Canada Slim and the City at the Crossroads

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Saturday 6 July 2019

In previous posts in both my blogs I have written about the quiet majesty and remarkable beauty of the French region known as Alsace.

 

Location of Alsace

 

As evidenced by the post you are reading, I continue to wax poetically about this region, simply because I find myself consistently drawn to exploring it every opportunity I have, even though I no longer live as close to the French border as I once did in the days when I lived in Freiburg im Briesgau, in southwestern Germany’s Black Forest, with my wife.

The easiest, and perhaps inevitable, introduction to Alsace is to first begin your explorations with the departmental capital, Strasbourg, for it is here that not only does the explorer develop a sense of what it means to be Alsatian, French and European, but as well it is here where the visitor finds a sense of what it means to be human, for better and for worse.

This particular travel description will differ from others in that I will not be prefacing it with datelines as I usually have done with other places I have visited, because I have visited Strasbourg on so many occasions that my actual moments stand out less significantly than the overall impression that the city has given me.

This city is one of those places where each visitor must discover and claim Strasbourg as their own in their own personal way.

I have visited Strasbourg on my own without any financial resources.

I have visited Strasbourg alone, with friends, and with my wife, flush with funding.

Each experience was entirely unique and original in itself.

I doubt there will ever be a time when I will ever say that I know Strasbourg, for Strasbourg is like the nearby Rhine….

You can never step into it the same way twice, for that what was of yesterday is a world alien to that of today and what will be tomorrow is unimaginable today.

 

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Strasbourg is situated at the eastern border of France with Germany.

This border is formed by the Rhine, which also forms the eastern border of the modern city, facing across the river to the German town Kehl.

The historic core of Strasbourg however lies on the Grande Île in the river Ill, which here flows parallel to, and roughly 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from, the Rhine.

The natural courses of the two rivers eventually join some distance downstream of Strasbourg, although several artificial waterways now connect them within the city.

 

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Above: Gare de Strasbourg (rail station)

 

The city lies in the Upper Rhine Plain, at between 132 metres (433 ft) and 151 metres (495 ft) above sea level, with the upland areas of the Vosges Mountains some 20 km (12 mi) to the west and the Black Forest 25 km (16 mi) to the east.

This section of the Rhine valley is a major axis of north–south travel, with river traffic on the Rhine itself, and major roads and railways paralleling it on both banks.

 

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Above: Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

 

The city is some 397 kilometres (247 mi) east of Paris.

The mouth of the Rhine lies approximately 450 kilometres (280 mi) to the north, or 650 kilometres (400 mi) as the river flows, whilst the head of navigation in Basel, Switzerland, is some 100 kilometres (62 mi) to the south, or 150 kilometres (93 mi) by river.

 

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The city has warm, relatively sunny summers and cool, overcast winters.

Precipitation is elevated from mid-spring to the end of summer, but remains largely constant throughout the year, totaling 631.4 mm (24.9 in) annually.

On average, snow falls 30 days per year.

 

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Above: Palais Rohan, Strasbourg

 

The 2nd highest temperature ever recorded was 38.5 °C (101.3 °F) in August 2003, during the 2003 European heat wave.

This record was recently broken, on 30 June 2019, when it was registered 38.8 °C (101.8 °F).

The lowest temperature ever recorded was −23.4 °C (−10.1 °F) in December 1938.

 

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Strasbourg’s location in the Rhine valley, sheltered from the dominant winds by the Vosges and Black Forest mountains, results in poor natural ventilation, making Strasbourg one of the most atmospherically polluted cities of France.

Nonetheless, the progressive disappearance of heavy industry on both banks of the Rhine, as well as effective measures of traffic regulation in and around the city have reduced air pollution.

 

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Above: Palais du Rhin, Strasbourg

 

Strasbourg is the capital and largest city of the Grand Est region of France and is the official seat of the European Parliament.

Located at the border with Germany in the historic region of Alsace, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin department.

Strasbourg is the 9th largest metro area in France and home to 13% of the Grand Est region’s inhabitants.

 

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Strasbourg is the seat of over twenty international institutions, most famously of the Council of Europe and of the European Parliament, of which it is the official seat.

Strasbourg is considered the legislative and democratic capital of the European Union, while Brussels is considered the executive and administrative capital and Luxembourg the judiciary and financial capital.

 

Circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background

 

Strasbourg is the seat of the following organisations, among others:

  • Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine (since 1920)
  • Council of Europe, with all the bodies and organisations affiliated to this institution (since 1949)
  • European Parliament (since 1952)
  • European Ombudsman
  • Eurocorps headquarters,
  • Franco-German television channel Arte
  • European Science Foundation
  • International Institute of Human Rights
  • Human Frontier Science Program
  • International Commission on Civil Status
  • Assembly of European Regions
  • Centre for European Studies (French: Centre d’études européennes de Strasbourg)
  • Sakharov Prize

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Above: Hemisphere, European Parliament, Strasbourg

 

It is the second city in France in terms of international congress and symposia, after Paris.

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Success did not come at the head of a city that had passed almost without transition from a quiet regional capital to a European city.

It has not frantically thrown itself into the hands of promoters for a 21st century concrete facelift, even if its new status as a metropolis in a wider region is now pushing it to develop new neighborhoods, along the Rhine or at the gates of the old city.

It is no coincidence that its historic center, a real big island restored to life by a well-studied traffic plan, from which the car was largely driven out, was the first urban center in France in to be listed by UNESCO as World Heritage.

The former imperial German district Neustadt is also UNESCO-honoured since July 2017.

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Strasbourg is immersed in Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a cultural bridge between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the University of Strasbourg, currently the second largest in France, and the co-existence of Catholic and Protestant culture.

It is also home to the largest Islamic place of worship in France, the Strasbourg Grand Mosque.

 

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Above: Strasbourg Grand Mosque

 

But do not believe, discovering the impressive number of monuments and neighborhoods waiting for your visit, that it is a city frozen in history that welcomes you.

Strasbourg, which has managed to put at its head women of character as well as skilled men, sailing skillfully between right and left, is a city that has also demonstrated its industrial and commercial dynamism.

Strasbourg proved that it knew how to win:

  • The TGV Est Europe is there, putting Paris at 1h50 from the Alsatian capital
  • The tram has reorganized the entire city center and brought some places to life:

All old Strasbourg is largely pedestrian now, and cyclists reign there as masters.

In short, in addition to its rich architectural heritage, you will discover a city with exceptional quality of life, which has found a rare commodity: silence and singing birds!

And if the sacrosanct winstubs, believed to be eternal, have disappeared for the most part after the retirement of those who made their reputation (they have kept their name but have become tourist restaurants essentially), tea rooms, terraces, trendy places, and even today’s trendy winstubs are opening up neighborhoods that have not been seen before.

 

 

Economically, Strasbourg is an important centre of manufacturing and engineering, as well as a hub of road, rail, and river transportation.

The port of Strasbourg is the 2nd largest on the Rhine after Duisburg in Germany, and the 4th largest river port in France after Nantes, Rouen and Bordeaux.

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Above: The port of Strasbourg

 

Yet despite all of this, Strasbourg rarely receives the admiration and attention that greater-sized metropolises do, especially in popular culture.

 

Musically, Strasbourg is a sidenote.

 

Several compositions have specifically been dedicated to Strasbourg Cathedral by church componists Franz Xaver Richter, Ignaz Pleyel and John Tavener.

 

Above: Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

 

Strasbourg pie, a dish containing foie gras, is mentioned in the finale of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats.

 

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On their 1974 album Hamburger Concerto, Dutch progressive band Focus included a track called “La Cathédrale de Strasbourg“, which included chimes from a cathedral bell.

 

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British punk band The Rakes had a minor hit in 2005 with their song “Strasbourg”, featuring witty lyrics with themes of espionage and vodka and a cleverly inserted count of “eins, zwei, drei, vier” even though Strasbourg’s spoken language is French.

 

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Havergal Brian’s Symphony #7 was inspired by passages in Goethe’s memoirs recalling his time at Strasbourg University.

Brian’s work ends with an orchestral bell sounding the note E, the strike note of the bell of Strasbourg Cathedral.

 

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart called his 3rd Violin Concerto (1775) the Straßburger Konzert because one of its most prominent motives, is based on a Strasbourg minuet dance that had already appeared as a tune in a symphony by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.

 

Above: Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739 – 1799)

 

In literature, Strasbourg is a footnote.

 

A sole chapter, albeit a long one, of Laurence Sterne’s 1767 novel Tristram Shandy, “Slawkenbergius’ Tale” takes place in Strasbourg.

 

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Above: Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768)

 

(Hafen Slawkenbergius is a fictional writer referenced in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy.

Slawkenbergius was “distinguished by the length of his nose, and a great authority on the subject of noses“.

Sterne gives few biographical details relating to Slawkenbergius, but states that he was German and that he had died over 90 years prior to the writing and publication (in 1761) of the books of Tristram Shandy in which he appears — i.e., circa 1670, although Slawkenbergius’ tale includes a reference to the French annexation of Strasbourg in 1681.

Slawkenbergius is primarily known for his scholarly writings in Neo-Latin, particularly his lengthy monograph De Nasis (“On Noses“), purporting to explain different types of noses and their corresponding significance to human character.

The second book of De Nasis is said to be filled with a large number of short stories illustrative of Slawkenbergius’ characterizations of noses.

Only one of these stories is reproduced in Tristram Shandy.

Slawkenbergius is first referred to in Volume III, Chapter XXXV.

Volume IV opens with the relatively lengthy “Slawkenbergius’s Tale.”

This tale recounts the journey of a courteous gentleman, Diego, who was endowed with a massive nose.

Diego attempts to pass inconspicuously through Strasbourg on his way from the “Promontory of Noses“, but the sight of his giant nose sends the Strassburgers, especially the nuns, into a restless frenzy.

The tale relays the results of the upset in Strassburg and the travels of Diego to his admirer Julia.)

 

 

A solitary episode of Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 novel The Monk takes place in the forests that once surrounded Strasbourg.

 

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(Baptiste is a robber living outside of Strasbourg.

He lets travellers stay in his house so that he may rob and murder them.

His two sons by a previous wife, Jacques and Robert, assist him to this end.

He then forced Marguerite to marry him.

Marguerite, however, is disgusted by his life of crime.

Marguerite is first introduced as a short and unwilling hostess and wife of Baptiste.

Her first husband dies after receiving wounds from an English traveller.

The group of banditti do not trust Marguerite to keep their secret and she becomes the property of Baptiste.

She has two sons, Theodore and a younger unnamed boy.

She saves Don Raymond’s life by revealing Baptiste’s true intentions through mysterious bloody sheets and significant glances.

She stabs and kills Baptiste as Don Raymond tries to strangle him, allowing them both to escape.

Don Raymond is the son of the Marquis and is also known as Alphonso d’Alvarada.

He takes the name Alphonso when his friend, the Duke of Villa Hermosa, advises him that taking a new name will allow him to be known for his merits rather than his rank.

He travels to Paris, but finds the Parisians “frivolous, unfeeling and insincereand sets out for Germany.

Near Strasbourg he is forced to seek accommodations in a cottage after his chaise supposedly breaks down.

He is the target of the robber Baptiste but with help from Marguerite, he is able to save himself and the Baroness Lindenberg.

Grateful, the Baroness invites Don Raymond to stay with her and her husband at their castle in Bavaria.)

 

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Above: The Monk (2011 French film)

 

Sadly, these are books rarely read today by our generation of techno tots.

 

In film, Strasbourg is merely backdrop.

 

The opening scences of the 1977 Ridley Scott film The Duellists take place in Strasbourg in 1800.

 

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(Fervent Bonapartist and obsessive duellist Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) of the French 7th Hussars, nearly kills the nephew of the city’s mayor in a sword duel.

Under pressure from the mayor, Brigadier-General Treillard (Robert Stephens) sends a member of his staff, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of the 3rd Hussars, to put Feraud under house arrest.

As the arrest takes place in the house of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre), a prominent local lady, Feraud takes it as a personal insult from d’Hubert.

Matters are made worse when Feraud asks d’Hubert if he would “let them spit on Napoleon” and d’Hubert doesn’t immediately reply.

Upon reaching his quarters, Feraud challenges d’Hubert to a duel.

The duel is inconclusive.

d’Hubert slashes Feraud’s forearm but is unable to finish him off, because he is attacked by Feraud’s mistress.

As a result of his part in the duel, d’Hubert is dismissed from the General’s staff and returned to active duty with his unit.

The war interrupts the men’s quarrel and they do not meet again until six months later in Augsburg in 1801.)

 

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The 2007 Spanish film In the City of Sylvia is set in Strasbourg.

 

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(In the City of Sylvia (Spanish: En la Ciudad de Sylvia) is a 2007 film directed by José Luis Guerín.

The film follows a young man credited only as ‘Él‘ (English:’Him‘) as he wanders central Strasbourg in search of Sylvia, a woman he asked for directions in a bar six years earlier.

 

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Guerín, born in Barcelona, is a prolific and original documentary filmmaker who has made only a handful of fiction features, averaging one per decade.

He is often characterized as “inquisitive”, is never seen without a flat cap tucked over his forehead, and is fascinated with silent film, meta-fictional conceits, journals, and the relationship between person, place, and memory.

 

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Sylvia may represent a real person from Guerín’s past (like his experimental companion piece, Some Photos In The City Of Sylvia) or she could be someone he made up, a purely rhetorical figure.

She is the girl with the white parasol remembered by Bernstein in Citizen Kane, a movie that’s all about the way fleeting moments stick like splinters in memory.

(“Rosebud”)

 

Poster showing two women in the bottom left of the picture looking up towards a man in a white suit in the top right of the picture. "Everybody's talking about it. It's terrific!" appears in the top right of the picture. "Orson Welles" appears in block letters between the women and the man in the white suit. "Citizen Kane" appears in red and yellow block letters tipped 60° to the right. The remaining credits are listed in fine print in the bottom right.

 

Or she is Madeleine, Vertigo’s woman that never was.

 

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José Luis Guerín’s 2007 film In The City Of Sylvia doesn’t have much plot beyond what’s implied in the title.

An unnamed young man (French actor Xavier Lafitte) is visiting Strasbourg, a picturesque city just off the border between France and Germany.

He remembers a woman named Sylvia or Sylvie, whom he met very briefly at a bar called Les Aviateurs while visiting Strasbourg six years earlier.

She drew him a map on a beer coaster.

Perhaps he hopes to run into her again.

The movie is broken up into chapters (identified as “1st night“, “2nd night” and so on), which presumably correspond to the length of the young man’s stay in Strasbourg, during which he doesn’t appear to do anything except look, draw, and – in a series of scenes that takes up a third of the film – follow a woman that he may think is Sylvia or Sylvie.

It’s something of a masterpiece, filled with beguiling intangibles and apparent contradictions.

Part of what makes the film so elemental is the way it uses elementary techniques, be it close-ups, reverse angles or natural light.

There is nothing fancy about it, but, as is often the case, the simplest steps lead to the most sophisticated results, building to the crescendo of the final sequence, in which glimpses of strangers at a Strasbourg tram stop – alone or in groups – suggest a world of mystery, possibility and unacknowledged beauty.

Guérin romanticizes looking, by taking something completely mundane and, by breaking it down on film, makes it seem extraordinary.)

 

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The opening scene of the 2011 movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows covers an assassination bombing inside Strasbourg Cathedral.

 

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(“The year was 1891.

Storm clouds were brewing over Europe.

France and Germany were at each other’s throats, the result of a series of bombings.

Some said it was nationalists, others the anarchists, but as usual my friend Sherlock Holmes had a different theory altogether.

Strasbourg bombing.  Read all about it.  Anarchists suspected in Strasbourg bombing.”)

 

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Before the 5th century, the city was known as the Roman camp of Argantorati, first mentioned in 12 BC.

That Gaulish name is a compound of -rati, the Gaulish word for fortified enclosures, and arganto(n)-  the Gaulish word for silver, but also any precious metal, particularly gold, suggesting either a fortified enclosure located by a river gold mining site, or hoarding gold mined in the nearby rivers.

 

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After the 5th century, the city became known by a completely different name Gallicized as Strasbourg (Lower Alsatian: Strossburi; German: Straßburg).

That name is of Germanic origin and means “town at the crossing of roads“.

Gregory of Tours was the first to mention the name change:

In the 10th book of his History of the Franks, written shortly after 590, he said that Egidius, Bishop of Reims, accused of plotting against King Childebert II of Austrasia in favor of his uncle King Chilperic I of Neustria, was tried by a synod of Austrasian bishops in Metz in November 590, found guilty and removed from the priesthood, then taken “ad Argentoratensem urbem, quam nunc Strateburgum vocant” (“to the city of Argentoratum, which they now call Strateburgus“), where he was exiled.

 

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Above: Statue of Gregory of Tours (538 – 594), Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Strasbourg celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988.

 

Between 362 and 1262, Strasbourg was governed by the bishops of Strasbourg.

Their rule was reinforced in 873 and then more in 982.

In 1262, the citizens violently rebelled against the bishop’s rule (Battle of Hausbergen) and Strasbourg became a free imperial city.

 

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Above: Battle of Hausbergen, 8 March 1262

 

It became a French city in 1681, after the conquest of Alsace by the armies of Louis XIV.

 

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Above: King Louis XIV of France (1638 – 1715)

 

(Marguerite LePaistour was born in 1720 in Cancale.

Hated by her stepmother, she rebels against her family, runs away, and to go unnoticed, dresses as a man.

Under the name of Henri, she became a servant, soldier, and executioner in Strasbourg and Lyon.

Unmasked, she ends up behind bars, gets married on leaving prison.

And everything returns to normal!)

 

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In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, the city became German again, until 1918 (end of World War I), when it reverted to France.

After the defeat of France in 1940 (World War II), Strasbourg came under German control again.

Since the end of 1944, it is again a French city.

In 2016, Strasbourg was promoted from capital of Alsace to capital of Grand Est.

 

 

Strasbourg played an important part in Protestant Reformation, but also in other aspects of Christianity, such as German mysticism, Pietism, and Reverence for Life.

