Tuesday, August 07, 2018

I learned the names of only a few on the Holy Land trip. Tuesday morning, I ate breakfast with James from Phoenix. Prior to becoming a Catholic in the week before Pope Benedict resigned, James was a rosary-prayin' Episcopalian. He, as well as a few others, could be spotted from time to time with rosary in hand.

Tuesday's itinerary was light on account of our crossing into Jordan. Our Israeli tour guide, Remy, reiterated over and over again the crossings we'd be taking, to leave Israel, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, and to return on Thursday, Allenby Bridge. Leaving Israel was easy enough. We left the bus, went inside, received the exit "stamp" - a separate slip of paper - at passport control, passed through the duty-free shop and got back on our bus after showing a guard our passports and exit permit.

Our bus driver was allowed to bring us across where we unloaded everything, left it and entered the customs building. All the visas and taxes had been taken care of by the travel agency. Only the Kenyan passport among us caused a significant wrangling with officials for our Jordanian tour guide, Omar, a.k.a, Gabriel. He had us line up, ten at a time, to hand over our passport, stand for two iris images that required us to stare without blinking for longer than most could do, then wait. I realized how long it was taking and walked out to the parking lot to bring in my backpack with my camera and iPad because of the heat. Shortly, we all left to wait in the parking lot. Omar brought out our passports and distributed them. He warned us against removing the bar code fixed to our picture page that included all our information about this entry.

Then we walked across the parking lot to feed our luggage and ourselves through the X-ray machines. We boarded our new bus and met our new driver, Abdul. Fr. Jim talked Omar into taking us to the baptismal site at the Jordan River right away which we did although it was nearing lunch time.

Looking across to Israel


We renewed our baptismal vows, a common thing to do on such occasions. A stone font had water in it, refreshed daily. I might have dipped my hand, I can't remember. Many people took water. Friends back home wanted water from both the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. You realize it's the same water.

A number of churches in the vicinity because the site commemorates Joshua's crossing the Jordan, Elijah's ascension to heaven and Jesus' baptism.



Back to our regular itinerary, we needed lunch, stat. Gabriel got a friend to deliver forty turkey and cheese sandwiches with chips, banana, soda for us - $10 each - at the top of Mount Nebo. Turkey & cheese - I was so done with kosher.


I noticed, kind of all at once, that Hebrew was gone from everywhere. Signs were only in Arabic and English.

So, with not really enough time to digest, if you know what I mean, we walked up to the Moses Memorial, a Franciscan basilica that sits on Mount Nebo for mass. Unequivocally, I liked this church the best. The incorporation of the preserved archeological artifacts made it a living museum. I liked the desert colors, tans and yellows. The wood paneling above the stone foundation was like a barn, but in a warm, cozy way. To call a church "a barn" usually means it's too big but I am talking specifically about wood framing on stone, although barns are usually based on cinderblock.

Such treasures

As a small group, we all fit within the sanctuary. I had figured out by now that the selected readings were not based on the church calendar but on the biblical significance of the site. If I remember correctly, the readings were Numbers 21, and John 3, so probably what is read on September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross.

I found the winding road to the right more interesting than the view towards the Dead Sea. But the Dead Sea is visible near the center of the picture below.


We began the three hour drive to Petra. As we set out, we picked up an armed tourist policeman near his home. He was on our bus for our two days in Jordan. He was so discreet that some were unaware of his presence. He stood in the stairwell and smoked during our stops.

Highway traffic control in Jordan is different than in Israel. Israel uses roundabouts to slow traffic. Jordan uses what appeared to be metal cuffs embedded in the roadway. I noticed our driver slowing and resuming speed.

The hotel in Petra, a Marriott, was amazing. I was so comfortable there. The service was incredible. Our bags went through screening. Dinner that evening was a traditionally Bedouin tent dinner. Tim loved it. There was live music with singing, and they cooked in the ground. A pleasant night to eat outside. Plenty of hookah pipes on-hand; everyone in Jordan smokes.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Hotel wake-up calls were hit or miss. I set an alarm on my phone and on my watch each night.

We went straight away Monday morning to Cana in Galilee for couples to renew their wedding vows.

