Thursday, 30 April 2009

A Sensible Faith


It's been a busy day, so I'll work backwards through it to the beginning, to the place I really want to think about.

This evening all the household, 12 people in all, went two doors down to Madame Ogi's. Madame Ogi runs a restaurant. Not a huge affair, just 6 tables: the sort of place which performs the sort of function I suppose the local pub used to perform at the end of British streets. It is the place where locals gather; where everyone knows everyone else, and where the events of the village are discussed in intimate detail. And where, just incidentally, the food is superb. I had the perch, caught that day in the lake, and served with potatoes, salad and the most delicious sauce. There was a local pinot noir to wash it all down, and it was, quite simply, the best fish I have eaten in my life. When we left, there were the regulation handshakes and three cheek kisses for everyone, and from everyone - the chef, the waitress, the other diners - and the sense that you hadn't so much been out for a meal as popped into the family's other dining room.

Earlier we visited a castle. A real castle, not some pretentious Edwardian mansion such as we have in Dunedin. Built in 13 hundred and something in the village of (I kid you not) Grandson, and still occupied and still in perfect condition. It had dungeons. It had swords and cannons. It had suits of armour. It had gardyloos. It had ancient furniture and tiny windows designed not for light or air but to fire arrows at the pesky Germans. Someone had installed an impressive collection of antique cars in the basement - including Greta Garbo's Rolls and Winston Churchill's Austin 10 - but by and large it was all pure 14th century. The cappuccino in the gift shop was, fortunately, pure 21st Century.

Earlier still we looked at the ancient town of Neuchatel, including the old parish church. This 13th century place of worship was already three hundred years old when the Reformation hit town, and as the Catholic chapel of the local Chateau it was a particular focus for the removal of papist errors. Once it had a high altar and two side chapels but the ancient altars had all been removed and in their place was a plain table for the Lord's supper and a simple cross. The nave pulpit was still extant but the nave itself had been filled with small and ugly pews. The old church had become a place for the exposition of the word. After the grandiose over decoration of Italy it all looked a little sparse. I have been into a couple of Swiss Catholic churches, and I must say I liked them. In one there was a wonderful font which incorporated a fountain so that Jesus' words about living water took on a new, sensual depth. In another, all the altar furniture was fashioned from unworked timber, so that the organic forms spoke of the congruence of nature and the Gospel. Here there were no such fripperies; just pure, clear, sensible human logic. The vague certainties of Catholicism had been replaced by the absolute and strongly defended vagaries of Protestantism. Body Mind and Spirit had all been subjected to the dictatorship of Mind alone, and although I grew up in the shadow of the Reformation and can objectively see the necessity of what happened in the 16th Century, in Neuchatel today I had the srongest sense that something was profoundly wrong. It was all very sensible, but we humans are seldom sensible, and perhaps, neither should be our approach to the infinite.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Morat


The Swiss seem eminently sensible people. Everything (except for essential services: power, ambulances and restaurants) closes on Sunday, not so much for religious reasons but for the realisation that there is more to life than making money and going shopping. What's more, everything stays closed until after lunchtime on Monday. Yesterday they got even more sensible. All the roads around Le Lac de Morat were closed to traffic so that people could participate in the Slow Up - a day of riding bikes, skating or walking around the lake. We took a large launch out over the lake from Vallamond to Morat and spent the afternoon walking around the old town.

The medieval walls are perfectly maintained and it is a strange thing for a Kiwi to walk around on centuries old ramparts looking down on houses that have remained pretty much unchanged since the days of William Tell. Stranger still to note that none of the Swiss have been moved to deface them by spraying graffiti on them or by breaking bits and pieces of them just for the hell of it. Underneath the walls are large public allotments in which grow sensibly neat and productive vegetable gardens. All the public grassy areas are unmown because they look better that way, and are filled with the healthiest and most spectacularly beautiful dandelions I have seen in my life: the Swiss have an aversion to spraying things, and can see nothing wrong with the noble dandelion anyway. I'm liking these people more and more.