Delegates from the city took part in the Protestation at Speyer.

 

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Above: Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses that sparked the Reformation

 

It was also one of the first centres of the printing industry.

 

 

(Johannes Gutenberg, fleeing Mainz for political reasons, took refuge in Strasbourg and there developed his brilliant invention, but in developing the printing press, he went bankrupt.

And yet it was the most important invention of the time.

It must be said that Bibles of 1,200 pages were complex to manufacture and complicated to sell.

And yet, today, they are worth more than $30 million each!

He must be spinning in his grave.)

 

Above: Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg

 

Among the darkest periods in the city’s long history were the years 1349 (Strasbourg massacre), 1793 (Reign of Terror), 1870 (Siege of Strasbourg) and the years 1940–1944 with the Nazi occupation (atrocities such as the Jewish skeleton collection) and the British and American bombing raids.

 

Above: The Strasbourg Massacre

 

The Strasbourg massacre occurred on 14 February 1349, when several hundred Jews were publicly burnt to death, and the rest of them expelled from the city as part of the Black Death persecutions.

It was one of the first and worst pogroms in pre-modern history.

 

 

The Reign of Terror, or The Terror (French: la Terreur), refers to a period during the French Revolution after the First French Republic was established.

Several historians consider the “reign of terror” to have begun in 1793, placing the starting date at either 5 September, June or March (birth of the Revolutionary Tribunal), while some consider it to have begun in September 1792 (September Massacres), or even July 1789 (when the first lynchings took place), but there is a consensus that it ended with the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794.

Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, there were 16,594 official death sentences in France, of which 2,639 were in Paris.

 

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Above: Siege of Strasbourg (14 August to 28 September 1870), Franco-Prussian War

 

(During the siege of Strasbourg in 1870, the Prussian authorities allowed the wounded to communicate with their family, provided that the writings were readable by censorship, therefore without envelope.

Thus, no military secret could be disclosed.

The postcard was born.)

 

Above: Bombardment of Notre Dame, Siege of Strasbourg

 

Above: Plaque in memorium of the 86 victims of the Jewish Skeleton Collection, Université de Strasbourg

 

Some other notable dates were the years 357 (Battle of Argentoratum), 842 (Oaths of Strasbourg), 1538 (establishment of the university), 1605 (world’s first newspaper), 1792 (La Marseillaise), and 1889 (the discovery of the pancreatic origin of diabetes).

 

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Above: The Oaths of Strasbourg

 

Above: The world’s first newspaper, Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenkwürdigen Historien (Account of all distinguished and commendable news), published by Johann Carolus (1575 – 1634), Strasbourg

 

Above: Rouget de Lisle sings “La Marseillaise” for the first time at the home of Strasbourg Mayor Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, 25 April 1792

 

(It is said that Rouget de Lisle imagined the national anthem in a single night in Strasbourg.

Not so complicated, when we see strange similarities with “Esther“, an oratorio of a certain Grisons, composer in Saint Omer.

Note for note.

To listen on the Internet is edifying.

It must be said that Rouget de Lisle was captain of the garrison at Saint Omer.

Well, well.

No wonder he composed “La Marseillaise” in one night!)

 

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Above: Marseillaise volunteers, Arc de Triomphe, Paris

 


Strasbourg was also the home of a bizarre epidemic, the Dancing Plague of 1518, where hundreds of citizens danced for several days, some even dying of exhaustion.

 

Above: The Dancing Plague of 1518

 

The dancing plague (or dance epidemic) of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg in July 1518.

Around 400 people took to dancing for days without rest and, over the period of about one month, some of those affected collapsed or even died of heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

 

Strasbourg has been the seat of European institutions since 1949: first of the International Commission on Civil Status and of the Council of Europe, later of the European Parliament, of the European Science Foundation, of Eurocorps, and others as well.

 

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Those are the facts.

They speak little of beguiling intangibles and apparent contradictions.

They do not offer glimpses of this strange world of mystery, possibility and unacknowledged beauty.

They offer no romance and no hint of the extraordinary connection between people, places and memories.

 

City with many faces – the often strained phrase really hits the spot here.

In the center of the Alsatian capital, the majestic Gothic cathedral towers like a memorial of permanence in the sky, surrounded by medieval romantic slices, and not far away, ultramodern glass palaces testify to the spirit of the 21st century.

In the vibrant economic center with a cozy Winstub flair – a bit of a metropolis, a bit of a small town – enjoyable Alsatian ways of life complement well with cosmopolitan European government institutions and German neatness with French esprit.

If you walk through the streets of the old town, it seems hard to imagine that in the Greater Strasbourg area live about 470,000 people.

 

 

In addition, there are numerous guests, such as the MEPs, who come to town once a month, like locusts, and disappear just as quickly after a week.

During the parliamentary sessions, many hotels are fully booked, taxis are constantly on the move, and there is hardly any free space in the better restaurants.

The presence of these institutions, rich with well-off elected officials and their collaborators who are not less, represents a sacred manna for the city.

In some sectors, real estate prices rival those of the beautiful Parisian or Nicois neighborhoods.

The economic difficulties that the new Europe is experiencing daily have brought the city to more humility in recent years.

Even if it is more than difficult to stay here during the parliamentary sessions (it is then necessary to push up to Kochersberg), one can find accommodation at reasonable prices, especially if one knows how to play specials at certain periods.

 

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Above: Logo of the European Parliament

 

As a long-term guest one can designate the overwhelming majority of nearly 50,000 students enrolled at the various colleges of the city.

In the cafés and pubs they prefer, there is the typical atmosphere of a university town.

 

 

Important guests for Strasbourg are, of course, the tourists who visit the city in large numbers – far more than four million a year.

To seduce a public who, more and more numerous, come here for a weekend in love or a few days with family, Strasbourg has no shortage of assets, winter and summer, by the way.

From traditional markets to the ever-popular Christmas market through the Musica festival, Strasbourg knows how to charm you.

And they are offered something truly extraordinary:

The picturesque Old Town island enclosed by the Ill, a unique district of Wilhelmine monumental buildings, the European Mile, a large number of important museums, just to name a few worth mentioning.

All sights are comparatively close to each other and are within walking distance.

In addition, there are some other ways of exploring the city by boat, a ticket, even by taxi or – very sporty – by bike.

And of course you can take a pleasant break: romantic on the banks of the Ill, in beautiful squares, in lively street cafes, quaint Winstubs or fine gourmet restaurants.

They are places of rest welcome between two visits of museums or churches, a walk on the quays or in the parks.

Strasbourg can be visited, it will never be said enough, first on foot, nose in the air, at one’s own pace.

Even in the evening, there is no boredom.

Various theaters, the opera, bars full of variety, music bars and discos provide entertainment.

 

 

Strasbourg also includes tens of thousands of people from the former French colonies in Africa.

Only a few of them are guests, most of them now own a French passport, their descendants have already been born in Strasbourg.

The visitor will usually encounter only a few of them as dealers near the tourist attractions.

Most live in run-down suburban neighborhoods, e.g. in Neuhof or in Elsau, where the social problems have led to more violence for years – this too is one of the many facets of the Alsatian capital.

 

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Strasbourg is a unique destination filled with special eccentricities.

Take the Cathedral for example.

Unique in France, the building became Protestant in 1529, and was so until 1681, when Louis XIV took Strasbourg.

Even today, ecumenical services are held regularly in the Saint-Laurent Chapel (entrance, left side).

On this occasion, Protestants and Catholics pray together.

 

Above: Rose window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

 

There is so much to see and do in Strasbourg that one blogpost will not suffice.

Among the variety are:

  • Strasbourg Cathedral
  • Notre Dame Museum
  • Pharmacie du Cerf
  • Kammerzell House
  • Place du Marché aux Cochons de Lait
  • Chateau Rohan
  • Museum of Decorative Arts
  • Archaeological Museum
  • Place de l’Homme de Fer
  • Place Kléber
  • Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
  • Place Gutenberg
  • St. Thomas Church
  • Petite France
  • Rhine Palace
  • St. Paul’s Church
  • The Council of Europe
  • Human Rights Building
  • Palais de l’Europe
  • Parliamentary Assembly
  • Museum of Fine Arts
  • Museum of Engraving and Drawing
  • Tomi Ungerer International Centre of Illustration
  • Le Vaisseau Science and Technology Centre
  • The Rhine Navigation Museum
  • The Strasbourg Bar Association Museum
  • The Zoological Museum
  • The Gypsothéque / Adolf Michaelis Museum
  • Museum of Seismology and Magnetism
  • Pasteur Museum of Medical Curiosities
  • Mineralogy Museum
  • Egyptology Museum
  • The Star Crypt
  • The Museum of Chocolate Secrets
  • The Pixel Museum

 

L'observatoire astronomique de Strasbourg (41534417322).jpg

Above: Strasbourg Observatory

 

Europe’s Crossroads lies at the very heart of western Europe, closer to Frankfurt, Zürich and Milan than it is to Paris.

Strasbourg is the seat of internationally renowned institutions of music and drama.

 

Description de cette image, également commentée ci-après

 

It also has a long history of excellence in higher education at the crossroads of French and German intellectual traditions.

The University has attracted eminent students such as Goethe, Metternich and Montgelas.

Its people have been awarded 19 Nobel prizes, thus making Strasbourg University the most eminent French university outside Paris.

The Université de Strasbourg includes:

  • The IEP (Institut d’études politiques de Strasbourg), the University of Strasbourg’s political science & international studies center.
  • The EMS (École de management Strasbourg), the University of Strasbourg’s Business School.
  • The INSA (Institut national des sciences appliquées), the University of Strasbourg’s Engineering School.
  • The ENA (École nationale d’administration). ENA trains most of the nation’s high-ranking civil servants. The relocation to Strasbourg was meant to give a European vocation to the school and to implement the French government’s “décentralisation” plan.
  • The ESAD (École supérieure des arts décoratifs) is an art school of European reputation.
  • The ISEG Group (Institut supérieur européen de gestion group).
  • The ISU (International Space University) is located in the south of Strasbourg (Illkirch-Graffenstaden).
  • The ECPM (École européenne de chimie, polymères et matériaux).
  • The EPITA (École pour l’informatique et les techniques avancées).
  • The EPITECH (École pour l’informatique et les nouvelles technologies).
  • The INET (Institut national des études territoriales).
  • The IIEF (Institut international d’études françaises).
  • The ENGEES (École nationale du génie de l’eau et de l’environnement de Strasbourg).
  • The CUEJ (Centre universitaire d’enseignement du journalisme).
  • TÉLÉCOM Physique Strasbourg,(École nationale supérieure de physique de Strasbourg), Institute of Technology, located in the south of Strasbourg (Illkirch-Graffenstaden).

 

Université de Strasbourg.svg

 

The Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire (BNU) is, with its collection of more than 3,000,000 titles, the 2nd largest library in France after the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It was founded by the German administration after the complete destruction of the previous municipal library in 1871 and holds the unique status of being simultaneously both a student and a national library.

 

Above: The BNU, Strasbourg

 

The municipal library Bibliothèque municipale de Strasbourg (BMS) administrates a network of ten medium-sized librairies in different areas of the town.

A six stories high “Grande bibliothèque“, the Médiathèque André Malraux, was inaugurated on 19 September 2008 and is considered the largest in Eastern France.

 

 

As one of the earliest centers of book-printing in Europe, Strasbourg for a long time held a large number of incunabula – documents printed before 1500 – in its library as one of its most precious heritages.

After the total destruction of this institution in 1870, however, a new collection had to be reassembled from scratch.

 

Above: The Nuremburg Chronicle incunabula, 1493

 

Today, Strasbourg’s different public and institutional libraries again display a sizable total number of incunabula, distributed as follows:

  • Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire
  • Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaine de Strasbourg
  • Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire
  • Médiathèque protestante
  • Bibliothèque alsatique du Crédit Mutuel
There is a great longing within me to have you, gentle readers, discover this city for yourselves.
I want you to feel as I have felt and understand as I have understood why Strasbourg once experienced compels a person to want to return.
There are places to explore and tales to be told.
We shall return…..
Sources: 
- Wikipedia
- Google
- The Rough Guide to France 
- Antje and Gunther Schwab, Elsass 
- Le Routard Alsace (Grand-Est) 
- Marie-Christine Périllon, Alsace 
- Michèle-Caroline Heck, The Golden Book of Alsace 
- Patrick Schwertz, Alsace: 100 lieux pour les curieux
- Ignatiy Vishevetsky, "An overlooked masterpiece about looking", The AV Club, 22 March 2016

 

Canada Slim and the Mandir of Nose Hill

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Tuesday 21 May 2019

This Sunday in Switzerland some folks will attend services in either a Reformed Church or a Roman Catholic Church and both groups will call themselves Christian.

 

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And as the Earth spins around the Sun, from the Dark Continent of Africa to the Canadian tundra, Christians will kneel on this day to receive the elements of their own version of the eternal Eucharist as written in the Bible that speaks of how God sent His Son whose sacrifice somehow saved our wretched souls and whose resurrection conquered death for all of us, despite death being our destiny.

 

 

In Jerusalem and parts of the planet where the Great Diaspora has led them over centuries, others, wrapped in the prayer shawls that their ancestors wore in the desert, recite the Torah, as their Rabbi lovingly guides a wand across sacred text that Yahweh spoke to His Chosen People.

 

 

And within the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and anywhere where the Qu’ran reigns the mind, five times a day, the faithful prostrate themselves towards Mecca, towards Mohammed’s holy city, and show their devotion to Allah, who also remains God the Father of Christianity and Yahweh of the Jews and yet is unrecognizable as the same God of Abraham said to be the originator of all three great religions.

 

 

Same deity, different names, different practices, same intolerance too often seen by those who claim this deity as their own.

 

 

In a tiny house by the Ganges River at the foot of the Himalayas, a Hindu Swami will not speak today, but will continue his devotional silence that, with the exception of three days each year, he has kept for years.

 

 

In Yangon, the monks of Shwedagon sit alone and together with the eternal in the tranquil silence and privacy of their Buddhist shrine, as do the Zen monks in Kyoto, spending most of the day sitting immovable in the lotus position, as they seek to plumb with absolute absorption the Buddha-nature that lies at the centre of their being.

 

 

What a freaky fellowship, an odd misplaced madness, this is, this seeking of something divine that defies description or definition, voices raised in desperate disparate ways, sacrificing precious life to a God of life that cannot be proven not to exist.

Such strange ethereal harmony, each faith claiming superiority over every other belief, no individual religion understanding the others, and yet united in lifting their voices to the heavens in the hopes that what binds the universe will spare a moment for those who are naught more than carbonated stardust.

 

Are the faithful foolish or the unbelieving unredeemable?

 

We cannot know.

 

All we can do is try and listen carefully, with full attention to each voice as it in its turn addresses the divine that lies within and without us.

 

Religions wrap the globe in their comfort, with histories stretching back into the forgotten mists of time, that still motivates more people today than ever before.

Nothing unites us more nor divides us more than religion does.

 

 

Who should we follow?

What should we believe?

 

Should Christians worship in ornate cathedrals bedecked with icons or consider even steeples divine desecrations?

How should Muslims decide between Sunni and Shi’ite or feel about Sufism?

Must a Jew be orthodox to call himself a true Jew?

And let us wonder as Buddhists ponder different traditions of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana philosophies.

 

Millions live by a faith.

More than three quarters of the world’s population consider that they belong to a religion, however little or much they do about it.

Communities of people who share practices and beliefs gather in special buildings for worship or meditation and seek to live lives in special ways in the world.

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, religion has been the resource and inspiration for virtually all the most enduring art, architecture, music, drama, dance and poetry that the world has known, in search and expression of that which endures when all else passes away.

 

 

We must decide if faith has relevance in these digital days, our modern minds, our computerized lives.

 

As every religion mixes universal truths with local peculiarities we must lift out the former from the latter and embrace that which speaks to what  is generically human in us all.

 

This is not easy for the irreverent, for religion is rich in rites and laden in legends.

This is not simple for those whose lives are reigned by rationalism, for the claim that the universal principles of faith are more important than rites and rituals is like contending that the trunk of a tree is more important than the branches, leaves or roots of that tree.

I know that when I seek to understand the religious impulse, that I myself lack, this is akin to trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

 

The mind that is mine struggles to grasp how Hindu’s holy Kali Temple in Calcutta revers two million cows to the point of nuisance while fakirs offer their bodies to bedbugs as sacrifice.

 

 

I find myself conflicted between the stillness of Bethlehem and department stores blaring “Silent Night” from stereos above plastic reindeer and overweight Santas.

 

 

I seek to define the divine amidst images of crucified Christs and chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs.

 

 

I wallow in a mire of confusion as to how Crusades can be Christian or Jihads holy, or how a God of love co-exists with witch slaughter in Salem, monkey trials in Tennessee and Grand Inquisitions in Spain.

 

 

I, like billions before me and aeons after me, seek the meaning to my existence in the hope that my short span of life has worth.

 

I am reminded of a Faustian fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and seized hold of the Truth.

Satan, suspecting sedition from this mortal upstart, directed a demon to tail the determined seeker.

When the demon reported with alarm the man’s success, Satan was not in the least bothered by the bulletin.

Don’t worry.“, Satan yawned.

I will tempt him to institutionalize the Truth.

 

 

The empowering theological and metaphysical truth of faith is inspirational, but the religious institutions built around this truth are often not.

Religion is constituted of people with their inbuilt frailities, vices and virtues.

When the vices get compounded by masses, the results are horrifying to the point where one might suggest that faith should be left outside the hands of humanity.

But faith without the faithful would have left no mark upon humanity’s history, for better or for worse.

Had faith remained as only aloof disembodied insight and had not embraced institutions and rituals, then faith could not have established traction on history or upon men’s souls.

What is important is to not get lost in the smoke and ceremony of rite and ritual, but instead we need to sift religion for the truths they try to preserve, the wisdom that maintains our world.

 

 

As T.S. Eliot so wisely phrased it:

Where is the knowledge that is lost in information?

Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?