Cana church, exterior

Neither Tim nor I had any stake in that and, overwhelmed by the number of people - two other groups also visiting the small church - Tim wanted to hang out just within the walled courtyard. He told me that when he had seen enough, he was capable of walking to the tour bus on his own. I didn't allow that. He learned two things about group travel: (1) the leader takes a head count before leaving an area and (2) the bus never remains where you left it.

Cana church, interior

We went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth next and had mass in St. Joseph's Church nearby.

Church of the Annunciation

It was refreshing to keep the church doors open and groups visited while our mass was in progress. But ropes kept them to the back and our tour guide also hushed them. He couldn't hush the call to prayer, however, that began during Father Jim's homily. Fr. Jim couldn't compete with it so he tried to wait it out. But he eventually gave up. It was lunch time anyway.

St. Joseph's Church

We drove to Tanureen for their famous St. Peter's fish, a whole tilapia. Tim had chicken. The woman next to me refused any entrée, making them take it away, eating only hummus and pita bread. Remy treated us to baklava as we scrambled into our whirlwind afternoon tour of four northern places: (1) the Mount of Beatitudes, (2) Tabgha, (3) Primacy of Peter, and (4) Capernaum. It was do-or-die because the following morning we would depart the north altogether for Jordan.

At the Mount of Beatitudes, we were told that we were only the tenth bus of the day. Usually by the mid-afternoon, sixty buses have been through. It's peaceful and quiet, the grounds are well-maintained. When everyone went inside the church, I took Tim up towards the retreat house and an outdoor seating area.

8-sided Church of the Beatitudes

Then we walked towards the water and, by the time we were ready to view the church interior, everyone was out.

"From here one can see virtually all the places in which Jesus lived and worked"
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

Tour guides make their presentations about a site outside so as to maintain respectful silence inside but at Tabgha, there is no shade. Relying on our wireless audio headsets, we entered and sat down on the plain benches.

Church of the Multiplication (of Loaves and Fishes)

Remy whispered his information to us, keeping a nervous eye to the back of the sanctuary where a Benedictine sister was shushing him repeatedly. He told us about the fire that was set three years ago, a story I remember. I went out of the sanctuary to the courtyard near the koi pond and viewed the reconstructed roof.


At the Primacy of Peter, Remy played the twenty-first chapter of St. John's Gospel from an audio Bible. The level of reflection at a site never exceeded this, a bit of Scripture recitation. Some made for the church, others shed their shoes and rolled up their pants to wade into the Sea. I tried for a clearer picture of my favorite sculpture:


In it, St. Peter is so shattered. If only he could get his mind off himself! He grasps the bottom portion of the Lord's crook. Christ raises his hand in blessing and commission. Tim and I were the first ones back to the bus.


Finally, Capernaum. Our two Franciscans priests wore their brown robes, with short pants underneath, for our day in the Galilee. Many sites displayed this banner:

a major anniversary

A thing I did not know. There were also signs about appropriate attire at these sites:


Despite it being July, modesty knows no season. Most women kept a scarf handy, wrapped around shoulders or draped over knees, as needed. Our group had three women who bucked at covering their shoulders and knees. One, dourly, even veiled her head instead, a misplaced propriety I found bewildering. Capernaum is stricter than the rest. I managed to snap a picture of the very neat church there above the excavations of an ancient dwelling:


Inside the railing at the center is a view through a glass floor into the ancient house. It was nearly "closing time," and the Franciscans on-site were ready to shut it down. Neva took our picture inside the remains of an early synagogue:


I love the basalt stone used everywhere. It's so distinctive.
"One more tel?"
"Hotel!"

Friday, August 03, 2018

"One more tel?" he'd ask.
"Hotel!" came our emphatic reply.
Not everyone understood Remy's clever joke, a tour guide full of good deals. Bottled water for a buck. Lunch buffets, ten US dollars. Who to trust with our credit cards, "What's said on the bus, stays on the bus! Good deal?"

Connecting flight at Heathrow in the wee hours. Tim enjoyed a window seat, both take-offs in local time daylight. Starting to recognize the same faces of co-travelers, some already wearing their branded name tags. Tim and I met Robert, the man whose Kenyan passport would snag our immigration into Jordan, while checking in at JFK. He found his way into the background of many of my pictures. We ate dinner together while in Amman, but my conversation was no match for his friends' texts.

