Thursday, September 2, 2010

Flashback 6: The Shroud of Turin and the Saints and Shopping Centers of Milan

So back toward the end of last semester, when the Shroud of Turin was unveiled for public veneration, a large group of us from the NAC left for our May travel weekend and took a train up to Milan and Turin on pilgrimage. It was a really awesome trip. There was, like in the retreat in Ars, a lot of fraternity which we don't get to share on the same level back in Rome. The visits to the Shroud, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Ambrose, and St. John Bosco's oratory were amazing. I have a particular devotion to St. Ambrose, so I was really excited to be able to visit him and spend some time in prayer with him.

Here we see the Duomo (Cathedral, essentially) in Milan. It's one of the largest in the world, and the whole piazza is one of the coolest I think I've ever visited. As you can see, there were just tons of people gathered there. We got to go down into the crypt to see St. Charles Borromeo, then we went up to the top to view the city from the parapets of the duomo.

Here is a rather morbid statue of St. Bartholomew, held to have been martyred by being flayed alive. If you notice, he is all muscle, holding his skin over his shoulder. This was inside the duomo.

The next few pictures are actually from the famous mall in Milan, one of the oldest and most famous in the world, I think. Notice the store name which really doesn't belong in the pictures... Prada, Louis Vuitton, McDonald's?

Now back to the Duomo. Here is the view from the top.

Next we went and paid our respects to St. Ambrose. He is buried in full bishop's regalia, along with two canonized deacons at his right and his left.

Moving on to Milan, this was the Church in which the Shroud was displayed. They had a really nice short presentation on the Shroud prior to your arrival at the Shroud itself. Once you got there, there were no flash pictures allowed, obviously, since they will effectively destroy the Shroud. The Shroud has actually aged a huge amount just in the last few decades just from exposure to natural and artificial light, so the area around the Shroud is slighter darker, as you can tell from the photo. The line was huge but it was totally worth it. We were even able to attend Sunday Mass in the Church, right in front of the Shroud! Those were such precious moments of silent prayer, before the Shroud bearing the marks of the wounds of our Lord. You could make out almost everything on it, too, down to the nail marks, the mark in the side, and the patch of marks from the crown.

Finally, here is a shot from the Oratory of St. John Bosco. I took a lot more pictures, but some of them have disappeared, unfortunately. He is buried within his church, as is St. Dominic Savio.

Another funny shot from my travels- I guess ANY window is an emergency exit according to this criterion...

Finally, at the end of our trip, you can see how close to the mountains we were. It was pretty awesome and weird all at the same time having no horizon in view, just mountains.

And so went my trip to Milan and Turin. It was pretty pricey, but it was well worth the expense, and I will remember it for a long time to come.

Lourdes, Summer 2010

I have to start by apologizing; whereas I (and John) took numerous pictures in Egypt, I did not have a chance to get my camera fixed after it broke at the end of my time in Egypt, so I was not able to take any pictures in Lourdes. A few of my seminarian friends that I made in Lourdes posted a few on facebook, so perhaps I will load those in here. We will see.

Anyhow, my experience in Lourdes was a profound one. I stayed at a house with a number of other seminarians who were also volunteering in Lourdes, some for just a couple weeks like I was and others for five or six weeks. My apostolate was to the English-speaking pilgrims in particular, spending my time helping organize English language Masses, helping run the daily Eucharistic and Torchlight Rosary Processions, and leading pilgrims on the Way of the Cross and on the Way of Bernadette, a pilgrimage through the important places in her life in Lourdes. I was a little saddened that my plans to help out for a day at the baths for the sick fell through, but I was still able to minister to those sick pilgrims in other ways in my other apostolic works.

There were a lot of people of great faith there on pilgrimage and, or so I got the impression, there were people there just to be able to say that they went there, without any real deeply devotional underpinnings to their trips. It was good to be able to work with them all, though, and be an example of faith to some and, honestly, to let some be an example of faith to me. I liked leading the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, the most. The stations they had in Lourdes were these life-sized, bronze masterpieces. They were spaced out along this stony path winding up a tree-covered hillside, which was a very peaceful place to pray, though the uneven stony path was a good reminder of the difficult way of our Lord on which we were meditating.

