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2016 Grateful 25

I can’t explain my faith. I have no particular need to. I know it works for me and that’s what matters. I’m not much for organised religion even though I go to mass most Sundays and have daily conversations with my God. While there’s a lot about the Roman Catholic Church that I don’t like, it’s the faith I was born into and it’s too much trouble to change. Anyway, religions are man-made institutions, riddled with their associated foibles and prejudices. If there’s a perfect one out there, I’d be surprised. But at their core is the simple ethos: be kind, be true, be honest, be faithful. Not all that difficult really and yet the faithful manage to screw it up on a regular basis. I remember a quotation by Kofi Annan that I read on the walls of a church in Malta:

The problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other.

It’s no wonder that the world wonders where God has gone.

That said, from the outside looking in, Catholicism has to seem a little mad. Our churches are full of gilded statues while our people in many parts of the world are starving. Churches in Liverpool and Birmingham we built on the back of tithes from Irish workers whose kids went without food so that the priest could have shoes and the people could have a place to workship. In America, too. Catholic immigrants built the great churches and tithed and lived in fear of the almighty.

IMG_6050 (800x600)A stranger walking in to a Catholic church might wonder what the chap on the cross is doing. They might also have a hard time understanding the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation or buying into either. And as for confession… that for many looking in that seems like a free pass to do what you will when you want.

For me, though, the most wondrous part of all that is Catholic are the Marian Apparitions.  They’re spread around the world – four in France, one in Ireland, two in Belgium – seventeen in all said to be approved by the Holy See (this varies mind you… man-made institution with man-made reporting and all that). The first was Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531. The most recent was in   Kibeho, Rwanda in 1981.

Fátima has been on my list of places to visit for years. The multiple apparitions here puts it high on the Roman Catholic Pilgrimage Trail.  In 1916, three children – Lucia Dos Santos aged 9, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 8 and 6 – saw an angel who appeared to them three times, paving the way for Our Lady. The stories of Fátima sound fantastical but the miracles accredited to those who believe and pray to Our Lady are legendary.  I was amused to read the that

railing a little at the idea of someone telling me what’s worthy of belief.

Francisco died on 4 April 1919, Jacinta died on 20 February 1920, and Lucia lived till she was 97, dying on 13 February 2005. Now there’s a woman I’d have liked to have met.  All three are buried in the Basilica.

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IMG_6027 (600x800)I didn’t expect Fátima to be so… well… new.  I know my dates and I know that’s irrational. It is massive. The square is bigger than St Peter’s Square in Rome. If there were 200 people there the day we visited, that was it. We were lost in a place built for hundreds of thousands. On 13 May and 13 October, it is said that a million people come to pay homage.  The Basilica and its colonnades are fabulous   The new church, finished in 2005, can hold 9000 people and is said to be the largest in Portugal. IMG_6030 (800x600)

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IMG_6039 (600x800)Pilgrims walk (?) on their knees to the Church of the Apparition where rosary is regularly said. They then do three circuits, again on their knees, all the while saying the rosary. Those in the know had come prepared with their knee pads. I had a badly bruised knee from a spill I’d taken a week previously and with no pads just managed the one turn. But, of course, I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t realise till an hour into it all that there’s a procedure. If you go as a pilgrim, bear right to the Nativity and IMG_6035 (800x600)pick up your brochure there. It’ll tell you the rest and give you the prayers to be said and tell you where to say them. If you go as a tourist, enjoy.

I’m not sure what I had expected. I’m very glad I went, if for no other reason than lighting the myriad IMG_6029 (600x800)candles I’d promised to light for various people around the world (you know who you are).

There is a quietness about it all, a sense of reverence, an almost tangible belief in something greater than human form. Was I expecting an apparition? No. Do I believe that it all happened 100 years or so ago? Yes.  Do I expect anyone else to believe? It doesn’t matter. As I said, my faith is enough for me.  And that simple realisation, I’m truly grateful.

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So where did it happen?