Upon arriving in Netanya, our room was not ready due to the sabbath, so I took Tim out a short distance to the Mediterranean.


Many shop signs in French.


The ruckus in Netanya that evening over the World Cup was all for Russia (but they lost). The shabbat hotel elevator took us to the top floor, then down a floor at a time. We were on 3. Tim liked that the TV welcomed us. We stayed in six hotels over nine nights and several greeted us this way:


Tim slept on a made-up sofa bed.


I set the air conditioner too cold and by Monday developed sneezing, congestion and eventually a cough.

That first morning I had no appetite. I didn't find the dining room sufficiently cold for the cheeses and other dairy products that constitute kosher breakfast.


We drove up the coast to Haifa and visited two sites associated with Elijah: Stella Maris Monastery (his hideout cave) and El-Muhraqa (his confrontation with the prophets of Baal). It was difficult to visit churches because, being Sunday, they were in use. We were a week ahead of the optional Marian feast, OLMC, that falls on July 16th.

Tim took an interest in the Latin Vulgate inscriptions on the monuments. We became aware that one man in our group was a professional photographer. We paid attention to things he found interesting. Lunch was chicken shawarma for Tim and falafel for me. Surprisingly, it was the only time we ate this typical food.


A man named Kerke approached me after lunch, dragging on a cigarette, to inquire whether my son was safe. He said, as a former teacher, he was always on the lookout for special needs students. I told him he had nothing to worry about and thanked him for his concern.

On the flight over, Kerke and his bride had seats immediately ahead of us. They put atrocious programs on their TV screens, reclined and fell asleep. Then woke up to cuddle. She knew nothing about receiving holy communion at mass. The first time, back in the pew, she asked him, "Have you eaten yours already?" as she held hers. On all subsequent occasions, she picked it from the priest's hand. I thought Kerke could have coached her better so she could pass, but he seemed fairly lapsed himself. Besides, she wasn't the only non-Catholic receiving communion every day. One of the Franciscans tried to persuade her to get her husband to give up smoking. The last evening, with an open bar, he touched my knee a couple of times to make a point, and she saw another side of him.

Mass that day, Sunday, was inside the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Another group asked our tour guide to take their picture. At first, they spoke together in English but switched easily over to French. I am so impressed by the ability of those in the tourist industry to identify others and address them in their own language.


The taxi ride up and down the mountain can be unnerving due to switchbacks. It felt as if we were up there on that mountain a very long time. Then we made our way to Tiberias for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The hotel that evening had a small beach access to the Sea. I waded in after dinner, chilly and fish nibbled. But the sunset against the hills along the Sea was still, calm, peaceful and despite the summertime heat, I slept well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I had read enough reviews in advance of seeing First Reformed that I was afraid I had ruined the movie for myself.

"Take and Read" calls out below a rack of pamphlets in the church vestibule, pamphlets unlikely to convert anybody.1 Better witnesses, four books on a nightstand: letters of Thomas Merton, Heretics, The Cloud of Unknowing, the American Standard Version of the Bible.2

In his conversation with Mary's husband, Michael, Rev. Toller seems to prevail, but it becomes gradually apparent that Michael's influence upon Toller is ultimately greater. Interiorly, Toller likens their back-and-forth to that of Jacob wrestling with the unnamed angel.3 Michael's agitation during the conversation may be explained as the typical uneasiness of a non-religious person4 in the presence of a clergyman. Or even fear his violent plans are found out. But Michael's death5 is a hit by the oil company, Balq Industries. Had Michael remained in the Canadian prison for his non-violent environmental protest, he would have been sufficiently neutralized to satisfy Balq. If not for his expectant wife. Michael turns the conversation to martyrdom,6 naming Dorothy Stang and others. The Rev. Toller tells him of his son who died in an unjust war. Thick irony: a suicidal father getting argued out of an abortion by a mourning father. Toller instructs Michael to hold hope and despair in balance with courage. How Toller dare speak to Michael about courage!

