2015 Grateful 37

In times when the Catholic Church in particular, and religious institutions in general, are receiving a bashing, it is nice to see that some churches are still attracting young people in their droves, to celebrate life in their own inimitable way. Yes, they might never darken the doors of the church itself, but they gather in their hundreds outside on the steps to sing and celebrate. They come from many different countries and mix and mingle in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous churches. Everyone welcome. Everyone accepted.

IMG_6378 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)This is what happens each evening on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Hundreds gather to sit on the steps and listen to impromptu concerts as enterprising buskers tout their CDs in the wake of their live performances. Hawkers sell bottles of Heineken at €5 a throw, still cold, despite the heat. There are no deals – perhaps they are all agents for a monopoly, or perhaps they have agreed amongst themselves, made a pact to get the most out of those who have forgotten that BYOB is de rigeur for this particular party.

IMG_6413 (800x600)Lots of people are drinking and yet no one is drunk. Perhaps this has something to do with the Cathedral looming in the background, banners hanging from its portals declaring that it has been open every day for 125 years. An amazing feat, given that I’ve often been hard pushed in Ireland and Hungary to find a church open mid-week.

Situated in Montmartre (the Mount of Martyrs), where worshiping of some sort or other has been going on since the Druids, the Sacre Couer dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that came into being as a result of a promise. Back in 1870, when France and Germany were at war (Germany won and partially occupied France as a result), two men – Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury – saw France’s troubles not as political but as spiritual. Their idea was to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in reparation. So they did. And it’s still there.

IMG_6425 (800x598)As the evening draws on, the lights in Paris switch on, one by one, gradually lighting up the city below. It’s a show not to be missed, free for all to see, and so compelling that many come back again, and again. The atmosphere is electric. It’s what church and religion should be – and sadly are not.

IMG_6418 (800x600)The only anomaly are the three security agents on patrol, dressed in combat fatigues, touting what guns that I imagine AK47s to look like. They walk in circles, constantly scouting 360 degrees, fingers on the triggers, ready for whatever comes their way. I wondered briefly whether this was a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks or whether it’s always been this way. I have no way of knowing. I would hope it’s reactionary and given time, will no longer be necessary. But perhaps, that too, is a sign of changing times.

This week, a week where patience (a limited commodity in my world on a good day) was tried and tested, where frustrations at my own inabilities ran high, and where self-berating was the order of the day, I’m glad of this memory. It was a lovely evening, on a lovely weekend, a weekend when I got to know Paris a little better and was big enough to admit that I was wrong about her.



The mystique of Texas

I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.

No, I didn’t say that – John Steinbeck did, in his book Travels with Charley. And he said it better than I ever could have, even if those very same thoughts were echoing through my mind as we drove across the panhandle.

crossIMG_5355 (800x600)Shortly after crossing over the state line from Oklahoma, we saw a cross – a big cross – a 19-storey cross. And I began to wonder. Ten million people pass by this same cross every year; each day, a thousand or so will stop to see what it’s about. Erected in 1995, it’s the work of 100 welders and its message is that all things are possible for those who believe.

Now, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that Texas was a religious state. But after this cross, I began to see more and more crosses to the point that I soon became obsessed.

Through the bug-splattered windscreen, roadside telephone poles took on new life. I noticed the Christian signage on the long-distance trucks and the myriad billboards with bible extracts. I paid attention to bumper stickers and nearly crashed the car when I saw a mobile church.

IMG_5385 (800x666)In my head, Texas was synonymous with cowboys. And in the westerns of my childhood, all cowboys and ranch-hands said grace before meals. And churchgoing was a regular thing. So why was I so surprised at this outward show of religion, especially considering that Houston hosts the largest church in the nation, Lakewood Church,  while Lubbock, Texas has the most churches per capita in the nation.

The second most populous state in the USA, Texas is home to over 25 million people, 3.5 million of whom are foreign-born. The 2010 census showed  70% white American and 64% Evangelical protestant. Texas is big… very big. So big, in fact, that if it were a country, it would be the 40th largest country in the world, after Chile and Zambia. It’s the largest petroleum-producing state in the USA and were it an independent nation, it would be the world’s 5th largest petroleum-producing nation. And even more mind-boggling, The King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas,  is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.

This sort of explains why it’s said that Texans ain’t Texans if they ain’t willin’ to boast about the state they call home. Hate it or love it, when it comes to bragging rights, there’s a lot to brag about.


