Posts Tagged With: Contemplative tradition

What we have learned

I began this voyage with lofty ideals, high hopes, and (I admit it) stars in my eyes. “We’re going on a peregrinatio,” I exclaimed. “We’re going to learn so much and it will be grand!”

Yes, well. Six months later, I’m back home. I put on a couple pounds of muscle, have really beat-up feet, and if I’m lucky will dream in Spanish once in a blue moon. Inner change is more subtle, and if you read other bloggers’ thoughts on reverse culture shock and how travel changed them, a common theme is that some days, it seems like nothing has changed. Rarely are there huge revelations in life that alter your greater course. But there are little things, here and there, that show me that my perspective on life has shifted.

Jordan and I hoped this trip would teach us about ourselves and each other, as well as show us how to draw nearer to God. And I do believe it has done that. This trip, this adventure, put us in stressful positions, which revealed our character, both to ourselves and one another. While it is tempting to be in the middle of an argument in Spanish over how badly I need a bathroom and think, everything will be better once I get home, it’s not true. Home has its own share of problems, mostly because the problems reside inside ourselves, not out in the world. Our issues, baggage, and problems are not created by stress, but revealed by it. At the risk of sounding shallow and cliche I will repeat Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”

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It’s a shame, but it’s true. This trip has forced us multiple times to look in the mirror and say, “I am the one creating the problem. I was wrong to ________, and I need to take care of my own reactions to the scenario at hand, and then the anger and much of the stress will disappear.”

And, yes, that happened. We discovered flaws in Jordan that neither of us liked. We found defects in my character also that we think need to go. We have been able to take stock of ourselves, our relationship, and see it from a different angle, thanks to the backpacking trip, and discover what strengths we create in our marriage, together, as a unit. This better understanding of ourselves helps us know what unpleasant issues we bring into our marriage (because, let’s face it, we’re all human and we all sin), as well as what unhealthy emotional habits we want to break before we pass our flaws down to our unsuspecting children. We all pass baggage down to our kids, but there’s a big difference between a hatbox and a freight container. I’m aiming for the hatbox. And hoping to nip hurtful behaviors in bud, at 3 years of marriage, rather than at 20 years, when most people look over their relationships.

Personally, I also think I have grown more flexible. If you’ve met me, you know I’m a little type-A and enjoy planning things. We went to two cultures (Arabic and Latin American) that, well, don’t. My sister and I joked that cinco minutos means when I feel like it, manana means someday, and luego means never. So I got pretty good at last-minute changes, making plans ten minutes before we get on the bus, and going by word of mouth on important decisions. It was not easy at first. But now I think I can go with the flow a little better and adjust expectations (and Lord knows I need help with my expectations). Fumbling through Spanish also taught me a bit of humility and confidence at the same time. I learned quickly that I am not as intelligent and skilled as I like to believe, but gaining the knowledge and wisdom of another language over time also showed me what I can become.

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This whole adventure in backpacking wasn’t always the ideal situation. There were countless sleepless nights on buses, and I went five days with 14 hours of sleep once. I almost had a crying, emotional breakdown twice during that stretch. But I made it!–through a lot of prayer and trust, I made it. Adventure isn’t supposed to be easy, otherwise it would be called a tea party. And anything, really, can be an adventure, with the right outlook, so I learned that my attitude dictated how the day went more than the external circumstances (unless we missed a bus and were stuck in town for three extra days waiting for the next bus. Then it was external circumstances). I hope this trip has made me a more positive person–not one that ignores the sad, frustrating things in life, because that’s called denial and is unhealthy–but a person that can appreciate the joy and goodness more fully because of the bad things that happened previously.

Trusting God, also has been a huge theme throughout our trip. Being young, nearly-broke, and in a new place puts people in vulnerable situations, as most of us in our 20s will readily tell you, and in these vulnerable places Jordan and I have found we seek God more and lean on Him faster. This trip put us in foreign countries where our broken Spanish had to suffice, constantly moving from place to place, and always on a very strict budget. God provided and protected us through the whole trip, and we’re immensely grateful for it. Our trust in Him grew on the trip, and I hope that our faith continues now that we’ve returned to familiar, comforting things in our own country.