 

Eliot in 1934 by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Above: Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965)

 

I categorically reject the premise that one religion is superior to another, for it is this comparison that is the most odious aspect of all institutions, for, as Arnold Toynbee observed:

There is no one alive today who knows enough to say with confidence whether one religion has been greater than all others.

 

Arnold Toynbee.jpg

Above: Arnold Toynbee (1852 – 1883)

 

It must be admitted that though I seek to embrace the world, I am incorrigibly myself and I know that the tale I am about to tell might be quite differently written had I been a Burmese Buddhist, a Turkish Muslim, a Nepalese Hindu, a Serbian Orthodox, a Swiss Catholic or a Polish Jew instead of a Canadian humanist with delusions of fluency.

 

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

 

We live in a world of wonders.

Lands across the planet are our neighbours, China is around the corner, the Middle East is our backyard, my younger colleagues and close companions with backpacks go everywhere, while I – who often remain at home in this wee hamlet of Landschlacht – have access to an endless parade of books and videos and visitors from abroad.

It isn’t so much that East meets West as it is humanity is being flung at one another, hurled across distances at jet speed, information invading our impatient intelligence within the breath between atoms.

 

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

 

Diogenes, twenty-five hundred years ago, exclaimed:

I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.

 

Above: Diogenes (412 – 323 BC)

 

Today we have the possibility to not only think of ourselves by the nations we found ourselves born in, but rather we have the opportunity to judge our heartbeat by the pulse of the planet.

We need to understand the faiths of others if we are to meet them as allies or antagonists, so that we can avoid military engagement through diplomacy.

We need to understand one another through our faiths so we can enjoy the world vision it offers us.

 

 

Or put another way….

What do they know of England, who only England know?

 

Location of England (dark green) – in Europe (green & dark grey) – in the United Kingdom (green)

 

How can we truly understand our beliefs if we never question them by comparison with others?

How truly enriching our lives become when we truly understand what belonging means to the Japanese, to sense with a Burmese grandmother what passes in life and what endures, to comprehend with the Hindu that our personalities mask the Infinite within, to follow the paradox of a Zen monk who assures you that everything is sacred but refrains from acts that are unholy, to feel the comfort that confession offers the devout Catholic….

For as language opens the mind to understanding other people, faith enlarges the heart to compassion and love for humanity.

 

True faith, not a dull habit but a living passion, confronts the individual with the momentous wisdom that life can offer.

Faith calls a soul to the highest adventure, a journey across the landscape of the human spirit.

It is the siren call to confront reality as it is, to master the self.

It is a lonely journey, a personal quest….

 

A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,

A difficult path is this – the poets declare!

(Alfred Toynbee, Civilization on Trial)

 

Razors edge 84.jpg

 

Los Alamos, New Mexico, 16 July 1945

Today is the day that the chain reaction of scientific discoveries that began at the University of Chicago and focused here at Site Y has reached the final culmination.

 

 

No one has been more instrumental in this project’s achievement than the director of the Los Alamos Project, Robert Oppenheimer.

All eyes are upon him closely this morning.

 

Head and shoulders portrait

Above: Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967)

 

He grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off.

He scarcely breathed.

He held on to a post to steady himself.

When the announcer shouted “Now!”, there came this tremendous burst of light, followed by the deep-growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed in an expression of tremendous relief.”

The first atomic bomb is a success.

 

 

What flashed through Oppenheimer’s mind during those moments were two lines from the Bhagavad-Gita in which the speaker is God:

I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds;

Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom.

 

Photograph of a bronze chariot. The discourse of Krishna and Arjuna in Kurukshetra is the Bhagavad Gita.

(The Bhagavad Gita is a discourse between Krishna and Arjuna set in a chariot at the start of the Mahabharata War.)

 

Thus began an age in which violence and peace continue to confront each other more fatefully than ever before.

 

In India, Gandhi’s name became, in the middle of the 20th century, the counterpoint to those of Stalin and Hitler, but not just for the British withdrawl from the Subcontinent in peace, but, more importantly, for his lowering a barrier even more formidable than that of race in America.

Gandhi renamed India’s untouchables harijan – God’s people – and raised them to human stature.

In doing so, Gandhi provided the non-violent strategy and the inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement in the United States.

Gandhi’s inspiration was revealed in his autobiography:

Such power as I possess for working in the political field has derived from my experiments in the spiritual field.

Truth is the sovereign principle and the Bhagavad-Gita is the book par excellence for the knowledge of truth.

 

Studio photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, London, 1931.

Above: “Mahatma“(“the Venerable“) Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

 

On a grey day in October 2017, a stone’s throw from the grim North Circular, that drab ring road that encircles London’s northern suburbs of Neasden, I would follow my curiosity and thirst for truth eternal to a Hindu temple.

A temple both alien and appropriate in the homeland of English, in the heart of an empire that once dominated my own birth country of Canada and whose sovereign remains our head of state, from a religion with roots in the land of India – that living coalition of religions and languages where one billion congregate and of which 80% call themselves Hindu – with 30 million adherants dispersed throughout the world.

On that day I would visit the largest traditional Hindu temple outside India (as recognized by Guinness World Records), Neasden’s 8th Wonder of the World, the Crown Jewel of Hinduism, one of Reader’s Digest‘s 70 Wonders of the Modern World, Time Out London‘s Seven Wonders….

The BAPS Shri Swamirayan Mandir Hindu temple.

It would not make me a Hindu nor make me feel any more knowledgeable about Hinduism than I felt before, but, nevertheless, my morning visit left impressions with me that still remain….

 

London Temple.jpg

 

London, England, 26 October 2017

Shri Swaminarayan was not my first visit to a Hindu temple (and I have a feeling that it won’t be my last), for on a visit to Singapore in the spring of 2014, en route to the Perth wedding of friends in Western Australia, I visited Sri Mariamman Temple, paradoxically located in the Lion City’s Chinatown district.

Sri Mariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and I still remember the temple’s incredible, brightly coloured gopuram (tower) above the entrance, covered in kitsch plaster images of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and (Oppenheimer’s) Shiva the Destroyer, as sacred cow sculptures graze the boundary walls.

 

 

I had a three-day stopover in Singapore and in the process of trying to cram so much into my consciousness in a very short time Sri Mariammen is a blurred memory amongst many that I saw during my short sojourn in the city-state.

I recall also seeing the Peranakan Museum, the Raffles Hotel, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, the Buddha Tooth Relic Museum, the Taoist Temple of Heavenly Happiness (Thian Hock Temp), Little India, Changi Prison, the Night Safari, Sentosa Island and Pulau Ubin.

I remember Little India, not for the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple with images of Kali, wearing a garland of skulls and ripping out the insides of her victims, but rather for the Bismallah Biryani Restaurant’s mutton kebab.

Hindu temples in Singapore were, for me at the time of my visit, only part of a tightly squeezed adventure and a list of must-sees rather than research for right or righteous religion.

 

 

(Thinking of Singapore and Perth I see future posts about them….)

 

I might not have bothered with London’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Manhir at all had not my wife purchased for us two London Passes, offering free entry to over 60 attractions, as well as free public transport on buses, tubes and trains, and strongly suggested I use mine as much as possible during the days of the medical conference she would attend that week.

Today would be the first day that I would view London unaccompanied by my spouse during the week.

 

Image result for london pass images

 

It was not my first visit to London….

 

 

(I had spent a couple of days on my own in 1995, mostly walking along the Thames rather than doing much exploring as a lack of money dogged my days then.

I spent a day and an evening in 2010 with my good friend Iain and his beautiful companion – now his spouse since the aforementioned Perth wedding – Samantha, visiting Greenwich Observatory and seeing the show Avenue Q in the Theatre District, with time to enjoy life walking well and dining fine.)

 

Royal observatory greenwich.jpg

 

But this was the first time I would attempt to deliberately explore London on my own without having to worry excessively about money.

I approached the Project alphabetically from the pages of the London Pass Guide.

As the ArcelorMittal Orbit (London’s tallest sculpture), the All Hallows by the Tower Church (where William Penn was baptized, John Quincy Adams was married and Archbishop William Laud was buried), Apsley House (with the oldest surviving grand piano in the UK) and the Arsenal Stadium Tour & Museum – (Football was never so crucial a sport to me as Canadian ice hockey or American baseball.)(Iain, an Everton fan, would never have forgiven me such a sacrilege.) – didn’t strike me as “must-see-before-I-die” / bucket list attractions, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Manhir seemed the place to start.

 

 

And I must admit the attraction was attractively described:

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a masterpiece of traditional Hindu design and exquisite Indian workmanship in the heart of London. 

Using 5,000 tonnes of Italian and Indian marble and the finest Bulgarian limestone, it was hand-carved in India before being assembled in London in just 2.5 years. 

Since it opened in 1995, this renowned place of worship has attracted over 400,000 visitors every year. 

Come and marvel at the intricate carvings, experience a traditional Hindu prayer ceremony, or learn about the world’s oldest living faith.

 

 

I took the Tube from our hotel’s neighbourhood way out to Stonebridge Park Station and wandered lost for an hour until I reached Neasden in the London Borough of Brent.

 

Stonebridge Park station, London Transport - geograph.org.uk - 879904.jpg

 

It may seem at first thought that Neasden is an unusual spot for a Hindu temple, but then Neasden has always been an unusual spot in its own right.

Neasden’s name meant “nose hill” and referred to the small promontory at the western end of the Dollis Hill Ridge upon which the hamlet sat.

The countryside hamlet land was once owned by St. Paul’s Cathedral and consisted of only several small buildings around a green near the site of the present Neasden roundabout until the mid-19th century.

In 1823 Neasden was no more than a “retired hamlet” with six cottages, four large farms, a pub and a smithy gathered around the green.

 

The Brent Reservoir (aka the Welsh Harp Reservoir from the name of the aforementioned pub) between Henden and Wembley Park, that straddles the boundary between the Boroughs of Brent and Barnet, was completed in 1835 and was breached in 1841.

The breaking of the dam on the River Brent resulted in folks dying and many fields and meadows under water.

Today the Brent Reservoir is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to the great crested grebe, the gadwall, the shoveler, the common pochard, the tufted duck and the common tern, as well as eight species of warbler – a total of 253 species of bird life.

As well the Reservoir possesses 31 species of butterfly, 15 species of dragonflies and is also the residence of grey squirrels, red foxes and bats.

In 1960 the Reservoir hosted the Women’s European Rowing Championships.

Today the Welsh Harp Open Space surely sees not only rowboats and sailboats but those of the Hindu faith enjoying the magic of this unglamourous corner of suburban tranquillity.

 

 

(Not fishermen though, as fishing is strictly forbidden.)

 

In 1873 Neasden had a populace of 110 and the horse was the main form of transport.

As London grew, the demand for horses in the capital soared, so in the second half of the 19th century Neasden farms focused on rearing and providing horses for the City.

Town work was exhausting and unhealthy for the horses….

 

Two Nokota horses standing in open grassland with rolling hills and trees visible in the background.

 

(It ain’t so wonderful for humans either.)

 

In 1886 the RSPCA formed a committee to set up the Home of Rest for Horses with grounds in Neasden, where, for a small fee, town horses were allowed to graze in the open for a few weeks.

 

The urbanization of Neasden began with the arrival of the railway.

The first railway running through Neasden was opened for goods traffic in 1868 with passenger services following soon after.

 

Neasden station building 2012.JPG

 

In the 1890s change led to a conscious effort to create a village atmosphere.

At this time, the Spotted Dog became a social centre for local people.

By 1891 Neasden had a population of 930, half of whom lived in the village.

Despite the presence of the village in the west, it was the London end that grew fastest.

 

In 1893 the Great Central Railway got permission to join up its main line from Nottingham with the Metropolitan.

The Great Central set up a depot south of the line at Neasden and built houses for its workers.

 

 

The Great Central village was a “singularly isolated and self-contained community” with its own school and single shop, Branch No. 1 of the North West London Co-operative Society.

It is now part of a conservation area.

There was considerable sporting rivalry between the two railway estates and a football match was played every Good Friday.

By the 1930s the two railways employed over 1,000 men.

 

 

Neasden Hospital was built in 1894 and closed in 1986.

 

Apart from the railways, Neasden was dominated by agriculture until just before the First World War.

In 1911, Neasden’s population had swelled to 2,074.

By 1913, light industry at Church End had spread up Neasden Lane as far as the station.

 

In the 1920s, the building of the North Circular Road, a main arterial route round London, brought another wave of development.

It opened in 1923.

 

 

The 1924 British Empire Exhibition led to road improvements and the introduction of new bus services.

Together with the North Circular Road, it paved the way for a new residential suburb at Neasden.

The last farm in Neasden was built over in 1935.

The Ritz Cinema opened in 1935, and Neasden Shopping Parade was opened in 1936, considered then to be the most up-to-date in the area.

All of Neasden’s older houses were demolished during this period, except for The Grange.

The Spotted Dog was rebuilt in mock-Tudor style.

Industries sprung up in the south of the area, and by 1949, Neasden’s population was over 13,000.

 

The Post Office Research Station was located nearby in Dollis Hill.

 

 

There the Colossus computers, among the world’s first, were built in 1943-1944, and underneath them the Paddock Wartime Cabinet Rooms had been constructed in 1939.

 

Colossus.jpg

 

Neasden Power Station, which was built to provide power for the Metropolitan Railway, was closed and demolished in 1968.

 

The post-war history of Neasden is one of steady decline.

Local traffic congestion problems necessitated the building of an underpass on the North Circular Road that effectively cut Neasden in half and had a disastrous effect on the shopping centre by making pedestrian access to it difficult.

The decline in industry through the 1970s also contributed to the area’s decline.

 

But nonetheless Neasden has somehow survived, largely due to a succession of vibrant immigrant communities keeping the local economy afloat.

 

Neasden Depot continues to be the main storage and maintenance depot for the London Underground’s Metropolitan line (and is also used by trains of the Jubilee line).

It is London Underground’s largest depot and as such it is a major local employer.

The Grange Tavern (previously called The Old Spotted Dog) on Neasden Lane was closed in the 1990s and demolished to make way for a block of flats, bringing to an end the inn that had stood there for around two centuries.

Another old pub, The Pantiles, which stood on the North Circular Road was converted into a McDonald’s restaurant.

 

The Swedish furniture retailer, IKEA opened its second UK outlet in Neasden in 1988.

 

Ikea logo.svg

On 14 July 1993, in an MI5 anti-terrorist operation, a Provisional IRA man was arrested in his car on Crest Road carrying a 20 lb bomb.

It came just over a year after the Staples Corner bombing just over 500 yards away, which devastated the junction.

 

 

In 1995, Neasden became the unlikely home of the biggest Hindu temple outside India: the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, known locally as the Neasden Temple.

 

In 2004, the shopping centre area was partially redeveloped by the Council in an effort to reverse its fortunes.

The Grange, which had housed a museum about the people of Brent, was closed by the Council in 2005.

The 2004 redevelopment proved to be unpopular with local businesses, as it changed the layouts of parking, thus forcing customers and local trade to pass by due to the parking restrictions of the redevelopment.

Neasden was once nicknamed “the loneliest village in London” and “God’s own borough“.

Neasden has achieved considerable notoriety thanks to the British satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Since early in its history (when the magazine was actually printed in Neasden) the magazine has used Neasden as an exemplar of the suburban environment in pieces parodying current events, personalities, and social mores (for example, the University of Neasden).

Spoof sports reports in the magazine usually feature the perennially unsuccessful football team, Neasden F.C. with their manager, “ashen-faced” Ron Knee and their only two supporters, Sid and Doris Bonkers.

 

Image result for private eye magazine images

 

Neasden was one of the locations in the TV documentary Metro-land.

In it, Sir John Betjeman described Neasden as “home of the gnome and the average citizen” (the former a reference to the preponderance of gnome statuettes in suburban front gardens, but possibly also a nod in the direction of the Eye’s fictional proprietor, Lord Gnome).

Background music was provided by William Rushton’s recording of Neasden (1972):

(“Neasden

You won’t be sorry that you breezed in.“)

 

Title card with the title "Metro-land with John Betjeman" in mock Edwardian script - yellow on a deep red background.

 

In a celebrated spoof of the Early Music phenomenon which grew enormously in the late 1960s, Neasden was selected by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer David Cain as the home of a fictional ensemble dedicated to historically-informed performances on authentic musical instruments from an indeterminate number of centuries ago.

It was thus that in 1968, listeners to BBC Radio 3 were given a recital by the Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis whose members performed on the equally fictional Shagbut, Minikin and Flemish Clackett.

 

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Athletico Neasden was an amateur football team of mostly Jewish players, which played in the Maccabi (Southern) Football League in the 1970s and 1980s and were named after the place, though they didn’t actually play in the area.

The team eventually merged with North West Warriors to form North West Neasden.

 

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David Sutherland’s children’s novel A Black Hole in Neasden reveals a gateway to another planet in a Neasden back garden.

 

Diana Evans’s 2006 novel 26a details the experiences of twin girls of Nigerian and British descent growing up in Neasden.

Willie Hamilton reported in ‘My Queen and I‘ that the Victorian Order medals were made on a production line in Neasden from used railway lines.

 

A bronze cross pattée bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion with the inscription FOR VALOUR. A crimson ribbon is attached

 

A pirate radio station, Dread Broadcasting Corporation, credited as Britain’s first black music radio station, was broadcast from a Neasden garden between 1981 – 1984.

 

In the Dangermouse episode “Planet of the Machines“, Dangermouse and Penfold arrive back in Neasden from the planet in the Baron’s space time machine.

 

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Konnie Huq and Matt Cooke from BBC TV present the Your News programme from Neasden.

 

So all of this begs the question:

 

What in the name of Krishna is a Hindu temple doing here?

 

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Perhaps there is wisdom to be found in the old Hindu proverb:

The lotus blooms in splendour, but its roots lie in the dirt.

 

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Let me be frank.

Neasden is a glum place, especially after the glamour of the City has been seen, thus the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir seems to rise majestically above the dismal, between-the-world-wars housing like a welcome oasis of sight.

So sudden and grandiose does the Mandir appear that the viewer wonders whether it is a mirage, a shimmering dream, conjured up by one’s overactive imagination.