Bonnetts, buggies, and shakers

When driving through parts of Kentucky, it’s not deer you need to keep an eye on but the Amish and their buggies. One of the Anabaptist denominations (which also includes Mennonites and Hutterites) the Amish are a breakaway group formed in 1693 by Jakob Amman, who figured that the Swiss Mennonites weren’t nearly as strict as they should be in their shunning of society.

IMG_4815 (800x600)The Amish began to emigrate to the USA in the eighteenth century and have since split into ‘new order’ and ‘old order’, the former accepting social change and technology, the latter holding fast to traditional ways. What stands them apart from Protestantism is the idea of adult baptism. Young people get to spend a year with ‘the English’ before deciding whether or not to join the Amish community through baptism. What stands them apart from American society at large is a reluctance to be forward, self-promoting, or to assert oneself in any way.Their group norms is largely at odds with the individualism that is central to American culture.

They don’t have churches but  instead rotate between families who open their homes and barns to the local congregation (generally of a house-able size of 75).They don’t play musical instruments (considered worldly and vain) but they do sing but in unison, though never in harmony.

IMG_4809 (600x800)Everyday life is governed by the Ordnung, an unwritten code of behaviour which is largely interpreted and enforced by the Bishop. It covers everything from child bearing to what they wear, from how they work to how they spend their weekends.

Not ones to sit idly by when someone breaks the rules, the Amish are known for their practice of shunning: An Amish person may be shunned for a variety of offenses, ranging from major moral offenses to using improper technology. In accordance with the teachings of Jakob Amman, an Amish person in good standing may not buy from, sell to, eat with or sleep with a shunned person, even if the person is one’s spouse or close relative.

IMG_4806 (800x600)For the Old order, The use of electricity is a no-no. It’s seen as the main connection to the outside world, a world full of temptation. They do have washing-machines and other ‘white goods’ that are run on propane, though. And one way to spot an Amish house is to find a plain house, painted in white, with a barn, and no electricity lines.

The list of rules would appear endless. Men must grow beards when they marry but should never have a mustache. All clothes are made at home, with no zippers. The women never cut their hair and jewelry of any kind is forbidden. There’s little problem taking photos of how they live but they don’t like photos being taken of themselves, believing that photos are graven images and thus violate the second commandment. On this note, their dolls are traditionally faceless. Set apart from the rest of the country, the Amish don’t vote or serve in the military. They don’t have social security or other types of insurance. And any sports they play are for enjoyment – competitive spirits should be kept at bay. An interesting way of life.

IMG_4861 (800x600)But not nearly as interesting perhaps as the Shakers. We went to see the Shaker museum at South Union and I am still reeling a little at what those lads got up to… or didn’t, as the case may be.

Known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, referred to as the shakers because of their ecstatic dancing,  they were celibate: they did not marry or bear children so one has to wonder who they lasted for 200 years and are still going today (one small community left in Maine). In something reminiscent of Jesus calling on his disciples to leave all their worldly goods and follow him, the Shakers left it all behind – family, property, and money –  to join ‘holy families‘  where men and women lived as brother and sister, where all property was held in common, and where each participated in the rigorous daily task of transforming the earth into heaven.

IMG_4863 (800x600)Founded by an illiterate English factory worker named Ann Lee, Mother Lee send eight pilgrims to America in 1774 to spread her gospel in the New World.  Her followers believed her to be the second coming of Christ. In 1787, coinciding with the signing of the American Constitution, Shaker women were officially bestowed with equal rights. Before the emancipation of the South, the Shakers freed their slaves and bought others out.  Their inventions are still in use today: the clothespin and the circular saw…. and they were, apparently, the first to put seeds into printed paper packets to sell! Way ahead of their time,the New Hampshire Shakers had rigged up electricity in their village while the state capital building was still burning gas.

Amazing what you learn when you visit Kentucky.

A life without boxes

‘Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot,’ observed an American painter arriving in Sarajevo in 1925. ‘Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.’1

This quote is taken from a 1927 book by L.G. Hornby, Balkan sketches: An artist’s wanderings in the Kingdom of the Szerbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153. So much has transpired since then that I doubt he would find the same peaceful mingling today.

Many years ago, during a performance review in Alaska, my then boss noted that I needed to be more tolerant. Specifically, I needed to be more tolerant of idiots, or those I might perceive as idiots. Admittedly, back then, patience wasn’t one of my many virtues (come to think of it, I still haven’t mastered its fine art). I found it difficult to keep my opinion to myself and would frequently interrupt meetings in that oleaginous man’s world where women were noted by their absence. My interjections would invariably begin with exclamations of disbelief. You’ve got to be kidding me! Are you mad in the head?

