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Category: Religion

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio


either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees

and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

 

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FULL OF SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Vienna, 29 December 2016

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Nice, isn’t it? It’s Karlskirche, Charles Church, fronting the square of the same name, Karlsplatz, in Vienna. In this picture, the church is reflected in a large pool situated in front of it, making an even prettier picture of it all.

It’s also very nice-looking at night, when cleverly-placed lights dramatically illuminate the facade and dome.
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It really looks like the backdrop of some Mozart opera.

It so happens that we pass through Karlsplatz every time we take the tram into the city centre, and I always give Karlskirche an admiring look as we pass by.

It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI who ordered it to be built, in 1713, just after what turned out to be the last great plague epidemic had swept through these lands. He had it built as thanks for the pestilence having spared him and his family. He dedicated the new church to San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan, who not only was his personal patron saint but was also revered as a healer of plague sufferers. The church was completed by 1737.

Karlskirche was built in pure Baroque style. A few quotes are in order here, to hopefully answer the question “what exactly is the Baroque style?”:
– a style “characterized by new explorations of form, light and shadow, and dramatic intensity”
– a style which “used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur”
– “Baroque architecture and its embellishments were on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Church” (as well as of the secular Princes, I should add)

Well, Karlskirche certainly produces drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur on the outside. We have that dominating dome with its green copper sheath, along with the two columns flanking the front.
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Those columns are modeled on Trajan’s column in Rome
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but substitute tales of Trajan’s victories in the Dacian wars with pious scenes from the life of that great “Prince” of the Church, San Carlo Borromeo.
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We have the pediment crowning the front, where we see the cardinal virtues sucking up to San Carlo standing on the apex of the pediment.
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So it is in a state of high tension and of great exuberance that one enters the church – only to find oneself in a small chapel. It is really the strangest feeling: all that architectonic might and majesty on the outside, clothing a really very modestly-sized internal space.
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Oh, I grant you, there is also dramatic intensity on the inside: the fresco in the dome, for instance
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or the altarpiece portraying the ascension of San Carlo.
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But the overall effect is: “Really? That’s all there is to this church? This tiddly little space?” I have to say, the only time I went in I felt quite cheated.

In the name of full disclosure, I should state at this point that I am anyway not a great fan of Baroque decoration. My general feeling about this style of art can be summed up in Macbeth’s words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Even if the scale of the church’s interior had been on a par with the outside I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I find Baroque decoration, especially in Catholic churches, pompous and overblown. On top of that, for a religion that claims to value poverty, I find Baroque’s in-your-face glitter – gold and silver everywhere – particularly offensive. There is a toe-curling example of this blingy over-the-top quality in Baroque in Vienna’s Jesuit church, whose interior was completed some five years before Charles VI decided to have Karlskirche built.
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All this being said, there is one example of church baroque that I have come across which I really loved, and that was in the cathedral of Saint Gall in the Swiss canton of Saint Gallen. Our visit to it was completely serendipitous. We were driving from Vienna to my parents’ house in France, and Saint Gallen happened to be a good place to stop for the night. The next morning, I decided that we should take the occasion to visit the cathedral and dragged a rather unwilling family with me. What a revelation!


There were the usual dramatic and intense frescoes on the ceiling, but the rest of the church was quite bare. Instead of the glittering gold, the marble, the overwrought statuary, we found ourselves in a space of mostly bare white walls carrying only a few highly curlicued decorations painted a lovely pale blue-green. It was so wonderful that it put me in a good mood for the next nine hours of driving and the thought of having to spend a long weekend with my parents.

The cathedral was remodeled into its current form in the 1750s-60s, so some 20-30 years after Karlskirche. That lapse of time might explain the more rococo style that was used, along with the fact that the cathedral stood at the border with Protestantism – literally, since the town that had sprung up around the cathedral and its abbey had turned Protestant while the abbey itself remained Catholic; Protestant baroque tends to be more restrained than the Catholic version.

Whatever the reason, Saint Gall Cathedral has partially reconciled me to baroque. Since that magic moment some 15 years ago when I first entered the cathedral, I have been inclined to simply grimace and shrug at excesses like those in Vienna’s Jesuit church rather than dream of taking the iconoclast’s hammer to it all. Or maybe I’m simply getting older and perhaps a little bit wiser.

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Karlskirche panoramic: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Karlskirche
Karlskirche at night: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlskirche
Karlskirche dome: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13006441_dome-of-the-karlskirche-st-charles-s-church–vienna-austria.html
Trajan’s column: https://www2.bc.edu/~kenth/honors4.html
Karlskirche columns’ detail: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karlskirche_column_detail_-_Vienna.jpg
Karlskirche pediment: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/93052486
Karlskirche interior: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/lecture-21/deck/5993225
Karlskirche dome fresco: https://www.pinterest.com/soledadvilchez/monumental-ceilings/
Karlskirche altar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57669468@N00/3252233159
Jesuit church, Vienna, interior: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/18903468079
Cathedral of St. Gall, interior: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St-gall-interior-cathedral_1.jpg

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

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The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
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In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
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we wended our way through woods
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through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
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We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
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The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
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But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
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It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
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as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
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I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
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Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
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finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
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motored past forbidding headlands
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until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
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where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
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Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
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a somewhat less ancient watchtower
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and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
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His main, in fact only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains should not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
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for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

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All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html

focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

SACRI MONTI

Kyoto, 26 November 2016

Two weeks ago, my wife and I visited the temple on mount Kurama, a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. We took the train to the mountain’s foot and then climbed – well, “climbed” is perhaps misleading, since rather than toil all the way up using the path that snakes its way to the top we took a cable car to very near the summit and toiled lightly the rest of the way. It was the Fall colours which had brought us there, and indeed the red of the Japanese maples and the yellow of the ginkgoes were a sight to behold.
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Since it was a cool, rainy day, the surrounding landscape was enveloped in drifting cloud and mist, strongly reminiscent of painted Japanese landscapes.
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At the top, we walked around the temple

and enjoyed the view.
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After which, we walked down the other side of the mountain
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to take a well-deserved lunch at the bottom.
mount-kurama-5
A week later, when our daughter joined us for Thanksgiving, we took her to the Fushimi Inari Shrine on the hilly eastern edge of Kyoto and hiked up the mountain behind the shrine, passing through the famed tunnel of torii on the way
Torii gates—Fushimi Inari Shrine
(although when we passed through the tunnel, it was packed with people – the disadvantage of visiting Kyoto at this time of the year).

After admiring the view at the top and inspecting the small shrines sprinkled along the path, all of which were smothered in small votive torii
http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
we made our way down again and had a well-deserved bowl of rahmen at the mountain’s foot.
noodle-shop-inari
Ours was an admittedly very secular version of a pastime as ancient as civilization itself, the climbing of mountains to pray to the gods. I suppose it makes sense. Gods often have been thought to reside up in the sky somewhere, and mountains were as close to the sky as we humans could get before the age of aviation. And before there were 7 billion of us, working our presence into every nook and cranny of the planet, mountains were remote, mysterious places, where our ancestors could more easily commune with the divine.

