Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 2011 travel posts - July 14

Well, the last post wasn't quite the last. We met this afternoon with His Excellency, Dr. Manuel Diaz, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Dr. Diaz is a Cuban American with a PhD in theology from the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed ambassador to the Holy See (ie, Vatican) because of his strong support for Barack Obama's campaign for president. Dr. Diaz taught at St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, where my friend Columba Stewart also teaches.

Ambassador Diaz spoke of the significance of having an ambassador to the Holy See because of the Vatican's many contacts around the world in places where U.S. influence is negative or negligible. Diaz has convened meetings of religious leaders in Rome to deal with topics such as climate change and conflict resolution. He spoke warmly of the Archbishop of Canterbury's understanding of his favorite theologian, Karl Rahner. I would love to be a fly on the wall listening to a conversation among Diaz, Benedict XVI and Archbishop Williams.

On the other hand, even the ambassador to the Vatican and his wife and four children are heavily protected by the Italian secret service and are taken from place to place in an armored SUV. What a world we live in...

See the photo of Dr. Diaz and my group on my Facebook page.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

July 2011 travel posts - July 13 addendum

My group went out tonight for dinner at a trattoria just 2 or 3 blocks from our hotel. After dinner, I walked a few blocks further to mail a couple of postcards in St. Peter's Sq. The moon is full, and I have to say that I prefer St. Peter's by moonlight. The conjunction of religion and power that the great church represents troubles me, but moonlight softens the edges and cools the fire a little. By moonlight Roman Catholicism seems more the religion of Italians with an appreciation for and tolerance for human frailty and less the faith of German cardinals who insist on doctrinal exactitude.

On the way back to the hotel I got some gelato (which I ordered in Italian without using a single English word) and after I threw away the cup, I rinsed my hands in a stone fountain bearing the papal arms that was located by the side of the road. Just up the road, in front of another trattoria, a lone accordionist played "Somewhere over the rainbow," and I reflected on how Italians have mastered the art of living.

2011 travel posting - July 13

Sunday morning in Rome begins with a riot of bells from the hundreds of churches in this ancient capital. All of my colleagues except me (including Rabbi Miller) set out for St. Peter's, but I went to St. Paul's Within the Walls, an American Episcopal church built for Americans traveling abroad by J.P. Morgan. It's a beautiful church. In the apse is a mosaic showing Christ in glory seated upon his throne from which flows water. Separating the upper panel from the lower panel is an inscription in Greek and Hebrew of the first sentence of Genesis ("In the beginning, God created..."). In the lower panel are St. Paul surrounded by the saints of the Old Testament on his right and the saints of the New Testament on his left.

The service was not well-attended but afterward I was told that everyone who can leaves Rome in July and August. However, there was a visiting choir from Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr, PA (a Philadelphia suburb) that was wonderful. They sang Bruckner's "Ave Maria" before the service, a Brahms' piece at the offertory, and Elgar's "The Spirit of the Lord" during communion. The choir was large and there were almost as many in the choir as in the congregation.

Late in the afternoon we toured the Jewish quarter, including the stunningly beautiful Great Synagogue. The history of Jews in Europe is a history of suffering. Jews came to Rome about 160 BCE and lived there freely until a pope set up the Jewish ghetto about a thousand years ago. After the establishment of the ghetto, Jewish worship was restricted to a single synagogue which included sections for the Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German Jews. Jews were required to wear distinctive clothing that identified them as Jews. In 1870 Victor Emanuel II, the first king of a united Italy, abolished the ghetto, but the Nazis re-established it in 1943. Then in October, 1943, more than 2000 Roman Jews were sent to Auschwitz and only 16 survived. The chief rabbi of Rome appealed to Pope Pius XII to speak out, but even though Pius was from an old Roman family that knew the Jews of Rome, he said and did nothing publicly. The Jews were taken in trucks past the gates of the Vatican, but still the pope was silent. I know that Pius XII's role in the Holocaust is still debated, but he should have done more for the Jews of Rome. He was quite vocal about the church's property during the era of fascism; surely he could have done more for the Jews.