This morning it rained. As is our wont on damp days, we went walking in the countryside, visited some Roman ruins and had a decent coffee in a boulangerie who had an esspresso machine hidden away amongst the bewildering array of rolls. This was once a major Roman city, controlling trade through the Swiss Lakes area. Now it is sedate, neat, sensible farming territory. Straight edged single lane concrete roads lace between the fields of growing wheat and the yellow flowering rapeseed. It really is very beautiful. Swiss orderliness can rankle against our New Zealand sense of our inviolable personal and individual right to do whatever we damn well please whenever we want to, but given the choice between the right to buy a tin of beans on Sunday afternoon or a lifestyle which reflects the way we humans are actually constructed, I know which I'd rather have.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Switzerland




It was up early this morning to ratttle crash rumble over the cobblestones of Venice to the railway station, and from there to sit on a Trenitalia fast train to Switzerland. At a town near the border whose name I can no longer remember we all had to troop out and climb onto a Swiss train, which seemed immediately wider, neater, cleaner and more comfortable. Outside, the Heidi landscape flashed past until at Bern we boarded a small local train for Neuchatel where our old friend Nick collected us for the last 20 minutes of the journey.

Nick and Louise live a few miles out of Neuchatel in a tiny Swiss village. They have been friends for decades and there are two things about them which are constant. Firstly, they always live in unfinished houses, and this one is no exception. Their home is a large one, set in the village square right beside a cafe. They have bought the house next door, on the other side from the cafe, and are in the process of converting the two into one residence of about (from my estimation) 9 bedrooms. They need all the space because of the second constant: namely, that for as long as we have known them they have lived with 3 or 4 generations under the same roof. When we met them in Hamilton Louise's parents lived with them and their very young children. Now, all these years down the track the children are grown and everyone has moved up a rung on the ladder. Their children are now the middle generation, with children of their own, and Nick and Louise are the grandparents. We arrived to find it all so familiar and all so agreeably unstructured that it took us all of three minutes to feel at home.

We shared wine, had a meal of the most delicious pasta I have ever tasted, had some wine, and went for a walk. The countryside is grape territory. Vineyards grow on the hillsides and there is a view of the lake and the Jura mountains beyond. I have to admit that I have never seen anywhere, not in all New Zealand, more beautiful. The kids had scooters, and I took one for an exhilerating trip down a steep country road. We returned from our walk to catch up on family news, have a glass of wine and reflect on the way our patterns of living have a way of remaining constant through all the changes of life. Nick talked of the next house he hopes to buy, something a little bigger, perhaps in Italy or France, where people can come for quiet and spiritual rest. A Christian holiday camp with wine, he says. Perhaps I could live there. Perhaps he needs someone to mow the lawns. It's late and I've had a long day. Tomorrow they want to take us over the lake in a boat to see somewhere really beautiful, but for now, I need to sleep, and no, the wine has nothing to do with it.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Venice




From Florence the Eurostar rips silently across a countryside whose impossibly bright green forests preclude any suggestion that it might be New Zealand whizzing past out there. There are brief stops in Bologna and Padova and then, sooner than I expected, a grimy industrial town with a station called Ve. Mestre. This is the real world part of Venice; the bit where people live in tenements and drive cars. Then there is a causeway at the end of which the 21st century is left behind. We trundle our suitcases down an ordinary railway station platform, go down some steps and we're in a postcard.

There are no cars. There are no Vespas. There are no power poles, traffic lights or zebra crossings. There are motors pushing boats about the place, but all the streets and all the buildings are made for people not cars. The only way to travel is by very slow boat or by foot, so even though the streets are thronging with tourists, the pace of the city is leisurely. Streets are narrow - some barely two metres wide - and many of the buildings look like they really are many centuries old. Everywhere there are enclosed piazzas and bridges and markets and people drinking cappuccini at tables by canals. I love this place. There are many things to speak of in Venice, but three spring to mind after a full day.

We have been into a lot of churches and this morning wandered by happenstance into the Church of the Twelve Apostles. It is, of course, huge and old. There are wonderful frescoes and paintings, dating back to the thirteenth Century, and from every century between then and now. In the middle of the nave there is a large, modern altar and a baptismal font designed for full immersion. Surrounding these are comfortable looking red chairs. This is no museum; it is the hub of a contemporary worshipping community and it shows.

Later we made our way to the city's extraordinary Cathedral. St. Marks is one of the world's great buildings. Overdecorated? Well it's certainly not a Shaker meeting house. St.Marks raises extravagence in detailing to a whole new height - quite literally. Four larger than life sized gilt horses on the facade? Why not? Towers and domes? Cheaper by the dozen! Gold mosaics? Hey, let's cover the WHOLE ceiling in them! and half the walls while we're at it! Statues? How many have you got? We'll take the lot. Because it is so huge and because each of the parts has been done so well, the whole thing actually works and makes a church like no other. A powerful, sumptuous, reverent communication of the grandeur of God and the hope of glory.