Here are four words… immersion, submersion, aspersion, and affusion. When you read them, what one word comes to mind …. apart from ‘clueless’?  I had to think about this one for a while and although I did make an educated guess, given that I was standing on the banks of the River Jordan at the time, I couldn’t for the life of me explain the latter two. And I’m supposed to know this stuff.

They’re all methods of baptism. Immersion and submersion are self-explanatory. Aspersion is baptism by sprinkling. Affusion is baptism by pouring. Ya learn something new every day. And in Israel I learned something new every hour.

The bible has it that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. But… and in a region that is loaded with buts this might come a no surprise… the exact spot depends on your religion. The Catholics and the Orthodox church have one spot near  Jericho (relatively undeveloped) set across from a lovely church on the Jordan side of the river (it was rather amusing to see us taking photos of them and vice versa).

IMG_8098 (800x600)IMG_8104 (800x600)There was an Orthodox baptism going on with a strange ritual whereby the priest tied a piece of string to the cross and then threw it into the water, said some prayers and then pulled it out again. He did this three times.

There were two jetties. On one, the Orthodox lads were doing their bit while on the other, a Catholic priest was saying prayers with IMG_8086 (563x800)his flock. In the middle stood a couple of Israeli soldiers, young enough to still have their confirmation money. That’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen … kids, with guns nearly as tall as they are. Everywhere. Mandatory service is still part and parcel of life in Israel – three years for men, two for women. Interestingly though, the lambs are no longer going quietly to the slaughter. Profile 21 is a code used by the military to classify people not fit for service (physically or mentally) and rumour has it that there are increasing numbers of conscripts faking mental illness to get out of service. They have my sympathy. Honestly, some of them looked like they hadn’t begun to shave.

IMG_8112 (800x600)IMG_8092 (600x800)And, overlooked by these armed teenagers, pilgrims of all sorts made their way to the water, clad in the regulation white robes. The songs, sung in different languages, were haunting and the sanctity was palpable.

Upstream, the Protestants have a much plusher spot, landscaped, and reeking of money. And this, too, is said to be the place it all happened some 2000 and more years ago. I stopped agonising over the truth about lunchtime on the second day and decided that my sanity depended on being able to literally go with the flow and to stop analyzing.

IMG_8661 (800x600)IMG_8674 (600x800)Here, even the water is clearer. The banks of the river are lined with what’s called the Wall of New Life. Various countries around the world have erected plaques with the bible passage translated in their language. Everything from Hungarian to Hawaiian pidgin. I searched for one in Irish but couldn’t find it.

So, does it really matter which site is the real thing? Perhaps neither of them is. And in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t make a dram of difference. I can’t help wondering though why the Christians can’t sit around a table and decide, once and for all, what’s what. Or just fess up and say that nothing’s for certain other than that it was somewhere in the River Jordan. Can it really be that difficult?

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2013 Grateful 16

‘The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the miraculous also.’ Perhaps Dostoyevsky was on to something… why does the world find it so hard to believe in miracles?

Miracles and the miraculous come hand in hand with being Catholic. I grew up draped in miraculous medals, believing in miraculous cures. Einstein reckoned there are two ways to live a life: One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I lean towards the latter. And my miracles have all been pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things, but happen they have and happen they do, even if I sometimes take them for granted.

Witness_3dI was reminded of this lately when working on a translation from the Polish – a beautiful book with photographs by Janusz Rosikon and text by Grzegorz Górny. I’ve known Janusz since 2007 and have had the pleasure of working on a number of titles with him. I’m a great fan of his photography, an admirer of his faith, and while we might agree to disagree on politics, I have a lot of time for him and what he does. I met Grzegorz for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was suitably impressed. It’s easy to see why they work so well together – both similar yet different, complementary yet individual – a good team. And it’s always nice to meet the voice behind the words, particularly when those words actually say something.

In Witnesses to Mystery, the pair delve deep into the relics of Jesus Christ, asking the time-old question that every believer and non-believer alike must have asked themselves at one stage – Are they real? Could they be real? They travelled the world over, discovering along the way that these relics were attracting attention not just from Christian pilgrims but also from academics: historians, archaeologists, philologists, anthropologists, paleographers, chemists, physicists, anatomists…all curious to prove one way or another whether the relics on display in various churches from Krakow to Rome are genuine.

