, we took a tour of Milestii Mici, a winery and wine storage facility, with about 200km of underground tunnels, a quarter of which are used to store the world’s largest single wine collection. There are approximately 2 million litres of wine here. It is best to think of it as something like Napa Valley meets Moria (sans balrog). You literally drive into the caverns, following road signs named for the varietals stored in massive oak barrels or in the catacomb-like casas of the Golden Collection. Their prize possessions are a little less than 200 bottles of 1973 vintage – each registered as a part of the national heritage – and which cost upward of 2000 euro apiece. The last one purchased by actor Steven Segal to be given as a gift.
Our second full day gave us a choice: we could visit a sliver of disputed land called Transnistria, where Soviet Communism still survives, we are told, and half a million people call it home. (Transnistria is not recognized by any other nation, only other unrecognized “frozen-conflict zones” of the former Soviet Union).
Instead, we choose to go to Orhei Vechi, where a series of caves used have been used as a monastery since the 13th century, but with more ancient settlement in the area. The site was clearly once under the sea, as the caves (now hundreds of feet above the riverbed) are almost covered with fossilized shells. Set in the middle of a double bend in the river, which has long since carved out a broad canyon, some guides claim it is the most beautiful place in Moldova. I am inclined to agree.
*”Backpacking in the Balkans Plus” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!
Summer Stage II: English and Ecumenism in Eastern Romania
Providence provides again. After three weeks in Cyprus, the choice of destination was determined by one and only one question: what was the cheapest flight out of Larnaca? Wherever it went, that is where my next stop would be.
As it happened, the answer was Bucharest. I missed my mother’s trip to Romania by just under a week, too, but the timing worked in my favor. After having booked the tickets, a Georgian friend sent a facebook message about a ‘summer camp’ for students from central and eastern Europe interested in ecumenism and improving their English. The target age seemed to be university students in their twenties, or late teens – “youth” by the European definition. A little past the upper limit, I wrote the organizers to see if they were interested in having a native-English speaking ecumenist join them, and offer a lesson or two.
The idea of spending ten days in a castle in northeastern Romania for no more than the cost of getting there was appealing, too, I admit. A few hours in Bucharest gave us time to visit the patriarchate (where we got parking only because our host told security that I was a theologian visiting from the Vatican), and a walking tour of the city. Then it was a night train to Roman.
The Lingua Franca Summer Camp was organized by the European Region of the World Student Christian Federation, an organization i had somehow not encountered before. It started originally in the early nineties at the collapse of the Soviet Union as a way to promote Christian leadership and provide English-language training for young Christians from behind the Iron Curtain. The length of the program has reduced dramatically in the last 20 years, from three months to ten days, but still serves many of the same countries. All the participants already had some mastery of English, and some involvement in ecumenical student movements. I was privileged to lead a small discussion group of advanced English speakers from Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Finland during language training, and participate in the program the rest of the week. The other participants or staff came from Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, UK, Ukraine, and US.
The setting is the almost surreal nineteenth century neo-gothic Sturdza Castle, near the village of Miclăuşeni. Built on the site of a fifteenth century manor estate, the castle once boasted a library of 60,000, including several rare first editions. Most of these were lost during the second world war, burned as fuel or stolen either by Nazi or Soviet soldiers. In 1947 the heiress donated the property to the Romanian Orthodox Metropolitanate of Iasi, and established a monastic community there. Only six years later, however, Communist authorities seized the land, and used the castle successively as a munitions depot, museum of military metallurgy, and hospital for children with severe mental disabilities. Villagers looted some of the original furniture, and other pieces were lost in two fires over the decades. As late as 2002, the place was still in complete disrepair. Recent work to restore it seems to have done a great job, but there is still a lot to be done – many of the original frescoes and decorations are so ruined, it seems more a question of renovation than restoration. A retreat center has been started, and the metropolitanate hopes to make a museum of part of the place. An iconography workshop already takes part of the space in the monastery complex, and the community of sisters numbers about forty.
The educational piece was organized in cooperation with the metropolitanate, under the guidance of the vicar for education, Archimandtrate Hrisostom Radasanu, a graduate of the Orientale in Rome. An articulate and erudite young cleric, his presentation to the group was apparently his first ever teaching occasion in English, and it was nearly flawless. I imagine the ecumenical world will be hearing his name a lot more in the years and decades to come, and I look forward to it.
The best part of the experience was, naturally, the people who participated. I met some amazing young ecumenists and future leaders. I learned a great deal from them, about everything from the specter of Russian imperialism, perceptions of American politics and the degree to which we don’t always appreciate our country, to ecclesiastical reality in different countries and experience with Islam, to the situation for gay rights in Georgia (In May, a demonstration of about four dozen in support of gay rights was overwhelmed when something like 35,000 counter-protesters turned out). I also learned a bit about Romanian Orthodox Ecclesiology in practice, like the fact that they will not ordain someone without a pastoral office (ie, a parish or chancery role) that is open and requires a deacon or presbyter. I have to go read Fr. Ron Roberson’s doctoral dissertation now…
Two familiar faces from a great youth conference I attended in Sarajevo three years ago (!) were there too: Pip, an implacably irenic North Irish Anglican PK, now father of a beautiful daughter himself, who brought no less than six bodhráin with him; and Paweł, the Polish editor-in-chief of the WSCF-E publication Mozaik, whose English is more British than most Englishmen I know.
I met a Georgian who could be a Republican from the Peach State, an inquisitive Ukrainian with a passion for learning, Romanian teens whose Byzantine chant was angelic, a fey Finn of Russian roots with a compelling story, and an awesome Armenian foursome. My new Slovak friend is the very image of a central European intellectual, with a cigarette in one hand and a book on existentialism in the other, slightly unkempt beard and untucked dress shirt completing the ensemble. A Bulgarian duo were inseparable, indefatigable, and inspiring. The German regional secretary proved a kindred ecumenical spirit.
I could go on, and in more depth. I was impressed by the quality of each, and by the opportunity they had here. I had support from some key ecumenists in my years post-college around the US, but there was nothing like this for us to tap into, to network with ecumenists our own age. Europe may struggle with its Christian identity, but at least religion is still recognized as enough a part of culture that its diversity is something to be addressed, rather than ignored. Western Europe may be increasingly secular and unprepared to comfortably address religious questions, but there is a light in the East.