I got to spend a lot of time with the other seminarians in Lourdes. They were from around the world, so we had five or six 'house languages'. French was the primary one, but Italian, Spanish, English, and even a little German and Dutch were utilized in Morning and Evening Prayer and in our daily announcements and dinner table conversations. It was great getting to share our stories and hear what it has been like for the other seminarians growing up and discerning in their countries and particular cultural climates. There were a couple other American seminarians, as well as a few Dutch seminarians who all obviously spoke decent English, which was good. The priest who ran the house was a very kind and hardworking man who spoke mostly French and Italian.

Finally, before I left I made sure to do everything not just as a guide but also as a pilgrim. I prayed in the processions with the rest of the pilgrims, I attended the French Mass a few times, I went to the baths, and I got up very early in the morning a couple mornings and prayed my Holy Hour at the Grotto. If you have been to the Grotto at Notre Dame in South Bend, it's pretty close, actually. It really isn't a bad reproduction.

The experience at the baths is not easy to put into words. I was very impressed, first of all, by how much they tried to downplay the miraculous nature of the place. They weren't trying to sell anything, they were trying to bring people to Christ. They saw the waters as being a sign and sacramental, something which is not magical but which is a means God has chosen for distributing His grace. The waters are meant to recall our baptismal immersion and the waters of life flowing from our Lord in the Spirit. If we are physically healed, awesome, but the real healing power of the place is spiritual. Taking this in, I sat and prayed in line for an hour or two, offering up any and all sufferings, sins, failings, imperfections, and everything else in my life in need of healing. I finally got to the front and was ushered inside, where there are several separated rooms curtained off for some sense of privacy, I think. You go in and sit in a room with five (or seven, maybe) other guys/girls and one of the workers. Then they take you one at a time from that room into a bath immediately beyond, where they throw a large towel around you and have you walk into the water. The workers there, who were a couple very kind Irishmen, I think, for my visit, then lead you in prayer and gently, very briefly lean you back until you are almost entirely submerged, then they lift you back up and help you out, where you return to the last room, get dressed, and head out. They do so much for you because the water is only about 50 degrees, which is cold enough that my higher mental functions almost completely ceased, so it is very helpful for them to lead the prayer as I wasn't going to be doing that.

All I can really say is that there was a lot of grace poured out there. I was grinning like an idiot for, no exaggeration, probably the next four hours afterward, maybe more. Our Lord has deigned to work a lot of grace in that place through our Lady. I grew just a little bit that day and during my time in Lourdes as a whole. I found myself praying very hard for everyone else there, those with whom I worked and those to whom we ministered. I prayed hard for all the other people waiting there with me to enter the bath. I prayed hard for all my brother seminarians and all the priests I know. I prayed hard for my bishop and my family and friends and everyone back home. I offered up many who had been an influence on me during my life, as many as I could remember during my time in prayer. Lourdes is an incredible place to grow in appreciation of intercessory prayer, for our Lady herself intercedes mightily for us there. May she teach us all to be more like she is in her love of her Son, her obedience to her Son, and her concern for each one of us.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Egypt, Summer 2010: Thoughts on Christian Courage, Persecution, and Perseverance

So I told most of the story of my time in Egypt in the last post, but I wanted to share just a couple thoughts about my time there. The Copts are a strong-hearted people, having now lived for what has realistically been probably more than a millennium of living as a minority in their own homeland, ever since the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. The Coptic people are the real descendants of the ancient Egyptians, possessing the bloodline and the (admittedly evolved) language of the pharaohs. The Coptic people converted to Christianity within the first century after Christ, becoming a stronghold of Christianity in the near east. We see the great monastic traditions of the Church as well as the theology of Alexandria rise up out of ancient Egypt, not to mention the fact that our own St. Augustine spent his episcopate not too far removed from ancient Egypt.

The deep Christian tradition present in their culture and in their way of life is particularly evident. One of the first things I noticed that I found unusual in the way that they lived out their faith was the fact that almost every Coptic I met had a cross tattooed on his or her wrist. I finally asked someone about this and they told me a story. In the past, the Islamic rulers would force the Christians to wear very heavy wooden or metal crosses around their necks, to identify, humiliate, and punish the Christian population, for these crosses were heavy enough that they caused deep bruising on the neck and collar. Later, the oppression became much less severe and overt, but the Copts still felt the need to be able to identify one another and to mark themselves as followers of Christ set apart from the majority of the population. It is a symbol of pride in their belief in Christ and, like the spitfires that they are, a thumbing of the nose at their oppressors. It marks them as Christians for life, which I discovered can mean a great deal in a country where the religious majority has very devious and not always so subtle ways of trying to get you to commit apostasy.