So it comes as no surprise to see that all religions have their mountains. Several degrees of longitude to the west of Kyoto, the Chinese had their Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and their Four Sacred Mountains of Daoism, and scholars sitting at the foot of mountains is a common scene on scrolls.
scholars-under-mountain
Hinduism, along with Jainism and Buddhism, has its Mount Meru, a mythological mountain, which for many believers, though, finds its material incarnation in Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;

Many Hindus and Buddhists make the arduous journey to the mountain. Once they reach it they will reverently circle it (I highly recommend the book “To A Mountain In Tibet”, in which that great travel writer Colin Thubron relates his journey on foot to this mountain up through the high valleys of Nepal).

Moving further west, Judaism has its Mount Sinai, traditionally thought to be this mountain.
mount-sinai
The Bible tells us that Moses climbed it to commune with Yahweh in the Burning Bush, and from its top he brought down the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Charlton Heston gave a great performance as Moses in the Hollywood film epic “The Ten Commandments”
charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments
although I personally prefer Michelangelo’s splendid Moses.
michelangelo-moses
Islam also has its holy mountains; since it is a religion of the Book, many of these are linked to stories in the Bible: Mt. Sinai because of its link to Moses, Al-Judi, reputed to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood, the mount of Olives, where the righteous will be chosen and evil abolished. But it also has mountains which are holy because of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. One such is the Temple Mount, the scene for Muslims of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven in his Night Journey, and on which they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock.

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Another is Jabal Al-Nour, on the outskirts of Mecca.
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This mountain houses the Hira Cave in which Muhammad began receiving the revelations which became the Qu’ran. The cave is extremely popular with Muslim pilgrims who make the arduous trek up the mountain to reach it.

As for Christianity, Jesus was crucified on a hill, Mount Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. It’s really quite a modest hill, a hillock really, which in Christian art, though, grew into a respectable hill, as shown in this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder
Imagining a good-sized hill gave later generations of Christians an excuse to bedeck local hills with a Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, which would wend its way up to the top of the hill and along which would be dotted the fourteen stations. The faithful would climb the Via Crucis, stopping and praying at each station (I remember well doing this as a young boy). UNESCO has canonized as a World Heritage Site nine such hills, the Sacri Monti or Sacred Hills, which are strung along the alpine foothills of Lombardy and Piedmont, not too far from Milan where we now reside. Their Vie Crucis were all created in the 16th-17th centuries.
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I’m trying to persuade my wife that we should go and climb a couple. To make the suggestion more palatable, I’m suggesting that we now wait until Spring – and that we choose sacri monti that have good restaurants at their foot to which we can repair after the climbs.

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Misty Japanese landscape: https://loganbalstad.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/japanese-landscape-painting/
Mount Kurama temple: http://apdl.kcc.hawaii.edu/roads/18_temples.html
Other pix of Mount Kurama: ours
Scholars under mountain: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2013/fine-classical-chinese-paintings-n09009.html
Mount Kailash: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kailash
Torii Fushimi Inari Shrine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Torii_gates%E2%80%94Fushimi_Inari_Shrine_(9977683204).jpg
Fushimi Inari mouintainside shrine: http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
Noodle shop, Fushimi Inari shrine: http://www.picrumb.com/best-restaurants/inari/
Mount Sinai: https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104?lang=eng
Charlton Heston as Moses: https://theiapolis.com/movie-20AU/the-ten-commandments/gallery/charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments-1081961.html
Michelangelo’s Moses: http://syndrome-de-stendhal.blogspot.jp/2012/04/der-moses-des-michelangelo.html
Dome of the Rock: http://www.123rf.com/photo_42141970_aerial-view-the-dome-of-the-rock-on-the-temple-mount-from-the-mount-of-olives-in-jerusalem-israel.html
Jabal Al-Nour: http://dreamzs338.tumblr.com/post/132478018857/jabal-al-noor-the-mountain-of-light-in-makkah
Pilgrims to Hira Cave: http://mapio.net/pic/p-16183166/
“Procession to Calvary” by Peter Breugel the Elder: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder/
Sacri Monti-1: http://www.unescovarese.com/Sacri-monti-in-Piemonte-e-Lombardia
Sacri Monti-2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacro_Monte_di_Varallo

SAINT RADEGUND

Vienna, 19th September 2016

There is a small street which gives on to Piazza Duomo in Milan, which goes by the name of via Santa Radegonda. It’s a very modest, narrow, little street, really quite boring. Its main claim to fame is that it runs alongside the posh department store La Rinascente.

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But I like the street, for the quite frivolous reason that I like the name. Radegonda, Radegund in the original German: now that’s a girl’s name with some whoomph to it! Not like Amelia, or Olivia, or Emily, which are currently some of the most popular names for little British girls.

This particular Radegund was a 6th Century princess from Thuringia, in what is now central Germany. Her life story was as colourful as her name. Her father, Berachtar, was one of three kings in Thuringia. Her uncle, Hermanfrid, one of the other Thuringian kings, killed her father in battle, took over his part of the Thuringian lands, and while he was at it took Radegund into his household. Hermanfrid then made a deal with the Frankish king, Theuderic, to share sovereignty of the whole of Thuringia, subject to material aid from Theuderic. Having sealed the deal, Hermanfrid attacked, defeated, and killed the third king of Thuringia, his brother Baderic. He then promptly reneged on his agreement with Theuderic. Not surprisingly, Theuderic sought revenge of this perfidy. Together with his brother Chlothar, he defeated Hermanfrid and took over Thuringia. In the ensuing carve-up, Clothar took charge of Radegund and brought her back to Gaul. All this happened before Radegund was 11, by the way.

Clothar packed Radegund off to one of his villas until she was of a more marriageable age. When she was 19 or so, he married her himself. No doubt it made his claims to Thuringia stronger to have her as his wife. She joined Clothar’s five other wives – Guntheuca, Chunsina, Ingund, Aregund, and Wuldetrada – in what may, or may not, have been a cozy concubinage. In any event, she bore Clothar no children.

By the time Radegund was 30, her only remaining brother was the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal family. Presumably to head off any pesky competing claims to the Thuringian lands, Clothar had him murdered. At which point, either because she feared for her own life or because she was fed up with all this mayhem, Radegund fled and sought the protection of the Church, eventually founding, when she was about 40, a nunnery in Poitiers. Initially, Clothar tried to get her back but eventually left her alone and focused on expanding his lands at the expense of all those around him, including his brothers (although he had the grace not to kill them to obtain his ends, good manners which did not extend to their sons). By the time he died, he was master of a kingdom stretching from the Pyrenees to Thuringia, and from Brittany to French-speaking Switzerland.