Here in London’s loneliest village is an experience of India’s glorious tradition and faith, a legacy that seems to have evolved over millennia rather than appearing miraculously on the landscape in a mere 30 months.

 

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Since the Mandir opened in 1995, this renowned place of worship has attracted over half a million visitors a year.

The inventory of visitors, including your humble blogger, has incorporated prime ministers and presidents, royalty and religious leaders, artists and industrialists, school children and journalists, the devout and the merely curious.

 

It is impossible to catalogue all the appelations, emotions, inspirations and experiences that this Mandir has evoked.

On a personal profound level, the Mandir is a pavilion of peace and promise, a dissolver of disquiet, a messenger dispelling misunderstanding, a statement of hope and faith for the future.

 

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I am fascinated by the power of belief and teamwork and the spirit of volunteerism that made the Mandir possible.

In June 1970, the first BAPS Mandir in Britain opened in a converted disused church in Islington, North London, by Yogji Maharaj.

In 1982, having outgrown the Islington temple, the congregation moved to a small former warehouse in Neasden.

The present Mandir was designed by Pramukh Swami, a 92-year-old Indian sadhu (holy man) and is made of 2,828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, which was first shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1,526 sculptors.

 

Pramukh Swami Maharaj, 2010

Above: Pramukh Swami (1921 – 2016)

 

It was built and funded entirely by the Hindu community.

The entire project took five years, although the Neasden construction itself was completed in a mere 30 months.

 

In November 1992, the temple recorded the largest concrete pour in the United Kingdom, when 4,500 tons were put down in 24 hours to create a foundation mat 1.8 metres / 6 feet thick.

The first stone was laid in June 1993.

Two years later, the Mandir was complete.

 

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Designed according to the Shilpa-Shastras, a Vedic text that develops Hindu architecture to metaphorically represent the different attributes of God, it was constructed almost entirely from Indian marble, Italian marble, Sardinian granite and Bulgarian limestone.

No iron or steel was used in the construction, a unique feature for a modern building in the UK.

From the conceptual design and vision of Pramukh Swami, the architect C. B. Sompura and his team created the Mandir entirely from stone.

 

It is a shikharbaddha (or pinnacled) mandir:

Seven-tiered pinnacles topped by golden spires crowd the roofline, complemented by five ribbed domes.

The temple is noted for its profusely carved cantilevered central dome.

Inside, serpentine ribbons of stone link the columns into arches, creating a sense of levitation.

Light cream Vartza limestone from Bulgaria was chosen for the exterior, and for the interior, Italian Carrara marble supplemented by Indian Ambaji marble.

The Bulgarian and Italian stone were shipped to the port of Kandla in Gujarat, where most of the carving was eventually completed, by over 1,500 craftsmen in a workshop specially set up for the project.

More than 26,300 individually numbered stones pieces were shipped back to London and the building was assembled like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw.

 

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The Mandir was inaugurated on 20 August 1995 by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual leader of BAPS – the organisation behind the temple.

The entire Mandir complex represents an act of faith and collective effort.

Inspired by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, more than 1,000 volunteers worked on the building, and many more contributed and solicited donations, or organised sponsored walks and other activities.

Children raised money by collecting aluminium cans and foil for recycling – the biggest can collection in English history – 7 million cans collected by 1,500 children.

 

The Mandir serves as the centre of worship.

Directly beneath each of the seven pinnacles seen from the outside is a shrine.

Each of these seven shrines houses murtis (sacred images) within altars.

Each murti is revered like God in person and devoutly attended to each day by the sadhus (monks) who live in the temple ashram.

 

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Beneath the Mandir is the permanent exhibition ‘Understanding Hinduism‘.

Through 3-D dioramas, paintings, tableaux and traditional craftwork, it provides an insight into the wisdom and values of Hinduism.

Visitors can learn about the origin, beliefs and contribution of Hindu seers, and how this ancient religion is being practised today through traditions, such as the BAPS Swaminarayan Sampraday.

 

The Mandir is open to people of all faiths and none.

Entrance is free, except to the ‘Understanding Hinduism‘ exhibition where there is a £2 fee, which was covered by the London Pass.

 

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(A note about BAPS….

Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS) (Bocāsanvāsī Akshar Purushottam Sansthā) is a Hindu religious and social organization within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism.

BAPS was established on 5 June 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj after leaving the Vadtal Gadi of the Swaminarayan Sampraday.

It was formed on the founder’s interpretation that Swaminarayan was to remain present on Earth through a lineage of Gunatit Gurus (or Akshar) dating all the way back to Gunatitanand Swami – one of Swaminarayan’s prominent devotees.

Gunatitanand Swami was succeeded by Bhagatji Maharaj, Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj, Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj.

Due to the organizational emphasis on the Akshar Purushottam doctrine, it essentially forms the organization’s middle name.

The fundamental beliefs of BAPS include the spiritual guidance through the living Akshar (or Guru) who is believed to have attained oneness with Swaminarayan.

Mahant Swami Maharaj is the current Guru and the president of the organization.

As a global, well-established Hindu organization, BAPS actively engages in a range of endeavors aimed at spirituality, character-building, and human welfare.

The activities span religious, cultural, social, and humanitarian domains.

Through these activities, it aims to preserve Indian culture, ideals of Hindu faith, family unity, selfless service, interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence.

55,000 volunteers and 3,300 temples serve 3,300 communities around the world.

As of August 2018, BAPS has approximately 1,560 saints (or sadhus), among the most saints in one sanstha in Hinduism.

As part of its efforts towards community outreach, BAPS also engages in a host of humanitarian and charitable endeavors, by which its volunteers serve neighbors and communities.

With total assets of 17.5 billion USD, BAPS is able to contribute to a lot of welfare and public service works.

Through BAPS Charities, a non-profit aid organization, BAPS has spearheaded a number of projects around the world in the arenas of healthcare, education, environmental causes and community-building campaigns.)

 

BAPS Logo with the symbol of Akshar Deri

 

For the Hindu community, the Mandir is a unifying force that installs pride and dignity with a zeal to serve society.

Every week, hundreds of faithful devotees, young and old alike, gather for prayers and services.

The annual Diwali and New Year’s festivals are witnessed by thousands of devotees and well-wishers.

Diwali is a spectacular celebration that falls in the month of November, a festival of lights and fireworks that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

Every year 35,000 children visit the Mandir.

 

 

What exactly is a Mandir, you ask?

A Mandir is a Hindu place of worship, literally a place where the mind becomes still and the soul floats freely to seek the source of life, bliss and meaning, a place to pause for a moment to pray, reflect and absorb the peaceful ambiance.

 

 

The problem is that the Mandir is a place that takes religion seriously, and though it is listed as a tourist attraction, the Mandir is anything but one.

Here, there is no pandering to curiosity seekers.

It is not a place to go rifling through the Hindu faith to light on what has shock value, for the focus on what is bizarre and outside one’s experience is the crudest kind of vulgarization of faith.

Behind the ceremony and ritual, we seek what is of deepest concern to ourselves, that search for the essential similarity in human nature.

Hinduism is, like true faith, like other religions, not a dull habit but a raging fever, a pounding pulse that gives its adherants all that is startling about life itself.

 

The Mandir in the suburbs of Neasden is as unbelievable to the eyes as a garden in the Sahara.

This spectacular edifice, this the largest Hindu temple outside India, includes seven spires (shikhars), six domes, 193 pillars and 55 different ceiling designs.

The Mandir‘s visual splendour and tranquil atmosphere have spontaneously generated poetic expressions and sentiments.

The media have dubbed the Mandir as “hallucinogenic” and described the profuse carvings as “frothy milk on a cappuccino“.

Deities and motifs representing the Hindu faith spring from the ceilings, walls and windows.

The impressive monument is supported by a 1,070-foot long pageant of extraordinary stone elephants and a 610-foot long ornately carved outer wall.

The Narayan Sarovar, a water body that embraces the monument on three sides, gives the Mandir an aura of a traditional place of pilgrimage.

The Mandir is entered through the richly carved portico of the Grand Haveli (cultural complex), welcoming you into a majestic wooden courtyard with soaring teak columns and oak panels.

Elegant peacocks, delicate lotus flowers and royal elephants beckon in greeting, with the carpet designed to compliment the motifs.

 

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Wood for the Haveli was sourced from sustainable forests, and for each tree felled, ten saplings were planted.

The Haveli Prayer Hall is a pillar-less assembly area that measures 2,750 square metres and seats over 2,500 worshippers.

The Hall incorporates environment-friendly features such as light wells, energy-saving lighting and a heat exchanger which uses thermal energy dissipated by the congregation to heat other parts of the complex.

Here is the venue for weekly assemblies and regular festivals.

 

 

The heart of the Mandir is its murtis (the sacred images of the deities who are revered as living gods), ritually infused with the presence of the divine.

Hindus worship murtis to express and enhance their loving relationship with that which is holy.

Murtis are the soul of the Mandir, making it a sacred place of worhsip wherein God resides – the home of God.

 

 

The shrine’s foundations are His feet, the pillars His knees, the inner sanctum His stomach, the throne His heart, the murti His soul, the shikhars His shoulders, the bell His tongue, the lamp His breath, the lion His nose, the windows His ears, the ringed stone on the shikhar His neck, the golden pot His head and the flags His hair.

The entire Mandir is revered as a divine manifestation.

In total, there are 11 shrines with 17 murtis, including Ganesh, Hanuman and Swaminarayan – this last to whom the Mandir is dedicated.

 

The murtis are ritually served by dedicated sadhus (monks) who live in the Mandir.

Before sunrise, the murtis are awakened by the sadhus and the shrine doors opened for the first of five daily artis (prayers), the Mangala Arti.

 

 

An arti is a ritual wherein a specific prayer is recited to a poetic format with music while the sadhus wave a lighted lamp in front of the murtis.

The sadhus recite some shlokas (prayers), serve the murtis, offer them food and bathe them and close the shrine doors.

Feeding and bathing of the murtis continues throughout the day.

 

The shrines are opened again for the second aarti, the Shangar Arti, and remain open from 0900 to approximately 1100, when the shrines are closed and offered thal (hymns).

At 1145, the shrines are opened for the midday arti, the Rajbhog Arti, and the thal is recited before the murtis.

The shrines are closed after this to allow the murtis to rest during the afternoon.

The shrines reopen at 1600 until 1830 for darshan.

 

 

The Sandhya Arti (sunset arti) follows at 1900.

Thereafter, a selection of prayers are recited by the devotees including dhun (where the names of God are chanted and verses of praise are sung).

The shrines are closed again for approximately one hour so they can be offered their final meal by the sadhus.

The murtis are then prepared for the night and adorned in their evening attire by the sadhus.

The shrines are opened a final time for the Shayan Arti (night-time arti) with the lights dimmed and music lowered.

The devotees recite a few hymns, gently sending the murtis to sleep, before the shrines are finally closed for the night.

 

The elaborately carved pillars, friezes, ornate ceilings and the magnificent dome provide an aesthetic and elevating atmosphere to the sanctum sanctorum of the Mandir.

 

 

The murtis of the Mandir – Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Guru Parampara, the avatars of Sanatan Dharma, Shri Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj, Shri Radha-Krishna, Shri Sita-Ram, Shri Shiv-Parvati, Shri Ganeshji and Shri Hanumanji – exude a heavenly calm and beauty.

 

Don’t despair if you can’t decipher who is who and what is what, for, to understand all of this, one needs to be steeped in Hindu history and Indian heritage.

 

 

Here prayers are whispered, songs of praise are heightened and the soul rejoices beyond the frontiers of mundane existence to experience the divine peace of God.

It is a nucleus of socio-spiritual activities for the benefit and elevation of individuals, families and society.

It inspires a society free from violence, crime and addiction.

It infuses people with a spirit of selfless service, to live in tune with God and in harmony with humanity.

 

Or at least these are the Mandir’s intentions.

 

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An hour of lost and bewildered walking finally led me to a procession of French teenagers who were scrutinized carefully by the burly security that met us.

 

Here at 105 Brentfield Road, as in most places that devote time and attention to unearthly divinity, apparently God has a strict dress code that must be adhered to before you will be allowed to worship Him.

Clothing must be respectable, respectful.

Shorts and skirts must be below knee-length and footwear removed upon entering the Mandir complex.

No one smokes on the premises.

Video and photography are forbidden upon entry.

Mobile phones must be turned off and no food or beverages are allowed on the premises.

 

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By the time I reach the security shed where backpacks are stored upon long shelves and make my way into the Mandir I am immediately summoned by personnel into the Prayer Hall where row upon row of folding chairs support a large collection of English senior citizens let loose here on this most unusual excursion.

The film is agonizingly long and as I am not officially a part of this senior set, despite the balding pate and silver mane that is mine, I extrude myself as quietly as I can and find myself lining up to enter the Inner Sanctum with the aforementioned French and some Indian devotees.

 

Hindu worship (puja) involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras).

The simplest yantra is a circle within a square within a rectangle, with four gates to represent the four directions of the universe.

Hindu temples are based on this design, although still open to endless additions and variations in decoration.

Central to worship is the icon, or sacred image, which together with the temple, is believed to both house and represent a manifestation of God.

An icon can be worshipped at home or in a temple.

Most Hindu worship at home more often and the majority of Hindu homes have a shrine, where at certain times different members of the family make offerings and say prayers.

Most Hindus worship individually, not in a communal service.

Worship involves mantras (vibrating sounds that summon the murti) and prasad (the offering of gifts).

While many prayers and offerings are made for the fulfillment of wishes, the ultimate objective is the offering of the self to become one with God.

Central to this worship is darshan (seeing and being in the presence of the central murti).

 

 

The best time to visit the Mandir is just before 1145, when the rajbhog arti ceremony is performed.

Lit candles are waved in front of the embodiments of the murtis, accompanied by a musical prayer performed by drums, bells, gongs and a conch shell.

 

It is truly a haunting and uplifting experience.

 

Abhishek is the ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over the sacred image of God to honour Him and to attain His blessings.

In this Mandir, abhishek of the sacred image of Nilkanth Varni (or Bhagwan Swaminarayan) is performed daily to the chanting of Vedic verses, including the ancient prayer of peace (the Shanti Paath) and the recital of the 108 auspicious and liberating names of Varni (the Janmangal Namavali), in a ceremony that lasts 15 minutes.

The abhishek is done by devotees on days of special significance to them or to seek blessings for personal reasons.

 

 

The Abhishek Mandap is a marble chamber on the lower floor of the Mandir, housing the sacred image of Shri Nilkanth Varni, the teenage form of Bhagwan Swaminarayan to whom the Mandir is dedicated.

The chamber is clad in Brazilian and Italian marble and embellished with intricate traditional designs.

At the chamber’s heart lies the murti of Varni in gilded brass.

He is depicted in mid-step, emaciated, yet looking calm and resolute.

With matted hair and a small gutko (handwritten manuscript of excerpts from sacred texts) wrapped in a kerchief around his neck, Varni is wearing nothing but his loincloth tied at the waist by a jute cord.

In his left hand, Varni carries a dand (a wooden staff) and a kamandalu (a drinking pot made from dry gourd), both common marks of Hindu ascetism.

 

 

Who was Varni?

After renouncing his home at the tender age of 11, Bhagwan Swaminarayan embarked upon an epic journey of spiritual awakening that took him around India, into Nepal and Tibet, and through Myanmar and Bangladesh.

During this time, he became to be known as Nilkanth Varni.

Barefoot and alone, Nilkanth walked almost 8,000 miles over seven years, blessing the land and liberating numerous spiritual aspirants along the way.

Carrying no maps, no food and no money, Varni crossed raging rivers, faced ferocious animals and survived the freezing heights of the Himalayas.

His solitary journey is a story of courage, kindness and enlightenment, and the inspiration for the naming of the Mandir.

 

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But can the non-believer understand Hinduism?

I have tried and what I have concluded is the following….

 

Hinduism is the world’s oldest ongoing living religion, practised as early as 6500 BC.

It has, unlike Christianity or Islam, no one single founder, but is rather a collective of experiences of ancient seers over the centuries.

According to Hinduism’s adherents, Hinduism teaches one to see the presence of God in everything and thus honour the whole of creation.

You can find God in the world of everyday affairs as readily as anywhere else.

 

Shiva

 

With this perspective, there are no heathens nor enemies.

Many Hindus acknowledge Christ as a divine man, while believing that there have been many as such, including Rama, Krishna and the Buddha.

 

Everyone, even Canada Slim your humble blogger, has the right to evolve spiritually and will, at some time, realise the truth.

 

Hindus believe that souls are not limited to one life – many lives offer many chances for spiritual elevation.

 

 

Like many religions, this faith has rigorous rules.

People are responsible for every action they perform, through the Law of Karma.

 

Hindus believe in one supreme, all-powerful God, the Creator, who has a divine form, is immanent (eternal), transcedent and the grantor of spiritual liberation (moksha).

Jews, Christians and Muslims view the worship of God in the form of one chosen ideal.

Hindus view and represent God in innumerable forms.

 

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Each form (avatar) is but a symbol that points to something beyond.

No one form can truly encapsulate God’s actual nature, so an entire array is needed to complete the picture of God’s aspects and manifestations.

Each representation’s vocation is to introduce the human heart to what it represents but what it itself is not.

Though each representation points equally to God, the Hindu devotee tends to form a lifetime attachment to one, the ishta, the form of the divine the devotee wishes to adopt.

This worship of sacred images of God is called murti puja.

After all, love assumes different nuances according to the relationship involved.

 

Hindus believe in Karma that the soul reaps fruit – good or bad – which is experienced either in this life or in future lives.

They believe in reincarnation (punar-janma), that the soul is immortal, repeatedly born and reborn in one of millions of lifeforms until it attains spiritual liberation (moksha).

Moksha is the release of the soul from this perpetual cycle of births and deaths, remaining eternally in the blissful presence of God.

 

 

Dharma is how we choose to live our lives according to divine law, which values service, sacrifice, humility, duty, devotion, purpose, fidelity, respect and integrity among other positive practices and virtues.

