Monday, 25 July 2011

God's Pauper, the Saint of Assisi

Newport Beach, Monday 25th July 2011

I don't think it's any accident that my European Pilgrimage came to a conclusion at Assisi. The place and my time there were absolutely delightful.

I arrived by train. The station is on the plain in the newer area called Santa Maria Degli Angeli. It is a short bus ride up to the city of Assisi which sits perched high up on the slopes of Monte Subasio. It's location is not unique, there are other places of similar high location in Italy, as indeed there were in Spain.

But, for me, there was something special about this place. I don't know just how old the buildings are. I wonder which, if any, parts of the city remain from the 12th and 13th centuries. But the appearance of the whole, whether authentic or reconstructed, is medieval. The cobbled streets and stone buildings transport the modern visitor into a bygone age and stir the imagination with visions of former times and happenings.

My desire to visit Assisi stemmed from my admiration for Francis, the pauper saint. As I have read of him, he lived out what he believed was the way in which he was meant to follow Christ. As a Christian, I have my own concept of what living for Christ entails. I hope and pray that I can fulfil my idea of what I believe He's called me to, as well as Francis did.

I wanted to explore this place that is so associated with him. I wanted to visit those places that were significant in his walk with Jesus. And they are still there. Certainly, one needs to look beyond the many souvenir shops and their wares. This wasn't difficult for me.

My delightful hotel was well placed at the bottom entry into the city, in the Piazza San Pietro. This meant that I had to walk upward to anything and everything. This was no hardship in such pleasant environs. An added bonus, as I walked upward, was that I was constantly looking upward - an excellent attitude!

It was so easy to imagine the young, cavalier Francis leading his group of revellers through the streets in the sole pursuit of fun and good times. Then, in the quietness of San Damiano, I could see how he would have been touched by Jesus and commissioned by God to rebuild His church. Then back to the streets where now I envision a very different Francis, one fully sold out to Christ, living another life - a life of loving God with all of his being, of putting others before himself, of denying himself daily in order to follow his Lord and Saviour, his Beloved.

In rather hot conditions I undertook the four-and-a-half kilometre hill climb to the hermitage on Monte Subasio where Francis retreated to be at one with his God. The strenuous climb in the heat was well worth while. The environs of the hermitage gave out an air of serenity, peace and holy presence. What buildings there are are nestled snuggly into the mountainside. Paths climb and occasionally criss-cross in the woodlands, with well-placed arbours for prayer and reflection. In the shortest time I was in sweetest communion with my Maker.

San Damiano and the Eremo Delle Carceri ( the Hermitage) are found in their original locations. Other buildings of significance in Francis' journey (viz. the Porziuncola where the Franciscan order was established; the Cappella del Transito - the place where Francis died; and St. Francis' "Hovel" which commemorates the first Franciscan community) have been re-assembled within large and imposing basilicas (the first two in the Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli and the "Hovel" in the Sanctuary of Rivotorto). I found these sites to be well-worth visiting if only to contrast the simplicity and crudity of the buildings that Francis knew with the ambition of succeeding generations.

I liked Assisi, very much. It wasn't easy to leave. But leave I had to - for a train to Rome and thence by air to Athens, and home via Dubai.

And so, the European Pilgrimage concludes. I sense my reflecting on the past dozen weeks will continue for some time. And my pilgrimage through this life will also continue. It would therefore be premature to conclude this "blog". Let's just wait, and see how He might lead.

God Bless.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Roman Holiday

Assisi, Monday 18th July 2011

I've now made the overnight coach journey between Florence and Montpellier on two separate occasions. I am not anxious to increase this number! However, it did not last forever and I was soon arriving at Rome on the train from Florence.

My brother Dafydd was waiting on the concourse in Rome. It was good to see him and look forward to his company, first in Rome and then for a couple of days in Florence.

I have long since ceased to be an avid, "must see everything" sight-seer. But there were places in Rome that I did not want to miss. These were: the Vatican Museum, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Colosseum and, because of easy accessibility, this is the order we took them in.

We queued for the Vatican, initially in full, hot sun, but it was not over long, and well worth it. The museum is filled with treasures. Indeed, the very building and its rooms are a treasure. The piece de resistance is surely the Sistine Chapel which, of course, is simply glorious. I was also very impressed with the suite of rooms attributed to Raphaello. But mere word, my words, cannot do due justice to the wonders of this place.