Late in the day, and also by chance we stopped at the other end of town in a small piazza, and found it was the Gheto Nuovo. It was from here that many of Venice's Jews were herded off to die in the camps of Poland in 1943-44. Men with hats and with ringleted sideburns sat reading the scripture. There was a Kosher restaurant and many shops selling exquisite artwork. There was a synagogue and on two walls of the square, a memorial to those who had perished. Spare but strong artwork told the story of what had happened. The memorial listed names and ages: 73... 45... 19... 2... 57... I found it unbearably moving. All around children played, boisterously and freely: the young relatives of those who had been loaded into the cattle cars sixty years ago. It was a wonderfully redemptive scene except for a single chilling detail. In one corner of the piazza was a policebox: a small octagonal room with bullet proof glass and machine gun ports. Inside it two armed Carabinieri watched us and the children. Even though the policemen looked pleasingly bored and underworked, something has obviously made such a precaution necessary. Even in a place as beautiful as this, we are still human, for better and for worse

Friday, 24 April 2009

Beauty

Yesterday I climbed to the top of the Duomo, Florence's cathedral and the tallest building in town. As a piece of architecture it is impressive both for its size and for its ornamentation. It was built because in the 14th Century the wool merchants decided that Florence needed a new cathedtral, and that,of course, it had to be bigger than anybody else's. It also needed to have the biggest dome that anyone had ever seen and the dome had to stay up unsupported by things like flying buttresses which were the vulgar cheat devices of the Germans, the (pah!)French and the(even worse) Milanese. A design was fixed on but unfortunately there was one little snag. No one knew how to build it. For over a century they erected walls and got on with the easy bits in the vague hope that someone would find a way to erect the dome.

The problem wasn't really the dome as such. Although it was problematic it was easy enough to envisage ways of building it. The problem was the supporting structure that would be needed to hold the thing in place while the glue dried. The usual way was to build a wooden scaffolding on which the dome would sit. The trouble was, a) no-one had that much wood and b) even if the wood could be found, no one could build a wooden structure to hold that much weight for the year of more needed. At this point a goldsmith called Brunelleschi came up with an interesting idea. He had thought of a way to build a dome without using any sort of supporting structure at all. Which, to cut a long story short, he did. Two domes, in fact, one inside the other like Russian dolls, with a gap between them that people like me can climb through to take a squiz at all those brown tile roofs.Beautiful. Astonishing. One of the truly great feats of human ingenuity.

The Duomo is built to glorify Almighty God, and even as I say this, the Tui poster drifts into mind. We all know that it was built to glorify Florence and the Florentine wool merchant's club and to give Milan a good old poke in the eye. Well, yes, I suppose, to glorify almighty God, also. The motives were impossibly mixed, but now, looking at this wonderful piece of architecture, who cares? Our motives are always mixed. That's what being human is about. Making something worthwhile out of the grubby bits of us is what redemption is all about. And all around me in Florence are the beautiful artifacts of redeemed humanity, icons and paintings with their slowly developing knowledge of perspective; statues which show an increasing understanding of both the human form and the human psyche; buildings which show an ever more assured grasp of space and form and the engineering needed to show them off. These are the consituent parts of the Rennaisance, and therefore, ultimately of this odd, complex artefact we call Western Civilisation.

Florence is an odd place. I didn't like it much to tell you the truth: too bold, too harsh, too brash, too big and dirty. But it is the cradle of the West, and holds in its vaults many of our most beautiful cradle toys.And it is the redemption of precisely those things I didn't like which has enabled so much beauty to flourish.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Firenze

I read that when Stendahl visited Florence he was so overcome with the beauty of the place that he fainted. Apparantly Florentine doctors deal with several cases of Stendahlissimo every year. Perhaps it is because anything would look faded after the perfection of Assisi but it hasn't hit us yet. We arrived on a second class Italian train, through the bits of the city that no one wants to look at. We knew that we had to catch the number 7 bus, but before doing that, we booked a ticket for Venice. It was here that I discovered the first big difference between Florence and Rome: no one at the ticket counter spoke English and I was given a ticket for the wrong train: the ultra fast Eurostar instead of the slow local train which we preferred for both economic and rubbernecking reasons. So, back to the counter, and with gesticulation and sign language, cancel (for a fee!) and rebook, only to find we were still on the Eurostar. Que sera sera, good money after bad and all that, so a 320kph whizz through Northern Italy on Thursday it is, then.