This divine law is believed to be revealed by the authority of the Vedic scriptures, the four Vedas – the Samhita, the Brahmana, the Aranyaka and the Upanishad.

And in a model of efficiency these are encapsulated in the Shikshapatri, a book of moral conduct in 212 succinct Sanskrit verses.

 

 

In a nutshell of simplicity:

  • Do not steal.
  • Do not eat meat.
  • Do not consume alcohol or other intoxicants.
  • Do not commit adultery.
  • Maintain purity of conduct.

 

Hindus claim a proud heritage:

  • the world’s first university (700 BC), Takshashila, India
  • the invention of the Zero, which makes the binary system and computers possible
  • the invention of the decimal system
  • the invention of geometry and trigonometry
  • the value of pi – the ratio of the circumference and diameter of a circle
  • the prior formulation of the Pythagorean Theorem (which says that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the square of the two sides)  (For me, mathematics is as arcane and mysterious as faith.)
  • a theory of the revolution of the Earth 1,000 years before Copernicus
  • a formulation of the law of gravity 1,200 years before Newton
  • an idea of the smallest and largest measures of time from a kratl (34,000th of a second) to a kalpa (4.32 billion years)
  • the practice of surgery 2,600 years ago with 125 types of surgical instruments for 300 different operations

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I did not leave the Mandir of London as a convert to Hinduism, but what my visit showed me was worth the effort.

 

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Life holds more than what one is experiencing now.

People need to live for something which makes life worthwhile, a quest for meaning and value beyond oneself.

Life holds other possibilities beyond our own experience.

 

Hinduism holds that underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss.

Hinduism sees the mind’s hidden continents as stretching to infinity, infinite in being, infinite in awareness, infinite in joy.

Hindus believe that there are multiple paths to God, each calling for a distinctive mode of travel, each starting from the kind of person one is.

 

Lakshmi

 

We all play the roles our personalities dictate, cast in this moment in the greatest of all tragi-comedies, the drama of life itself in which we are all simultaneously co-authors and actors, powered less by reason than by emotion.

To find meaning in this drama, in the mystery of existence, is life’s final and fascinating challenge.

Life is a training ground for the human spirit.

The world is the soul’s gymnasium, both a school and a training field.

 

Hindus believe that the world is lila, God’s plan, that the goal of life is life itself.

 

The various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal to find meaning to our lives beyond ourselves.

The various religions are but different languages through which God, should God exist, speaks to the human heart.

 

Truth is one.

Sages call truth by different names.

 

Differences in culture, history, geography and temperament all make for diverse starting points.

Is life not more interesting as a result of its infinite variety in endless combinations?

 

I may not always understand that which is out of my experience, but the benefits of trying to go beyond my experience are boundless.

 

 

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Understanding Hinduism Exhibition Guidebook, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir / John Bowker, World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored and Explained / Rachel Howard and Bill Nash, Secret London: An Unusual Guide / Huston Smith, The World’s Religions / The Bhagavad-Gita

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Holy Field of Sparrows

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 July 2018

I have three books in my possession that offer three different ways to consider the Serbian capital city of Belgrade….

I can choose to be as Chris Farmer and be Grumpy in Belgrade, I can choose to be as Momo Kapor and feel The Magic of Belgrade, or I can follow Aleksandar Diklic´s advice and take a sentimental journey through history of Belgrade: The Eternal City.

What is certain is that I experienced these emotions and more when I was in Belgrade this past April.

I spent six glorious days in Serbia as a guest of my Starbucks St. Gallen colleague Nesha, and there is much I learned that I wish to share with you, my gentle readers, in the hopes that you too will discover the unsung delights that are the fascinating cities of Belgrade and Nis.

Perhaps my stories will encourage you to visit….

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Above: The City of Belgrade

Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday 5 April 2018

The day, my first full one, began with a regret, my first full one.

During the evening as a result of excessive eating and drinking – first with Nesha and his mama Strawberry, and then later with Nesha and the godparents of Nesha´s daughter – in Belgrade, which, like New York City, never sleeps – I found that my night clothing had paid the penalty for my pastimes.

It had been a difficult time – my leg itched, I couldn´t get comfortable on my air mattress bed, and the gigantic teddy bears that shared the room seemed to be watching me.

I dreamt of Amadeus Mozart gambling – his name spelled Mozzart like the chain of Serbian betting offices seen everywhere.

Above: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

 

As the ladies of the harbour offered me comfort for the night, raccoon-eyed, hard-working, hard-living Nesha kept telling me:

“Listen to me, Adami.  I´ll sleep when I´m dead.”

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Above: Nesha Obranovic, the man, the legend

The begging boys by the Danube reminded me that no concentration camps are open on the Orthodox Easter weekend.

I take my night clothing into the shower, attempting to multi-task my morning cleanliness with a wee bit of laundry.

Not knowing how Nesha´s shower worked, I turn the bathroom floor into a swimming pool.

Yet Nesha is in good spirits, despite his lungs are tobacco leaf folders.

His kitchen is not ideally set up for elaborate cooking so after discussion about this and that we have latté and Turkish coffee at the Café Alphonse de Lamartine.

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Named after French writer/poet/politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869) the Café stands across from Park Lamartine.

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Above: Alphonse de Lamartine

Lamartine is memorialized by this park and café as well as a monument in Karadordev Park.

Lamartine was born in Macon, France, on 21 October 1790.

His family were members of the French provincial nobility and Lamartine spent his youth at the family estate.

Lamartine made his entrance into the field of poetry by a masterpiece, Les Méditations Poétiques (1820) and awoke to find himself famous.

He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1825.

He worked for the French embassy in Italy from 1825 to 1828.

In 1829, he was elected a member of the Académie française.

He was elected a deputy in 1833.

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Above: Flag of modern France

In 1835 he published the Voyage en Orient, a brilliant and bold account of the journey he had just made, in royal luxury, to the countries of the Orient.

Alphonse de Lamartine was an Orientalist with a particular interest in Lebanon and the Middle East.

He travelled to Lebanon, Syria and the Holy Land via Serbia in 1832–33.

During that trip, while he was in Beirut, on 7 December 1832, he lost his only remaining child, Julia.

During his trip to Lebanon he had met Prince Bashir Shihab II and Prince Simon Karam, who were enthusiasts of poetry.

A valley in Lebanon is still called the Valley of Lamartine as a commemoration of that visit and the Lebanon cedar forest still harbors the Lamartine Cedar, which is said to be the cedar under which Lamartine had sat 200 years ago.

“Highlanders with innate manners, shepherds who live for freedom and women as beautiful as ladies from Swiss cantons…”

This is how Lamartine saw the people of Serbia during his visit in 1833.

Was Alphonse de Lamartine actually the one who has established French-Serbian friendship, and not World War I, as it was considered for a long time?

Lamartine was the first man whose opinion mattered and who spread the word across Europe about sufferings of peoples in the Balkans under  Ottoman rule and the great courage of Serbs fighting for freedom.

Till than France was on good terms with the Ottoman Empire, but it all changed after what Lamartine had to say.

He visited Serbia, met the villagers that hosted him in their modest peasant houses, talked to princes and warriors.

Finally Lamartine came to a conclusion that “among them there is very little material inequality and the only grandeur they have are their weapons” used to defend their freedom.

He liked the Serbian language and considered it “harmonious, musical, and rhythmic”.

There was something in the country of this small nation from the Balkans that deeply touched the heart of this romantic poet.

Lamartine was so influenced by his trip that he staged his 1838 epic poem La Chute d’un ange (The Fall of an Angel).

From then on he confined himself to prose.

 

He was briefly in charge of the French government during the turbulence of 1848.

He was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 24 February 1848 to 11 May 1848.

Due to his great age, Jacques-Charles Dupont de l’Eure, Chairman of the Provisional Government, effectively delegated many of his duties to Lamartine.

He was then a member of the Executive Commission, the political body which served as France’s joint Head of State.

Lamartine was instrumental in the founding of the Second Republic of France, having met with Republican Deputies and journalists in the Hôtel de Ville to agree on the makeup of its provisional government.

Lamartine himself was chosen to declare the Republic in traditional form in the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville and ensured the continuation of the Tricolore as the flag of the nation.

During his term as a politician in the Second Republic, he led efforts that culminated in the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, as well as the enshrinement of the right to work and the short-lived national workshop programs.

A political idealist who supported democracy and pacifism, his moderate stance on most issues caused many of his followers to desert him.

He was an unsuccessful candidate in the presidential election of 10 December 1848, receiving fewer than 19,000 votes.

He subsequently retired from politics and dedicated himself to literature.

He published volumes on the most varied subjects (history, criticism, personal confidences, literary conversations) especially during the Empire, when, having retired to private life and having become the prey of his creditors, he condemned himself to what he calls “literary hard-labor in order to exist and pay his debts“.

Lamartine ended his life in poverty, publishing monthly installments of the Cours familier de littérature to support himself.

He died in Paris in 1869.

Above: The tomb of Alphonse de Lamartine, Paris

 

The square where Nesha´s apartment stands is named after this poet.

Nesha and I say little at breakfast, as he is determined that I am “set up electronically for Serbia” and magically manipulates my mobile so that I am not plagued by roaming phone charges.

Then we part company as he has business to conduct in distant Tara National Park.

I am left the use of Nesha´s Belgrade apartment and I am to remain solo until late Saturday night.

 

With the exception of a few Serbian words my bought-in-Switzerland guidebook provides, I am rendered mostly mute as a Canadian stranger in a strange land – a feeling that is simultaneously terrifying and exhilirating.

 

I continue down the street upon which the Café Lamartine stands and have breakfast at Restaurant Voulez-Vous: another latté and a serving of posinana jaja Benedict with home fries.

I am told by the waiters, resplendent in azure blue long-sleeved shirts with grey collars, that I must eat outside on the café terrace as “only the insane eat indoors on a sunny day.”

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

 

Armed with guidebook and maps obtained from yesterday´s arrival at the airport, I am a man with a plan:

Try to see as much as I can, as leisurely as possible, allowing myself to occasionally get lost.

My steps are as unsteady as the aim of an amateur archer.

I am pointed towards a target but there is no guarantee that I will reach the target.

 

I make my way to the closest tourist attraction to Lamartine: the St. Sava Cathedral.

St. Sava Temple.jpg

The small rise upon which the Cathedral sits was once called Savinac, then later Vrapcije Polje (field of sparrows).

Over time and through the language variation that time creates, the name evolved into Vracarsko Polje and was eventually shortened to Vracar.

To appreciate Serbia fully, one must come to understand the importance of this Cathedral in the history of the country.

And much like Serbia itself, like Belgrade itself, the Cathedral has always been in a state of construction and renovation.

 

“There is a belief that the history of mankind is actually a history of waging war.

The voyage through history of our civilization´s soul leads us to Belgrade, one of the oldest and most often destroyed cities of the world.

When Le Corbusier, the famous architect, said that “Belgrade was the ugliest city at the most beautiful place“, he certainly had in mind the image of the results caused by the continual destruction of the city over many centuries as well as its inadequate renewal and reconstruction.

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Above:  Charles-Édouard Le Corbuisier (1887 – 1965)

It is for certain that the most beautiful Belgrade has disappeared without a trace, vanished, impossible to touch.

History cherishes many stories about this city that are hard to be reconstructed exactly due to its continuous destruction, shifts and intertwining of a large number of cultures and prominent people whose life paths have passed through Belgrade, the eternal city….”

(Aleksander Diklac)

 

Before 1236, no individual among the Serbs had been woven into the consciousness and being of the people as St. Sava.

Though certainly there were those who tried.

 

As Greek legend has it, the Argonauts, a team of mythical sailors under Jason´s command, stole the Golden Fleece and sailed into the river Danube.

It is believed that when Apollonius of Rhodes wrote his Argonautica (300 BC) he was copying a legend much older than himself, known from a time predating the Trojan War.

In the magnificent legend about the Argonauts, Apollonius tells us about the hospitality of the Sindi people who lived at a place where the waters part, a locality already heavily inhabited.

Above: The Argo, Konstantinos Volanakis (1837 – 1907)

According to other legends, the Danube River is one of the four rivers originating in Paradise.

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Above: The course of the Danube, flowing east from west

 

Singidun, Belgrade´s first name to be entered into the annals of history, is ascribed to the fearless Celtic tribe of Scordisci who, soon after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, invaded and conquered the area of Serbia.

However generations later, as it happens in history, no alliances, no singularities of culture, no dexterous manufacture and handling of weapons could repel the advancing Roman army, whose military order and war tactics made it a revolutionary apparatus for killing, subordination and enslavement.

The arrival of the Romans into Singidun hastened the complete assimiliation of the Scordisci and Romanized the name into Singidunum, but the region was not stabilized until the era of the formidable Octavian / Caesar Augustus.

Singidunum gained fortifications, magnificent edifices and villas, a precious water pipeline, roads and even artist´s workshops, which made life in the city quite pleasant.

Roman Singidunum became a strategic area and an important base connecting the fortifications and settlements along the Danube border.

An epitaph from Roman Belgrade, blazing like a flash of light across the centuries and with a disregard for time, comes to us with a pain that quivers.

The powerfully engraved text is the cry of a soldier, a father filled with sorrow over his prematurely departed son:

“To the gods of the underground world!

Traveller, ye who walks the roads, whoever ye be, please, hear.

When, in his 15th year of age, the fuzz of his first beard sprouted over the cheeks of the young man´s face, he was taken by the boat on which the dead are transported to the other world and deprived his unlucky father of his only consolation.

He is lying here now.

Taken from his father´s embrace, as the plough cuts the flower from the soil.

Still, the small flower shall blossom again in pleasant meadows.

But ye dead I can no longer revive.”

We feel the pain inherent, although 17 centuries have passed since the tragic event.

 

Signidunum was a city with developed civilized manners, wealthy people, active soldiers, and veterans.

Life was facilitated by an abundance of food: grains, vegetables, fish and excellent fruit of the vine.

Fishermen and shepherds were free men, while construction and farm labour was performed by slaves.

The ancient city saw numerous imperial processions as many Roman emperors (17) passed through Belgrade or stayed in it.

Christians first appeared in the 3rd century when the priest Montanus and his wife Maxima died, accompanied by around 40 fathful Christians.

They were killed in 315 when Emperor Licinius ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire while Constantine the Great ruled in the west.

Together the Christians suffered brutal torture and were jointly sentenced to death, shut into a chest and cast into the Danube River alive.

Ten years later, Licinius made a bid for power, unleashing carnage in a series of rebellions and battles.

Constantine ordered him killed together with his young son, Licinius II.

Harmony did not reign among the first Christians, either.

 

Long ago, in 441, the legendary conqueror Attila the Hun (406 – 453) besieged and captured Singidunum.

He destroyed and killed everything that moves and single-handedly brought an end to the ancient past of the city of Belgrade.

Rivers of human bones and the odor of death testified to Attila´s barbaric cruel campaigns.

Attila died on the first night of his marriage.

After destroying Singidunum and forever extinguishing the Roman lamp within it, Attila died in the arms of a woman called Ildiko.

The wedding day progressed with the customary feasting, singing, inebriation and gluttony.

When night finally fell, the drunk and lecherous groom naturally led the bride to intimate quarters.

He was found the next morning, long dead, while beside him was his terrified bride, who had trembled the whole night.

As to the possible cause of death of the 47-year-old leader?

An enormous quantity of alcohol, vast quantities of food, poison?

According to one narrative, Attila was buried somewhere in the waters of Singidunum, as per Khazar custom.

After Attila, Belgrade was subsequently razed by the Sarmats, then the East Goths, and then the Gepids, before the city of Singidunum was restored by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (482 – 563).

Justinian with significant funds and even greater visions reached the Sava and Danube around 535 and rebuilt Singidunum.

Justinian was an important man for the history of Europe, especially Christianity, but it is clear that the true power of this ruler originated from the other half of his wedding bed.

The Emperor was a slow and indecisive man, practically a pawn in comparison with Empress Theodora, a charismatic courtesan with a brilliant mind.

Justinian gave orders for the construction of both Singidunum´s new fortifications as well as Constantinople´s Hagia Sophia, possibly the most beautiful place of worship in the world.

Ten thousand people over many years built the temple that marked a new era in the history of Christian architecture.

The best marble, as well as gold, silver and ivory were transported from the most distant regions of the empire.

Even with these divine components, the architects demanded that there be no lack of taste.

Thus, Hagia Sophia is a composition of the most refined artistic sensitivity towards space and materials, a rhapsody of diversity that successfully demonstrates the greatness of God imitated on Earth.

Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537.

Belgrade’s monumental Temple of St. Sava, with its skyscraping cross at 82 metres above ground, is one of the tallest and largest temples in the Christian world.

Front view of Church of Saint Sava

It was intended to resemble the magnificent Hagia Sophia.

These days the Temple is consecrated to St. Sava, but what of the saint himself?

Patience, my gentle readers, we are getting there.

 

Many people and many conquerors to the banks of the Sava and the Danube came, for Singidunum was for most of its history the end point of a large number of organized states, and thus was a frequent target of attack and destruction.

None of the conquerors could boast of their humanity towards the population they found.

Though the flow of the rivers brought changes and new tyrants, the appeal of the location as a place of life endures to this day.

So fierce and frequent were the attacks from all sides that Singidunum, as a fortified and significant military fortification, could not and did not manage to repel them, regardless of the height of the defensive walls or the skill of the defenders.

By the end of the 6th century, ancient Singidunum was ultimately destroyed though never abandoned, as the Slavs appeared.

 

The first mention of the Slavic name Belgrade appears on 16 April 878, when the city’s name appears on a letter from Pope John VIII sent to the Bulgarian Prince (Knyaz) Boris Mihail, referring to the dismissal of the Belgrade Bishop Sergios.

Pope John VIII is remembered by history as a great advocate for the use of the Slavic languages in the liturgy.

Pope John VIII Illustration.jpg

However it should be mentioned that this Pope may have been a female in disguise.

John was poisoned by the wife of the spouse she fell in love with, then she was finished off by blows of a hammer to the head by the accomplices of the jealous wife, dying on 15 December 882.

