Thursday, March 18, 2010

O Lord, save your people...

It's Thursday morning. The team is working on clearing out yet another storage room before we depart this afternoon for Jerusalem. Much as I'd like to be out there with them, my shoulder to the wheel, I have to update this blog. I hope they can forgive me someday for leaving the heavy lifting to them...

Before bringing you up to speed on what happened yesterday, a word about last night. As I mentioned in the first of these posts, our team is staying at The Four Homes of Mercy; we pray, work, eat and sleep here. I'm the only member of the group with a private room, which is on the far side of the rooms where the others sleep. That means that I am not awoken at 4:00 each morning, as the rest are, by the amplified call to prayer. I am, however, on the windier side of the complex, and the wind roars past my windows with ferocious force all night long. I also share a wall, on my left, with one of the most troubled of the residents, a young woman with a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for screaming. Last night, the poor soul was at her blood-curdling worst. The sounds from her room were hellish. The staff, however, is used to her. This is simply how she is. Her screams may not have anything to do with pain. Screaming is simply what she does, as it were, to pass the time. Whatever the case, may God take pity on her.

Yesterday morning, the team left by bus at 7:00 for Jerusalem, to participate in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts at the Orthodox Cathedral of St James (or Iakovos), the Brother of the Lord and first bishop of the church in the Holy City. (Again, this used to be a ten-minute car ride from here; it took more than an hour, because of the new reality of the dividing wall and checkpoints and rush hour traffic.) Before leaving, I met a few more of the men who work here, as it was a shift change. One of them, named Mohammed (easily the most common name for men in these parts), was from Bethlehem, and like just about every Palestinian I've met these past days, very affable. I mistook him for the bus driver and asked when exactly we'd be heading out. He smiled and shook his head: "I wish I could go with you, but I cannot. I don't have the proper papers." Androwas informed me later that, as Mohammed is a member of Hamas who recently spent three years in prison, he would never be allowed to enter Jerusalem under the current conditions. I reacted as most Americans probably would, by thinking to myself, "And with good reason!" In fact, the day turned out to be one in which issues of justice regarding the Israeli government's treatment of displaced peoples confronted us everywhere, and my own thinking on the subject was challenged at practically every turn.

Fr Nicholas and I had been to Jerusalem the day before, to meet with Patriarch Theophilos, and Androwas, of course, was born and raised there, but for the rest of the team (with the exception of Lisa, Fr Nicholas' administrative assistant in Flagstaff, AZ, who had been here twice before, as an Evangelical Protestant), it was their first experience of it. We read en route the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120 to 134 (or 119 to 133 in the Greek numbering), sacred songs which pilgrims to the Holy City have sung for more than two millennia. Jesus and his family and his disciples would have sung them as they traveled uphill from their homes in Galilee to celebrate the Feasts of Passover or Pentecost or Tabernacles. Orthodox Christians familiar with the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts will know these psalms as they are read in three groups of five in the first part of the service, but they take on a whole new life when prayed in the Holy Land, when traveling through the hills so often referred to in them. I've been including a few minutes on one of these fifteen psalms whenever we've come together for morning or evening prayer, to help instill in us a sense of ourselves as the New Israel.

I recorded a video of our entry into the Old City by one of its seven active portals, the Damascus Gate, so called because the road that ran through it connected the two cities. I kept the camera running from our approach to the Gate until our arrival at the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around eight minutes later. Those of you not bothered by bouncy camera work can watch it on Note: we did not enter the Holy Sepulchre - that's our destination today - but turned left a few yards from the entrance, into a narrow passage leading to the Church of St James. We were met in the courtyard by Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia who introduced us to the parish priest, Fr Fanos, as well as the President of the Parish Council and the Sexton, both of whom serve as chantors and altar servers, and asked them to accommodate our group's desire for some English in the service, something they happily did. I stood in the altar for the service while Fr Nicholas contributed a good helping of English from the chantor's stand. (By the way, we found out afterwards that Mr George Kamar, the Sexton or Neokoros, who assisted the priest from within the sanctuary, is also the Mukhtar or Mayor of the Palestinian Christian community of Jerusalem!) The church itself dates back to the time of St Helena, and includes a chapel dedicated to the Myrrhbearing Women, who according to tradition watched the Crucifixion of Christ from the spot where the chapel now stands, and one dedicated to the Forty Martys of Sebastea (not the Sebastia in Northern Palestine of which Theodosios is hierarch, but a place in Armenia), which houses a large reliquary in which are contained the remains of many, if not most, of the past Patriarchs of Jerusalem.