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All these Franks and Thuringians may have been a lying, traitorous, murderous lot, but they had wonderful names. This all rather reminds me of my Favourite History Book, 1066 And All That, my copy of which recently came to light, among many a delighted cry on my part, from the storage box in which it has been lying these last seven years.
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In that book, we are reminded that Anglo-Saxon England was peopled with persons carrying wonderful names:

“Wave of Egg-Kings

Soon after this event Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”

The authors were exaggerating, but not by much.

The murderous goings-on around Radegund also remind me of that other Great Source of Early European History, Asterix. In the album Astérix chez les Goths
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the endemic fighting among the Germanic tribes is well captured.
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(Please note the authors’ take on Gothic names – they exaggerate but not by much)

But I digress, and I think my wife feels I’m letting my childish side get the upper hand here. Let us focus on the saintly Radegund. Already when queen, she was noted for her almsgiving. Once a nun, she cared for the local lepers and other infirm of Poitiers. She was also known for eating nothing but legumes and green vegetables: no fish, no eggs, not even fruit. I’m sure the vegans of today would approve (although even they might find her decision to foreswear fruit a trifle extreme) but to the meat-eating Germanic elites, who spent much of their time hunting, this must have been pretty weird. Here is the most ancient representation of this saintly lady that I found, from a 10th-11th Century manuscript in the Municipal library of Poitiers, where we see Radegund getting herself to the nunnery (to misquote Hamlet).
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As far as I can make out, though, her main claim to religious fame, at least in the Dark and Middle Ages, is that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II gave her a fragment of the True Cross. I hasten to add that he did not do so because he was much taken by Radegund’s saintliness. It was, I’m afraid, a purely political maneuver. Justin wanted to wrest control of the north of Italy from the barbarian Lombards, but for this he needed the help of the (equally barbarian) Franks. The relic, given to an ex-wife of the Frankish king who, though, was still on friendly terms with said king, was the bribe, or, to put it more kindly, the bait. Whatever the reason, the relic which Justin handed over to Radegund was a Really Good relic, and any Medieval religious institution with a Really Good relic was sitting on a goldmine as the pilgrims poured in and spent their money locally. This no doubt was the happy fate of Poitiers, helped along by the fact that Radegund was widely believed to have the gift of healing. Indeed, several miracles around her tomb greatly helped to increase the pilgrim traffic. The result was the building of a church which is a combination of Romanesque and Angevin Gothic styles.
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Sadly, the vicissitudes of history, and more specifically a sack by Huguenots in the 16th Century and the ravages of the French Revolution, combined with some heavy-handed restoration in the 19th Century, has scarred the original splendour.

The pilgrim traffic to Poitiers had the happy side-effect of carrying Radegund’s name far and wide as the pilgrims returned home, and new churches and other religious institutions sprang up all over Europe dedicated to her name. This was certainly the case in Milan, where on the site on which now stands that temple to consumerism, La Rinascente, there once stood a nunnery dedicated to Santa Radegonda. No trace of this nunnery remains today save in the name of that modest, narrow, little street which I like so much.

I give just one further example of the many places in Europe which adopted her name, and that is the small village of Sankt Radegund in Upper Austria. In the next few years, readers will see a new film come out, with the title “Radegund”. It is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a native of Sankt Radegund, who was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschlüss and was courageous enough to be a conscientious objector during World War II.
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My readers will no doubt convene that this was a dangerous thing to declare oneself to be under the Nazi regime, and in fact Jägerstätter ended up being guillotined in 1943, for the crime of “undermining military morale”. The recent (German) Pope, Benedict XVI, had Jägerstätter beatified: a more appropriate saint for our age, I think.
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Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that behind Milan’s Duomo there is a small road called via Santa Tecla. What an interesting name! I wonder who she was?

__________________
La Rinascente: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/fashion/in-milan-with-handbags-and-tongs-under-one-roof.html?_r=0
Clothar I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlothar_I
“1066 And All That”: http://rogerandfrances.eu/books/1066-and-all-that
“Asterix chez les Goths”: http://www.asterix.com/the-collection/albums/asterix-and-the-goths.html
Goths fighting: my photo
Radegund entering nunnery: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radegund
Eglise Sainte-Radégonde, Poitiers: https://www.poitiers.fr/c__244_788__Poitiers_capitale_romane.html
Franz Jägerstätter: http://voiceseducation.org/content/franz-jagerstatter-austrian-world-war-ii-resistance
Icon with Franz Jägerstätter: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Jägerstätter

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

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At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
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followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
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who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
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although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
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After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
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His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
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A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
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who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
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which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
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(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
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What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

____________________
Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)

CITRON

Bangkok, 19 March 2016

In the recent trip which my wife and I made to Italy, we managed to squeeze in a visit to our apartment near Genoa, where I was particularly delighted to see so many lemon trees in fruit. It’s wonderful to see trees heavy with lemons peeping over a wall or hanging over a garden fence.

lemons Liguria

Once back in Bangkok, I decided to do some research on the lemon and its history: how did this lovely yellow fruit end up in Liguria? But delving into the lemon’s history inevitably dragged me into the history of the citrus family. It turns out that the lemon does not have a long or distinguished pedigree. It is the citrus equivalent to a mutt, a fairly recent hybrid. In fact, most citrus fruits with which we are familiar are fairly recent hybrids. It seems that the members of this family love to hybridize, and of course humans – being intrusive busybodies by nature – have been only too willing to assist them. The result is a family tree of bewildering complexity.

As I tried to make sense of all this, my attention was diverted by something I read about the citron. I think I need to insert here a few words about the citron, since I’m sure there are many readers who are not familiar with this citrus fruit. It is relatively difficult to find these days since it has little use – except for one very special one, which I will come to in a minute. It looks like a large, warty, lemon

citron

In any event, during a ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in one of the years around 100 BC, the Jews pelted the High Priest with citrons and got massacred for doing so. Now that was something worth finding more about! How I would have loved to use citrons, rotten tomatoes, eggs, dog-eared hymn books – anything, really – to pelt the priests with for subjecting me to excruciatingly boring sermons during the Sunday Masses of my childhood! It turns out, though, that the Jews were not horribly bored with what the High Priest was saying, but horrified by what he was doing. It is reported that he deliberately poured the water of libation over his feet rather than over the sacrificial animals. I can’t say that I can get quite as excited about this action as the Jews did, but the fact is that they did, and satisfyingly peppered the High Priest with citrons.