Toller is ineffective.7 He persuaded his son to enlist, killing him. His wife left him. Even his extra-marital affair failed. He can't pray. He talks of "the sickness that leads to death"8 metaphorically, but it is literally his situation. He pees blood and vomits uncontrollably. He is literally being poured out as a libation, 2 Timothy 4:6. He can't stand up to Balq9 or even Jeffers. Clues10 lie around him everywhere of what Christians used to be. He isn't blind to them: the Underground Railroad trap door in the old church, the bullet holes from the Skirmish of Snowbridge. Looking over the program booklet for an upcoming church anniversary, Toller marvels at the portraits of First Reformed's pastors, with his own last. He wonders if God gave them courage.

The worship at First Reformed: the Sunday service includes recitation of the Heidelberg Catechism,11 a Scripture reading and the Sacrament of Communion by intinction. With the pipe organ out of order, there's no music or singing. The church architecture isn't a style that I'm familiar with, seeing mostly Greek Revival Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the part of New Jersey where I live.

I believe when Toller tells off Esther, he is in fact speaking directly to the Reformed tradition. "You bring out the worse in me. I despise you." Esther represents that Calvinist tradition that writer and director Paul Schrader was raised in. Not surprisingly, Toller writes in his journal the following morning that he's never felt better, clear-headed. Amen.

Obviously, Jeffers represents the megachurch phenomenon. And perhaps Mary, with family in Buffalo, could stand for Catholicism, the only Christian tradition to still produce radical activists in our day. Funny how Toller drops everything when she's around. Mary casts quite a spell. She's there for him at the pearly gates in rapture.12
1 St. Augustine hears "Tolle Lege" and his eyes fall upon Romans 13:13-14.
2 "with Helps," though in the film, Rev. Toller makes greater use of the porcelain American Standard.
3 Who is probably the archangel Michael, "Who is like God?"
4 Recall that Michael refers to Abundant Life as being more like a corporation than a church. Michael has perused online Balq Industries's financial statements; he knows it's fact. Funding Abundant Life's church programs so congregants keep busy in-house and don't take interest in anything real world. How Jeffers dare speak to Toller about the real world!
5 Michael intended suicide, yes, but with the vest, not a shotgun.
6 For Christian martyrdom contrasted with suicide, see Chapter 6 of Chesterton's Orthodoxy: "Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die."
7 1 Corinthians 9:26 "So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air"
8 The inverse of what John 11:4 says.
9 Add to this, Ed Balq at their first meeting remarks rather callously that a man whom Rev. Toller was counseling took his own life. But we know what really happened, and this is an example of Balq's skill at neutralizing his adversaries.
10 Clues, aka witnesses, aka martyrs
11 "1 Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."
12 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Number One Funeral Hymn Top 10 Hymns for a Funeral Ceremony

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A number of churches in the area sent buses to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. last Friday.1 I traveled with a fellow parishioner whom I have come to know through various, local volunteering situations. Neither of us attended the march previously.

Early start for a long day: dressed before 5 o'clock and made the two highschoolers' lunches. Dropped the son who catches the out of district bus at his stop and arrived back home nearly in time to meet my ride to St. John's church. Jeff had a busy day in my absence, taking our son for an interview at a prospective high school, going ice skating afterwards and then a sporting event in the evening.

Not much happened on the drive down to D.C. After a brief rest stop at Maryland House, the deacon and his wife led a rosary. I've not met a deacon yet who can flawlessly count on a rosary, so it may be an ordination requirement that their wife can. They traded off the decades with her adding back the Aves he left off, to our collective relief. Around 11, we rolled into the Basilica's parking lot but there was no time to visit.


It would take a solid hour to hoof it across campus to the Red Line and walk more from Metro Center. Not to mention stopping for the Angelus which I've never before prayed on a public street. It was a showy display to satisfy the fastidious in the group.


As soon as we hit the Mall, my companion and I lost our traveling group. The program was in progress and Sister Madonna was being introduced. C-SPAN clip. She was very sweet. As we were beginning to speculate that we had arrived too late to hear the president speak, our attention was directed towards the jumbo screen where the vice president appeared live from the Rose Garden (C-SPAN video). He introduced the president. They are both good speakers. I could listen to his New York accent all day long.