Following coffee with the parishioners of St James and a tour of the church by the Muhta, we brunched at a little shop specializing in hummus. (We had, I'm told, half-a-dozen varieties of the stuff, but I don't have a discriminating enough palette to know how - or even if! - they differed from each other. I'm pretty sure none of them were mesquite or teriyaki.) We then returned to our bus outside the walls of the Old City, where we were joined by Nora Carmi, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian who works with Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center ( Nora took us to several sites in greater Jerusalem which bear witness to the unjust and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, by the state of Israeli throughout the past several decades. This was easily the most challenging part of the trip for me, as I kept arguing (for the most part, within myself) that the Jewish story was being misrepresented, even distorted and the responsibilities of Palestinian Arabs for much of the current state of affairs were being minimized or ignored. The cumulative weight of the injustices and outrages perpetrated by the most fanatic Zionists and Israelis over the past century eventually, however, cannot but overwhelm any person of conscience. Perhaps the most unsettling experience of the trip so far involved a visit to a Palestinian family that had been evicted from their East Jerusalem home of over fifty because their paperwork (from the time the property was part of Jordan) didn't satisfy current Israeli requirements. Members of the ousted family keep a daily vigil across the street from their home, which is currently occupied by a very threatening group of Israeli settlers. While we were talking to some of the homeless women, a burly man of about thirty burst out of the house armed with a video camera with which he recorded, in a manner clearly intended to intimidate, all of our faces. Members of our team responded by video recording his actions. The Palestinian (Muslim) women who are the principal onjects of his wrath maintained their dignity and merely waved peace signs at him. A Norwegian man working for the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel ( who was also present to express solidarity with the women smiled sadly and told me that the settlers had blasted a song out of their new home the night before which sang the praises of a Jewish settler who had recently killed 29 Palestinians singlehandedly. It was, all in all, an unnerving experience, and one we will certainly carry around in our hearts for a long time to come.

We returned to The Homes for prayer, dinner, and a final session for the day: a talk by Revd David M. Neuhaus, SJ, a Latin Catholic (as Roman Catholics are called here), the son of German Jewish parents who had escaped to South Africa before the outbreak of the Second World War, and who had been sent by them came to study in Hebrew in Israel a little over thirty years ago. He converted to Christianity and has since become fluent in Arabic as well. His loving but critical perspective of the behavior of his fellow Jews was fascinating, and offered a much appreciated counterpoint to the talks we had heard so far from Palestinian Arabs themselves.

This will have to do for now, as we are about to leave for an afternoon in Jerusalem. We will begin today's pilgrimage at Gethsemane and proceed from there to Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 121/122:6)

Last night, we were honored by a visit from His Eminence Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia, currently the only Palestinian Orthodox hierarch of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Archbishop Theodosios is a charismatic and controversial leader who is often in the news here. In the early 00's, Theodosios, an Archimandrite at the time, was a leading critic of then-Patriarch Ireneos for his alleged involvement in the sale of Christian property in the Old City to a Zionist organization, and was a contributing force in Ireneos' deposition in 2005. With the election of the current Patriarch, Theophilos III, Theodosios was elevated to the episcopacy and named Archbishop of Sebastia, a village of Palestinian Christians in the northern part of the West Bank. As the only hierarch of the Jerusalem Patriarchate at present who is a native Palestinian, he is enormously popular among the Patriarchate's overwhelmingly Palestinian flock.

The Archbishop's English is limited, but his Greek is fluent, as he studied for several years at the University of Thessalonika. He and I conversed extensively before calling the group together for the Small Compline in the Chapel. After joining us for a simple meal in the staff cafeteria downstairs, we reconvened in a meeting room on the floor above the residents quarters for a talk about the plight of the Palestinian Christians, the forgotten Christians of the Holy Land. According to the Archbishop, Christians of all denominations make up less than 1% of the population of Israel and the West Bank. Speaking in Arabic through his interpreter Androwas, he spoke of his love for people of all faiths, and of his love for the Jewish people. Time and again he reminded us that "our grievance is not with the Jewish people or the Jewish faith, but with the oppressive policies of the occupiers." He expressed his great gratitude to the group for its ministry of loving service to the least of the Palestinians, those forgotten by their own families, the residents of The Four Homes.