Then it was outside to check on that number 7 bus. We found it, again with much gesticulation and sign language, and pretending not to understand the notice warning us of the dire consequences of talking to the driver, pointed to the bit on the map we hoped to travel to. He nodded, said something incomprehensible and took off. I noticed the ticket machine behind him, but the instructions were, of course, in Italian, and the thing was not exactly intuitive to use. What the heck, I thought, it's only a few blocks. Bad mistake. At the next stop three guys got on, all leather jackets, moustaches and 3 days stubble. Once the bus was moving, they pinned badges on themselves and began to demand biglietti. It was the Florentine ticket enforcement flying squad performing a surprise raid on bus number 7. One looked at me directly. Biglietto por favore. It was time for emergency plan A: Look bewildered and speak English; Unfortunately he was the first, and perhaps the only person in Florence who could speak English. I was snookered and it was therefore time for emergency plan B: look bewildered and speak Maori. That seemed to do the trick. He told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of foreigners trying to rip off his beloved city but seeing as it was an obvious case of stupidity he would waive the €45 (each!) fine this time if we bought tickets from the driver. So, in clear breach of the sign, we yet again spoke to the driver, bought a couple of tickets and got off at the place the map seemed to indicate.

We are staying in a very old part of town. The Santa Close neighbourhood was once a notorious slum. It has moved upmarket over the centuries, but there are still plenty of opportunities for gentrification for the discerning speculator. We have a huge room on the third floor of a monastery and some wonderful Albanians have gone out of their way to settle us into our quarters. After Assisi, and even Rome, Florence looks like a harder edged, more gritty place. The lawns in the Piazzas are uncut and there is graffiti everywhere. We finished the day with a walk into town - 25 minutes if you don't want to risk the bus squad - and had our gobs well and truly smacked by the Duomo. I climbed to the top of Brunelleschi's dome and stood above the old city, taking in a very Room With A View panorama. Today we have seen some of the more traditional tourist bits and pieces, and seen why Stendahl might have been affected. I still think he was a bit of a wuss, and he's lucky for his health's sake that he never made it to Assisi.

Monday, 20 April 2009

San Damiano

Yesterday we set out on a circuit around some of the lesser known Franciscan sites. Firstly to Santa Maria Della Angeli which is a truly immense basilica about 5km across the Umbrian Valley from Assisi. Inside the enormous church, like a dolls house is the tiny church of the Portiuncula. This little stone building was the chapel of Francis' second community. Around it would once have been scattered little hermitages where the brother lived. There is one other building remaining, also preserved within the church: a little storage shed where Francis died. He died in the night with his brothers gathered in anguish around him, wanting to help but unable to do anything. One asked if his beloved Francis needed anything to eat. "Parsley" whispered Francis. The brother rushed outside into a night that was so dark he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. How on earth was he to find parsley? He squatted, grabbed something that felt like a plant and rushed back inside to find his hand full of parsley. For me this story speaks of the utter simplicity of Francis' message of radical dependence on God. How does that simple, practical faith gel with the immense opulent structure created around the simple chapel? It seemed to me a metaphor for the church: how do we find our way through the great Byzantine structure we have built and back to the simplicity of faith which finds parsley in the dark night?

We walked across the plain about 4km to Rivotorto, where there is a similar arrangement. The tiny building that housed the first Franciscan community is encased in a gigantic church. The original stone hovel of the brothers is better preserved, completely undecorated, and I suppose the church acts as a sort of preserver of such an historic place. We walked back to Assisi as it started to rain. We went past bright green barley fields and acres of mustard made all the brighter by the damp, dull light and arrived tired, cold but somehow exultant to the hospitality of the sisters.