The crowd was overwhelmingly Catholic. And young. The clergy, exclusively male.2 We stayed in place until Speaker Paul Ryan finished, then the crowd began moving down Madison Drive. We missed most speakers that followed Ryan, hearing only bits and pieces of Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.

But the crowd did not move much and I began to doubt we'd reach the Supreme Court. We had a rendezvous with our group, the 5 o'clock Latin mass at St Mary's, so we bailed on the march to arrive just in time. En route, we encountered an instance of anti-Catholicism:


Also, a fellow rolled down his window long enough to complain that our presence interfered with his commute home.

The tiny church, St Mary Mother of God, was jam-packed. The line for the confessional rivaled the line for the head. We stood along the back wall until someone asked whether we were in line for confession. We stepped forward a bit to make use of the kneelers behind the last pew. So tired, kneeling felt more comfortable than standing!

The pews were raised some off the floor so just about everyone stumbled coming out of them. The incense completely overpowered the small space. The schola sang beautifully, absolutely beautifully. Like most Catholics my age, I know only the basic responses. This was a high mass but people ignored the difference.

Leading up to communion, the woman next to me whispered,
May I ask, do you know how many times in one day someone can receive holy communion? Is it twice?
Reflexively, I told her yes and thought to myself two things: (1) anyone asking that question knows the answer and (2) she wants me to know she's received communion once already today.

At communion, our priest, Fr. Carter of Holy Innocents, kept a lightning pace, so we crossed the aisle to his short line. Too quick! He ended up flipping the host intended for me to the floor!3 Walking from the rail, I muttered, "That wasn't my fault!" It was his speed coupled with my desire to utter "Amen" instead of just waiting there with my tongue out.

Almost immediately upon taking our place at the service, I spotted a Facebook friend sitting several rows up whom I have never met in person. After the service, I went forward and greeting him just very briefly because we had to catch our bus. It was neat.

On the bus ride back, we watched "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," a favorite with the older generation on board. I can just imagine the casting call for it! Though it may be based on a classic, old story and star Julie Newmar, I just wasn't into it. It ended literally when our bus pulled into the church parking lot.

Jeff sent me a picture of the fencing meet that I missed.


The entire 45th annual March for Life program is available here. It's worth watching.
1 January 19th, 2018
2 There must be anti-abortion female clerics but they were not visibly present.
3 He promptly picked it up and consumed it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The autumn hiking series through the county parks left me in pretty good physical shape that I intend to maintain through the winter. The only winter program open to join happens on Sunday mornings from 8 to noon, every other Sunday, starting last Sunday. Several inches of powdery snow had fallen a few days before and the cold temperatures kept the snow intact. I checked the park's cancellation line repeatedly, before my morning swim, and after, but no update. Despite temperatures around 0° and below, the walk was on.

A small group, myself and one other participant, plus a hike guide and a volunteer, set out in snow shoes and poles for a couple of hours. I'm not experienced on snow shoes and fell three times, from stepping on my own shoe and finally from fatigue. However, being out there was a pleasant time and after a week I can't now remember how cold my feet were.

At bible study on Wednesday, a question about how creation will "be liberated" (from its futility, Romans 8:20-21), with a leading follow-up question of how the Christian discerns a God-honoring environmental outlook that does not overemphasize nature's importance or humans' ability to conserve. For sure, I saw the latter part of the question as indoctrination but to my shock, everyone was already ideologically on board! Or perhaps the unsure ones kept silent. And I concluded it's our own distance from nature, our lack of interaction with the outdoors, that makes any substantial regard for its conservation seem like idolatry. Of course, either position can be out of whack, but human nature assumes "the other side" is.

I mentioned to my spiritual director that I took in the linens from the emergency housing program at the local Catholic church to wash. She's very familiar with the program but never considered that aspect of its operation, the need for clean sheets and towels. I also mentioned the Sunday morning hikes that keep me from showing up for choir at least until Palm Sunday. On that score, she said that, depending on how I feel about it, I might consider attending a Catholic mass on Saturday evening to make up for Sunday morning:
You know, they have those, a service on Saturday evening, every week. When I was pastoring, I would attend those and, you know, the pastor was aware, I'm Protestant, and he was fine with it.
I thought this was an unusual recommendation.