Monday was one of our best days. We started out with a visit to the Very Rev. Canon David Richardson, director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury's personal representative to the Holy See. I met David a few weeks ago in Birmingham and thought we would enjoy visiting him, and we did. He was quite frank about the way Anglican\Roman Catholic relations have cooled under the papacy of Benedict XVI. He was particularly critical of the Vatican's efforts to woo disaffected Anglicans with the promise that they can continue to use a version of the Book of Common Prayer (an initiative that was undertaken without any consultation or advance warning given to Anglican leaders).

On Mon afternoon we toured the basilica of St. Clement, a late 1rst century bishop of Rome. Excavations beneath the church have uncovered a first century Roman street that included a temple of Mithras and a Christian church.

After that we visited the Lay Center, a place for Roman Catholic laymen and women, as well as those of other faiths, who are studying at the several pontifical universities in Rome. We had a wonderful time with the director, Dr. Donna Orsuto, an American and the first lay women (not a nun) to receive a degree from a pontifical university. She and the others we met there give me great hope for the Roman Catholic church.

The day ended with evening prayer at the Church of Santa Maria Trastavere where the Community of St. Egidio gathers daily. They are a Roman Catholic lay community somewhat similar to the Taize community in France.

Tue began with a stunning tour of the Vatican museum led by our friend Magdalena (who also led our tour of ancient Rome). I've been through the Vatican museum on two previous occasions but this was by far the best. The art of the museum simply came alive because of her detailed introductions and descriptions.

Other than the Sistine Chapel, my favorite works in the museum are Raphael's two frescoes for the papal apartments - "The school of Athens" and "The dispute of the holy sacrament." To me, they represent earthly and heavenly wisdom. But for sheer drama the Last Judgment that Michelangelo painted for the east wall of the Sistine Chapel cannot be surpassed.

Tuesday evening we met with Richard Donahoo, a former Episcopalian who is now a Roman Catholic priest. Fr Donahoo is studying the problem that Canon Richardson discussed with us, namely, the reception of disaffected Anglicans by the RC Church. I pressed him hard and questioned him assertively and frankly. At dinner, he said, "I imagine that Anglicans are unhappy with this" and gave me a sidelong glance. I said, "You are correct. We are very unhappy." But he took my questions and comments in a gracious and intelligent way. However, I have to say that I regard the setting up of a special effort to bring Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church as a form of religous imperialism.

Tomorrow is our last day in Rome and this will be my last post until I get home and wrap everything up. It's been wonderful but I'm ready to head for home.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

2011 travel posting - July 10

Sorry for the long delay since my last post. We've had several very busy days.

We left Jerusalem by van in the wee hours of July 7. Tel Aviv is only 34 mi from Jerusalem and there was no traffic on the road, so it didn't take long. After a short flight we landed in Athens and spent a busy day seeing the Parthenon and agora (ancient market where Socrates taught Plato and other students).

I thought Athens was a beautiful city. There are hills on one side and water on the other. It was clean and had a wonderful, convenient, easy to understand, and reasonably fast subway that took us from the airport to the historical sites and back again. I'd love to go back.

After another short flight in the evening, we landed in Rome. We are staying at the Domus Carmelitana, a guest house for pilgrims run by the Carmelites, a religious order for men and women. It is only a few short blocks from St. Peter's Square. "A guest house for pilgrims" may sounds a little grim. Actually, this is a very nice hotel. The rooms, beds, bathrooms, and especially the showers are on the small side but it's extremely clean and they have a nice breakfast in the morning.

On our first day here we met with Dr. Yann Redalie, the dean of the Waldensian seminary in room. The Waldensians are a small Protestant group that broke away from Rome before the 16th c. Reformation. They spread from Switzerland to America, Britain, eastern Europe, South America, and Italy, but today they are mainly in Italy, and there are only about 30,000 of them left. They have joined with the Methodistl churches of Italy.