Not too far from the Vatican Museum is the treasure of St. Peter's Basilica. We approached it from the side, which meant that I entered the mighty forecourt without warning or preparation. As we walked suddenly into this amazing place it took my breath away. I gasped! The spaciousness and scale of the approach to this magnificent building captures, at one and the same time, both simplicity and grandeur.

The queue here was much shorter than at the Vatican and so we entered this mighty edifice. I can't describe the interior other than to say it was grand, lofty, and full of people. I do remember the amazing window in the distance where the rays of light coming through the glass gave brilliant white and golden hues.

But there were a lot of people about, and nowhere to sit! Both these points irked me mildly, for I had wanted to sit quietly in this gloroius edifice and join silently with my Lord and Saviour in the intimate communion we know as prayer.

I wasn't going to be put off. Towards the front of the church the crowd was restrained by a temporary barrier. This prevented people going further forward. I decided that the front of the crowd, up against the barrier, was the place for me to be. Once there, I faced the open space before the altar. I got in place. Of course there were people each side of me and a whole crowd behind me but in front of me was openness, giving me a free view of this truly amazing building, humanity's act of homage to our great God.

I closed my eyes - in splendid solitude despite the pressing crowd. I was here for Him, and Him alone. And then it happened! I experienced one of those amazing "suddenlies" that only God can create. Suddenly, Jesus was beside me. My eyes were closed but my spirit was most certainly open. And my spirit experienced Him. His presence, strength, power and love overwhelmed me. I could feel the tears of joy form behind my closed eyelids. I wanted to shout forth while I also wanted to keep quiet and still, to savour the moment for as long as it would last.

People talk to me of religion. I'm not really sure I understand what they mean. My faith leads me into relationship - a very real, deep and intimate relationship with Him. This is what I experienced in St. Peter's. It was not the first time. I hope and pray it certainly won't be the last.

When I caught up with Dafydd, my eyes were moist. I garbled something about a holy experience,an  encounter with Jesus. I'm not sure that what I said made sense, but he seemed to understand.

Was the whole of my European Pilgrimage in order for me to experience this moment? I don't think so, because there has been so much else in the entire journey that has deepened our relationship. He took me by surprise in St. Peter's and, whislt He said nothing, nor did He commission me for anything, I sensed His simple reminder that I am in a true, and lasting relationship with Him. How blessed I am. I savoured that time for a good while after departing the building.

The next day saw us at the Colosseum. This time the queue was in shade, and did not take as long as at the Vatican. The Colosseum is an amazing reminder of the engineering ability and skill of the Romans. It also stands in sombre memorium to some horrendous happenings that occurred there in its heyday.

The 'Roman Holiday' took us further that Rome. A couple of days in Florence were distinctly cultural in flavour. The city is delightful (I much prefer Florence to Rome). The architecture oozes with Rennaisance charm. Michelangelo's 'David' is superb. Truly, after sighting this, other statues are just that .- "other".

Our dose of culture also included two wonderful concerts, an indoor mainly choral concert by an English public school and an outdoor orchestral concert by an Israeli youth orchestra. Both events were splendid.

And so, Rome and Florence move into the past. Dafydd returned to Wales and I moved on to Assisi where I'm presently in the middle of these closing days of my European Pilgrimage.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

C'est si bon!

Rome, Tuesday 12th July 2011

Montpellier was truly delightful. It's a very old city with a myriad of streets - narrow, cobbled and paved, straight and crooked, meandering up hill and down. Grand open spaces add a different perspective of scale. And eateries abound, whether lining the sides of a major 'place' or plaza, or cheekily crowding the passageway of a narrow street/lane. The whole gives the effect of a most charming and thoroughly relaxing atmosphere.

And I most certainly did relax. During my stay, of course, I met members of my French friend's family. I also made some new friends of my own. My accommodation was at the home of a family friend. It comprised a small studio in the lady's most elegant apartment. Our early interaction revealed that her English was no better than my French. This did not auger well. She apologetically explained that this was not good especially as she was a translator, but her languages were French and German, but not English. Whereupon I exclaimed, "So, wir wollen Deutsch sprechen!" And so we did. With varying proficiencies in German, we seemed to communicate.

With the marriage celebration to prepare for, I tried not to impose upon the young couple. This gave me some pockets of time to explore on my own and enjoy the sights, tastes and smells of this delightful place.

But one great day out occurred mid week when the bride's father took us for the day. We drove along the coast enjoying morning coffee at the delghtful village of Marseillan, partaking of a magnificent seafood lunch at Bouzigues, and finishing at Sete where we were fortunate to see the sport of Les Joutes in action. This is similar to the medieval activity of jousting but with the riders mounted on boats not horses. Naturally the loser ends up 'in the drink'. It was certainly something different, and lots of fun.