Of course, it does come spontaneously to ask oneself why on earth the Jews were carrying citrons around in the Temple in the first place. It’s certainly not the item that would immediately come to my mind as expecting to see in the hands of Jews within the sacred precincts of the Temple. It turns out that the citron plays an extremely important role in the ceremonies of Sukkot. Every morning of this seven-day Feast, Jews are required to ceremoniously wave the “four species”. Citron is one of these, the other three being the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow. We see here the Tosher Rabbi of Montreal waving the four species.

tosher rabbi of montreal

One can therefore assume that the Jews were carrying their four species when the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet, and in the horror of the moment they blindly grabbed their citrons and threw them at the impious prelate. It seems that they must have also thrown something harder – stones, no doubt – since it is reported that the stone altar was damaged. I can’t really see citrons doing damage to a stone altar.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the citron ever became one of the four species, because it is not native to the Near East, whereas the other three species are. The citron, like all the original citrus fruits, originated somewhere in the region of South-East Asia-Yunnan in southern China-the Himalayan slopes of India. So how did it end up in the Near East? There is general agreement that the fruit was first cultivated in northern India. From there, it migrated, presumably along trade routes, to Persia. What happened next is a hotly debated issue – at least, in certain circles. One hypothesis has the citron migrating to Egypt, where its essential oils were used in embalming, and from whence the Jews brought it with them to the Promised Land when they escaped from bondage in Egypt. A second hypothesis has the citron being carried from Persia to the Mediterranean basin in the baggage of Alexander the Great’s returning soldiers, who somewhere along the way dropped it off in the Levant. Yet another hypothesis has the citron migrating from Persia to Babylonia, where the Jews came across it during their Babylonian captivity and brought it with them when they came back to Israel.

These are all suppositions, with no real evidence to back them up. A very clever piece of archaeological sleuthing suggests a more concrete hypothesis. We need to first recall that after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to return home, Israel was a Persian province for several hundred years. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating a site quite close to Jerusalem which turns out to have been a Persian palace with an extensive garden around it. Here is a reconstruction of the site.

persian palace

The archaeologists wanted to see if they could find evidence of what was planted in this garden. They therefore looked for traces of ancient pollen. None could be found in the earth of the garden – whatever had been there had decomposed long ago. So they decided to try their luck in the plaster with which the walls of an ancient pool in the garden had been coated. The thinking was that pollen grains could have got stuck in the plaster while it was drying and been preserved. They were right – and one of the types of pollen they found was that of the citron. From the other types of pollen found – a number from species not present in Israel – the archaeologists deduced that this was a garden planted with rare plants, designed to show off the wealth and power of the palace’s resident, either a Persian satrap or a Babylonian Jew close to the Persians and sent there to keep an eye on the locals. Perhaps it was here that the Jerusalem Temple elites, coming to pay their respects to the Palace’s resident, first saw the citron and admired this strange and exotic fruit. Maybe it became the rage to have a citron tree in one’s garden in emulation of the Persian masters.

Assuming this is somewhere near correct, how did the chicness of the citron eventually segue into its strong religious symbolism? Here, I shall hazard an explanation which I found written nowhere but which satisfies my fertile imagination. One has to know that the adoption by the Jews of the four species in the rituals of Sukkot derives from a text in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said (in the English translation):

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The text specifically names two of the plants: the palm tree and the willow. For the other two, though, it is quite vague. Talmudic tradition eventually settled on the citron as the “fruit of splendid trees” and on myrtle as “boughs of leafy trees”.

The choice of myrtle makes sense to me – it is satisfyingly leafy.

myrtle

But the choice of citron as the fruit of a beautiful tree? That is really quite odd. In no way can the citron tree be considered a beautiful tree. It is low and scrubby, more bush-like.

citron tree

It seems, though, that the Hebrew text is grammatically ambiguous. Although the phrase in Leviticus is typically translated as “fruit of a beautiful tree”, it can also be rendered as “a beautiful fruit of a tree.” At first sight, this doesn’t seem to fit the citron either. As the picture above shows only too well, it is warty and knobbly, really quite ungraceful. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The citron’s name in Persian, turunj, derives from the Sanskrit suranga, “beautifully coloured”. In today’s world, our lives are so saturated in bright colours that it is difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our ancestors of the few naturally brightly coloured things. As the photo above also reveals, the citron does indeed have a lovely yellow colour, and there really aren’t that many fruits that are so beautifully yellow (lemons come to mind, but that doesn’t count because they are a hybrid of the citron). Maybe the Persians, and the Indians before them, and the Jews after them, found the citron’s colour captivating.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, let me suggest another reason. Under proper conditions, the citron is the only tree that can flower and bear fruit throughout the year. Even more distinctively, it can retain its fruit from one year to the next. So the citron tree can have buds, blossoms, and mature fruit all at the same time. This is a unique property, and one which may have aroused awe and reverence in our ancestors.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, how about this one? Both the Greek philosopher, Theophrastos, and the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, mention the citron in their botanical writings. And both stress the fact that the citron, fruit and leaves, has a very strong scent, that typical scent which you also get from the zest of the lemon. It is so strong, they say, that if the fruit is put among clothes it acts as a moth-repellent. This seems a little weak as a reason for nominating the citron as a “beautiful fruit”, although as every woman knows scent can be an important ingredient in beauty. And maybe the elites of India, Persia, and Israel were particularly receptive to the idea that their magnificent – and expensive – clothes could be protected from those pesky moths by the citron.

Either one of these explanations, or all three, must explain not only why the Jews adopted the citron as a religious symbol but also why anyone bothered to cultivate the citron in the first place and then bothered to carry it along to different parts of the world. From a utilitarian point of view, and our ancestors were nothing if not supremely utilitarian when it came to their natural environment, the citron really does seem a singularly useless plant. As I’ve said, the tree is low, scrubby, and bush-like, so it cannot be used as a shade tree. It is sickly and prone to disease, so is difficult to cultivate. The wood is no good for timber. Even the fruit is not much good to eat. It is mostly pith with hardly any flesh, and what flesh there is, is dry with relatively little juice.

cut citron

Whatever the reason, by the time the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet (no doubt with a sneer on his lips) the practice of using the citron as one of the four species in the ceremonies of Sukkot was fixed.

It was this deliberately offensive act at the altar of the Temple which set me off on this quest to know more about the citron. I can’t stop here, because the continuing history of the citron is equally fascinating. So I hope my readers will bear with me if I take them on a journey into the fruit’s more recent history.

From the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70,  the European history of the citron has been indissolubly bound up with that of the Jewish communities in Europe, so let me switch to using its Hebrew name, etrog (which, by the way, derives from the citron’s Persian name, turunj, via Aramaic, strengthening the idea that somehow it was the Persians who brought it into the lives of the Jews). The Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, which ended Temple-centred worship for the Jews, meant that the feast of Sukkot began to be celebrated wherever the Jews happened to live. Since the citron was now indispensable in the celebrations of Sukkot, it followed the Jewish diaspora as the latter spread out through the Roman Empire into Greece, Italy, and Spain. With time, more and more attention was given to ensuring that the etrogim used in Sukkot were the most beautiful: after all, they were offerings to the Lord our God and nothing but the most beautiful should be offered. Detailed guidelines were issued about what constituted a “perfect” etrog, and considerable sums of money were paid for the most perfect ones.