The Archbishop was kind enough to set up a meeting with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem for myself and Fr Nicholas at 11:00 this morning. (As visiting Orthodox clergymen, protocol requires that we we present evidence of our good standing with our jurisdictions and receive the blessing of the local hierarch before taking part in any worship services in his jurisdiction.) Although the Patriarchate is only a few minutes from here by car, we will be leaving an hour early, to allow for the more circuitous route necessitated by the dividing wall, and for the heightened security we will encounter upon entering the Old City. Apparently today the cornerstone will be laid for the Third Temple of Israel (following those of King Solomon and Herod Antipas), a move perceived by Muslims the world over as threatening the existence of one of their holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock. What a day for my first visit to the City of David!

While Fr Nicholas and I are with His Beatitude, the group will work on another project, this time sorting through a storeroom of medical supplies to determine which are still useful and which to be discarded. By the time we rejoin the group in early afternoon, we hope the five who couldn't travel with us on Sunday will have arrived from the States, bringing our group up to its full count of fifteen students and three administrators.

To be continued.... (hopefully)

It's nearly 11pm local time, the end of another long and rich day.

Fr Nicholas and I entered Jerusalem by the Jaffe Gate, one of seven entries to the Old City, and the one closest to the Christian Quarter. We were met there by a Palestinian Christian woman named Nadia, who serves as treasurer (of, as she puts it, a non-existent treasury!) for the Board of The Four Homes of Mercy. The administrative offices of The Four Homes are close to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Nadia had been asked last night by Archbishop Theophilos to ask as our guide to it. Within minutes we were at the Patriarchate, a building of great beauty. We were taken into a large and stately reception room where His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III greeted the three of us with great warmth and invited us to remain as he addressed a group of a dozen Greek pediatricians who were visiting Israel, most of them for the first time, to take part in a professional symposium in Tel Aviv. Following that group's departure, we were invited by His Beatitude to meet with him in his adjoining office, where he spoke with us for nearly an hour. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the work of The Four Homes and was greatly appreciative of the OCF's involvement in its ministry. He also granted us permission to serve in the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre beginning this Saturday at around midnight and concluding in the early hours of Sunday. We left his company somewhat dazed by his largesse. I can still hardly believe the enormity of this blessing!

There's so much left to say, and so little time left in which to say it! We will be leaving for the Old City as a complete group - the five who couldn't make the plane last Saturday arrived while Fr Nicholas and I were at the Patriarchate - at 7 am, so that we can be at the Church of St James the Brother of the Lord for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts at 8 am. I'll post another entry, God willing, late tomorrow afternoon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beginning, again

I begin this blog again on the afternoon of my first full day in Israel as part of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship's Real Break: Jerusalem. From the window on my right, a few kilometers of rugged terrain away, through a cloud of dust kicked up by howling winds, beyond a stretch of recently constructed - and much hated - wall separating Israel proper from the West Bank, I can see the Mount of Olives, topped by the tower of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension. On the far side of the Mount, invisible from here, is Jerusalem, the Holy City of David. From my left, beyond a partition of frosted glass, I hear the siren-like shrieks of a young Palestinian woman with a severe neurological disorder, accompanied from time to time by shouting and screaming from other inhabitants of the institution where our group will be staying for the rest of this week. Greetings from the Four Homes of Mercy, a Palestinian Orthodox residential facility for Palestinians with a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional, and neurological disorders, in the West Bank city of Bethany.

It was here in Bethany that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 12), and the Church built on the site of Lazarus' Tomb is not even a mile from where we're staying. A chapel across from a Russian Orthodox Monastery marks the spot where Jesus was met by Lazarus' sisters Martha and Mary on his way to the tomb where his friend had been buried four days previously.

The presence of The Four Homes here is itself a kind of miracle, about which I'll have more to say in future posts. For now let me just note that it is a Palestinian Orthodox Christian home for those with severe physical and mental disabilities, supported by donations from many, including Anglican and Episcopalian Christians and the Palestinian Authority, and serving the needs - by means of a largely Muslim staff - of over eighty men, women and children, from ages 3 to 94, nearly all of whom are Palestinian Muslims.