 

Some decades after her letter to the Knyaz, once again armies and conquerors came a-callin’.

 

Charlemagne (Charles the Great)(742 – 814) during his reign conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III Roman Emperor in order to restore the hopes and dreams of a wealthy and holy Roman Empire.

Along the course of Charlemagne´s campaigns, he demolished Belgrade.

The severity of his campaigns was such that tribes begged for Peace and agreed to be baptized and embrace Christianity.

Rulers die and empires fall.

The Frankish rule over Belgrade was superseded by the Bulgarians and theirs by the Hungarians.

 

At the end of the 10th century, Samuilo (997 – 1014) created a large empire of southern Slavs taking over the region that is today´s Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Romanian Dobruja, northern Bulgaria and northern Greece, adopting for himself the title of Emperor of Bulgaria.

After several victories and defeats, the final showdown between Samuilo and Byzantium took place on Belasica Mountain in 1014.

The Bulgars were massacred.

Around 14,000 Bulgar captives were blinded by order of the Byzantine Emperor, with every 100th man left with one eye so as to be able to guide the others home.

As a consequence of such cruelty, Byzantine Emperor Basil II was given the epithet “Bulgar slayer“.

It is reported that Samuilo, at the sight of his chained and blinded army, died on the spot from a heart attack.

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Above: Forensic reconstruction of Samuilo

 

Belgrade again became a significant border fortress to the Byzantine Empire.

During the 11th and 12th centuries the rival powers of Bulgaria, Byzantium and Hungary contended for Belgrade.

Enter, St. Sava (1169 – 1236)

Sveti Sava Kraljeva Crkva Detalj.jpg

Rastko Nemanjic was born in 1169 in Gradina (modern Podgorica, Montenegro) as the youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanjic and his wife Ana, alongside his brothers Vukan and Stefan.

The brothers received a good education in the Byzantine tradition, which exercised great political, cultural and religious influence in Serbia.

Rastko grew up in a time of great foreign relations activities in Serbia.

He showed himself serious and ascetic when he was made Prince of Hum at an early age in 1190.

(Hum was a province between Neretva and Dubrovnik.)

Having his own court with magnates (velmoze), senior officials and selected local nobility, governance in Hum was not only an honorary title but constituted a practical school of state administration.

Rastko, as a ruler, was said to be “mild and gentle, kind to everyone, loving the poor as few others and very respecting of the monastic life.”

He showed no interest in fame, wealth or the throne.

 

Meanwhile….

Frederick Barbarossa (1122 – 1190), following his reconciliation with the Pope and wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, embarked on the Third Crusade to liberate from Muslim control the holy sites of Christendom, especially Christ’s empty tomb in Jerusalem.

His European counterparts, the French under Philip II Augustus and the English under Richard the Lionheart, joined the Crusade.

Richard and Philip approached Jerusalem by sea, while the German Emperor Barbarossa preferred land, over which he marched through Hungary and Serbia.

Under Barbarossa’s leadership, 190,000 warriors marched into Belgrade and left it in ruins, razed to the ground.

He then stopped in Nis where they were politely welcomed by Rastko who personally tended to the ailing Barbarossa, who continued on his journey.

Frederick Barbarossa, though successful at traversing Belgrade’s rivers, drowned on 10 June 1190 when crossing the small river of Saleph in Cilicia.

Thrown by a horse, the shock of the cold water induced a heart attack in the German king, who at the time of his unexpected death was 68.

 

After two years as ruler, in the autumn of 1192, Rastko left Hum for Mount Athos.

Upon arriving at Athos, Rastko entered the Russian St. Panteleimon Monastery where he received the monastic name of Sava (Sabbas).

He later entered the Greek Vatopedi Monastery, where he would stay for the next seven years, becoming acquainted with Greek theological and church administrational literature.

Sava´s father tried to persuade him to return to Serbia, but Sava was determined and replied:

“You have accomplished all that a Christian sovereign should do.

Come now and join me in the true Christian life.”

Stefan Nemanja took his son’s advice and abdicated on 25 March 1196, giving the throne to his middle son Stefan.

The next day Stefan and Ana took monastic vows.

Stefan took the monastic name Simeon and stayed in Studenica until leaving for Mt. Athos in the autumn of 1197.

Simeon’s arrival was greatly pleasing to Sava and the Athonite community as Stefan as a ruler had donated much to the community.

The two, with the consent of monastic head (hegumen) Theostyriktos of Vatopedi, went on a tour of Athos in late autumn 1197 in order for Simeon to familiarize with all of its churches and sacred places.

When Sava guested the Byzantine Emperor Alexios III Angelos at Constantinople, he mentioned the neglected and abandoned Hilandar, and asked him that he and his father be given the permit to restore the monastery and grant it to Vatopedi.

The Emperor approved and sent a special letter and much gold to his friend Stefan Nemanja (monk Simeon).

Sava then addressed the Protos of Athos, asking them to support the effort that the monastery of Hilandar becomes the haven of the Serb monks.

All Athonite monasteries, except Vatopedi, accepted the proposal, and in July 1198 Emperor Alexios III authored a charter which revoked the earlier decision, and instead not only granted Hilandar, but also the other abandoned monasteries in Mileis, to Simeon and Sava, to be a haven and shelter for Serb monks in Athos.

The restoration of Hilandar quickly began and Grand Prince Stefan sent money and other necessities, and issued the founding charter for Hilandar in 1199.

Sava wrote a typikon (liturgical office order) for Hilandar, modeled on the typikon of the monastery of The Mother of God Euergetes in Constantinople.

Besides Hilandar, Sava was the ktetor (founder) of the hermitage at Karyes (seat of Athos) for the monks who devoted themselves to solitude and prayer.

In 1199, he authored the typikon of Karyes.

Along with the hermitage, he built the chapel dedicated to Sabbas the Sanctified, whose name he received upon monastic vows.

His father died on 13 February 1199.

 

On 13 April 1204, Sava received the rank of archimandrite.

That same year, with the establishment of the Latin Empire, Rome increased its power over Serbia.

As Nemanja had earlier decided to give the rule to Stefan, and not the eldest, Vukan, in the meantime, back home, the latter began plotting against Stefan.

He found an ally in Hungarian king Emeric with whom he banished Stefan to Bulgaria and Vukan usurped the Serbian throne.

Stefan returned to Serbia with an army in 1204 and pushed Vukan to Zeta, his hereditary land.

After problems at Athos with Latin bishops and Boniface of Montferrat following the Fourth Crusade, Sava returned to Serbia in the winter of 1206, with the remains of his father which he relocated to his father’s endowment, the Studenica Monastery, and then reconciled his quarreling brothers.

Sava saved the country from further political crisis by ending the dynastic fight.

Simeon was canonized in 1206.

 

Having spent 14 years in Mount Athos, Sava had extensive theological knowledge and spiritual power, so he was asked to teach the court and the people of Serbia Christian laws and traditions and “in that way enwisen and educate.”

Since his return in 1206, Sava had become the hegumen of Studenica.

He used the general chaos in which the Byzantine Empire found itself after the Crusader siege of Constantinople (1204) and the strained relations between the Despotate of Epirus (to which the Serbian Church was subject to) and the Ecumenical Patriarchiate of Nicaea to his advantage.

He declared that “Here, therefore, no one is have authority, neither Bishop nor anyone else.” over Studenica.

In 1217, Sava´s brother King Stefan made a switch in politics, marrying a noblewoman of Venice, and asked the Pope for a crown and moral support.

Stefan was crowned in Zica, now equal to other kings, and was called by Rome “the first crowned King of all Serb lands“.

Stefan´s allegiance to Rome over Constantinople in matters of religion did not sit well with the Serbian people.

Serbia embraced and Sava represented the Orthodox Church, Stefan the Catholic Church.

The elevation of Serbia into a kingdom did not fully mark the independence of the country, according to that time´s understanding, unless the same was achieved with its church.

On 15 August 1219, Sava was consecrated as the first Archbishop of the independent Serbian church, which was vitally important as the church was the supporter and an important factor in state sovereignty as well as political and national identity.

That same year, Sava published Zakonopravilo (Sava´s Nomocanon), the first constitution of Serbia, uniting both politics and religion.

In 1229, after the son of Stefan, Radoslav was crowned King of Serbia, Sava left for a trip to Palestine.

After another throne change in 1234, when Radoslav was replaced by his brother Vladislav, Sava began a second trip to the Holy Land.

Sava, after much work and years of travelling, arrived at the Bulgarian then-capital of Trnovo a tired and sick man.

He died on 14 January 1235.

Above: Where Sava died, Trnovo, Bulgaria

 

Sava became known as the protector of the Serbian people – of their churches, families, schools and artisans.

He is regarded as the father of Serbian education and literature.

Many songs, tales and legends were created about his life, work, merit, goodness, fairness and wisdom.

His relics became a topic of nationalism, a political cult, a focus of liberation, a danger to foreign rule.

Belgrade is not only the capital of the Serbian state but as well Serbia´s most important economic, cultural and religious centre.

So it comes as no surprise that Serbia´s most important cathedral, dedicated to Sava, should be in Belgrade.

 

In 1319, Belgrade was seized, and again destroyed, by the Hungarians.

The ruined and deserted city became a border base.

The continued existence of the Serbian state and the reconstruction of Belgrade was necessary for the Hungarians as Serbia served as a desirable military buffer against greater barbarians and conquerors.

 

As such, Belgrade welcomed the 15th century when the Turks, a new large conquering force, entered the historical arena of Europe.

Belgrade would soon gain the rank of Antemurale Christianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity.

For an entire century, Belgrade resisted Turkish incursions.

The Turks, under the leadership of Sultan Suleiman I (“the Magnificent“), would finally conquer Belgrade, on their third attempt, on 28 August 1521, and the key of defense to western Europe.

The reign of Suleiman I has been described as the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.

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Above: Suleiman I (1494 – 1566)

 

At the end of his reign, however, constant wars had taken their toll, damaging the economy.

The faulty politics that followed shook the economy and the foundations of Ottoman society: state officials became poor, their pay worthless, corruption and briberies common.

Mutiny struck throughout the Ottoman Empire.

 

Over the next few centuries there were many Serbian uprisings against Turkish rule.

In 1594, during the Austrian-Turkish War (1593 – 1606), a Serbian insurrection was staged in the Banat region north of the Danube River.

The Turkish Sultan responded by skinning alive and hanging the Serbian Patriarch, Teodor, before bringing the relics of St. Sava to Vracar to be burned and his ashes scattered on 27 April 1594, because the figure of St. Sava had adorned the flags of the Serbian rebels.

There was great violence carried out against the Serbian clergy and devastation of their monasteries.

The Ottomans sought to symbolically and in reality to set fire to the Serb determination of freedom.

But this desecration was considered to be an unimaginably sacrilegious act by all Serbs.

Rather than discouraging dissent, St. Sava’s desecration fomented and cemented rebellion.

One day the Serbians would rally around the idea of St. Sava and expel the Ottoman Turks from their land.

 

The Church of St. Sava was built near the place where his relics were burned.

Construction began on 10 May 1935, 340 years after the burning of Sava’s relics, and was “completed” in 2004, but the Church much like the Serbia it serves is never complete.

Construction was halted when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941.

The occupying German army used the unfinished church as a parking lot.

Later in 1944 Russia’s Red Army and later the Yugoslav People’s Army would do the same.

For a while after, the Church was used for storage by various companies.

Construction resumed on 12 August 1985.

After the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, construction was halted again.

Serbian Patriarch Pavle thought that the expense of building a massive Cathedral was inappropriate when people are beaten and impoverished.

After becoming Prime Minister, Zoran Dindic spoke with the Patriarch and convinced him to have construction resumed.

By 2017, the exterior of the church was complete.

Work continues on the interior.

The church is centrally planned, having the form of a Greek cross.

It has a large central dome supported on four pendentives and buttressed on each side by a lower semi-dome over an apse.

Beneath each semi-dome is a gallery supported on an arcade.

The dome is 70 m (230 ft) high, while the main gold plated cross is another 12 m (39 ft) high, which gives a total of 82 m (269 ft) to the height of the Church of Saint Sava.

The peak is 134 m (440 ft) above the sea level (64 m (210 ft) above the Sava river).

Therefore the church holds a dominant position in Belgrade’s cityscape and is visible from all approaches to the city.

Above: The Church of St. Sava and the National Library of Serbia

The church is 91 m (299 ft) long from east to west and 81 m (266 ft) from north to south.

It is 70 m (230 ft) tall, with the main gold-plated cross extending for 12 m (39 ft) more.

Its domes have 18 more gold-plated crosses of various sizes, while the bell towers have 49 bells of the Austrian bell foundry Grassmayr.

It has a surface area of 3,500 m2 (37,674 sq ft) on the ground floor, with three galleries of 1,500 m2 (16,146 sq ft) on the first level and a 120 m2 (1,292 sq ft) gallery on the second level.

The Church can receive 10,000 faithful at any one time.

The choir gallery seats 800 singers.

The basement contains a crypt, the treasury of Saint Sava, and the grave church of Saint Lazar the Hieromartyr, with a total surface of 1,800 m2 (19,375 sq ft) .

Above: The crypt of the Church of St. Sava

The central dome mosaic depicts the Ascension of Jesus and represents Resurrected Christ, sitting on a rainbow and right hand raised in blessing, surrounded by four angels, Apostles and Theotokos.

This composition is inspired by mosaic in main dome of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

The lower sections are influenced by the Gospel of Luke and the first narratives of the Acts of the Apostles.

The texts held by the angels are written in the Church Slavonic language, while the names of the depicted persons are written in Greek.

The first points to the pan-Slavic sentiment while the latter connects it to the Byzantine traditions.

The total painted area of the dome is 1,230 m2 (13,200 sq ft).

It is one of the largest curved area decorated with the mosaic technique and when the work is completely finished, Saint Sava will be the largest church ornamented this way.

Magnificient is the legacy that is St. Sava’s Church.

 

It is my feeling that Serbia and Serbians will remain incomprehensible to the foreigner who has never visited St. Sava Church or has never read why this church remains integral to the Serbian identity, for Religion has Always played a defining role in the history of the Serbs.

The main religion of Serbia remains that of Sava: Serbian Orthodox Christianity, which is practiced by 84% of the population.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is an independent Church, ranking 6th in order of seniority of the Orthodox Churches after Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Russia.

Above: Flag of the Serbian Orthodox Church

Serbian Orthodoxy is also practiced by 74% of the population of Montenegro, 36% in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 4.4% in Croatia.

Religion plays an important role in Serbian daily life.

The religious calendar is filled with a profusion of saints’ days, celebrated by families in the traditional way – usually involving a visit to church, prayers and the lighting of candles.

 

As a barbaric heathen I cannot claim to understand the Serbian need to kiss icons as passionately and as frequently as they do, but it makes them happy so who am I to argue?

All I know is a visit to St. Sava, especially if one researches the history behind it, is as awe-inspiring as a visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but unlike the Vatican City or Turkish temples of worship St. Sava has a feeling of warmth and personability that the others lack.

As much as it is splendid to feel the almighty grandeur of a glorious God in an edifice meant to impress and intimidate, I feel that religion, being the personal and private set of values and beliefs unique to each individual, should whisper into the ears and seductively warm the hearts of salvation’s seekers rather than frighten and cow people into a submissive state little related to the promise of eternal blessing from a loving deity.

Certainly St. Sava is not lacking in pomp and circumstance as a church should shine above the standards of the common Household, but one cannot have a personal relationship with God if one does not feel to have anything in common to that person inside God’s house.

And somehow St. Sava captures that nuance.

I left the church to explore more of the city, knowing one certainty upon which I stake my experience upon.

There is little danger (or hope) that I shall ever become a Serbian Orthodox Christian but to deny the feeling that there is a need to believe in something or someone beyond one’s self is a primal passion that St. Sava church quietly shares.

It is waiting to share this passion with you.

My explorations of Belgrade (and later Nis) would continue, but in the beginning God….

Sources:  Aleksander Diklic, Belgrade the Eternal City / Culture Smart Serbia / Momo Kapor, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality / Wikipedia / Facebook

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Calculated Cathedral

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 29 November 2017

It is a season of grey days and black, almost eternal, nights.

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

As much as I comprehend why Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving in October rather than November because the growing seasons are shorter up there, I occasionally wonder if the Americans might not be onto something by celebrating life at a time of darkening skies and colder temperatures.

Flag of the United States

Thanksgiving, celebrated every third Thursday of November in the US, is meant to convey thanks to God for the blessings bestowed upon self, friends and family through the bountiful harvest received and shown by a fully laden dining room table.

It is a New World celebration meant to commemorate the Pilgrims´ first year in America when they gave thanks to God that through the help of native tribes they learned how to produce food to survive and thrive as a transplanted people.

Above: The First Thanksgiving, 1621, by Jean Farris (1899)

Above the Equator, in the Northern Hemisphere, there are many countries who have similar seasonal changes and similar harvest times, and to be fair Americans did not invent the concept of praising divinity for blessings received as this ritual has been celebrated in one form or another for millennia.

As the weather turns colder than even Donald Trump´s soul, I find myself thankful that I am still alive, that I have a roof over my head and regular food in my belly, that I am of (relatively) sound mind and body and that I have people in my life whom I love and by whom I am loved.

I am truly a fortunate man.

That having been said I am not unaware that there are those who don´t feel so fortunate.

I have known people, good people, for whom reality seems to them to be cruel and unkind, for whom life seems to be a never-changing cycle of sadness, of eternally grey days and black ink evil evenings with slim hope for the dawn.

I cannot begin to imagine what life must be like for those who feel illness within their minds, who feel an emptiness within their souls.

I cannot but feel sympathy for those who feel death is a release, a relief, from the hell of their perceived existence.

I know just enough, and yet far too little, that changing one´s perspective is not simply emotional determination but could also be both a product of one´s history and chemical make-up.

It is easy to condemn humanity´s monsters, like the recently deceased Charles Manson, for they made life decisions that brought extreme pain and suffering to others.