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I have learned so much from this trip (from Norwegian grammar to making yucca bread to using the bathroom in an open field without a wall for support and my jeans keeping my legs close together) that warrants its own post, but this is long enough for now.

On your trips, what have you learned? What other times of stress have you encountered that made you a better person today?

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Poverty: Shock, shame, and guilt

When my dad was a child, he (like most his age) didn’t always want to eat what was for dinner. My grandfather, like most parents, was very exasperated with him. One night my grandfather had enough. He resorted, in desperation, to what other parents were using then.

“Don’t you realize there are starving children in Asia that would be lucky to have this much food on their plates?” he asked (probably with a raised voice).

My dad, ever quick with words, grabbed up the plate and shoved it across the table. “Well here, then! Send it to ’em!”

I think the story ended with my father going in time out, then eating the cold dinner. I doubt my grandfather tried that logic again.

It brings up a good point. Why do we tell children about the starving children in Africa at dinnertime? Is it to make us feel lucky or blessed that we have food on our plates? Is it to motivate us to help others in need? Has a child, when confronted with that reality, ever said, “Well geez, Mom and Dad, I had no idea that kids like me on the other side of the world didn’t have enough to eat. Thanks for the broccoli. I like it now!”?

While the intentions behind that phrase are good, I don’t think its very effective (and not just because teaching empathy to children is one of the hardest things in the world).

When I went to my first developing region (parts of Mexico and Belize, later Nicaragua) I wasn’t shocked by the poverty I saw there. Believe me, it was there. I just wasn’t shocked. This probably has something to do with my personality (I rarely feel a strong sense of culture shock), but also something to do with what I have been told my whole life. I can’t even count the number of times people returned from mission trips, youth groups, or a well-meaning adult has told me, “You are lucky to be American, to never want for food or a roof over your head. There are people that live on less than $1 a day!”

And it’s true. It’s all true. I am blessed. I have never wanted for food, even in the first couple months of marriage when almost all of our food budget was used up buying basic ingredients. I have never unwillingly spent the night outside, even when our housing situation was up in the air (though that was due more to generosity of friends than our bank accounts). There are people so poor, so destitute that it is shocking. But hearing it over and over deadens the impact, particularly if someone never does see that poverty firsthand. I have now been through some very poor regions of the world. Jordan had gone through some poor parts of the United States (and they do still exist). So we have seen with our own eyes the dirt floors, the cardboard walls, the trash heaped everywhere. And I wonder, would I be more shocked if I hadn’t heard the statistics before? I don’t know. I just think that sometimes a person can’t understand an idea or reality unless they have seen or experienced it for themselves. No amount of slideshows or well-meaning speeches from youth group pastors will make them understand.

Absolute poverty is terrible. And we should do something about it. But the way we motivate one another is also important. A good way to get the attention of complacent, insulated teenagers that all have iphones and nice clothes is probably to shock them. But shame is the worst motivator, and guilt probably not a lot better.

During my time in impoverished places, I have felt more compelled and eager to act not from the shame of being from the wealthiest country in the world, but from the smiles and dignity of the poor, and my gratitude for my own wealth. I don’t know how most Americans are, but I do know that Jordan and I are very frugal with our money, as we were taught to be from childhood. We tithe, we sometimes (not often) give special gifts to church, we stick to a budget and try to do the best we can. We have fun, of course, I mean, we’re on this trip! We stretch our money as far as we can, and so are able to do so much more than someone with the newest smartphone, latest design of clothes, new car, or whatever other material “needs” he spends his money on. So because I know that we are careful with our limited income, that we spend responsibly, and try to avoid companies with unethical business practices, I am not ashamed of my wealth. We are are far from rich, compared to the average GDP per capita of the United States ($54,678.17 in 2014), but we have so much more compared to some people we have met. Rather than shame, I am thankful for what I have and the small amount of excess we can give away.