And this morning it was 2km down the hill to San Damiano to the jewel in the Franciscan crown. This is the church in which the crucifix spoke, and which, in response, Francis set about restoring. It is bigger than I had imagined it, and would have represented a very serious restoration project for a man in his late teens. He did it so well that most of his restorations still stand. It is comparatively empty, being somewhat off the beaten track and therefore difficult for tour groups to visit. It is in pretty much the state it would have been in the early 13th century when Francis gave it to the sisters of St. Claire for them to use as a convent. Once we had sat and prayed in the church we made an amazing discovery. Attached to the side of the church, completely unadvertised and completely open is the original convent, absolutely unchanged in 800 years. We walked all alone through the sisters' dormitory, their cloister and choir, peered down their well, and sat on the benches that Claire and her sisters would have sat on as they maintained their life of absolute isolation and prayer. It was all so redolent of the life Francis lived with so much passion and so little compromise; the everyday life of simplicity, self control and selflessness, on whose rediscovery and reestablishment the future of our own church so utterly depends.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Assisi

Maneuvering our oversized suitcases down the monastery stairways was only marginaly less exhausting than maneuvering them up. The cobblestones didn't do much for the little plastic wheels but we did finally manage to manhandle them down the road, across a four laned highway and down the steps and onto the metro. After checking them into the left luggage department there was one hour before the train left for Assisi, so just enough time for a saunter down a street we hadn't seen before. Past the tiny shops selling exquisite shoes and Panini Veronese was a piazza containing the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggliore.

St. Maria was built in the 4th (I kid you not) century, and bits of the original church still survive. It's not the oldest place of worship in Rome, as the Pantheon was built in the second century,but it's still mighty impressive. The place has been added to and renovated over the years, so now is a kind of a museum for all the building and artistic styles from the 4th to about the 17th centuries. It is huge. It is gob smackingly opulent. It is continuously packed with tourists. But while we were there, in side chapels,three masses were being simultaneously said, the confessionals were all in use and in the exquisite baptistry, a family had gathered for the baptism of their baby boy. The bishop conducting the service was using the paintings and frescoes in the baptistry as aids in instructing the family about what he was about to do. This is what they are there for. I would have liked to have stayed and watched but we had a train to catch.

The journey to Assisi took two hours, through countryside that looked quite like New Zealand except for the architecture and the ancient ruined structures all over the place. Little towns perched on hillsides and one of them was Assisi. We caught a taxi from the station and up the steep slopes to the place which has lived in my imagination for decades. I don't know what I was expecting but it was not this. It is pefect. The ancient houses in light coloured brick pile and jumble around the hillsides in wonderfully unpredictable ways. Throughout them are dotted more churches and basilica than should reasonably fit into such a small space. Beneath us the flat green Umbria valley stretches off into mist and far mountains. There are tourists by the bucketload, but here the spiritual power of the place is great enough to accommodate them.

We found St. Anthony's guesthouse. It is like the city, exquisite in every detail. There is a small library and a 12th century dining room. Everything is neat and quiet and homely. Smiling nuns took our details and marvelled that we had travelled so far to grace them with our company. And from most windows there are views out over the town and the countryside beyond. We unpacked and walked out into the streets that are so neat and clean and picturesque that they look like a film set. We went first to the Church of St. Chiari, the resting place of St. Claire, the close friend and soulmate of St. Francis. Her habit is on display, and one of Francis socks, and, in fact, Claire herself, lying preserved in her crypt, dressed in the customary habit of her order. Also here, is the crucifix which spoke to Francis in the forest. I have seen it in my minds eye so many times, but now I knelt before it, or at least before an exact replica of the real thing which was preserved safely downstairs somewhere. It was far bigger than I'd imagined: almost life sized. And as I knelt there, the power of all those stories I'd told for so many years suddenly engulfed me. The little depressed wrecked man who was to become the beloved Saint was transformed as he took up the challenge: Francis, rebuild my church. No fuss, no drama. He picked up the fallen stones and started putting them back into the walls. One small, achievable job at a time. It's the same method he calls me, and you to use now in rebuilding again his shattered church