All was under control until the Diaspora began to move northwards into parts of Europe where the climate was too cool for the citron to grow. These more northerly Jewish communities therefore urgently needed etrogim to be brought to them from lands further to the south – no other fruit would do since the four species had been prescribed in the Talmud. This brings us back to where this post started, Genoa. Because of its climate, but also presumably because of its flourishing, and ancient, Jewish community, there were citron orchards around Genoa. It also happened to be a dynamic trading port, so it wasn’t long before Genoa dominated the trade in etrogim to northern Europe. With time, Genoa seems to have gotten out of the business of actually growing etrogim. Instead, it picked up etrogim as far south as Calabria, still a source of etrogim for some Jewish communities, and all points in between, as well as in Corsica, a Genoese colony, and shipped them north.

Genoa’s monopoly on the etrog trade began to be undermined when the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain, filtered eastward across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and discovered the etrogim being grown in Corfu and other Ionian islands, presumably for the very ancient Jewish communities of Greece. These were very beautiful as defined by the guidelines on etrog beauty, and they began to seriously compete with the Genoese etrogim. At first, there was resistance in some of the Ashkenazic communities in northern Europe. To explain why, I have to go back to what started me on this post initially, the lemon. The first substantial cultivation of the lemon in Europe only occurred in the mid-15th Century, in Genoa – Genoa again (the sour or bitter orange arrived earlier, in the 11th Century, while the sweet orange arrived somewhat later, in the early 16th Century). European growers of citrons discovered – or maybe they picked it up from the Arabs – that grafting citrons onto lemon stock gave plants which were much hardier than pure citron trees. But grafting created an enormous problem for the Jews because the mixing of species was non-kosher, and etrogim used in a religious Feast had to be kosher. We now know that grafting doesn’t actually lead to a mixing of genes, or hybridization, although 400 years ago it was quite easy to think that it did; after all, everyone knew that if you crossed a horse and a donkey, you got a hybrid, the mule. Many in the Ashkenazic communities suspected that the Greek etrogim were actually so beautiful because they were grafted onto lemon trees. Various rabbis were prepared to certify that they were not, and anyway the Napoleonic wars cut off the traditional supply of etrogim from Genoa. And the Greek etrogim really were so very beautiful …

So the Greek etrog triumphed and trade from Corfu flourished. Eventually, this got the Greek farmers greedy. They calculated that they had the Jewish communities over a barrel – they needed beautiful etrogim, the etrogim from Corfu were the most beautiful, hence they would pay whatever it took to get them. In 1875, they therefore created a cartel and jacked up the price. They turned out to be wrong. The Jewish communities reacted vigorously and successfully boycotted the Greek etrogim. They bought from Calabria, from Corsica, and more importantly from Israel, to where we now turn.

As more and more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the 1800s, they discovered a local variety of etrogim. They surmised that these must be descended from the etrogim used in Temple worship before the Temple’s destruction. A number of rabbis therefore decided to promote these etrogim from Palestine, which were surely more authentic than etrogim grown elsewhere. They also thought it would help the poverty-stricken economy of Palestine to be able to export high-priced etrogim to Jewish communities in Europe. The problem was that although these etrogim might be more authentic they weren’t nearly as beautiful as the Greek etrogim. On top of it, Sephardic communities which had immigrated to Palestine brought in seeds of Greek citron trees and started planting orchards of the beautiful Greek etrog there. The stand-off with Corfu helped boost sales in Palestine, both of the original as well as of the Greek etrogim transferred there. However, authentic Palestinian etrogim were suffering from the competition.

Coming back to Corfu, the Greek farmers eventually backed down and brought their prices down again. But they didn’t forget or forgive. Some 15 years later, when the body of an unknown woman was found just outside the Jewish quarter in Corfu, the local etrog growers claimed that the woman had been murdered by Jews. This sparked off a pogrom against the local Jewish community, which left 139 people dead. And then it was discovered that the dead woman was actually Jewish. That finished off the etrogim trade from Corfu.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the transplanted Greek etrog was pushing the local variety off the market. Eventually, the Greek etrog, which did not adapt very well to the climate in Israel, began to be grafted onto stock of the original etrog, a graft which is kosher. This was a marriage made in heaven: the beautiful Greek etrog with the original, Temple-era etrog. It is this variety which now dominates the modern etrog market, and is no doubt the one being intensely studied by these Orthodox Jews prior to an eventual purchase.

jews purchasing etrogim

I cannot finish my story of the citron without mentioning the one way of usefully consuming it that was eventually discovered. For this, I have to back up a little and say a few words about the history of cane sugar. Cane sugar, brought west from India by, once again, Alexander the Great’s troops (they seem to have been great collectors of plants …), was first exploited in the Near East. It was the Crusaders, who came across caravans of this “sweet salt”, and who brought sugar to the attention of Europe. Until then, Europeans had only had honey as a sweetener. Genoa’s fiercest rival, Venice, was the first to make sugar available in Europe. It also brought another Arab invention, candying of fruit, to Europe. Not to be outdone by its hated rivals, the Genoese also finally got into the candying business. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of candying the citron, or rather its pith, of which there is so much, as the photo above shows. Leghorn (Livorno) became the centre of production: citrons from the south all the way to Sicily, from Corfu and the other Ionian islands in the east, and from Corsica in the west, were sent, de-pulped and brined, to Leghorn. There, the citron pith was de-brined and steeped in progressively more concentrated solutions of cane sugar. Once dried and chopped into small pieces, it was shipped, no doubt in Genoese ships, all over Europe to be added to cakes, sweet bread loaves, and other patisseries. I have a particular reason to mention all this because the panettone, that glory of my wife’s home town, Milan, was originally made with candied citron pith (as well as candied orange and sultana raisins).

Panettone

More humbly, the original recipes of the English plum pudding of my youth also called for candied citron from Leghorn.

Plum-Pudding

Alas! I believe this market has declined drastically – or perhaps citrons from elsewhere have cornered the candying market. The fact is, Leghorn is no longer a centre for candied citron production, the Calabrian citron hangs on by managing to keep a foot in the etrog market, while the Corsican and Corfu citron production is down almost to nothing; the few which are grown there are only used to make a local liqueur. Here’s the Corsican variety. Somehow, it seems apt that the bottle stands next to one made with myrtle, another of the four species.

cedratine and myrtheLet’s lift a glass to the citron a.k.a. the etrog! Cin-Cin!