Our OCF group arrived last night, around 8 pm, from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Correction: most of our team arrived last night. Hard weather across much of the country on Sunday grounded four of the fifteen college students who had signed up for this Real Break, and they won't be joining us until early tomorrow afternoon. We were met at the airport by a young Palestinian Orthodox man named Androwas, the Arabic version of Andreas, who worked with OCF Director Fr Kevin Scherer and RB: Jerusalem Team Leader Fr Nicholas Andruchow of Flagstaff, Arizona to put together our program. Androwas is a native of Jerusalem of Bedouin descent who grew up, as he proudly puts it, two doors down from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He works for the United Nations here, helping Palestinians process claims for the disruption to their lives caused by the construction of the previously mentioned wall. (Some have been separated from their families a few hundred yards away, others from the properties on which they depend for their livelihood.) He was a member of OCF when he studied business in Memphis, Tennessee, and is very supportive of its mission. It's in large part thanks to his collaboration with Fr Kevin that this trip is happening. He is a longtime friend and supporter of this unique institution, and prays that its work and needs will become more widely known about and supported as a result of this Real Break.

Of the 11 OCF members here already, I've worked with five on previous Real Breaks. (For those who might not know about OCF and the Real Break Program, check out Kat, a Priest's Kid from Kentucky, was part of the group that helped restore the Church of The Mother of God, "Lady of the Heavens," in Constantinople two years, and Madeleine (a fellow Hoosier), Adrienne (a Californian Serb), Nicholas from New jersey and Alex from Las Vegas were with me last year when we restored order to a frequently vandalized Christian cemetery in Constantinople. Fr Nicholas knows several others from previous Real Breaks to countries south of the US border. So there are several overlapping circles of friends, and happily no cliques. Newcomers become old friends in a matter of hours. This is a good group, as were the last two I accompanied. This is a good program.

Our first evening here was spent getting situated in our rooms - one room for the men, another for the ladies, and a third for The Bishop - sharing a simple Lenten meal of humus, fava beans and pita bread in the staff dining room in the basement, praying the service of the Small Compline in the Four Homes' Chapel, and reflecting on our experiences in the large common room. Even the most seasoned travelers had something to say about the experience of flying from New York's JFK with a plane full of devout Jews to the Holy Land. Many of us were seated directly in front of rows of men who stood praying at designated points during the eleven-hour flight. I had the fascinating experience of finding myself seated between, to my right, a young bearded man with long side curls and a broad-rimmed hat in a shiny frock coat, exposed tassels and knee-length breeches, and on my left a Jewish man who had lived more than twenty years in Israel who was returning for the first time in a decade to visit his aged parents there, having left at home his Russian Orthodox Christian wife and their eleven-year-old daughter, who was being raised to speak Hebrew and worship in the Orthodox Church. You can hardly tell the players without a program!

Nearly everyone commented during the first evening's wrap-up on the experience of crossing from Israel into the West bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority. The quality of the roads and buildings and landscaping changed in a matter of seconds. The transition was swift and brutal. We were rattled by it, and aren't soon likely to forget it.

This morning, after prayer in the Chapel and a light breakfast, Androwas and his friend Omar, another Palestinian Orthodox Christian with a strong commitment to social justice, provided us with an orientation, reviewed with us the schedule for the week ahead, and got us started on our specific tasks. The plan is to spend the next couple of mornings on maintenance work, and afternoons interacting with the few residents here (less than 20 out of 80) who, despite the severity of their disabilities, can to some degree communicate with and respond positively to others. The first major project turned out to be the removal from storage of some fifty wheelchairs along with a seemingly endless number of chairs and tables and cupboards and the like, all in need of repair. An hour or so into that project, a dozen residents were brought out in their wheelchairs to sit in the sun and play simple games and exercises, like passing a red hula hoop around in a circle. Our team took a break from their labors to go meet the residents. We had been advised during our orientation that it would take time for us to acclimate ourselves to the condition of the residents, and there can be no denying that it is a distressing experience to meet them for the first time. Their eagerness to communicate with us, however, pulled us right out of ourselves. Some of whom spoke rudimentary English and were shouting questions to us: "What you name? Where you from? I'm Jamil!" or Mahmoud or Fatima, or Omar, Muhammed, or Miriam. Before long, one of the nurses put on CD of Arabic dance music, and for a beautiful quarter hour the place was rocking. The pleasure on the faces of the residents was intense and the joy it gave us was immediate and real and will stay with us.