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Sights That Should Be Seen

We've been walking most of the day. After all, we're not here long and there's some things that have to be seen. Like the Coliseum, for example, what with it being just over the road and everything. We got there early and were inside when there were only a few people there. It was a cool, clear morning and we were both soon shivering. Partly from the weather, but mostly because walking around that ingenious piece of engineering for more than a few minutes the purpose of the place becomes oppressive. This intricate and wonderfully constructed object is very large, very complicated gallows. It's the place where an oppressive empire executed thousands upon thousands of people. Criminals, prisoners of war, people of unpopular faiths, political enemies of the emperor and people who happened to belong to enemy nations all died here in ways designed to prolong their pain and to provide a spectacle for the masses who assembled, free of charge, to watch. There was no mealy mouthed passing of the buck here; no "I was only following orders". The emperor himself oversaw the planning of the "games" and their operation. Not that he was unpopular for doing it. One display is of objects the crowd dropped and left behind over the centuries: chicken bones, dice, needles, pips from fruit: the detritus of countless families who made of day of it, and packed a lunch for the kids before heading off to the circus. Poignantly a large cross has been erected in the spot where so many of our spiritual ancestors, women, children and men lost their lives. We are glad we saw it but glad that we saw other things in the course of the day.

More uplifting was to stand in the Sistine chapel, albeit in company with about two thousand others, and look upward at that ceiling. It is so familiar and there it was, with God in the middle of it, reaching out for Adam. God is on his cloud and he is straining forward, so far he is almost falling out of the sky. The angels struggle to keep him safely in place. His arm is taut with exertion as he reaches for Adam, his gaze directly at the man he has made. Adam by contrast rests on his back, glancing at his maker out of the corner of his eye. One hand is languidly flicked up to God, and just fails to make contact. Every fibre in God's being; all his body language and posture screams "Adam! Here I am! I love you!" Adams response is "Whatever..." It seems to picture the sort of humanity which can be enough inspired by God to paint a ceiling which will last for 500 years, or a building which will last for 2000, but still be ensnared enough in his animal ancestry to use his ingenuity for the torture of innocents.

Friday, 17 April 2009

All Roads Lead To...

We flew in this morning. After a tiring day in Hong Kong I fell asleep as soon as I sat down in the plane and woke to see the lights of Warsaw beneath us. Warsaw! And it was gratifying to note, on this Lufthansa flight, that Air New Zealand really does do it better.

We got into Rome at about 8:00, proceeded through customs (two guys in uniform watching us as we walked unimpeded and unstamped out through the door) and took a shuttle into town. The shuttle was a Fiat people mover, large, black, driven by a guy in a suit with a Rolex who drove calmly, organically and very fast; he knew where the corners of his vehicle were and had an unerring instinct for lane changes; he maneuvred his large vehicle through the traffic jams like it was a motorcycle. I was MOST inspired. Clemency was carsick.

The Monstery of St. Gregory is old, but I can't figure out how old. It has the patina of age and decay, much like the brother who greeted us and led us up the stairs to our room on the 4th floor. The room is basic but clean and we are 100 metres from the Colliseum and from all the old piles of rotting bricks that people travel the world to take a look at. So it was unpack, shower and figure out the bidet. Then we caught the Metro into town, found a supermarket, bought some groceries and had lunch, Then discovered St. Mary of The Angels and were awestruck. There was nobody in it - it's not very prepossesing from the outside and is not in the tourist top ten list. But it is vast, very old and steeped in the silence of the spirit. On our walk home we found a little Anglican church with a famous set of mosaics and tiny lanes with views. We walked into the neighbourhood around the monastery where we seemed to be the only tourists and ordered the wrong sort of coffee and sat under umbrellas to drink it. The eternal city. Age. Deep spirituality. Buildings still in use that were started in the second century. Good grief this place is amazing.

It's night time now. We caught the Metro into town again, and found this internet cafe. We've figured out the train timetable for Assisi and sussed where to buy the ticket (closed right now, of course). We will walk tomorrow - it's about 45 minutes to the Vatican on foot, but of course there will be many discoveries on the way. Hopefully one will be an internet cafe with a card reader to allow me to upload photos. We'll see.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Birthday in Hong Kong

I woke up this morning on a 777. I still can't quite believe that this great U shaped convention hall can fly. Not only that, can fly in a straight line from Auckland to this murky, noisy, teeming place where every single one of the taxis seems to be the same make of car (Toyota Crown Comfort)and where not one of the millions of people going about their business with such determination knows me.

I don't know how we managed it on our budget but we are in a hotel with inlaid marble floors and where someone has gone to an awful lot of bother to spread fresh chrysanthemums around the place. We look out of our window and there, seven floors below, on the roof of the fourth floor, is an enormous swimming pool. I don't have any togs, and marvellous though they might be, 777s are not great places to sleep, so I won't be swimming. We've walked though a market.Two or three blocks of shops selling flowers, another couple selling birds and pets, and all the low priced tat that China can produce stacked up in four lanes down the middle of the road. There are some bargains to be had, especially if you ar in the market for umbrellas and t shirts. Tomorrow we'll explore a bit more and head for Rome in the evening.