Shame doesn’t motivate. It might make us give a dollar to a beggar once or twice, but it doesn’t change our hearts. Gratitude does. Shame also usually involves showing the people in need as just and only that: poor people. Photos of starving African children often precede a commercial to give money. This shock-and-shame technique, I think, doesn’t just hurt us rich people, but also strips them of their human dignity. When was the last time you looked at a photo of a starving child and thought, “I wonder what her name is. I wonder what type of music makes her smile”? Really, we even have a well-known phrase for them: the starving children in Africa. While the poorest of the poor are victims of income inequality and the trouble it brings, that is not their sole identity. They are not, and should not, be only known as victims.

We should feel compassion for the least of us, and we should want to help them. True help, or “sustainable development,” however, only comes when dignity is preserved on both sides of the equation, when giving is done from abundance and gratitude, and when receiving is done with agency and respect.

I don’t have any real answers for how to combat poverty. I’m still figuring life out, and poverty is a complicated issue. But I don’t think I’ll use the “starving children in Africa” trope to shame my children into eating their vegetables.

Categories: Culture Quirks, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Easter Monday

He is risen!

I had been anticipating Easter for a while, since I was in Catholic South America. Worshipping with people from other nations and languages is one of my favorite things to do– diversity among unity is beautiful. Triniterian living at its best.

South American Catholicism is known for being particularly fervorful and devout, so I was excited to be a part of the Easter celebration in Sucre, Bolivia. Things started off well on Good Friday, when Jordan and I were hanging out at a cafe on the main plaza in town, soaking up some decent internet. We heard music and loud voices, and suddenly a parade came into view.

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Lead by several banners, the procession entailed priests, locals, musicians, and life-size ceramic Jesuses. After the banners, the priests held a glass casket of Jesus, bleeding from his side. Locals with woven palm fronds followed, keeping time to the music. Behind the first group of local Bolivians was the military playing brass instruments. More locals, then the police band on horns. They marched around the plaza until they reached the cathedral on the other side, and entered the building.

More stores than normal were closed on Holy Saturday, and mass was a little later than usual on Easter Sunday. Our hostel is in the city center, roughly three or four blocks from Plaza 25 de Mayo. We dressed nicer than we had in a month, probably, and stepped out to walk to church. All the one-way city center roads had been blocked off from cars so foot traffic could get to the churches and cathedral in town.

As we walked to the cathedral, whose mass was at 9 am, we passed by a large group of youth waving balloons and firing some sort of smoke-and-noise-maker in the air, frightening all the pigeons in town. At the front of the line a man wheeling a PA system repeatedly shouted something along the lines of “Christ is risen!” We cut through the plaza to beat them to the cathedral, and entered.

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Jordan was fairly nervous about attending mass–it was his first time at mass and listening to Spanish in a formal setting. He is also a good foot taller than most Bolivians, so he sticks out. While I was a little nervous about being one of the few gringos in church (and yes, we stick out. I was in Bolivia for a week before I met a Bolivian man I was shorter/same size of), I have attended mass twice in the States and twice in Nicaragua.

We eased into a pew two-thirds in the back, near a nice Bolivian gentleman that made sure we got programs. Church was not nearly as energetic or packed as we had expected. The service included two traditional dances from six teenagers in typical Bolivian dress: The girls wore their long hair in two braids and wore bright blue skirts, the boys wore white shirts, dark pants rolled up to their knees, and a colorful, striped shawl tied around one shoulder. Their shoes had metal discs sewn on to create noise as they danced, and a few of the other gringos in the service videoed the experience with their phones.

Jordan and I had not expected to take communion at the cathedral, because we are not catholic, but the man on my left side insisted that it did not matter, that we should go ahead. Everyone filed into the main aisle whenever the wished; there were no ushers to assign rows. After receiving the sweetest wine I ever had at the eucharist, the service finished with a benediction. I understood about 30 percent of the sermon and music, and probably would have understand 40 percent if the sound system had been better. On our way out the door we were pleasantly surprised to see roughly 20 foreigners at the cathedral, and I would bet that most of us were there to worship, not to experience Bolivian culture.

Our Easter afternoon was very low-key: I took a nap and listened to a few Easter hymns on my ipod, and we cooked lunch and hunted down some avocados at the local market.

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In the end, our Easter experience was not quite what we had expected, but it was wonderful to be inside a church again.