There's so much more to say, but this will have to do for now. Tomorrow is another long day!

Remember us in your prayers!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oh, babe, I hate to go...

[T]he tourist, despite all his claims to want to see the "real Florence," isn't interested in its urban sprawl; he is interested in what [art historian] Bernard Berenson called "conoscing," the object of which is the discovery of unsuspected marvels.... He wants to bring home, if not photographic evidence, then at least the interior knowledge that he has partaken of all the marvels that Florence has to offer - as if it were possible in the course of a single human life.

And what marvels there are! Astonishingly, Florence houses almost a fifth of the world's art treasures. A fifth! A thorough Florentine itinerary takes in architecture, sculpture and painting, major museums (The Bargello and the Uffizi), as well as small ones (the Stibbert and the Horne), public buildings, palaces and innumerable churches, Botticellis and Leonardos and Michelangelos and Giottos and Massaccios and Fra Angelicos and Gozzolis and Pontormos and Donatellos... And even if you see all of these things, even if you stay in Florence a year, or five years, there will be something that you've missed, some remote church known only to the cognoscenti..., about which you will be informed only the eve of your departure.

D. Leavitt, Florence, A Delicate Case (Bloomsbury 2002), pp. 22-23

It's all over but the shouting. I leave for Rome by car tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., and from Rome for New York 5 hours later. Am I ready? I'll be packed in another hour, tops, but I'm not ready. Oh, sure, I miss family and friends, but I will miss so much that i found here. You know, I went for a whole month without getting into a car or bus or train or an elevator or on an escalator on bike or skateboard or scooter or Segway. I walked everywhere. What's more, everywhere I walked was interesting. I'm going to miss that. (Which is not to say Manhattan's not interesting! It is, after all, the Center of the Universe. Still, it's not the same.)

I'm not going to go on and on about what I'll miss here. I could, but I won't. I'll wait until I actually miss it, then I'll let you know about it.

Before I sign off, I owe those of you who expected some kind of closure, a tying off of narrative threads or themes I introduced in earlier entries and left incomplete, with promises to tie them off eventually, an apology. I simply didn't have the time or talent to pull it all off in so short a time. I mean, I only started this blog a little more than seven weeks ago, and I've posted (with this one) 35 entries, several videos, and a number of photos. That's a post, plus extras, every 4 days or so! Not bad for a guy on sabbatical. Still, it's not what I promised, and for those of you who might be disappointed, again, I apologize. Of course, there's nothing to prevent me from trying to fulfill my promise in the few weeks remaining to me before I return to work. In fact, unless there are any strong objections out there, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to say what I have to say about Dante and the Council of Florence and the Medicis and the Church in Italy and Venice and the Patriarchate in Constantinople and what it all has to do with - yes! - Savonarola, for anyone who gives a darn out there. Tell you what: if you want me to continue, to bring this project to completion, give me no sign. If I don't hear from enough of you within, say, the next week, I'll assume your moral support. Alright then: you have one week not to stop me, starting... NOW.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Naked Truth

No one can leave Florence without having encountered Michelangelo's "David," whether it be the original marble statue in the Accademia Gallery, or the exact marble replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original stood from its unveiling in 1504 until it was transferred to the Accademia in 1873, or the bronze replica that has stood at the Piazza Michelangelo, across the Arno and down the hill from San Miniato, for the past century. And should you somehow manage to miss all three of these giants, if you have the gift of sight, you cannot escape his image, in whole or part, in plaster or bronze miniatures of various sizes, on postcards, calendars, posters, magnets, neckties, scarves, boxer shorts, bath towels, chef's aprons. The single most popular work of art in Florence, if not the whole of Italy, "David" is certainly among the most famous nudes in the history of sculpture, with the Venus de Milo, Discus Thrower, the Artemision Bronze of Poseidon (or Zeus), Hermes of Praxiteles, and Rodin's Thinker his only conceivable competition.