The most interesting part of Dr. Redalie's talk was about how they are dealing with the great influx of Protestants from Africa. As I noted, there are only about 30,000 Waldensians in Italy, but Italy is receiving about 30,000 immigrants annually from Africa, and many of these are Methodists or from similar Protestant churches. He said that in some Waldensian churches there will be 9 African children and only one Italian child. Although, as he said, the Waldensians are committed to being "church together" with African Christians, merging the 2 cultures is difficult. Of course, this is exactly the situation that we Anglicans are now dealing with, too.

We went from the Waldensian seminary to the Vatican's Council for Christian Unity and Jewish Relations where we met with Archbishop Brian Farrell, an Irish bishop who is the council's undersecretary. Abp Farrell told us about the council's beginnings in Vatican II and described the upcoming meeting of the world's religions in Assissi on the 25th anniversary of the first such meeting convened by Pope John Paul II. For me the most interesting part of the archbishop's talk was about Anglicans. He cautiously spoke about the frustrations of dealing with my church which has made the decision to ordain women to the offices of priest and bishop and has begun to open all its offices to gay and lesbian Christians, too. After meeting with Abp Farrell I walked down the hall and identified 2 former archbishops of Canterbury photographed in meetings with Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

In the afternoon, a Polish art historian gave us a wonderful tour of ancient Rome. We saw the Colosseum, Forum, and Circus Maximus (an ancient horsetrack that was used in the film "Ben Hur").

Yesterday was Assissi day. We were taken to Assissi in a van and given a great tour by a friend of Archbishop Joseph Marino (who was our host in Bangladesh last summer). I had forgotten how beautiful Assissi is. It is on a high hill overlooking the Umbrian countryside. In the distance you can see another Italian city, Perugia, that was the great enemy of Assissi in the Middle Ages. It was after a war with Perugia that Francesco Bernardone, heard the voice of God speak to him from a crucifix in the church of San Damiano, saying, "Rebuild my church." In response, he abandoned his wealth and founded the group we know as the Franciscans.

There are 2 great churches in Assissi, and the first one we saw was the basilica of St. Clare, a woman who joined Francis and is thought to be as great a saint as he is. We ended the day with a visit to the other great church of Assissi - the basilica of St. Francis. It is unusual in being two churches, one on top of the other. The lower church in particular is remarkable for the great series of frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis painted by Giotto and Cimabue. The frescoes are the greatest early examples of the use of perspective in painting.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011 travel posting - July 6

We spent most of yesterday in the Palestinian Authority. The last time I was here (1994) the PA had not yet been established, and all of the West Bank was still administered by Israel. It seems to me that the establishment of the PA has had both good and bad consequences.

First, we went to Hebron. Hebron is traditionally where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives are buried. (Gen. 49.31) The irony is that God promised Abraham land but when he died, the only land that he owned was his burial place. In all likelihood, Hebron is not where the patriarchs are buried, but it is where they are remembered. Nevertheless, the patriarchs are holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, so like so much in this holy land, Hebron is a place of conflict.

Until 1948, Jews and Muslims could both come and pray at the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron. After the establishment of Israel, Hebron was in Jordan, and Jews were barred from praying there. Then when Israel took the West Bank in 1967, both Jews and Muslims could again pray there, but there was a great deal of tension. Then in February, 1994, an Israel settler, fired on Muslims praying at the tombs of the patriarchs, killing 29 of them. Since then, the Israeli government has rigidly separated the places where Jews and Muslims pray.

Complicating matters further, a few hundred Israelis have moved into Hebron, forcing the Israeli government to sent in troops to protect them and to build streets on which they alone can travel.

Yesterday, we went to both the Jewish and Muslim sides of the tomb of the patriarchs. I have to say that the Muslim side felt more welcoming. It is open and spacious, covered in beautiful carpets. Out of respect for Muslim tradition, we removed our shoes. A group of Muslim school girls were there, giggling and being silly the way every little girl of that age behaves. They wanted us to take their picture, and we obliged. They tried out their English and we tried out our 2 or 3 Arabic words.