Manson's

Above: Charles Manson (1934 – 2017)

It is impossible and frightening to imagine how on God´s green Earth that the murder and torture of others can be justifiable in the minds of these rare abominations of the mentally unwell.

I say rare abominations, for I believe that the vast majority of those hurting members of the psychologically unhappy are more victims to their condition than they are bent on taking others down with them in their descent into darkness.

We, the seemingly rational and arrogantly confident in our inappropriately felt superiority, blame the illness on the ill victims, not sensing nor caring that they too wish to feel welcome by a humanity that does not understand them and thus struggles, often in vain, to assist them, or, failing that, remove them from the general populace.

I watch in silent frustration when those I love hurt themselves and others as they blindly grope their way through illogical reality simply trying to survive.

Life has somehow injured them and they have selfishly sought solace in safer corners of their minds where no one else can go.

I have seen wonderful, compassionate friends and family victimised by their own private pain and there seems nothing I can do or say to help, because the everpresent fear of swimming into psychologically insecure deep waters instinctively instills a fear that we too might be swept along in and dragged down by the wake of their thrashing.

We judge them by standards we understand, rather than by their standards we can´t understand.

I want to hold each one of them and tell them in a way they might truly believe, that their lives matter, that they are worthy of love and dignity, but sometimes I am scared by my inability to do so.

I want to tell them that though there truly is a vast amount of pain in this vale of tears that we share, there is also the potential for great joy.

Perhaps here is the value of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks to something or someone beyond ourselves, of prayer to whatever or whomever may be either within or from outside ourselves.

In the brutal honesty of a sleepless night, I reject my rational analysis of the folly of believing in a God whose only proof of existence is that His non-existence has yet to be proven and hope beyond reason that God does exist whether or not His existence is a creation or a manifestation of my own making.

Creación de Adán (Miguel Ángel).jpg

Above: Michelangelo´s The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

And this I think is the value of faith, of religion – finding hope and comfort in that which might exist.

To somehow believe that pain can be endured, that there will be a dawn beyond the darkness, even if it is unclear how this can happen.

Mankind has built mighty edifices in an attempt to enclose the divine and bend it to our will for our benefit….

Sheer folly.

Yet the symbolic gathering together of humanity into congregations, bound by faith and traditions, giving meaning to the passages of life in its forms of birth, maturity, matrimony and death, gives purpose to the construction of shrines of worship.

Though cathedrals and churches, monasteries and mosques, temples and tabernacles, by the very act of enclosure create a division of people between those within and those outside and have caused those within to feel both a superiority and a zeal to extend the choir invisible beyond the ecclesiastical doors with some even willing to break the taboos of religion in the name of religion, nonetheless these places of illogical and irrational faith sustain and console us.

I am reminded this morning of the places of worship I visited while I was in London last month and though the seeds of the religious fell mostly on mentally stubborn and stone hard ground, my visit to these places still left their impression upon me.

A visitor walking around London cannot help but be impressed by the number of churches in this city more renowned for trade and commerce, but, as we know from the remains of the Temple of Mithras at Walbrook discovered in 1954, religious buildings have always been an integral part of the fabric of London.

Some of London´s most breathtaking modern structures are religious buildings dedicated to many faiths, whose communities form a strong part of the social fabric of modern London.

As hard as it is to imagine London without its many churches, it is even harder still to imagine London without its many faiths.

Our discovery of the faithful of London began on our first night in town….

London, England, 23 October 2017

My wife, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, wanted to take pictures of the Thames River before we headed back to our B & B in the Paddington district.

It had already been quite the full day: pre-dawn departure from our beds and dash down the highway to Zürich, the bureaucratic exit from one designated country and the bureaucratic entry into another, the search and finding of our week´s accommodations, the navigating of the nefarious nightmare beneath called the Tube, and a mad race through one of the world´s most famous museums – the Tate Modern.

A large oblong brick building with square chimney stack in centre of front face. It stands on the far side of the River Thames, with a curving white foot bridge on the left.

Above: The Tate Modern, London

But my wife wanted to see more while she could with what remained of her day´s energies.

I had no objections.

We, like many before, crossed the London Millennium Footbridge, or as it is affectionately known by Londoners “the wobbly bridge”, the steel suspension bridge for pedestrians crossing the River Thames, linking Bankside on the south bank with the City of London to the north.

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Above: Millennium Bridge, as seen from St. Paul´s Cathedral

The Bridge, 1,066 feet/325 metres long, 13 feet/4 metres wide, officially opened on 1 June 2000 and quickly was closed again shortly thereafter as the 90,000 people crossing it on its opening day felt that the Bridge was wobbling and lurching dangerously.

It reopened in 2002 after engineers refitted 37 energy dissipating dampers to control horizontal movement and 52 inertial dampers to control vertical movement to solve the wobble effect.

You may have seen the Bridge and not realised it….

The Millennium collapsed following an attack by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix poster.jpg

The Bridge also appeared as part of the climatic battle scene on the planet Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

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And the Bridge was in the video of the Olly Murs song “Heart on my Sleeve”.

To the south the midpoint standing pedestrian on the Bridge sees the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern.

Restaurante The Swan, Londres, Inglaterra, 2014-08-11, DD 113.jpg

Above: The Globe Theatre, London

To the north the red brick City of London School (actor Daniel Radcliffe / “Harry Potter” ´s old alma mater) can be spotted nestling below the magnificence that is St. Paul´s Cathedral.

How strange and yet familiar St. Paul´s appeared to me in the fast-approaching darkness.

Above: St. Paul´s Cathedral

The enormous lead-covered dome of St. Paul´s Cathedral has dominated the City skyline for generations and will probably continue to do so for generations to come if Star Trek: Into Darkness is any accurate omen to go by.

The poster shows the USS Enterprise falling toward Earth with smoke coming out of it. The middle of the poster shows the title written in dark gray letters, and the film's credits and the release date are shown at the bottom of the poster.

The Cathedral facade is particularly magnificent, fronted by a wide flight of steps – seen in Mary Poppins (1964) and Sherlock Holmes (2009) – and a two-storey portico and two towers, and is said to be amongst the finest examples of Baroque architecture in London.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, in-character. The background is a window display, featuring shelves containing miscellaneous objects relating to the story. The poster reads "Sherlock Holmes" across the top, with the tagline "Holmes for the holiday" centered at the bottom. The poster is predominately turquoise coloured.

The west front of St. Paul´s shows the Saint surrounded by others of his ilk as he is dazzled by the glory of God whilst on the road to Damascus.

In the northeast churchyard, a plaque marks the location of Paul´s Cross, a popular centre of fake and real news and contemporary commentary, where during the Reformation William Tynsdale´s New Testament was burned because it was sinfully an English translation.

While it can´t compete with Westminster Abbey for celebrity corpses, royal remains and awesome atmosphere, St. Paul´s is nevertheless a perfectly calculated architectural space, a burial place for captains rather than kings, artists not poets, and a popular wedding venue and favoured funeral locale for the privileged few.

The current Cathedral is the fifth on this site, including Old St. Paul´s, a huge Gothic cathedral built by the Normans, with a 489 foot spire that once was part of the longest and tallest Christian church in the world.

During the English Civil War and the Republic which followed the execution of King Charles I in 1649, St. Paul´s was allowed to become dilapidated and was used for stabling horses and as a marketplace with a road running through it.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II threw out the traders and began to return the scarred Cathedral to the status it once had, but before work could begin the Great Fire of London intervened.

The blaze started on 2 September 1666 and destroyed 2/3 of the City of London.

It burned for four days and nights, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 parish churches, including Old St. Paul´s.

Miraculously, fewer than 20 people lost their lives.

In 1668, Christopher Wren was asked to produce a new Cathedral.

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711.jpg

Above: Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723)

Wren was not only an architect, he was also an astronomer, scientist and mathematican.

Wren was a founding member in 1660 of the Royal Society, a national academy for science, but he was also a man of profound Christian faith.

He came from a family of clergy who had been loyal to the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and it was faith which inspired him.

He once explained: “Architecture aims at eternity.”

As an architect favoured by royalty and state, Wren´s commissions varied widely, including the Greenwich Observatory, Greenwich Hospital, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, as well as some magnificent buildings in Oxford, where he studied and worked as Professor of Astronomy from 1661 to 1673.

St. Paul´s was just one of over 50 church commissions Wren received in the wake of the Great Fire.

Sir Christopher Wren

Said, “I´m going to dine with some men.

If anyone calls,

Say I´m designing St. Paul´s.” (Edmund Clerihew Bentley)

Hassles over his initial plans and wrangles over money plagued the project throughout, but Wren persevered and England´s first Protestant cathedral was completed in 1711 under Queen Anne, whose statue stands below the steps.

Above: Statue of Queen Anne (1665 – 1714), St. Paul´s Cathedral

Opinions of Wren´s Cathedral differed.

Some loved it.

“Without, within, below, above, the eye is filled with unrestrained delight.”

Some hated it.

“There was an air of Popery about the gilded capitals, the heavy arches.  They were unfamiliar, un-English…”

Until his death, at the age of 91, Wren regularly returned to St. Paul´s to sit under its dome and reflect on this masterpiece of faith and imagination.

For over 300 years this particular reincarnation of St. Paul´s has been a place where both the individual and the nation can express those feelings of joy, gratitude and sorrow that are so central to our lives.

St. Paul´s has borne witness to the funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson (1758 – 1805)(buried in the centre of the Cathedral Crypt), the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852)(buried also in the Crypt)(13,000 people filled the Cathedral.), the Diamond Jubilees of Queen Victoria (1897) and Queen Elizabeth II (2012), the bombs of the Blitz (1940), a sermon from Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), the funerals of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1965) and Margaret Thatcher (2013), and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana (1981).

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Above: Queen Elizabeth II

Services have also been held to mark the valuable contributions made by ordinary women and men involved in armed conflicts in the Falklands, the Persian Gulf and Northern Ireland.

A vast crowd also gathered at St. Paul´s following the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001, as London expressed its solidarity with Americans at a time of great grief.

A montage of eight images depicting, from top to bottom, the World Trade Center towers burning, the collapsed section of the Pentagon, the impact explosion in the south tower, a rescue worker standing in front of rubble of the collapsed towers, an excavator unearthing a smashed jet engine, three frames of video depicting airplane hitting the Pentagon

People of other faiths also have a place in national services at St. Paul´s.

The memorial service for King Hussein of Jordan in 1999 was the first Christian service in St. Paul´s to include a reading from the Qur´an.

A paper Quran opened halfwise on top of a brown cloth

In 2005, at the service of remembrance following the terrorist bombings in London in June of that year, young people representing different faith communities lit candles as a shared sign of hope during turbulent times.

Take a journey through this place mortal designed to evoke the divine.

We took our own calculated journey through St. Paul´s two days later.

 

London, England, 25 October 2017

Begin with the Nave, the font of baptism, marking the beginning of the journey of faith that Christians believe leads from Earth to Heaven.

Here is the final stop, the last resting place, of the Duke of Wellington, best known for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.png

Above: Wellington (1769 – 1852)

Wellington died 37 years later and is buried in the Crypt beneath the Monument.

Nearby in the All Souls´ Chapel is the Kitchener Memorial, dedicated to the servicemen who died in World War I and to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener who died at sea and whose body was never recovered.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener.jpg

Above: Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916)

Kitchener is best known for his restructuring of the British Army and for his most effective recruitment campaign reminding Britons that “Your Country Needs You”.

30a Sammlung Eybl Großbritannien. Alfred Leete (1882–1933) Britons (Kitchener) wants you (Briten Kitchener braucht Euch). 1914 (Nachdruck), 74 x 50 cm. (Slg.Nr. 552).jpg

Quietly light a candle for those you wish to have remembered inside St. Dunstan´s Chapel, a place of prayer and stillness.

The silver pyx that hangs above the altar in this chapel contains the sacrament – the consecrated bread that Christians believe is (or represents) the body of Jesus, shared at services of Holy Communion.

The Chapel of St. Michael and St. George honours those who have rendered important service overseas.

It takes only a modicum of observation to see that St. Paul´s is built in the shape of a cross with a large dome crowning the intersection of the cross´s arms.

At 365 feet / 111.3 metres high, the Dome is one of the largest cathedral domes in the world and weighs approximately 65,000 tons.

The area under the Dome is the space where congregations congregate for the Cathedral´s most important rituals of faith – the Liturgy, the worship of God.

The altar is the focus, the place where the Eucharist (mass) is celebrated every day, where people of all ages of many different languages and nationalities, gather to eat bread and drink wine that symbolise the body and blood of Jesus Christ sacrificed by God the Father to save mankind from itself.

Or so the story goes.

The Dome is actually not one dome but three: the outer dome shell is seen prominently on the London skyline, while the painted dome that the congregated sees from the cathedral floor conceals an inner layer of brick which provides the structure strength and support.

Within the Dome´s construction there are three gallery levels.

The Whispering Gallery runs around the interior of the Dome, 257 steep steps up from ground level.

There is a charming acoustical quirk in the gallery´s construction which makes a whisper spoken against the walls on one side audible on the opposite side.

Two higher galleries encircle the outside of the Dome – the Stone Gallery and the smaller Golden Gallery offering superb views across London….

Or so we were told as they were closed the day of our visit.

Upon our descent from the Whispering Gallery, further exploration of the Cathedral reveals many aspects of what makes St. Paul´s unique unto itself.

To the north of the interior is the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, with a statue of Dr. Johnson.

Man staring intently at a book held close to his face

Above: Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784)

Above the altar is William Holman Hunt´s painting The Light of the World, showing Jesus holding a lantern as He knocks at the handleless bramble-strewn door of the human Soul which must be opened from within, above the caption that reads:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. 

If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.”

Close by the Chapel is Henry Moore´s Mother and Child, a sculpture he made when he was recovering from an illness so it is heavily indolent in religious meaning.

Bildergebnis für henry moore mother and child

Above: Mother and Child by Henry Moore (1898 – 1986)

By Moore´s Mama Madonna with child are two pairs of wrought-iron gates made by Jean Tijou.

Inside the gates at the top northern part of the architectural cross is the Quire, the first part of the Cathedral to be built.

The organ within, built in 1694 and rebuilt several times, is the third largest in the UK with 7,256 pipes.

The 1694 version of this organ was much loved by the composer George Frederick Handel (1685 – 1759).

The organ case and the stalls on both sides of the Quire are decorated with exquisitely delicate carvings by the Anglo-Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons, whose work can still be seen in many royal houses and great houses.

One contemporary commentator wrote:

“There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers with the free disorder natural to each species.”

Yet free disorder seems particularly ironic here, as each of the canopied stalls has a designated occupant and definitively determines how the Cathedral is to be governed.

It is within the Quire where choir, clergy and congregation gather to sit for Evensong, the service that draws the day to a close.

As dusk descends, we the people are to be remanded and reminded of the proper calculation of our place in the universe, both manmade and celestial.

Queen Victoria, she of the inaccurately attributed “We are not amused.”, is said to have complained that St. Paul´s was “dull, dingy and undevotional”, so in response William Blake Richmond decorated the ceilings and the walls of the Quire with mosaics depicting the story of Creation and the story of the angel Gabriel´s visitation to the Virgin Mary with the news that she is pregnant with the Son of God.

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882

Above: Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

(That had to be quite the shock!)

Behind the alter stands the Jesus Chapel, commemorating the 28,000 Americans who were killed on their way to, or while stationed in, the UK during the Second World War, their names recorded in a 500-page roll of honour glass enclosure.

“Defending freedom from the fierce assaults of tyranny they shared the honour and the sacrifice. 

Though they died before the drum of victory, their names and deeds will long be remembered wherever free men live.”

So reads the American roll of honour, but as the Canadian descendant of Commonwealth soldiery I cannot help but cynically observe that the Cathedral today is funded by multitudes of tourists, the majority of whom are American.

A cynical attitude that is met with a punch in the arm by my loving spouse whose German ancestors were conscripted soldiers of the aforementioned tyranny.

In the south is the statue of John Donne, which somehow survived the Great Fire of London intact.

Above: Statue of John Donne (1572 – 1631)

Donne, a former Dean of St. Paul´s, wrote passionate love poems and eloquent odes expressing with eloquence his zeal for God.

He is perhaps best remembered for his meditation on the human condition:

“No man is an island, entire of itself….

 Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Fourteen bells of St. Paul´s toll for thee: Great Tom tolls to mark the death of a sovereign; Great Paul, the largest swinging bell in Europe, strikes the hours; the remaining twelve bells sound the peal.

And here one finds a statue of Nelson, a cloak covering the area where Nelson´s right arm should be – amputated in 1797.

Three skulls guard the entrance to the Crypt.

Nelson lies buried in a coffin made from the timber of a French ship he defeated in battle, atop a black marble sarcophagus.

Would he have thought his memorial truly “humanity after victory“?

Keeping him company across from him in the Crypt, the Iron Duke, Lord Wellington, rests in a casket of Cornish granite.

Wellie would have hated it, for he was said to be a man not prone to bask in his own glories:

“Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Why do places of worship glorify those who murder in the name of a flag?

Beside the Crypt, close to the foundations of the former church, is the Chapel of St. Faith, created in recognition for the contribution made by women during the First World War.

Surrounding the Chapel are memorials celebrating the remarkable of the arts and sciences: painters Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) and John Guille Millais (1865 – 1931); composer Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900) and poet William Blake (1757 – 1827); scientist Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955).

Sir Christopher Wren himself is buried here, his tomb marked by a simple stone which translated from Latin reads:

Bildergebnis für christopher wren s tomb inscription

“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

And, so we did.

“I was glad when they said unto me:

Let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1)

St. Paul´s has stood here defiantly unscathed amid the carnage of the Blitz and was defended by the St. Paul´s Watch – volunteers who patrolled the Cathedral´s roof every night to combat the incendiary bombs and died carrying out their duties.

Bildergebnis für st paul´s watch

Time and choice did not permit us to see the worship of God at work, or listen to virgin boys attempt in song to reach within us to find something beyond ourselves, or ponder important issues ranging from global economy to climate change by prominent speakers, such as Kofi Annan or Bianca Jagger.