Have you ever wondered why Michelangelo carved this Old Testament figure as a nude? I used to think it was simply a matter of returning to ancient GrecoRoman artistic standards and ideals, which was, after all, what the Renaissance was for the most part about. Since coming to Florence, however, I find there may be more to David's nudity than meets the eye. It's just possible that the artist is trying to communicate a truth about God and faith.

It's worth mentioning here that Michelangelo wasn't the first artist of his time to carve David in the all-together. That distinction goes to Donatello, who, my careful readers will recall, was responsible for several of the great sculptures adorning the Church of Orsanmichele: St Mark, St George, St Louis of Toulouse (now in the Basilica of Santa Croce). In fact, Donatello made two sculptures of David. In the earlier version, Donatello depicted the young shepherd, who he carved out of marble, wearing in a kind of leather armor and wrapped around with a cloak of animal skin; he looks not unlike the even-earlier St George, except that David's stance is less confrontational than the soldier saint, more relaxed, graceful. The contest, after all, is behind him; Goliath's severed head lies at his feet. It was Donatello's second David, however, produced 35 years after his first, that made art history, as both the first free-standing bronze sculpture and the first monumental nude in more than a millenium. This second David is not as tall or as mature as his previous marble incarnation, and would be dwarfed sixty years later by Michelangelo's 17-foot version. He's a little more than five feet tall, dark where the other two are light, and, well, very effeminate. His long hair (today as dark as his body, but originally distinguished from it by, as it were, a gold leaf dye job) falls over his shoulders and down his back, and his chest and hips could be those of a girl on the verge of adolescence. His smile and stance are coquettish, and an enormous wing from the dead giant Goliath's helmet climbs up his inner leg - something one couldn't help but notice in the original, as it, too, was highlighted in gold - in a frankly indecent manner. Those goldie locks and that titillating feather are more noticeable now than they have been for centuries. The Bargello Museum, where many of Donatello's greatest works are on display, only last week unveiled a newly renovated David, the result of a year of cleaning and polishing by the most modern techniques, including laser. It was during the restoration that experts confirmed the evidence of gold flakes in the hair and on other parts of the composition, but rather than reapply the gold, the museum decided to make an exact replica of the original, and to present it as it would have looked in 1445, when Donatello delivered it to - who else? - Cosimo de' Medici, the first politically active member of the impossibly wealthy (and therefore powerful) family that was to dominate Florentine and eventually European politics for the next three centuries. The replica stands a few feet behind the original, and on a slightly higher pedestal. The Bargello doesn't allow cameras, and although we know that hasn't stopped me before, because the unveiling took place just a few days ago, security is a little tighter than it was at San Marco's for the Fra Angelico fresco, so I decided not to risk it. There are, however, plenty of images on the net. Just google "Donatello David" and see for yourself. It's not just me, right? It's kind of creepy.

Back to the theological. What is it about a naked David that communicates a theological truth? To understand that, let's look at the Old Testament passage that describes David's preparation to confront the outsized enemy of his people. In I Samuel 17, after King Saul learns that the young shepherd David has accepted the Phillistine champion's challenge to one-on-one combat:
Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.” Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine (1 Samuel 17:37-40, NIV translation).

Scripture tells us that David divested himself of armor; we aren't told that he put on any other clothes, therefore, we are meant to understand (a literalist would argue) that David went to meet the heavily-armored giant with nothing but the items described: his shepherd's bag, staff, sling, and five stones. He needed no other armor: the Lord was his shield and buckler; the Lord was his defense at his right hand. The fact that Donatello's victorious David (Goliath's helmeted head is on the ground at his feet) doesn't boast a he-man's physique serves to underline the fact that his victory is God's. With God on his side, even a naked sissy is a force to be reckoned with.

Michelangelo's David tells a slightly different story. Like Donatello's St George, this David is bracing himself for confrontation. His brow is furrowed as he looks to his left for his foe. (The Lord is his defense at his right hand.) His perfectly fit body is tense. His battle has yet to be fought. This David is even more exposed to danger than Donatello's, who is wearing a hat and what look like metal shin guards. This David has clearly decided to meet his enemy clothed only in his faith in a God who delivers who He loves. But David is bringing his best to the encounter. He knows in his heart that God will fight with him, but he knows as well that that does not absolve him from the responsibility of engaging in the conflict with all his mind and all his strength. His expression communicates to us that he has no illusions about the strength of his opponent; his nudity communicates to us, or ought to, anyway, his confidence in the victory. If God with him, who can be against him?