After the tomb of the patriarchs, we walked through the market or suq. Sadly, many shops are closed. One shopkeeper told us that the Palestinian Authority pays them $300 a month just to keep the stores open. We walked up a steep stairway to the roof of a building. The family that lives there told us that Jewish settlers had tried to buy their house, but they refused, and subsequently have been harrassed.

We happily left Hebron and drove to Bethlehem where we met with Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor, who is building an impressive school and social service center. He was very pessimistic about the future but said that he had hope. He cited the famous story about Martin Luther. Luther said that if he knew that the world would end tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. That's the kind of hope that Pastor Raheb has. His school teaches music, visual arts, and even filmmaking. He has sports teams for girls on which Muslim and Christian girls play together.

Raheb said that he has an alternative version of the 2 state solution: put Shas (an Israeli right wing party) and Hamas (the Palestinian extremist party) in one state and all the moderate Israelis and Palestinians in the other state. We thought that was a great idea.

Jonathan, however, was critical of the way Raheb described the situation. Raheb said that the Israelis had walked out of negotiations and were establishing a kind of apartheid. Jonathan said that was not true, and I have to agree with him. On the other hand, I do believe that whatever Netanyahu believes in his heart, the ultra conservatives in his coalition will not let allow the Palestinians to establish a state.

Finally, we went to Ramallah, the "capital" of the Palestinian Authority. We saw the tomb of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian parliament building. Our impression of Ramallah was very positive. It seems reasonably affluent and full of life. The streets were crowded with people and cars. There were many women whose heads were covered, but just as many whose heads were uncovered. So far, Ramallah looks like a modern secular Arab city. May it remain so.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011 travel posting - July 4

Sunday morning we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (more accurately called the Church of the Resurrection or (in Greek) the Anastasis) around 8 am. There was a little Coptic service going on in the chapel behind the actual sepulchre. I listened to the beautiful chanting for a while and enjoyed the enormous clouds of incense that the thurifer generated. A little later the Greek Orthodox began their service in a much larger chapel on the other side of the sepulchre. It was a little amusing to watch the Greeks. A group of acolytes or priests unrolled a red carpet on which the patriarch (or some lesser bishop) walked into the chapel. Once inside, he began chanting to a virtually empty room. Nearby is the chapel in which it is believed that the actual crucifixion of Jesus took place. It was quiet and prayerful at that hour of the morning and a few people sat or stood in intense meditation.

Afterward we walked to the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College where Reform rabbis from all over the world go for at least part of their education. David Marmur, a British Jew, is their academic dean, and he talked with us for a while about perceiving God. Using texts from Exodus, 1 Corinthians 13 ("through a glass darkly"), the medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides, and the 20th c. scholar Abraham Heschel, he led us in a wonderful discussion about whether and how different religions perceive God. According to the Old Testament, only Moses actually saw God; other prophets (and by extension, other faiths, perhaps) only caught a glimpse of God.

One of my conclusions from Rabbi Marmur's talk (and our other conversations) is that we can only approach God through our own traditions. The more deeply we delve into our own faith, the more points of contact we find with other faiths. But if we try to start with spirituality in general (if there is such a thing), the less likely we are to find God, or at least to have a deep experience of God.

After visiting with Rabbi Marmur, we returned to the Scottish Guest House and talked with an American rabbi, Arye Ben David. After teaching in an Orthodox religious school (yeshiva) for many years, he became troubled by how difficult it is for many Jews to talk about their own experience of God. Consequently, he developed a course that helps Jews go more deeply into their own spiritual lives and experiences of God. I suggested that perhaps he was really giving Jews a way to talk about experiences they were already having but for which they did not yet have the right words.

In the evening, we visited with David and Ariel Morrison. David is an old friend of mine from Birmingham. He was married to my close friend, Jo Ann Hess, who died after they moved to Jerusalem. David is a very fine Jewish historian and Ariel does Jewish education.