I'm wearing a St. Christopher's medal. I know, I know, I shouldn't be pandering to that sort of superrstition, but it was given to me, and it somehow symbolises the prayers of all the people back home, so I'm carrying their faith with me around my neck. And over the last 24 years we seem to have been looked after. I left my camera on a cafe table in Dunedin and a lovely Indian family ran breathless after me to return it. Others have appeared at just the right time and given smiling assistance, including, incidentally, the lady in Auckland who weighed our hand luggage. A piece of medieval fiction he might be, but St. Christopher certainly seems to be on the job.

No picture I'm sorry. The hotel internet computer doesn't have the right slot for my camera card. Next time maybe.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Itinerary

Here's what we'll be up to over the next couple of months. If you want to contact us, email. Receiving cellphone calls will cost me $2.00 a minute on top of normal charges, so keep 'em to a minimum.

Monday April 13: Dunedin – Christchurch – Auckland - Hong Kong

Leave Dunedin 7:00 pm,Arrive Hong Kong 6:45 am, Tuesday 14


Wednesday April 15: Hong Kong – Munich - Rome

Leave 11:20 pm Arrive Rome 8:10 am


Saturday April 18: train to Assisi


Tuesday April 21: Train to Florence


Thursday April 23: Train to Venice


Saturday April 25: Train to Neuchatel, Switzerland


Saturday May 2: Train to Paris


Saturday May 9: Train to St. Jean Pied De Port

Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostella


Tuesday May 26: Train to Barcelona


Wednesday May 27: Train to Lyon


Thursday May 28: Bus/train to Taize


Sunday May 31: Train to Dijon


Monday June 1: Train/Ferry to London


Monday June 8: train to Norwich


Thursday June 11: drive to Durham


Friday June 12: drive to Edinburgh


Saturday June 13: drive to Oban/Iona


Sunday June 14: drive to Glasgow


Monday June 15: drive to Carlisle


Thursday June 18: drive to Manchester


Saturday June 20: drive to Norwich


Wednesday June 24: Train to London


Tuesday June 30: Train to the South of England


Saturday 4 July wedding; train to London in the early evening


Sunday July 5: Fly to San Francisco

Leave 8:35 am, Arrive San Francisco 7:10 pm


Wednesday July 8: Fly to Dunedin

Leave 9:00 pm Arrive Dunedin Friday July 10 9:10 am

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Peak Experiences


I remember once reading Thomas Merton saying that the people who have had religious experiences never make very good monks. Similarly, The Cloud of Unknowing is not overly impressed with religious experiences. It's not that there is anything wrong with such events in themselves, but rather that they can divert us from the real path along which God seeks to lead us. Now, to a person of Pentecostal extraction, such as myself, this sentiment has caused a bit of soul searching; after all, I have had a few times of being overwhelmed by the Spirit, and in the churches I once attended these things were regarded as acceptable -or even required - in a normal Christian life.

There are, of course, the obvious dangers of shallow experiences. We are all prone to group hysteria, suggestibility and the misinterpretation of indigestion. We all have a remarkable capacity to deceive ourselves and to fall prey to the tricks of our central nervous systems. The Cloud of Unknowing says that all religious experience is, in the final analysis, shallow. But then again,  Paul "knew a man" who was caught up to the seventh heaven. There are  some people who are able, with remarkably little effort, to atttain a sense of inner light and unity with God which seems for all the world to be the real McCoy. So what could possibly be the problem with that? Well, here's a metaphor which occured to me this afternoon.