Another different experience followed a chance encounter at a cafe where, amazingly, I met a young, recently qualified lady doctor from Kuwait, who had trained in France and was working in Montpellier. We enjoyed a fascinating morning together sharing aspects of our very different lives, lifestyles, and beliefs. I marvel at how God connects people.

And so to the marriage celebration, a time to share with family and friends the joy of the union that was made in Sydney in January. The venue was a beautiful country garden setting at the foot of the mountains roughly 40 km out of Montpellier. The family is truly amazing -  large and related and cross-related in so many different ways. One could very easily get confused - it's best not to try to work out relationships but simply know that they are all "family". This was one of the rare occasions when they all get together, and it was wonderful. As we shared, I boldly addressed them in French (carefully pre-written, of course). It was only when I'd finished that I realised how brazen I had been to dare to do so. But I got some highly congratulatory comments, which I certainly appreciated. It also opened the way for several interesting conversations.

It was a most delightful day spent with positively charming people - a fitting end to a thoroughly-enjoyed stay in the south of France. The party looked set to continue well into the night. I said my farewells and accepted the gracious gift of one of the friends who drove me back to Montpellier for the night coach drive to Florence and thence by train to Rome.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Bags...or baggage?

Montpelier, Monday 4th June 2011

Saturday was a day of travel. It was a long day involving several different modes of transport. First, the bus! The X95 was back in action and the drive from Syntagma Square to the airport seemed to take less time than the taxi ride of several days ago.

The Alitalia flight to Rome was straightforward and my reception at Fiumicino was almost unbelievable. Within minutes I had collected my backpack and was out of the airport. Then I experienced several of the different types of rail service in Rome which got me eventually on to a fast train to Florence.

At Florence I had plenty of time for a meal. I think I got the Italian equivalent of  'menu del dia'. It was delicious. I lingered a while but still had time to kill before the tiring, overnight coach journey to Montpelier via Marseille. We ran late, but the welcome in Montpelier more than compensated. I was reunited with the young couple whose wedding I conducted in Sydney in January. They had invited me to join them in Montpelier and be included in the celebration of their marriage with the French bride's family.

After the excitement of Athens and the challenge of travel from Greece to the south of France, I'm hoping to chill out this week, relax and experience something of 'bon vivant'.

I had an interesting first-time experience at Athens airport while queueing to check in at Alitalia. I was suddenly aware of the vast amounts of luggage accompanying most of the people around me. In all the departure points I've been in during the past 10 weeks I've not noticed this aspect with the strength and clarity it brought to me in Athens. Big, and I mean jumbo-size, suitcases were bulging. Many people toted two of these monsters, as well as a variety of carry-on luggage. I couldn't help wondering what on earth people took with them on their various travels. Was it all absolutely necessary? And did they get full use and value out of what they laboriously transferred from one point to another, to another? (perhaps this is connected to the comments I made from Istanbul concerning possessions and merchandise!). I looked at many people who just seemed so burdened.

And then my thinking took a parallel path. How much baggage, I wonder, do people trudge through life with? This can be material possessions and the need to own, or striving to perform, to gain power, wealth, fame, or even popularity. Then there is the enormous emotional baggage that cripples some people.

Dumping unnecessary baggage is not easy whether it's sorting out a wardrobe or working toward an emotionally healthy life. It takes time, application and, often, persistence and perseverance when the pain gets so acute that we want to give up.

Some years ago I downsized my home with an accompanying de-cluttering of possessions both household and personal. The effect was amazing. As I released my ownership of 'things', I realised that I was being freed - of their ownership over me. I know I need to repeat this de-cluttering activity from time to time if I am to continue in the freedom and liberty it gives me.

Even longer than just 'some years ago' I was encouraged and aided to sort out the emotional baggage that I had carried for too long. It was a process rather than a single event. Indeed, the process is ongoing. At times it was extremely painful. I wanted to cry out 'Stop'. Furthermore, there seemed to be absolutely no improvement or progress. Somehow I found myself persisting. Eventually progress was made and a sweet release of what I consider to be the real me. It's not complete, I'm not fully there yet. But sufficient change has occurred to encourage me to keep going, and keep growing.

Queueing can yield surprising results, if we allow ourselves to go with our thoughts. Whether at check-in or checkout, we can gain most interesting insights. But enough of this philosophising that comes from watching people hump suitcases. I'm off to experience some real French 'joie de vivre'.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Istanbul, Athens and ...!