A Franciscan friar in Egypt was telling me how college faculty will sometimes try to prevent Christians from progressing in their studies. He has even seen cases where a Muslim man or woman will 'fall in love' with a Christian in college and get them to convert to Islam, only to leave them immediately afterward, because one cannot convert away from Islam in an Islamic country without great repercussions. The friar was telling me that certain religious orders which will go unnamed even have houses in places which will go unnamed where people can come to go through catechesis and be received back into the Church and receive the sacraments again, because doing so in public can cause a person, his family, and his loved ones to disappear. It's like the Catholic version of the witness protection program, and since witness in Greek is 'martyros', I guess that makes for a much closer analogy than I initially thought. The Christians just want to get along and live in peace with the Islamic population, and, to be fair, the large majority of the Islamic population wants no more than this, as well. That being said, there is still a not insignificant minority which desires the persecution or conversion of the Christians, and while the Christians want peace, they are not willing to compromise their faith to achieve that end. That would not be true peace but domination, and I discovered quickly that the Coptic people are not ones to be dominated easily. They are a strong people, and much of this strength has come from 1300+ years of living together in a tight, Christian community, as people in the world but not of the world, oppressed but not overcome.

In the midst of this kind of religious climate, which is not as overtly oppressive as it is in other Arab nations but is, nonetheless, still a toxic environment, it is a moving sight to see the Coptic Christians witnessing so boldly to their faith. All you have to do to tell a Christian apart from a Muslim in Egypt in most cases is look at the wrists. How many of us would have the courage to do that even in America, where we pride ourselves on our religious freedom? I know I would find it at least a little difficult, and I am planning on wearing clerics for the rest of my life, which is a rather bold and clear sign of the cross born in public also. Both the Coptic cross and priestly clerics do many of the same things- they both witness to Christ, offer support to fellow believers, and embolden us in our daily living out of the faith. It is harder to act in a manner unfitting for a Christian when you realize that at all times you are representative of Christ and that His cross is stitched into your very being, whether it's your wrist or your soul.

How much our Coptic brothers and sisters can teach us! Why are we afraid of living our faith publicly? What can people do to us here in America (or in Rome) that the Coptics don't feel five times as strongly in Egypt? Persecution shows us what our faith really means to us. Is it something worth dying for? Is He someone worth dying for? I would say so, and I pray that I would have the grace and strength to do so if the time ever came. If we would just support one another in our mutual faith as they do, I think we could find great strength in our Church. This is one of the things that is beautiful about the Steubenville youth conferences, that they really bring together a large number of kids who discover that they are not alone in their worship of God- far from it! My time in Egypt has given me much to ponder in my own spiritual life and in my own lived experience.

Egypt, Summer 2010: Photos and Comments

So, given that I spent five weeks in Egypt, I simply will not be able to discuss everything I did, nor could I possibly download all the pictures I have. I would love to talk about it in person with anyone, but I think I will content myself with writing captions for the pictures I have posted and with sharing a couple cogent thoughts and experiences. This post will be the one in which I discuss my photos, though I'm still missing the ones that my friend John took. I will post and caption those as they come in and discuss my experience in general in the next post.

We begin with John's and my arrival in the Cairo airport. It was a very difficult procedure acquiring an Egyptian visa- we had to fork over fifteen american dollars after our arrival in Cairo- no paperwork, no appointment at the consulate, nada. It was rather humorous how easy it was, actually. This was the customs form we had to fill out- don't ask me what Nefertiti's head has to do with anything, because I'm still clueless.

Our first weekend, all the teachers except one went on a trip to Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo, where we visited a famous mosque and, supposedly, both the synagogue built over roughly the place Moses was drawn from the Nile, and the Church built over one of the places where the Holy Family took refuge in Egypt. It was pretty cool.

Notice, too, how the women had to wear full body cover in the mosque- they thought it made them look like neon Ewoks or Jawas. I would tend to agree...

Here's the well behind the synagogue located at the spot where Moses was rescued by pharaoh's daughter, or so the story goes.

The Coptic Church has a huge devotion to St. George which I never quite got completely explained to me. Even one of the train stops in Muslim Cairo is 'Mar Girgis', which is Copt for 'Saint George'. (Notice that they also liked odd, neon saint's portraits a lot, too)

This is actually a church, not a mosque, though I guess the cross kinda gives that away. It abuts a Coptic orthodox monastery, if I recall.