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Lemons in Liguria: https://i0.wp.com/www.bbfauno.com/wp-content/gallery/amalfi/limoni-amalfi-coast.jpg (in https://misshome.wordpress.com/tag/italian-language/)

Citron: http://whileshenaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/6a00d834515cdc69e20133f4767038970b-pi.jpg (in http://whileshenaps.com/2010/09/make-a-paper-mache-etrog.html)

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species#/media/File:Fourspecies.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species)

Persian palace: http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.410535.1328143655!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in http://www.haaretz.com/jerusalem-dig-uncovers-earliest-evidence-of-local-cultivation-of-etrogs-1.410505#acid)

Myrtle: http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=65106807 (in http://www.polyvore.com/outdoor_plants/collection?id=3359765)

Citron tree: in gardening.stackexchange.com

Cut citron: http://www.tropcrop.nl/citr02fr.jpg (in http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm)

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/64/a4/0001a464_medium.jpeg (in http://avax.news/fact/Symbolic_Citrus_Israeli_Jews_Inspect_Fruit_for_Sukkot.html)

Panettone: http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/09/Panettone-Vergani-Enrico-Su—-Ummarino.jpg (in http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/tag/panettone/)

Plum pudding: http://cookdiary.net/wp-content/uploads/images/Plum-Pudding_12165.jpg (in http://cookdiary.net/plum-pudding/)

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A8WYT4/myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-A8WYT4.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-6963651.html)

THE WHISPER OF THE SCYTHE’S BLADE

Bangkok, 30th August

God may not play with dice, as Einstein claimed, but the Universe surely does. The bombing at the Erawan shrine here in Bangkok two weeks ago brought that home forcefully. I have never been near the shrine, but my wife passes it quite regularly. In fact, the day of the blast she had passed it just a few hours before. If she had been running late, if earlier activities had got postponed, … A colleague of mine in the office should have been passing the shrine on the Skytrain on her way to the gym just when the bomb went off. But it so happened that that day her little boy was feeling unwell so she decided to cancel at the last minute. If her husband instead had stayed with the boy …

It must be the same with every terror attack. No doubt there were people who for one reason or another were not in the Twin Towers on September 11 when they normally would have been, or were closer to the exit than they normally would have been. Or in all those bomb attacks on markets or bus stations or other crowded places which take place with depressing regularity in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or any other troubled spot on the planet, there must be a host of people who might well have been in the path of the blast, but for some small reason were not. And a host of people who were in the path of the blast who normally would not have been.

The same randomness comes out with painful clarity in War. I always remember a story in the book “The Good War” by Studs Terkel. Terkel wrote oral histories of the American people, based on the stories he collected from ordinary Americans. “The Good War” was a collection of stories from Americans involved in the Second World War in some way. This story was of two young soldiers, buddies in everything since the beaches of Normandy, who found themselves in a fire-fight during the Battle of the Bulge. One dived one way and caught a bullet, the other dived the other way and survived to tell Terkel the tale. He was forever guilty that he had been the lucky one. So many times you hear about this guilt! Men who ran through the hail of bullets and shrapnel of No Man’s Land in the First World War and survived while their comrades fell all around them. Why them?, they wondered afterwards. Why were they the lucky ones? They didn’t deserve it particularly.

Accidents also throw the essential randomness of it all into sharp relief. A few days after the Bangkok blast, a plane at an air show in the UK crashed onto a busy motorway. If those motorists who were killed had been driving a little slower, or a little faster, or had decided to use another route that morning, or had decided to cancel the trip altogether, … The routine accidents of everyday life, the ones that don’t make it to the front page, are no less random. If I had started crossing the street just a bit sooner, I would have been mown down by that tuk-tuk which suddenly made a sharp right. It just so happened that I was blocked for an instant by that other pedestrian who walked in front of me …

Sickness is the same. If that virus coughed out by that person had got wafted that way and not this, I wouldn’t now be sick in bed. Or dying. If that heart arrhythmia had been just a tad faster, or a titch slower, I wouldn’t be alive to marvel at it. If the surgeon’s knife had been a little more extensive the first time, or if that first operation had been one month sooner, the lovely lady we met when we first arrived in Bangkok would not now be dying ten floors above us of metastasized cancer.

And so it goes on throughout life. If I had done this, or not done that, or said it or not said it, or stepped here rather than there, just at that moment, how different things would be now!

Magic has tried to make us believe that we can beat the odds. Hang this amulet around your neck and the spears, or the arrows, or the bullets, will never find you. Religions instead have tried to help us accept the essential randomness of our lives. The Grim Reaper can come to pick you up at any time, so be ready. Be ready. Lead good lives, lead virtuous lives, so that when the knock on the door comes, you will have done everything in your power to go to Heaven than to Hell, to be reborn closer to final Nirvana.

Perhaps such a fatalistic approach is the best. You can be forever on the lookout, dodging and weaving, stepping smartly out of the way of the slings and arrows which life hurls at you, but in the end the dice will finally roll against you. If you have led a good, virtuous life, those who survive you can say, “he was a good man.” What better epitaph can one have than that?

LOURDES

Genova, 18 July 2015

From the balcony of our little apartment in Liguria, if we look a little obliquely to the right we have a view of the sea.

image

Rather than admiring the sea, I invite readers to focus on the campanile of the village church, which we can see just behind the roof of the house in the foreground. At certain times – I haven’t really fixed in my mind when – the campanile’s bells ding out a rather out-of-tune version of the chorus to the Lourdes hymn: “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria. Ave, Ave, Ave Mari-i-a”. For the musically inclined, I attach a music sheet below with the music of the hymn (along with the lines to one of its many, many verses – sixty, I’m told). The music dinged out by the campanile is the last two bars.
image For those of my readers who are not familiar with the Lourdes hymn, it is the “national anthem”, if I can put it that way, of the pilgrim city of Lourdes, which is located in the lower Pyrenees in France. It is there that in 1858 a 14-year old girl of humble origin, by the name of Bernadeta Sobirós
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claimed to have seen visions in a grotto by the side of the river of uo petito damizelo (“a small young lady”; Bernadeta spoke Gascon Occitan). She was to have 18 such visions in the grotto, between February and July. In the 16th vision, after repeatedly asking the small young lady who she was, the lady finally replied Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ (“I am the Immaculate Conception”).

To cut a very long story short, after a good deal of initial skepticism the Catholic Church accepted Bernadeta’s visions as authentic visitations of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrimages began, cures of sick people from the spring water near the grotto were claimed, some of which were accepted by the Church as miraculous, the Lourdes hymn was penned in the 1870s, a large basilica was built
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along with hospices for the sick, another even larger basilica was later built underground. The town itself got into the act, building hundreds of hotels to house the the ever growing number of visiting pilgrims – six million a year and counting; this, in a town of 15,000 inhabitants (as well, of course, as opening hundreds of shops selling religious tat).

Pilgrims flock to the grotto
image
the sick take baths in the grotto’s spring water
image
and everyone joins the daytime and evening processions
image

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during which the Lourdes hymn, among many others, is sung.