Categories: Bolivia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Land flowing with milk and honey

Capernaum, a small town on the bank of the Galilee was where Jesus found several of his disciples. It is also where we began our day.

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There is a church dedicated to Peter over the ruins of what they think is Peter’s house. This big building suspended over the ruins is the church, and Franciscans run it (if I got their habit correct). When excavations were done in this area, they found the remains of a house with the ruins of a 5th century and 3rd century churches around it (built in an octagonal shape, which was popular at the time). Because of this, they believe it was the home of Peter. Surrounding the area are the remaining walls of the town. The largest building left more-or-less standing is a 4th century synagogue, which is the feature image for this post. The white stones are from the 4th century, but the black stones beneath are from the synagogue that Jesus taught at. From this town Jesus called Peter, James and John, and Andrew to Him.

Mt. Beautitudes was about a 20-30 minute drive away, near the town of TabghaIMG_0470

Every so often a pope comes and preaches the beatitudes to the congregation. Throughout the gardens surrounding the church are the beatitudes in Latin and English, creating a very peaceful environment. When we were there we passed by several Bible studies. This is the view from Mt. Beatitudes. Can you believe how green everything is, even during winter? Below, in Tabgha, Jesus fed the multitude with the two fish and five pieces of bread. We also visited that church, which, fittingly, was decorated with tiles in the designs of fish.

We journeyed far up into the northern parts of Israel, the Golan Heights, which borders Lebanon and Syria. We didn’t see much of a military presence, but we did pass an Israeli tank and a couple of UN trucks. The UN is on the border to monitor what happens in Syria.

Mt. Hermon, the tallest mountain is Israel, is the border point shared between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. IMG_0514

We ate lunch up on one of the mountains. Everything was covered in snow, but slowly melting. Several of us were eager to see Syria, so our bus driver found a good overlook into Syria. It was a park, full of families playing in the snow (it may be the first time some of the children have ever seen snow!) and we got a good look at the southeastern corner of Syria. Everything there, at least, seemed peaceful.

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Behind my head is a UN camp, and beyond that are Syrian villages.

The mountain tops were cold! I think everyone in the van was ready to descend and go to Banias. It is a park and archeological dig at the bottom of Mt. Hermon, in Golan Heights. It was originally called Paneas, after the god Pan. Arabic doesn’t have the letter P in it, so they pronounce everything with a P into a B (unless they’re from Morocco), so the name was eventually changed.

There are beautiful springs and a waterfall in the park. This is a bad photo because I took it.

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On the other end of the spring is the archeological site, the place of Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great erected a temple here to the god Pan and dedicated it to the Roman caesar. Later, Philip built a town around the area, and even later Agrippa lived here. According to tradition, this is the site that Jesus healed the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. It is also the place that Peter told Jesus he was the song of God. I found it ironic that in a city centered around a temple to Pan, a temple to Hermes, and a temple to Zeus, Jesus halted his disciples and asked them who He was. And how Peter answered.

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The grotto behind Jordan was the back wall of the temple to Pan.

We returned to Nazareth right as the sun set, and settled in for another cold night. The next morning, our last day in northern Israel, was split between the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river.

We stopped in Tiberias, named after the caesar (how did you guess?) and walked along the Sea of Galilee for a while. Storm clouds rolled in quickly and it began to rain. While we were somewhat disappointed in our time being cut short by rain, it did remind Jordan and I of the story of Jesus calming the storm. And the story of Jesus walking on water. We could just barely see the other side of the lake. It’s also incredibly deep.

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About 20 minutes later it stopped enough for us to get out and see the Jordan river. This is as near as people can guess where Jesus was baptized–give or take a couple miles. We were both surprised at how small it was. When I imagined the Israelites fording the Jordan to conquer Israel, or John the Baptist hanging out there for days on end, I pictured something a little bit more like the Mississippi river. Not quite that big, but not this either. In the words of our guide, “what we Israelis call a river you Americans call a sewage drain.” We compared notes with our German roommate back in Jerusalem, and he laughed and said that “the Jordan river is so small you can spit across it.” That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. IMG_0538

Then we finished our trip back to Jerusalem!