Here is the first of many pictures to come of Egyptian traffic at its best. We see not just double parked cars or even the odd offense of triple parking, but quadruple parking on a huge scale. This is only the tip of the iceberg... *sigh*
You can also take note of how very much Egypt is a 'developing' country- Cairo was under construction everywhere.

Here I am on the Nile.

Here's a shot of the Nile 'corniche', the fertile, commercial strip in Cairo immediately around the Nile. I took this shot from the van on our way out to Giza to see the pyramids, so I was probably already coated in a thick layer of SPF 45.

Ah, there we are.

They don't really look all that big, do they???

Perhaps a little perspective would help...

Yep, I'm definitely standing on the biggest of the Great Pyramids. Notice John and I totally went Lawrence of Arabia for this one. It seemed only right and just, and I found it to be particularly effective at protecting against the sun, despite how it looks. You'll see John's looks a little more like a do-rag (or however you spell that).

Here are my companions and our Coptic orthodox tour guide (the one in the Heineken cap).

Fret not- I do actually have more pictures from this vantage point, but they are in John's possession at the moment, so I can't post them yet, but I plan on getting them up here...

Here is the enigmatic Sphinx, guardian of the second of the Great Pyramids.

K, Egyptian traffic again. This picture cannot begin to express how nervous this guy made us...

Here is a picture from Khan el-Kalili, a famous bazaar in Cairo. We wandered it and played terribly aloof, lest we get swamped by vendors.

These next few shots are all from our first weekend excursion, an evening felucca (sailboat) ride down the Nile.

Now we move to the Mohammed Ali mosque in the Citadel in Cairo, which used to be the stronghold of Salahadin back in the 12th century.

Then on to the mosque where the Shah of Iran, as well as King Farouk of Egypt, was laid to rest. Here is the tomb of the Shah.

Here are some random pictures from an excursion.

Next, we went to an Egyptian cultural center, where they had a free performance by a group of musicians and 'whirling dervishes', which was pretty fun to watch. We sat with an eclectic group in the middle; we had some American Navy language students, a German father and his son, a group of Asian women, and a cat, among other people sitting around the area in the center.

The last weekend after we finished classes, we went to a Cairo theme park with the guys. It was a lot of fun, but the ride there was hairy, as you might be able to tell from the picture. After our time there, I left immediately for Fayoum, Egypt with two of the seminarians from there. I stayed with one of them and his family in the city proper in their apartment. They were incredibly hospitable and kind. I had a wonderful time there.

Here are a few photos from my seminarian friend's Coptic Catholic parish in Fayoum.

Here I am watching the World Cup Finals with Fady and some of the parishioners in the rectory.

Now to their apartment, which seemed to be pretty nice compared to many of the other residences in Fayoum.

Fady's and My Room

The view from one of their windows.

... and here is Fayoum proper. Notice in the second picture the public transportation system.

That van is the public bus system. Well, ok, many such doorless vans are the public bus system.

Here was a nearby Coptic orthodox monastery we visited. They had a local saint who was rather popular; you can see him in the second picture.

Notice all the fans...

This one is a little random, but if you ever wanted to see an anime Jesus, here's your chance. I noticed that they had an anime comic strip of the Gospels in the bookstore in the monastery, written in Arabic. The comic strip, of course, thus progressed from the back to the front.

Fady's mom made a huge lunch for the parish priest, two visiting Franciscans, and for me. Like any good mother, she practically resorted to violence to get us to finish it all, or as much as we could stomach, to the point that we started sneaking our food onto other people's plates and picked at the same piece of meat for 10 minutes at the end until she was satisfied. It was really quite excellent food, but there was just too darn much of it.

She also buys glasses with her son, just like any mother. Notice the very trendy Islamic garb donned by the young woman working the counter. Western influence inevitably sneaks in here and there.

Next, we went to visit Matta, the other seminarian who lives in Fayoum, though he strictly speaking lives in a neighboring village. Here we are in his house, then in his village. I don't have pictures of it, but his mother fed us until we nearly passed out, also. No one can fault the Egyptians for lack of hospitality.

Finally, I had to say my goodbyes to Fady's family and head back to Cairo.

After I got back, John and I ate a big, American dinner at a local American style diner. The next morning we left for Sinai. My camera broke toward the end of my time in Fayoum, so I couldn't get any pictures from Sinai, but hopefully I can get some up from John. Here are the pictures I took of my room at the seminary in Cairo my last day there.

That's about it. It was a wonderful and moving experience, and I would love to tell you all about it when I return. If I get a chance I will try to post the rest of the pictures and give a little background on them. God bless you all.