Two summers running, 1972 and 1973, I was one of those pilgrims. My school organized an annual pilgrimage during the summer holidays, and we students were encouraged to take part. They needed our strength and youthfulness to move the sick from place to place: from grotto to baths, from baths to church, from church to hospice; to literally carry into the baths those who could not walk; to do the night watch in the hospices. And I think the sick were helped by being surrounded by the innate cheerfulness of our youth.
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We were brancardiers, literally stretcher bearers, which I suppose was how the badly sick were moved around in the early days of Lourdes, although nowadays the sick are moved around in those nifty little wheeled chairs shown in the picture above. As a sign of our status, we wore “bretelles”, a sort of harness
image
It was a great honour to be a brancardier. Ordinary pilgrims would look at us admiringly as we walked past, something which at the age of 18 pleased me quite a bit: I was an Important Person! Of course, it meant that any sick person could call us over to help at any time and in any place: the price of fame …

My two pilgrimages were a very intense experience for me, something which I will remember all my life. At the time, I was relatively callow, finding it all great fun like these young people from other pilgrimages did.
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But I find that it marked me deeply. I am unmoved by the miraculous side of Lourdes. I have been too steeped in the natural sciences to believe in miracles. These are simply something we do not yet understand but quite likely will when the sciences have advanced enough. No, to me the real miracle of Lourdes is that it is perhaps the only place on Earth where the sick are centre stage, not on the periphery of our societies which is where they are usually relegated. Lourdes is their place, the rest of us are just guests.
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So readers can understand why I pause and listen every time I hear the village campanile ring out, even if tinnily, the chorus lines to the Lourdes hymn.

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View of the campanile: my picture
Lourdes hymn music: http://gauterdo.com/ref/aa/ave.maria.de.lourdes.html
Bernadeta Sobirós: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernadette_Soubirous#/media/File:Bernadette_Soubirous.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernadette_Soubirous#Visions)
Lourdes basilica: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/33/Lourdes_Basilique_et_gave.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Lourdes)
Lourdes grotto: https://bundytomadrid.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/grotto1.jpg (in https://bundytomadrid.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/day-2021-burgos-and-lourdes/)
The baths: http://media01.radiovaticana.va/imm/1_0_659979.JPG (in http://www.news.va/en/news/world-day-of-the-sick-a-privileged-moment-of-praye
Lourdes procession during the day: http://www.catholic-convert.com/wp-content/uploads/lourdes.jpg (in http://www.catholic-convert.com/blog/2013/07/30/stay-tuned-wednesday-teresa-tomeo-show-on-lourdes-and-my-video-tour-of-all-of-lourdes/)
Lourdes procession at night: https://fratres.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/procession_1024x768.jpg (in https://fratres.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/place-your-prayer-petitions-here-at-the-grotto-of-lourdes/comment-page-35/)
Brancardiers: http://www.jeune-catholique-moulins.cef.fr/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/L103946_HD0390545.jpg (in http://www.jeune-catholique-moulins.cef.fr/blog/category/lyceens/)
Young man with bretelles: http://pinguisite.chez.com/Image079.jpg (in http://pinguisite.chez.com/lourdes.html)
Brancardiers-2: http://pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/sites/pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/files/images/Lycée/Lourdes/P1030587.jpg (in http://pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/?q=node/71)
Brancardiers-3: http://www.saintjo64.fr/saintjo64WP2013/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Lourdes2014-1.jpg (in http://www.saintjo64.fr/saintjo64WP2013/actualites/aumonerie/pelerinage-a-lourdes-2014/)
A pilgrimage: http://dioceseofmenevia.org/photos/129_sick_to_lourdes.jpg (in http://dioceseofmenevia.org/news/archive07.htm)

A PAPAL ENCYCLICAL

Bangkok, 2 July 2015

There’s been quite a bit of brouhaha in the press about the new Encyclical which Pope Francis brought out on 18 June, with the title “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”. Normally, I would just read what the press has to say and move on. Although I come out of the Catholic tradition, I fell off the Straight- and-Narrow decades ago and it never occurred to me to read any of the Encyclicals brought out by Paul VI or John-Paul II, and certainly none by Benedict XVI, who always struck me as a complete dinosaur. I remember my father reading the Encyclicals, in the original Latin no less (his was probably the last generation of Europeans who were given a serious education in classics; he read Latin and Greek at University). But me, no way, I wasn’t going to read these letters by old, white, celibate men, most of whose views were diametrically opposite mine.

But this Encyclical was different. It was about avoiding a planetary ecological disaster, brought about by climate change and other environmental catastrophes, something which I’ve been wrestling with all my professional life. And it was different from the kind of work I do, which is technical and scientific. It was bringing ethics to bear on the problem, which have been sadly lacking. So I decided that it was time for me to try this rather special form of literature.

Here’s how the Encyclical starts:

  1. “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
  2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Whoa! Stirring words, pretty different from the stuff I normally read. Thoroughly intrigued, I settled down to read the whole document, all 246 paragraphs of it. Allow me to rapidly summarize its contents for any of my readers who might be too busy or distracted by other things to read it (by the way, the Encyclical has a message for them: “true wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution”).

After a review of the state of the planetary environment, whose conclusion can be summed up in this other punchy quote, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”, the Pope reminds us that our inability to look after our Earth is reflected in our inability to look after our poor: “we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet”, to conclude that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

His main conclusion is that both the environmental ills of the planet as well as the ills which bedevil our societies have their roots in excessive consumption by the better-off amongst us.

  • “We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.”
  • “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”
  • “… poor countries … need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”
  • “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”
  • “.. given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.”
  • “… a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.”

All music to my ears! For ten years now, I’ve seen that excessive consumption is the key to all our most intractable environmental problems and have been wrestling with what to do about it. We have to do something to reduce the levels of consumption in the richest countries, or more specifically among the world’s richest people (because as the Pope pointed out even the poor countries have hideously rich people).

But to have this happen is a huge, huge political problem. To explain why, let me borrow a photo or two from the photographer Peter Menzel and others who have copied him. Mr. Menzel went around the world photographing families outside their homes with all their stuff piled up around them (anyone wanting to see the whole series should dip into his book “Material World: A Global Family Portrait”). His idea proved so popular that others copied him. This photo, which is of a family in Inner Mongolia

inner mongolian family

shows a level of stuff-ownership which is typical of millions, if not billions, of families around the world. These families want a materially better life. And why not? There is no reason they should not have it. But if the goal of every family in the world is to end up like this one

developed family

– well, it’s simply not possible, because a lifestyle like this for everyone requires a level of consumption of the world’s resources that would need 4 or more Earths to sustain

four planets

and, except for those of us who live in a parallel universe, we all know that there is but one planet.

But it’s also not possible to have a world where a few families can live like kings while everyone else has to live like the huddled masses or else the planet goes into meltdown. Somehow, those who currently are over-consuming have to accept to reduce their consumption.