Naturally, this didn’t endear me to my male colleagues and gave rise to more than a few minor altercations. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at seeing the world from another’s point of view. I’m not quite so impatient. And while I might still whisper ‘idiot’ through clenched teeth, I’m less likely to offload a full barrowful of wrath.

IMG_4063 (800x600)I’ve noticed it, too, with my attitude to religion. There was a time when I felt I was doing wrong by entering a Protestant church.  Indeed there was a time when Irish Catholics were forbidden to enter such domains without express permission from the bishop. Now, if I want to light a candle for a special intention, I go to where the candles are – be they housed in a Serbian orthodox church, or a Roman Catholic one, or a synagogue. I’m not fussy.

I was told many years ago by a Jesuit priest whom I admire very much that the church is a man-made institution. And yes it is… built by men to satisfy a need, altered by men to suit the times, and fashioned by them to accommodate their inclinations. But at the end of the day, I’m personally convinced that there is but one God, regardless of what name we choose to address Him or what shape or guise He might take.

Reflecting on this recently, I also noticed that I’m much less inclined these days to label things, to put them in their box, to attach what heretofore I saw as a necessary descriptive. I’m more content just to let things be what they want to be and take shape all on their own. I’m also less inclined to write someone off as an idiot simply because I don’t like what they’re doing or how they’re behaving. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I still think ‘idiot’ but, as the man says, two swallows don’t make it spring.

Perhaps that’s a sign of maturity, of aging, or indeed of laziness. Or simply a case of better managing our expectations. Yet I reckon that if we stopped trying to fit people and situations into our predefined boxes and categories, we would rid the world of a lot of angst. And if we tried a little harder to see the world from their point of view, we could avoid a lot of confrontation. And if we trusted our intuition and listened to our gut, we might actually discover that there’s a whole new world out there, as yet undiscovered.  And we might even become a little more tolerant in the process.

Humanizing Hungarians

IMG_0538 (800x594)I knew little, if anything, about Hungary before I moved here. Gradually, as I met more and more people, my list of places to visit grew longer. It’s still growing. PM was the first to mention the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma to me but it took a while to make my way to  the town in western Hungary, in Győr-Moson-Sopron county, about 20 km from Győr, home of the famous painting of Our Lady that allegedly cried tears of blood.

IMG_0516 (600x800)History tells us that the first Benedictine monks (who had arrived from Italy and Germany) settled here in 996. They have a series of firsts to their bow: the first to convert the Hungarians to Christianity, the first to found a school, and in 1055, the first to write a document in Hungarian. It’s been in continuous use for more than 1000 years – no mean feat given today’s disposable society.

When the monks arrived, the locals were Bavarian and Slav farmers, who had settled here in the wake of Charlemagne’s armies. The monks apparently came to help Prince Geza and his son Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, in their efforts to humanize the Hungarians, who were terrorizing the settled peoples of Europe and sacking the towns and monasteries of northern Italy, Bavaria, and Franconia. I read this on the Unesco site and stopped to wonder at the translation. Humanizing Hungarians seems such an odd term to use.

IMG_0515 (800x576)Pannonhalma is also the smallest, but oldest wine-making region in the country – the monks did more than teach and convert. They, too, had their hobbies. Today, they’re cashing in on the tourist dollar and the gift shops are full of  lavender, chocolate liqueurs, soaps and creams, natural remedies, herbal teas, wine and liqueurs. If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour, Petern66 has an excellent blog post that’s worth a read.

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We made it in time for mass. And while part of me had been really looking forward to this, I came away disappointed. Is it right to be disappointed in a mass? The church was beautiful – the singing exquisite – but the reverence was missing. I found myself comparing it to mass at the Abbey of Timadeuc, in France, and found it sorely lacking. It seemed to me that the celebrants were more interested in who was in the congregation than in offering up the mass.

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IMG_0530 (800x600)IMG_0520 (600x800)Tourism seemed to have usurped the religious rite, the distraction it offers proving too strong. Yes, there were screaming babies, and kids running around, and cameras going off – enough to distract Job himself – but still!

Not for the first time, I wondered at the commercialisation of the church and the pros and cons of places of worship becoming places of attraction. I strongly object to paying to enter a church as a tourist when all I simply want to do is light a candle and say a prayer and yet can see the need for entrance fees to maintain the premises.

In fairness, unless you’re taking a tour, you can wander the grounds freely – which is nice. And nice and all as the grounds are, that lack of reverence left me feeling a little empty. It wasn’t quite the spiritual experience I’d hoped for.