Relics were two a penny in the Middle Ages when myriad fakes were sold to those who needed something to believe in. And as the author wonders – Does not the presence of numerous forgeries, however, suggest the existence of an original? Are mass reproductions evidence of attempts at imitating a genuine relic? The term simulacrum in postmodernist use indicates a copy without an original. Could Christ’s relics be regarded as simulacra, as reproductions of things that don’t exist? Or are they in fact real objects, with which Jesus of Nazareth once had contact? – hundreds of thousands of believers regularly turn out to see relics on display around the world  and the faith of millions is vested in touching something that Jesus Himself is thought to have touched. The Shroud of Turin is on my bucket list and I still remember the feeling I had when I got to touch Padre Pio’s glove. I’m a believer.

I have long debates with two friends in particular about religion: one is a scientist, the other a realist; neither lay claim to having faith in a god. And the argument always falls back on me saying ‘I don’t need to know; it’s enough to believe.’ For many this is a cop-out and to each their own. I believe in God – a God independent of any man-made religion – and He and I have a good thing going. It works for me.

So perhaps, in my case, the boys were preaching to the choir – I didn’t need much convincing. And although I knew about the Shroud of Turin, and the Longinus Spear, and the Veil of Manoppello, I found myself turning each page with a growing interest in what the scientists discovered when they ran their tests, a mounting curiosity about what the various expert investigative teams found when they crunched their numbers. And as one chapter led seamlessly into another, I became more and more convinced that faith is about believing. That some things are beyond explanation. And that just because we can’t explain them, that doesn’t mean they are any less real.

It’s a beautiful book that transcends belief and asks questions that sometimes cannot be answered. The photographs are stunning, the text insightful, and the overall effect leaves a lasting impression.

This week, after relocating my ‘office’ temporarily to Croatia, I’m grateful that not alone can I work from anywhere with an Internet connection, what I do is interesting and varied. I get to work my own hours, to travel, to meet people like Janusz and Grzegorz and to work on projects like Witnesses. And it pays the bills! Now, if that’s not a minor miracle…

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

Grateful 5

Everything I’ve ever done in my life to date has led to my being in Budapest right now. Difficult to imagine that each little decision I’ve made in the course of my life has somehow contributed to my today – my present – my reality. I sometimes wonder where I’d be if, say,  I’d been accepted to teacher training college or if I’d not applied for a US Green Card. But only occasionally. I spend way more time marvelling at how I end up doing what I do.

I met LS at a Toastmaster’s meeting. We got chatting. I’m naturally curious and him being the first Hare Krishna devotee I’d met in person, I had plenty of questions. I’d just learned, too, that I needed to mentor a new starter as part of my ACG and he seemed ideal. He invited me to visit the temple at Csillaghegy. And so began our friendship. I was at the TM meeting because of WB and met WB through ESz and met ESz through BC… and the line goes on. Had any link in that chain been broken, I doubt I’d have seen the marvel of the Sweet Festival earlier this month.

Celebrating Krishna’s lifting of Govardhana Hill, the sweet festival is quite simply amazing. Over the previous two weeks, 900 kg of sugar went into making 1923 kg of sweets which are first offered to Krishna and then distributed amongst the villagers down in Krishna Valley. The ceremony has happy, joyful, and full of energy, in sharp contrast to some of the Catholic and Protestant services I’ve been to. The cake replica of Govardhana Hill alone weighed 400 kg.

After the ceremony, we were invited for lunch. The miracle of the loaves and fish came to mind as hundreds of us sat down to eat and were fed with great efficiency. Plates piled high with vegetarian food, each spoonful tastier than the one that had gone before it. Everyone in good humour, a kindness radiating throughout, a true sense of community.

I was struck, once again, at how varied and interesting my life is; at the diverse nature of the people I meet; at the strange situations I find myself in. This week, I am grateful for the curiosity gene I’ve inherited, the one that keeps me asking questions and wondering why. The one that opens doors and unveils new experiences. The one that makes memories and keeps that sense of wonder alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52