What kind of material sacrifice would be required of these over-consumers? To answer this question, let me use myself as an example. A little while back, curious to see how large my personal environmental footprint might be, I used a footprint calculator offered by the Environmental Protection Agency of the State of Victoria in Australia (there are a number of such calculators on-line; I chose this one because it’s easy to use and I reckon that Southern Australia’s climate is quite similar to Italy’s where I intend to retire – I couldn’t find a good Italian footprint calculator). With an eye to my upcoming retirement, I entered data for myself and my wife on our eating habits, on the home we will live in, and the modes of transport we will be using. To put it in a nutshell, the two of us will live in a 120 sq. metre apartment in an apartment block, whose electricity will partially come from renewable energy. We’ll be having several servings a day of dairy, eggs, fish, or meat products, and a quarter of the food that we’ll eat will be either processed, packaged, or imported. Since we’ll be recycling a lot we’ll throw away less than one 30 litre bin-bag of waste a week. We’ll be using a lot of public transportation, but we’ll still have a small car to potter around town a bit, while twice a year we’ll fly to see the kids in the States. I pushed the last button, and the answer came back … “If everyone lived like you, we would need 3.9 planets” Aarrgh!!!! I was one of those guys greedily overusing the Earth’s resources! I could NOT believe it! I had worked in the environmental field all my professional life, and yet here I was devouring the planet! O-M-G!!

Once the shock wore off, I started doing what scientists call sensitivity analysis: I changed my answers one at a time, to see which changes would give me the biggest reductions. That would give me a menu of changes to our lifestyles which we could adopt, with the goal of bringing that horrible figure of 3.9 down to 1.0 – I think it’s OK to have a lifestyle which, were everyone to have it, would use only 1 planet’s worth of resources.

I won’t weary my readers with a full summary of the results, let me just give the highlights. The biggest reduction in my levels of planetary destruction comes from changes in diet. Having only a few servings a week of dairy, eggs, fish, or meat products, instead of several a day, cuts 1 full planet out of my footprint. That’s great, I knew that meat-eating especially is terribly harmful to the environment. I think we can switch to a strongly vegetarian diet without too much difficulty.

So that’s already 1.0 planet’s worth of reduction.

The other big reduction, though, 1.1 planets’ worth, comes from basically cutting out air travel. No, no, this is not possible, we cannot stop visiting our children! And we can’t just tell the kids to come instead, that would be foisting onto them part of our footprint! What to do? I suppose we could cut our trips to once a year … Alright, let’s say that, so that’s half a planet’s worth of reduction.

That gives us a running total of 1.5 planets’ worth of reduction.

The next biggest reduction, 0.7 planet’s worth, would come if we switched from living in a multi-storey apartment building to a free-standing house without running water. OK, we’re not going to cut off our water, but my take-away here is that saving water has a significant impact on the size of my footprint. We can’t stop drinking, but we’ll ruthlessly chop at our three other big water uses, hot showers, clothes washing, and toilet flushing. We’ll simply shower less, wash our clothes less often, and (ugh!) flush less often. Let’s clock that in at 0.35 planet’s worth.

So, the running total is now 1.85 planets’ worth of reduction.

Next on my list is to switch to a green design residence, which would give me half a planet’s worth of reduction. Well, we can’t change apartments at this point. But we can do things to make the apartment more energy efficient: compact fluorescent bulbs (although they will look totally hideous in the chandelier we have in the living room), double-glazed windows everywhere (more costs …), if possible more insulation on that wall in our bedroom, … I don’t know, there must be other things we can do. Let’s just assume that there are and clock this in at 0.25 planet’s worth.

That gives me a running total of 2.1 planets’ worth of reduction.

What else?

Well, next on the list is simply to cut off the electricity to the apartment, which would give me another half a planet’s worth of reduction. Well, that ain’t gonna happen … But we could reduce our consumption of electricity. The CFLs I’ve already decided to install will help here, as will the reductions in the use of the washing machine. We can mostly wash our dishes by hand, which will reduce the use of the dishwasher (which will also help reduce water use). We could unplug all those gadgets with pilot lights so they aren’t on all the time. I promise not to leave the lights on after leaving a room (a bad habit I have). We could climb the stairs rather than use the elevator (which will be good exercise anyway). I don’t know if they offer this in Italy, but if they do I could ask to have all my electricity booked as coming from renewable energy…. OK, let’s assume 0.25 planet’s worth for all this.

Running total: 2.35 planets’ worth of reduction.

I’m running out of options here, and I still need to chop 0.55 planet’s worth out of our lifestyle!

OK, we can switch to riding bicycles around town and walking even more, so as to reduce our use of public transportation (I have us hardly using a car). Maybe we could squeeze another 0.2 planet’s worth out of our lifestyle in this way.

Running total: 2.55 planets’ worth of reduction.

Let me see, what else? … I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel here … Well, we could have a third person come and live with us. I choose this option with extreme reluctance. One of the kids would be ideal, but they probably have no desire to come and live with their parents. And anyway, they would need a job in Italy, which in this economic climate is not at all a given. Maybe we could take in a student, preferably one who is studying environmental sciences and who would enthusiastically join in the hunt for things to do to reduce our footprint. One more person in the apartment would give us 0.3 planet’s worth of reduction.

That gives us a grand total of 2.85 planets’ worth of reduction, close enough to the goal of 2.9.

That was hard, really hard! I’m making big sacrifices here. I don’t think eating much more greens will be that bad, but not being able to see the children more than once a year, that will be tough. And having to share the apartment with a stranger does not fill me with joy at all.

And therein lies the huge political problem. This all sounds like an intense diet, and as we all know diets are not greeted with joy but with mournful suffering. Who wants to do them? We need to flip this, we need to make people like me feel happy as they merrily throw out of their lives the mountain of stuff that surrounds them.

This is where the rest of Pope Francis’s Encyclical comes in. In the case of Catholics, it’s easy. He’s telling them that it is their moral duty to change their lifestyles, and he strongly suggests this to other Christians too. But to the others amongst us who are not Christians? I can do no better than quote another chunk of text:

We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

We need to start a huge campaign to persuade people of the rightness of the message “less is more”, and to have them actively wanting to drastically reduce their material needs, of feeling bad, almost sick, if they start accumulating too much. If we don’t change this basic mindset we are doomed. As the Encyclical so rightly says, there is no technical solution to climate change and other severe global environmental problems, there is only an ethical choice.

I hope this piece can be one small part of this campaign.

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Inner Mongolian family: http://fast.mediamatic.nl/f/sjnh/image/146/188097-500-400.jpg

Developed country family’s stuff: http://akkermanlc.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/7/5/12751216/4773841_orig.png (in http://akkermanlc.weebly.com/quality-of-life-project.html)

Four planets: http://image.slidesharecdn.com/foodinasustainablematerialfootprint-131011032957-phpapp01/95/food-in-sustainable-consumption-2-638.jpg?cb=1381463878 (in http://www.slideshare.net/lettenmeier/food-in-sustainable-consumption)