I suppose this speaks of my ignorance, but the thing that has surprised me the most about Israel is how green everything is. Seriously! Look at this gorgeous land!

IMG_0466Now I understand why the Israelites called it the land flowing with milk and honey–especially since they’d just spent 40 years in the desert. This much green was shocking to us, and we had just spent around 9/10 days in the desert. I also have been surprised at how many mountains there are here. Of course, most of the mountains are in the north–where I’ve been, so perhaps it’s a little out of perspective. All of these mountains make me a little relieved we aren’t hiking the Jesus Trail, though. These steep hills would have made the Galilee region quite remote 2,000 years ago, so now I have a better understanding why everyone thought the disciples were country bumpkins.

Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem (in the West Bank) and the Mount of Olives!

Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul and Turkish baths

We began the day by waking up to a freezing hostel room. We flipped a coin to see who had to brew tea for the other. Jordan gallantly made tea on the other side of the room and brought it to me. Evidence below.

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We joined a walking tour (purchased with the bus tour) and went along the old Hippodrome and eventually into Hagia Sofia. The Hippodrome (which is now part of Sultanahmet square) is marked by two obelisks and the remains of a bronze snake pillar. It was the superdome of ancient Constantinople during the Byzantine empire. It was built when the town was still called Byzantium, but when Constantine moved the capital of Rome from the city Rome to Byzantium in 324 AD, he enlarged the Hippodrome. Because of its importance as a social place, it was the epicenter of many riots (sport teams, political factions, and religious arguments included). The Nika riots of 532 damaged the Hippodrome the most, as well as destroyed the Hagia Sofia (the second church on the site at that time). The main political factions at the time united during one of the games to threaten Emperor Justinian I’s claim to the throne. He thought of fleeing, but his wife Theodora (who began life as an erotic dancer around the Hippodrome and worked her way up to wool weaver, then empress) told him not to. As the riot grew, the rioters burned half of Constantinople, including the Hippodrome, Hagia Sofia, and other important buildings. Justinian eventually sent the army into the Hippodrome to quell the violence. In the end, about 30,000 people died.

Afterward, Theodora and Justinian had to rebuild the Hagia Sofia, the third and final rebuilding. That is what we saw next.

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Here’s part of the dome. The place is utterly massive and breathtakingly beautiful. All the yellow paint is actually gilded gold on the mosaics. It was the patriarchal seat of the Greek Orthodox church after the Great Schism of 1053. “Hagia Sofia” in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.” The basilica has (barely) survived several earthquakes in the first millennium and the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. Many of the missing gold mosaic pieces went into Crusaders’ pockets at that time. After that, during the Latin occupation the basilica became a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261. The Ottomans invaded in 1453 (which is a whole, fascinating story in and of itself). Women, children, and the elderly claimed sanctuary inside the Hagia Sofia, but in the end they were killed or taken as slaves. Sultan Mehmet II (who was 21 at the time) immediately converted the building into a mosque and over time Constantinople became known as Istanbul. All mosaics of people were covered over with plaster until 1935, when it became a museum. Evidences of both the Christian and Islamic faiths are still everywhere throughout the building.

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We stumbled across Turkey’s Archeological Museum next, which cost 15 lira apiece (and they didn’t accept ISICs). We looked at lots of pottery shards. I’m not really sure why every museum has to include cases upon cases of pottery shards. The general public doesn’t get the significance. Anyway, the visit was still great because we were able to see artifacts from not just Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul but also ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.

I had been so excited to see three of the great Western civilizations in one month (Egypt, Greece, Rome), but was sad that I’d never get a chance to visit the “cradle of civilizations.” The territory lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, so basically Iraq with a little bit of Syria and Iran. Not good places for Americans to go these days. Sure, I’d seen Babylonian statues at the British museum, but that’s a good thousand years past Gilgamesh and Nineveh and Ur and such (not that I know anything about either Gilgamesh or the city of Ur). In the Bronze age (3300-1200 BC) Mesopotamia included Sumer, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrians. Some of these are mentioned in the Bible. The others aren’t mentioned because they’re older.  The Sumerians invented the lyre, the wheel, and helped with cuneiform writing. They’re also the reason we use 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day. Very little is really known about the oldest parts of this ancient civilization. We use the Epic of Gilgamesh to interpret the culture rather than the other way around (unlike most literature). It is (I believe) the oldest written story we have, the earliest fragment from the Third Dynasty of Ur, or roughly 2100 BC.

