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Showing posts from 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&


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


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 abou


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 bar


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 struct


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 320kp

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 f


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

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 mou

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.

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


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

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 religio

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 spiritu

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.

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