The spiritual life is like mountain climbing

Some people are mountain climbers. Some others -the "riders" - through wealth and good fortune are able to rent helicopters and take a fast trip to the top of the mountain. From the top, the helicopter riders enjoy the magnificent views and the the sense of serenity of which they have heard the mountain climbers talking . The riders might be tempted into thinking that their experiences are thus the equivalent of the climbers - superior even, as they have not had to spend so much time and effort; but of course they are mistaken. Mountain climbing is not about the views and the sense of serenity, even though these things happen often in the course of a climb. The benefits of climbing come through facing and overcoming obstacles; through developing skills which will spill over into everyday life; through the transformation which happens when a worthwhile task is undertaken. If the climber gets  to the summit and, for all the climb, cloud has obscured the view,  little if anything is lost. Conversely, if a climber is forever stopping to admire the view and seek a sense of peace, s/he will never make it to the top. By concentrating on the experiences which are peripheral to climbing, the riders miss the whole point; and the more entrancing the view from the top, the more danger they run of never becoming skilled climbers. It is possible that someone labours their whole life climbing mountains but never once manages to reach the summit. That person is still a far superior climber, in every way, to someone else who can helicopter themselves to the summit on a daily basis and at will.

The Cloud of Unknowing teaches that if we are serious about our spiritual walk, sooner or later we must put ALL our experiences and understandings behind us - put a "cloud of forgetfulness" between us and them - or we will be forever hobbling ourselves with our partially formed ideas about God and the life of the Spirit. Paul may have seen things the rest of us are not privy to, but he allows that experience to enter his writings only once and only briefly. It's not for nothing that Jesus said that we must take up our cross daily if we wish to follow him.  

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Cloud of Unknowing


The Cloud of Unknowing is one of those books, like the Bible, that sits unread on a lot of bookshelves. E.g. mine. At various times in the past, I peeked into it, and retired baffled. Of course I never admitted as much. When it came up in conversation, I'd nod sagely. 
"Oh yes, The Cloud of Unknowing. Great book, Fantastic. Loved every minute of it. "

A little like 12 year olds smoking:
"Hey, man, this is so cool! Cough! Hack! Retch."

The anonymous 14th Century author of this spiritual instruction tells us that the book isn't for everyone, and that apart from those called to read it he'd really rather people left it alone. I certainly followed his advice. The book sat unread on my shelf for decades, but last week all that changed. Maybe it's a call? Or maybe for people like me, some pennies just take about 30 years to drop.

I'd been thinking, recently, of how God is ultimately unknowable, and trying to think what that might mean for a spiritual practice in our tradition which makes quite a central feature of knowing God. Then I read a reference to TCOU in Laurence Freeman's Light Within, went and found it, dusted it off, and opened it. It was Eureka time. The little book spoke directly to the issue I was struggling with, laying it out in an orderly, clear, concise and immensely practical way. God's unknowability is the central point of the spirituality it espouses.  I won't even begin to try and explain. If you are called to read it, you will be rushing from this blog to the long neglected section of your bookshelf - you know,  the bit that contains Ulysses and A Brief History Of Time - with an odd sense of excitement. Otherwise, just nod sagely, and wait: certainly worked for me.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday and the sky was decked in red: the liturgical colour of the day. I took these photos in my back garden at sunrise - about 6 am. Red is the colour of life and passion. On this first day of Holy Week it seemed somehow auspicious.




Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Progress report


I've had a good day. My meditation went especially well this morning. I've dropped 4kg in the past month and my pants fit better. I had a great breakfast of the world's most delicious muesli and spent the day meeting and talking with interesting people. I had a cup of coffee in a very pleasant cafe with my friend Richard.  I've felt ridiculously fit and well all day. Preposterously well. Absurdly, egregiously, farcicaly well. There was a fleeting moment of anxiety as I headed into Mr. North's office but it was dispelled somewhat by hearing him conversing with his nurse immediately before the appointment. He was describing a Monty Python skit and laughing like a drain. He wouldn't do that if he had to shortly put on the black cap before passing sentence on me, would he? No, apparently not. His news was good.

I have some measureable PSA but it's now heading down into margin of error territory. Over the past few months  it has a) stopped growing and b) started to drop. An active cancer doesn't do that. An active cancer doubles and keeps on doubling, and the doubling rate is what you have to watch out for.  Mine has shrunk because of either the radiotherapy or the lifestyle changes or both. What's important now is to keep on bolstering my immune system in order to see the nasty little blighter off for good. I will kick him when he's down and keep on kicking. I will flood that little dark place with light and keep on seeking the light.

This morning I thought a bit about healing and cure. They aren't the same thing. For a few weeks now I have known that I am healed but I wasn't sure whether or not I was cured. Today I have good reason to believe I am both. 

For this and for all I've learned from it this past year, thank you, thank you, thank you, my Lord.