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This is a peace agreement between Ramses II of Egypt (remember that big tomb in Abu Simbel?) and Hittite king Hattusili III around 1259 BC. While I still know next to nothing about Mesopotamia, the first great civilization, Jordan and I could recognize these:

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From the Ishtar gate in ancient Babylon, commissioned by Nebuchadnezzer II (the same king with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego). A smaller replica of the whole gate is in Berlin. It was built roughly 575 BC, to give a better idea of how ancient Gilgamesh and the Sumerians were.

Afterward we went to Miniaturk, a new park with lots of model buildings. It’s really neat, but it was way too cold to spend more than 15 minutes looking at them. It cost 10 lira per person to get in, but was well worth the cost. Most models are of sites in Turkey or neighboring areas, but some include the ancient wonders of the world (Temple of Artemis and the mausoleum).

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This model is as close as we’re going to get to Cappadocia this trip. It had been a part of the plan until our flights delayed us for too long.

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Jordan posed by the city of Mardin, a very ancient town in southeastern Turkey along the Tigris.

We ended the day (after hemming and hawing over the price) at a Turkish bath. Çemberlitaş Hamam, to be precise. This is, we think, the least-expensive-yet-still-good hamam near Sultanahmet (which most tourists stay in). We also read a review of how to bathe that included specific information for this bath house (hamam) so it worked well. Jordan paid 90 lira for his traditional service, which included a peştemal (a red/white checked long, thin towel), 15 minutes of scrubbing by an attendant, and the use of towels and toiletries. I paid 153 lira for their luxury service, which included everything from the traditional service and added 30 minute oil massage at the end. Lap of luxury, indeed.

This bath is a good choice (besides its prices) because it is authentic. It’s right across the street from the Çemberlitaş tram station. This tram station is in between the stop for the Grand Bazaar and the stop for Sultanahmet. If it’s good weather, it’s probably an easy 15 minute walk from most hotels in the Sultanahmet district. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan (a famous architect) in 1584 and I believe has been in use ever since. Both tourists and locals go here, so there’s a good mix. I will give more details in my women’s guide post.

For anyone thinking of visiting a Turkish bath, What to Expect When Visiting a Turkish Bath is a helpful website that we used when deciding what to do. I absolutely adored my experience and want to do it again. Jordan also was glad he did it (I kinda forced him because he didn’t like the idea of another man washing his body).

Jordan’s six pieces of advice to men planning to do this (besides the tips in the above article):

  1. All the other men are mostly naked too. All sorts of body types. Let that comfort you. Or gross you out. Either one.
  2. Don’t freak out when your attendant (scrubber/bather person) goes pretty far north up your legs.
  3. The male attendants are pretty rough. You will feel more pummeled rather than stroked.
  4. It’s okay if you’ve never done it before. You definitely look like a first-time tourist, but it’s okay because lots of other people do too.
  5. It is a public bath, so I followed the suggested cycle of rinse, scrub, wash, then rinse again.
  6. The hot water is really freaking hot, and the cold water is really freaking cold.

My experience was a little different, and I will detail the experience in a later blog post.

Categories: Turkey | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Coptic Cairo

On January 3rd we arrived in Cairo and gave hugs to everyone in our group, then went off in our own taxi. It was strange to be alone after being with fourteen others and a tour guide. We had booked a tiny little hole-in-the-wall hostel on Tahrir Square, which is where the Egyptian Museum and several big-name hotels are.

At 1 p.m. we were picked up by our afternoon tour company. This would have been about $60 total, but we bought the tour through our bank using our credit card points, so we didn’t actually spend any money on this, besides the tip we gave our guide.