Today we began with a visit from Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, a classmate of Jonathan's and the first woman rabbi in Israel. After 3 trips to the Israeli Supreme Court she won the right to be recognized as a rabbi and for her congregation to receive financial support from the Israeli government (as all other synagogues in Israel do). She was absolutely delightful. She talked about how she prays while she swims every morning and how important music is to her spiritual life. She also shared about how she has helped develop Jewish liturgies that incorporate feminine as well as masculine images of God.

After our visit with Kinneret, we had a walk through Mea Shearim, Jerusalem's ultra Orthodox neighborhood.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Friday, July 01, 2011

2011 travel posting - July 2

The UK's border security and passport control officers were going to be on strike from 6 pm on June 29, so Mark hastily took me to the train in Coventry. I figured that I'd better get a hotel near Heathrow in the event that there were delays getting out of the country. However, everything ran smoothly. My plane took off on time and arrived about 20-30 mins late because the plane had to avoid Greek airspace.

The last time I was in Israel was 1994, and I was amazed at how beautiful Ben Gurion airport is now. However, I have to say that I miss the way Israel used to look. There was something more appealing to me about Israel when it looked like a frontier, when it was struggling to grow up and become prosperous.

I met Bob Hurst (a member of my group) just outside the airport and we shared a "sherut" (shared taxi) into Jerusalem. We were the next to last people to make it to our destination, and it deposited us outside the Scottish Church and Guest House about 90 mins later. And, as it turns out, only Jonathan Miller had made it there ahead of us.

Bob went off to eat with friends and I walked down Emek Refa'im into a neighborhood known as the German Colony. There were a number of restaurants offering pizza, hamburgers, and even waffles. I finally found one that seemed a little more Middle Eastern and ate there.

When I returned to the guest house, Jonathan was up and about, and soon after that Steve Jones and Ed Hurley arrived from their side trip to Egypt.

The next morning we were on our way by 8.30 or 9. Our first visit was to a Syrian Orthodox Church where the priest - Fr. Simon - claimed that it was the site of the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. I was there on my first visit to Israel in 1985. During my 1985 trip I heard the priest read an account of the Last Supper in Aramaic on Maundy Thur. It gave me chills to hear the story of the Last Supper read in the language that Jesus would have spoken in a location that was at least somewhat close to where the Last Supper would have taken place.

Excavations beneath the Syrian church show that a 1rst c. house stood on the same location. So perhaps it was where Jesus and the disciples shared bread and wine.

After the Syrian church we visited the Copts. A Coptic Christian told us about the persecution of the Coptic Church in Egypt which has increased since the revolution. The Mubarak regime (in spite of its many faults) protected the Copts, but now they are facing increased violence.

We finished the day with a visit to Tantur Ecumenical Institute between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just on the Israeli side of the security fence, where we chatted with the directory, Timothy Lowe, an Orthodox priest. Fr Timothy is worth a visit all by himself. He grew up as an evangelical Protestant in Nebraska, then came to this part of the world when he was 19 to convert Jews and Muslims. He stayed on the learn Hebrew and Arabic and got interested in the early church. That interest led him to Eastern Orthodoxy. We talked about whether or not different religions are perceiving the same divine reality or different realities in spite of how wildly different they appear. Fr Timothy emphatically believes that there is only one transcendent reality. He said that it only gets complex when we speak. It's simpler if we just remain silent. True, I think. Reminds me what Wittgenstein said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

It's now Saturday afternoon about 4.45 pm, the waning hours of the Sabbath. Jonathan took us to the morning service at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. There appeared to be several different sects of Orthodox Jews there this morning. I tried to read along in Jonathan's Torah during the reading of the Torah and afterward in his prayer book, but I could only catch a few words and phrases here and there. It's been far too long since I studied Hebrew and the readings and prayers went much too quickly.

After the service we went to the Israel Museum for lunch and to see the exhibits.