Athens, Friday 1st July 2011

My first full day in Istanbul was a Sunday. Many shops were open, but not all. Pavement space in front of all shops, in main streets and many side streets, was taken up with hawkers selling a variety of goods. And all of Istanbul, it seems, plus a good many visitors were out and about.

My hotel was well located. Just a short walk down our side street reached a major road which turned out to be the main link to the Sultanahmet area with the Agia Sofia Museum and Blue Mosque. The day was hot and the sun strong but it was good to be out and seeing the sights. The more I'm travelling the more I'm seeing the overwhelming presence - and influence - of goods and merchandise. It would seem that so many people are possessions-possessed. I am truly staggererd at the number of clothes shops, in every city I've visited. I recall my experience on Folegandros and the reminder about a simplicity of life. There are times when simplicity takes a lot of searching out.

I enjoyed Istanbul but the crowds, the different culture and the acute awareness that I didn't speak the local language decided me that I would spend my second day out of the city centre. I had read a travel article on the old Istanbul ferries plying across the Bosphorus. This sounded just what I wanted. But it was not to be!!

First, I needed to locate the Metro station in the nearby square as it was my chosen means of getting to the airport the next day (I choose local transport because it takes me out of the 'tourist mould' and allows me to see something of everyday life and the people). My search for the Metro failed miserably and I could find no one who spoke enough English to help me. Not to worry, there was a ferry terminal not too far away and my boat awaited me. A short walk (well, not really long for one who has covered 750 km in Spain) and I was there. But no quaint, romantic harbour ferries awaited. These were long-distance car-carrying ferries. My total lack of Turkish failed me. The ticket officer did his best but, notwithstanding, I ended up with an expensive return ticket to a town across the Sea of Marmara and some way down the coast. I decided by now that God had to be in charge - I certainly wasn't!

Yalova turned out to be quite an adventure. The crossing took one and a half hours, and one of my first encounters after landing was the local market-cum-bazaar. This was no tourist attraction, but down-to-earth country shopping. The atmosphere was wonderful. Similarly, the streets contained no-nonsense shops and, perhaps best of all, no one pestered me to buy things I didn't need. After a good time in rural Turkey I returned to Istanbul by a faster, passenger only ferry.

The hotel concierge put me right concerning the Metro (why didn't I ask him in the first place?) I checked it out that night, and finished my stay in Istanbul with a grand Turkish meal ate street-side in a local restaurant.

And so to Athens. Yes, Athens!
I should have guessed something was amiss when my Olympic Air flight was delayed by one and a half hours. But I remained blissfully unaware. In due time I arrived in Athens, cleared customs and knowingly made my way to purchase a ticket for the X95 bus into the city centre. But the ticket office was closed and a notice informed me that there were no buses or trains today (or tomorrow) due to strikes. The airport was in chaos. My first move was - to have a cup of coffee!! Then, I grudgingly joined the lengthy taxi queue. I really didn't relish paying ten times more for the ride to the city. Surprisingly the queue quickly reduced and I was in the cab. A further surprise was the driver's reaction when I told him the name of my hotel in Syntagma Square. We couldn't possibly go there! But I've got a reservation, and nowhere else to stay!! I asked him to take me as near as he dared and I would walk the rest. He agreed. He actually took me to the next street, which worked out well.

Fortunately, the hotel is just off the Square, but not so far away as to miss all the action. However, just a few metres the other way and all is well. In the first day I managed to see many sights without going near the Square. The afternoon and evening were exciting when the action got closer to the hotel. And the following day, although Syntagma Square was mob free, and slowly returning to normal, the residue of the tear gas hung on the air causing stinging eyes and lots of sneezes. My 'Walking Tour' of Athens had to be adjusted slightly: the National Garden and a couple of other sites were closed and the Parliament building was road-blocked and surrounded by hundreds of police, but passable after answering a couple of questions.

My visit was not unduly hampered by the unrest, but neither was it enhanced. I'm told that the protesting crowd was, by and large, comprised of peaceful demonstrators, but a core of agitators stirred up much trouble. And, of course, everyone suffered. I really don't know what the demonstrations were meant to achieve, other than allow people to let off steam. The damage to property, whilst not too severe, was all too evident the next day. Who knows what the damage to individuals might be? And I don't think the State (which is ultimately the people) benefitted in any way.

There are times when we may feel forced or obliged to express how we feel. How we do so is all important.