Our guide, Soha, took us to Old Cairo to show us the Coptic churches and one of the oldest standing synagogues. This is the same district our other guide took us to a week ago, but a different part of the district. Until now, we had focused primarily on ancient Egypt (pre-Greek conquest) so I realized I had a huge gap in my history of Egypt—besides the politics of Cleopatra, I had no knowledge of old Egypt and even modern Egypt. Soha was kind enough to explain the flow: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, built Alexandria, and left much of the common Egyptian people to themselves. When he died, Egypt was given to Ptolemy, one of his generals. Cleopatra VII was from his line. During this time, the rulers of Egypt were not Egyptian, but Greek. One of the reasons Cleopatra was so popular in Egypt was that she learned Egyptian. At this time, the Greeks called the Egyptians Egypts, which eventually morphed in Copts. So “copt” means “Egyptian.” The Romans conquered Egypt around 30 BC, and Cleopatra killed herself. The Romans ruled Egypt (not quite as nicely as the Greeks did) until the Arabs began coming in around 640 AD. Egypt only took a little over a hundred years to become Christian almost entirely, but it took almost 500 years to fully convert to Islam (around the 10th century).

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Above is me inside the Coptic Museum. The woodwork throughout the place is just stunning.

There is great oral tradition that Jesus grew up in Old Cairo, after his family flew to Egypt. Almost all churches and monasteries in Egypt have huge icons and artwork portraying the holy family and claim that they stopped right there along the way. However, it does seem to be a good guess that they lived in Old Cairo (obviously not called that at the time–actually it was sometimes called Babylon), for Joseph could work at one of the Roman fortresses and there was already a Jewish population there. I grew very excited to think about Jesus running down the side streets, playing ball with friends, and growing up exactly where I stood, just two thousand years before.

Ben Ezra, one of the oldest synagogues, was our first stop. We weren’t able to get photos inside the building, but it was beautiful. The columns had been taken from ancient Egyptian temples and much of the interior dated back before the 10th century, though that is as long as the building has been standing. Of course, both Christians and Jews (At different times) had worshipped here since around the 3rd century, but the building was destroyed in the same earthquake that toppled the lighthouse of Alexandria.


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Abu Serga everything in it was just so old. Abu serga is named for two saints that were martyred in Syria around the second or third century. The church also claims to be built above the place that Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus lived while in Cairo. During renovations in 1990 they found the bones of another martyred saint. His remains were carefully preserved, wrapped up, and placed in a protective plastic bag and put on display at the entrance of the church.

The coptic cross is quite different from the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox. Its bars are the same length as one another, making it a square. The four ends have three points each, for the trinity. All points added together make 12, for the disciples, and the four decorative spaces in between are for the four gospels. It is one of the lovelier cross designs I have seen.
From Abu Serga we went to another ancient and famous worship place, The Hanging Church. It was so named because it was built atop the ruins of the Roman fortress. Today it is about six or eight feet from the ground. Back then, it would have easily been 15 feet, hanging off the Roman beams. This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but because St. george is very popular in Cairo, icons of him were present as well. Here I got to speak to one of the priests (who are not required to be celibate) about Coptic Orthodox theology. They are separate from the catholics and Greek Orthodox and even have their own patriarch/pope. The main difference in beliefs from the catholics is their view on the divine nature of Christ. While both believe that Jesus was both God and  man, the son of God, the catholics bind up Christ’s identity much closer with God the Father. Coptics (which just means Egyptian) found a portion of the Bible that said, “give unto God’s which is God’s, to Caesar what is his, and unto me what is mine.” From that, they  believe that Jesus, although he is God, should have his manness emphasized more.this i vaguely remember learning in my early history of the christian church class. Vaguely. The Greek Orthodox differ from both the coptics and the catholics on some issue with the Holy Spirit.
We also stopped in a nunnery for st. George that had a portion of his body as a relic. The massive doors into the chapel were easily from the 15th century, though the building itself was no more than 250 years old.

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Afterward we visited a Greek Orthodox church. Like some buildings in the area, it is quite new, less than a hundred years old, but many of the accessories (doors, windows, columns, etc.) are thousands of years old. Easily.

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Directly across the street from our hostel is the Egyptian museum, built around 1898. It’s old and practically a museum of itself. Behind it, the burned building, was the political headquarters of the party the former president Mubarak worked in.