As we leave St. Paul´s, I recall the words of Mary Poppins:

Marypoppins.jpg

Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes.
In her own special way to the people she calls:
“Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
 
Come, feed the little birds.
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do.
The young ones are hungry.
Their nests are so bare.
All it takes is tuppence from you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds.”, that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies.
 
All around the Cathedral, the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.
 
Though her words are simple and few,
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag”

No, we didn´t feed the birds, for security measures no longer permit little old bird women to feed assemblies of pigeons on the steps of St. Paul´s.

Poverty is very offputting for the tourists and, after all, charity begins at home.

The tourist entry fee at the door is 18 pounds per adult.

In October 2011, the anti-capitalism Occupy London encampment was established in front of St. Paul´s, after failing to gain access to the London Stock Exchange on Paternoster Square nearby, costing the Cathedral revenue of 200,000 pounds per day.

The encampment was evicted at the end of February 2012, by court order, without violence, by the City Corporation.

Our visit to St. Paul´s made me ask, as St. Paul´s Cathedral Arts Project and its artistic installations have asked:

What makes life meaningful and purposeful?

What does St. Paul´s mean in that contemporary context?

Those questions, much like questions of faith themselves, can only be answered by individuals themselves.

Should one care to ask.

Black and White photograph of the dome of St Paul's, starkly lit, appearing through billowing clouds of smoke

Above: St. Paul´s Cathedral, 29 December 1940

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / DK Eyewitness Travel, Top London 2017 / The Rough Guide to London / Lonely Planet, London Condensed / St. Paul´s Cathedral / http://www.stpauls.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adam in the Abbey 1: The Road to New Norcia

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 September 2016 / 15 September 2016

Homer once said that all men have need of the gods.

And maybe this is so, for since time began we have sought a way to understand, and perhaps even influence, powerful natural phenomena, such as weather and the seasons, creation, life, death and its aftermath.

There are times I wonder whether God created man or whether it was man who created God, but to religion’s credit its rituals give many lives a deep sense of identity, cement social groups and bring meaning to the rites of passage in life, such as birth, maturity, marriage and death.

Religion has also been used as a political tool, justifying military conquests, giving courage in battle and comfort in loss, and will even pervert itself in its own name where murder, though morally wrong, is justifiable if the cause is just and holy.

alt=A depiction of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 from a medieval manuscript. The burning buildings of Jerusalem are centered in the image. The various crusaders are surrounding and besieging the village armed for an attack.

Religion organises life – through calendars, rites, rituals and taboos – and death – by suggesting that our lives have significance and role in the cosmos.

People will defy princes, powers and principalities, suffer persecution and even court death to defend their rights to worship with their chosen rituals their perceived divine providence.

For many, religion is not just a social impulse, it is also a matter of intense personal experience – a search for significance and meaning through an inner awareness of the undefinable divine.

We seek meaning to the trials and tribulations of life and solace in something that shows that individuals matter on a cosmic scale – if not in this life with its injustice and unfairness, then in a prospect beyond the grave.

For it is hard to remain strong within ourselves in the face of pain and suffering and then to face an eternity of nothingness where all that we were and all that we could be is mere rotting remains in some forgettable tomb and meaningless like dust in the wind.

In this paradoxical existence we want to believe that there are unseen forces at work, that sense can be made of the world, that we matter.

I am not much of a churchgoer, much to the despair and grief of religious friends and family.

They wish to bring me closer to them in spiritual harmony and hope to give me the same hopes that they fervently cling to.

They have found fulfillment in their group and fear what exclusion from their group might mean to my spiritual future.

But it is this religious grouping I object to, rather than the religious beliefs they espouse, for the dark side of organised religion is the creation and segregation of humanity into two basic sides – “Us” and “Them”.

And it is this division that condemns anything that is not believed and practiced by “Us”, resulting in many using religion as a cloak to disguise thought and actions that are very unreligious in practice.

Kill, in the name of religion.

Force others to bend to your will, in the name of religion.

Justify injustice, in the name of religion.

Unite against the infidel and convert or eliminate him, in the name of religion.

The gods are on your side and you can control the uncontrollable if your belief is strong.

To be fair, much that is good and honourable has been accomplished in the name of religion –  such as orphanages and hospitals and schools…

But much that is evil has also manifested and justified itself in the name of religion – such as crusades, religious persecution, racism, sexism…

Religion is not famous for possessing a “live and let live” attitude.

My wife is religious, in her own way, and remains devoted to her Catholicism by tradition, but she has sought her own path to peace and enlightenment by exploring such methods as meditation.

Saint Peter's Basilica

She is far more of a social animal than I, so she will, on occasion, participate in worship should one of our more religious friends ask this of her.

I am not so compliant or gregarious, but, for moments like christenings, weddings and funerals, I will throw on a suit and participate in all the pomp and ceremony with which religion surrounds itself to show my compassion for others to whom these moments matter.

I share their joys and sorrows, even if I don`t share their beliefs.

I try not to be hypocritical about it, so I won´t try to visit Mecca in the guise of a Muslim, or take communion in the pretense of a Christian, but I will remove my hat in a church and cover my head in a synagogue.

Masjid al-Haram and the center of Mecca

I may sing psalms I do not feel, but I don´t expect the enlightenment the congregation expects should I bow my head while others pray.

I love and respect my friends and family with their various Christian, Muslim and Hindu beliefs, even if I neither understand nor share their beliefs.

goddess of wealth and beauty

I respect my wife`s Catholic church and its long history and its emotionally moving rituals, but, similar to Groucho Marx, I refuse to join any church that would consider me as a member!

Groucho Marx - portrait.jpg

So why have I  – who could be at best be labelled an agnostic and at worst a godless, without redemption, hopeless, barbaric, atheistic, infidel pagan – found myself over the years visiting temples, churches, shrines, monasteries and abbeys?

Could it be that I too, despite all my protestations, have a Homeric need for God?

I am not sure.

I feel closer to the divine when I am in a forest than when I am in a church, by an ocean rather than an altar, reading the clouds rather than reading holy writ.

But I am attracted to what religion represents – the good within man and man’s search for that good.

Granted that I, being the pagan I am, have limited authority to discuss such matters, for only the truly devout fully comprehend the shrines of the holy, but in spite of my limitations I have been profoundly affected by the places I will describe.

One of my favourite writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, famous for his walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (vividly described in his books, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road), was a man who lived life to its fullest.

After Constantinople, Fermor enlisted in the Irish Guards, fought in Greece and Crete. disguised as a shepherd organised the Resistance, and travelled extensively throughout his life.

So, at first glance, Fermor spending time in abbeys amongst the rigourous lives of monks in a retreat of peaceful solitude and calm contemplation, might seem odd.

Nonetheless his novella, A Time to Keep Silence, which recounts his experiences in the French abbey of St. Wandrille to the abandoned monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey, resonates within me, for the emotions he expresses are akin to my own.

Like Fermor, I have visited more monasteries than are described because many of them were part of wider travels, wherein, though significant, were only accidentally a background part of the journey complete rather than deliberate goals sought out.

At first, monasteries and abbeys were of interest only for the purposes of charity, i.e. what food or shelter they could provide me.

As described in Canada Slim behind bars 5a: Arrested development, in my travels I learned how to travel without money by using charity to fill my empty stomach and shelter my weary head.

In travels across Canada, the US and Europe, many a night found me dossing in a Salvation Army type men’s hostel if an urban area was quite large.

The Salvation Army.svg

Smaller towns would either offer me paid accommodation in a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, or would have me sleep directly inside the church itself.

I was rarely refused something to eat along with the night’s lodging.

So in this manner I was able to walk/thumb my way across Canada and hitch around the States and visit England and Wales and continental Europe when lack of finances was a problem.

I worked whenever possible and paid as often as I could, but I knew that had I waited to travel until I had complete financial security I might never have left.

I never begged on the street nor rummaged through rubbish and only stole the occasional hanging fruit off of trees.

I asked for help and was rarely refused.

I was a temporary burden at best.

Though I have known many a church, abbeys and monasteries somehow mostly escaped my notice.

(For Titchfield, see The glory departed of this blog.)

Titchfield Abbey 1.jpg

Only after meeting and marrying my wife Ute did abbeys and monasteries become deliberate goals of sites to see, rather than merely resources of food and shelter, especially in our journeys over the years in Italy.

The abbey that has left a most enduring impression, for it was the first abbey I spent time in really trying to understand the monastic life, was New Norcia, a place I have been recently reminded of when last month, on 24 August, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck near Norcia (the inspiration for New Norcia), Italy.

(See Moving Heaven and Earth of this blog.)

New Norcia is a town in Western Australia, 132 km/82 mi north of Perth, the only monastic town in Australia, and it is its story, and my own, I want to share.

Adam in the Abbey 2 will speak of Benedict and how he has inspired generations of followers.

Fra Angelico 031.jpg

Adam in the Abbey 3 will tell the tale of how two Spanish monks came to live in extreme hardship among the indigenous people of Australia and yet preserved to become a holy beacon in the South Pacific.

(To be continued…)

 

 

 

Saints and monsters

It was with the greatest pleasure that I spent most of the first two days of December in my favourite European City, Freiburg im Breisgau, the “capital” of southwestern Germany´s Black Forest.

I have in two previous posts briefly touched upon my last visit to Freiburg (Sign of the Times / Victims of the Machine) and I realise that, unlike former posts of walks and visits in Switzerland, England and Sardinia, I have not gone into detail about how and why Freiburg holds such a very special place in my heart and soul.

Bear with me, gentle readers, I will correct this glaring omission very soon.

I will say this though – part of the spell that is Freiburg is the lingering presence of old friends who remain there.

Some friends are closer to me than family.

Others are friends because their characters fascinate me.

What I love about my closest friends, be they in Freiburg or not, is not just a commonality of experience that we have shared or continue to share.

Rather it is in discussions with them that I learn so much from them.

Sometimes wisdom comes from the beauty of their intelligent minds.

Sometimes wisdom comes from the tapestry of their life experiences.

It is a rare and precious thing to have discussions with them.

For I feel that whatever physical setting we may find ourselves in, whether tavern or cafe, sitting on the banks of the Dreisam River or simply strolling through town,  my mind feels like I am instead in ancient Greece strolling through the groves of Academe like old philosophers, old “lovers of wisdom”, not so much smarter for the shared experience but instead more inspired and hungry to once again resume life in all its richest fullness.

In Freiburg two gentlemen, my friends since the beginning of this Millennium, inspire, delight, enlighten and entertain me.

Every visit to Freiburg, and I try to visit twice a year, I make it a point to see these two rough diamonds in my crown of Life: Reggie and Rolf.

Both Americans (No one is perfect!) bring this Canuck endless smiles and generate the deepest feelings of respect and gratitude for their continual presence in my life.

Reggie, the Philadelphia “Preacher of the Gospel of Hip Hop”, the ebony to my ivory, a fellow English teacher who has also wandered the globe and surprisingly found himself settled in Europe longer than he had ever imagined, is a pal, a brother in every way except genetics.

There has never been a conversation where he has not challenged me to view the world from perspectives other than my own set notions, and I love him for this!

A few hours with him and my mind is on fire!

As we often do, we talk about world politics and America´s role in the world, our relationships with our “women folk”, our common teaching experiences, our North American perspectives on living in Europe, our travels past and planned and those strange phenomena called Life and Love.

As a Canadian I find there is much about the American experience that, despite months-long periods of independent travel in the States, I have great difficulty understanding: views on guns, socialism, health care, military actions, international relations, religion, racism, just to name a few.

And Reggie, bless the man for trying, does his damnedness to educate me!

I think one way I differ from many North Americans (though I find Americans more prone to the following mindset than Canadians or Mexicans I have known) is that I don´t have the deep-set belief that most folks (or at least the folks you don´t know well) are inherantly evil.

Granted the ex-pat Americans I have met who have settled in countries where I too as an ex-pat have lived (South Korea, England, Germany, Switzerland) are generally exceptions to this mindset, there seems to be among the vast majority of Americans the idea that life is a bottomless vale of danger wherein one is surrounded by enemies on all sides and even allies cannot be completely trusted.

And as karmic consequence this message of distrust and paranoia they send to the world manifests itself as distrust and paranoia from the world and amongst themselves.

This seems to be a simple explanation for the power of the conservative right in America, the massive over-proliferation of guns in America, the tragic amounts of shootings and violence on American streets and campuses,  and the ridiculous amounts of revenue invested in the US military.

As a Canadian who has done a wee bit of world wandering in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, it has been my experience that most people regardless of faith, colour, political creed or religious belief are decent, often generous, people who simply desire to live in peace and raise their loved ones with affection and compassion.

Don´t misunderstand me.

I am not suggesting that everyone everywhere is acting saint-like at all times, for each and everyone of us is essentially human and prone to mistakes and temptations where individual selfishness sometimes overwhelms common sense and compassion for others.

But in my own, albeit limited, experience, I have found that most people whoever wherever they may be are inherantly good.

Every population does produce its monsters but they are monsters because they differ so much from the rest of the population.

Monsters are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

I like the way American author John Steinbeck in East of Eden describes this:

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. 

Some you can see, misshapen and horrible…

They are accidents and no one´s fault…

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?

The face and the body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. 

As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience…

You must never forget that a monster is only a variation…”

Reggie, Rolf and myself have had our moments of less-than-exemplary behaviour, as have had most of us,  for just as humanity has produced few monsters, it has also produced few saints.

But I stand by my conviction that the basic instincts of humanity are more often drawn towards love and compassion rather than hate and fear.

Only those whose lives have had the lack of experience of love and compassion are they drawn towards violence, hate and paranoia.

I return to John Steinbeck´s East of Eden:

“Do you remember when you read us the 16 verses of the 4th chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?…

Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word…

The more I thought about the story (of Cain and Abel), the more profound it became to me…

The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you call sin ignorance.

The King James translation makes a promise in “Thou shalt”, meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel“Thou mayest” – that gives a choice.

Thou mayest rule over sin.

It might be the most important word in the world, that says the way is open, that throws it right back on a man…

…”Thou mayest” makes a man great, gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. 

He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

The instinct and the potential for good is in all of us.

Timshel.

 

 

 

 

How to convert this barbarian

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

I won’t let you leave my love behind
No, I won’t let you leave.

(Fred Neil / Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talkin'”)

If I had to ever define myself on relationships or beliefs, this song best captures my mindset.

We are often told that there are three topics we should not discuss in polite society: sex, politics and religion.

Yet pick up any newspaper, visit any chatroom, watch any news program, and what is being discussed?

Sex, politics and religion.

As well there seems inherant in any discussion of these topics an undertone that suggests that having the discussion itself automatically means that sides must be chosen, that one must choose an allegiance and stick to it through thick and thin whether it is sensible to do so or not.

Speak your mind and, lo and behold, others will assign you a pigeonhole to describe and define you, thus limiting your ability to look at or discuss an issue from more than one point of view.

Express a preference and voices will be raised suggesting that you must then be against anything that is not that preference.

For example, try a discussion about communism or gay rights or immigration or birth control, begin to talk about one side of an issue, then sit back and wait for the coyotes to attack.

Sometimes I despair that intelligent open-minded objective debate can ever happen anywhere at anytime.

I acknowledge that sometimes I too have to back away from my own opinions, to consider other points of view, other histories and ideas than my own.

But as dangerous a minefield as these discussions are, I think we still need to have them as they are what makes us human.

So, let’s look at religion today.

(See Buddha on the Mosel of this blog.)

In my circle of friends scattered worldwide I am proud to acknowledge that they share more than one religion amongst them.

I love and respect them, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, as they happen to be.

Some of them are quite devoted to their beliefs.

Others are believers more in name rather than spirit.

I embrace no one particular religion but instead search for a commonality of humane belief amongst them.

I admit to having a problem with the idea of a personal God / gods, as the biggest argument used to prove the existence of God / gods is the inability to disprove it, the idea that because God / gods can not be proven not to exist that therefore He / they must exist.

I also admit to having a problem with the mentality that some religious followers have of an Us-Them mindset, the idea that if you are not with us, if you are one of them, then you are therefore wrong and an enemy of ours.

I think every religion has something valuable to teach us – about morality (the difference between “bad” and “good”), about dealing with the shortcomings of life (sorrow, pain, disappointment), about making sense of the world when unseen forces are at work (sickness and death, natural phenomena such as the weather), about dealing with the inevitability of death and finding comfort and solace in the idea of some thing or some place beyond the reality of this existence.

This is why religion exists, why it should exist and why I think it will always continue to exist, despite it often being a source of conflict throughout the history of mankind.

What causes this conflict is the inherant inability of so many of us unable to “live and let live”.

So many of us have an unquenchable zeal to convert others to our way of thinking whether others desire this conversion or not.

Sometimes this conversion attempt has been made through the power of persuasion.

Too often in our dark history this conversion attempt has been made through the force of arms.

Centuries have passed and yet even today the “hard sell” attempt to convert others continues.

So, here it is, an idea that is tried very rarely, yet seems to be the most powerful method of all.

Lead me to your religion by example.

If I see that your religion makes you happy…

If I see your devotion to it unfailing, regardless of environment or circumstances…

If I see your religion as a source of comfort and solace for you…

If I see your religion as a guide to your behaviour which embraces others humanely…

Then no religious broadcast…

No sermons on the mount…

No knife to my throat or gun to my head…

None of this will be necessary.

Because I will see the contentment and joy your beliefs give you and this will make me curious and make me want to know more about the source of your well-being.

If you can be a Hindu in a Christian environment and still remain true to your faith and your faith sustains you, I will notice.

If you can be someone who will not eat pork or beef or drink alcohol when all those around you eat chops and steak and consume spirits, I will notice.

If you can don a turban or conceal your body modestly even when doing so alienates you from others, I will notice.

I may not automatically agree with all of your practices or tenets but your example and the security it gives your life will make me stop and ponder and pose questions.

And, perhaps, maybe one day, I may find myself sharing time with you in your home and in your place of worship once I begin to understand the faith that sustains you.

So, my religious friends…

So to religious leaders and followers…

Learn the virtue of patience and lead by example.

This barbarian will notice.