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During the revolution in 2011, as the Egyptian people mobilized, the political party realized that they would probably not survive the unrest. All the documents and proof of the decades-long corruption that riddled the “democracy” of Egypt was in the building, so they set it on fire–the easiest way to destroy it, they thought.

Tahrir Square is part of the central business district of Cairo, and much of the protests went on there. In fear of their history and culture, thousands and thousands of Egyptians went not to protest, but to gather around the museum with the military. They linked arms and stood, sometimes they camped through the night, and encircles the museum in protection. When the building next door was set on fire, the people brought water and tried to keep the flames as far from their beloved history as possible–and it worked. The museum was largely unharmed. Only minor looting occurred during one night, and it was only to minor artifacts.

The Egyptians had forethought to protect their heritage as they protested against the corruption of Mubarak and his personalistic dictatorship. And even though the results, four years later, are not what we had hoped they would be, I still have faith in the Egyptian people. One day they will have a government that serves them, I think, instead of the other way around. This is one step forward on a long road, and they are stepping nearer.

Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peregrinatio

Long, long ago, Christians (and other religious mystics) would leave their homeland in a self-imposed exile to seek God. The forebears of modern monks and other contemplative traditions, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, were Christians that went into the desert of Egypt to live quietly and practice their faith in simple ways. Eventually the hermits were surrounded by young men and women that wanted to learn, to find God in nature and in silence, and eventually monastic communities were born.

Celtic Christianity, historically, is somewhat separate from Catholicism and Orthodox traditions. With the separation in geography comes a difference in rituals, beliefs, and ways of expressing faith. One of the more important differences was the belief in the importance of a physical journey.

Voyage stories are popular, as they have been for hundreds of years, especially in Celtic tradition and contemplative life. The best metaphor for an internal journey or change of heart is an external journey. C.S. Lewis, who grew up around Celtic Christianity, included this concept in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from The Chronicles of Narnia. As the crew on the Dawn Treader travel from island to island, they face not only external threats but internal demons, parts of themselves they must fight. This journey is a metaphor for the Christian life.

Because of the importance of a spiritual journey with God, Celtic Christians and Desert monastics left the busyness of everyday life and went to find God in new places, far from the comfort of home, in hopes to grow nearer to Him. That is why Columba went to Scotland and the Desert fathers from Alexandria and into the desert.  These chosen exiles, away from the comfort of familiarity was a kind of pilgrimage called a peregrinatio. Unlike the pilgrimages to the Holy Land undertaken by Christians in the Middle Ages, a peregrinatio proposes no specific relic to see, shrine to visit, or icon to venerate.  Nothing allows the pilgrim to return home with a sense of “I’ve been there and done that.”  Instead, a peregrinatio is a wandering into the unknown, inaugurated by the pilgrim’s inner conviction of God’s guidance.

Imagine being in a small boat, looking for land. Out on the open sea is dangerous, but the only way to get to land is to swim there. You’re gripping the boat, staring at the line of trees just out of reach, knowing somehow you have to get there to be safe. The only option is to swim. Will you do it? Will you get into the dark sea, the choppy waves, and swim to shore?

In life there is no safety, no guarantee, as much as we like to pretend there is. We have our boat, our semblance of control, when really God is the only safeguard we have. So will you get out of the boat? Will I? Will I stay in the boat, gripping it until my knuckles turn white and my fear fills my lungs? Or will I trust God and swim?

Jordan and I are experiencing turbulence that is common in most people’s 20s. But we are trying to get out of the boat. Uncurling fingers and putting the first toe in the water is hard. We had a major shift in our 5-year plan earlier this year, and I was mad. I’ll admit it. I thought God was telling us to do something, and then suddenly the plans disappeared. But after reading a blog post about giving control to Jesus (using the same analogy of the boat and white knuckles), I realized what I had to do. Because I really don’t have control anyway.

This international experience is many things for us–an adventure, a chance to make new friends, a way to educate ourselves, a bucket-list-check-off–but it is also a bit of a peregrinatio.

We are taking a journey, we’re leaving our homeland, and we’re seeking the unknown. And we hope God will meet us on our voyage. Take a deep breath.

Here we go.

Categories: Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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