Alas, when we look on David today, we're not predisposed to see in his nakedness anything other than an absence. Unless, however, we can see him as he sees himself, clothed in God's might, he becomes, for all his beauty, slightly ridiculous: a man caught for eternity with his pants down.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reviewing "A Room with a View"

I'll be spending a good bit of tomorrow writing up my experiences of the last two days here in Constantinople - the ordination of Deacon Nyphon (ne Nikolaos) Tsimalis on Saturday and the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-called on Sunday - before turning my attention back to Florence as I conclude my two months there. Today, however, is a travel day. I leave in a few minutes for the Istanbul airport, where I'll get an early afternoon flight to Rome, from where I'll catch a train to Florence. I should be back in my apartment on the Via delle Terme in 8 or 9 hours.

A friend who reads this blog was kind enough to send my this link to an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times. Those of you who know the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, "A Room with a View," and the even more wonderful E.M. Forster novel from which it was adapted will, I'm sure, enjoy this:

Until tomorrow!

Friday, November 28, 2008

In The City (there's a thousand things I want to say to you)

It's gone by many names over the course of its 2600-year existence: Byzantion, for its mythical founder, Byzas; New Rome, for the role it was to play in the restructured Empire; then Constantinople, after the Emperor who willed that new role and restructuring; and most recently Stamboul, then Istanbul, from the Greek "eis tin Poli," "(in) The City," as that was how the conquering Turks heard its inhabitants refer to it. Even today, for Greeks the world over, it is simply The City.

Wherever I look here, I can't help wondering what I would be seeing if I were standing on the same spot at another moment in The City's history: a hundred years ago, before the fall of the Sultanate and the birth on the secular Turkish state, when more than a third of its one million inhabitants were Greeks and Armenians (today, there are 1500 Greeks, and far fewer Armenians, in a population of 15 million); 560 years ago, before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks; 810 years ago, before its sacking by the armies of the 4th Crusade; 1480 years ago, before the fires of the Nika Riots burned to the ground an earlier version of the Church of Haghia Sophia; 1680 years ago, as Constantine the Great was creating from the raw material of an ancient Greek city a New Rome, even grander than the Old; 2500 years ago, when the hill on which Haghia Sophia now stands was the site of a temple dedicated to a pagan goddess. I wish there was a way of pealing back the layers, like transparencies in an anatomy textbook, lifting away first the skin of the present, then the various systems of the past, and so on until the bones.

In fact, there is a website that makes it possible to envision The City as it may have looked at its most glorious, from an Orthodox Christian or Byzantinist perspective: The purpose of the site is to provide as best as possible, based on physical remains, historic descriptions, and artists' renderings, reconstructions of buildings as they might have appeared in Constantinople on the eve of its sacking by the Crusaders in 1204. Those of you who checked out the wikipedia article on the Milion mentioned in one of my previous entries will have seen that nothing remains of that great monument but a broken and scarred marble pillar. Go to, read the "Important Notice," click on "contents" from the column on the left, and then click on item no. 40, "Milion." See what I mean? The site is especially helpful for the Hippodrome, of which only three monuments remain; the Great Palace, on the site of which the Blue Mosque now stands; and the Blachernae Palace complex, of which there is only a single wall today.

Certainly the greatest monument The City has ever produced is the Great Church of Haghia Sophia. It is referred to as the Great Church rather than as the Cathedral, because that title belongs to the nearby church of Haghia Eirene. (Neither of these churches, by the way, is dedicated to a woman saint. Haghia Sophia is the Holy Wisdom of Christ, and Haghia Eirene is His Holy Peace. Both of these attributes, Wisdom and Peace, are in the Greek language feminine, and are also used as names for women; hence the confusion.) It was, famously, the overwhelming beauty of the building and of the worship that took place within it that won the Russian people for Orthodoxy. The Tsar's emissaries, upon experiencing the Divine Liturgy as celebrated within the Great Church, reported back to him that they didn't know whether they were in heaven or on earth, so powerfully were they moved by the symphony of sights and sounds being conducted in its massive yet miraculously open space. The building itself is the third church of the same name on the same site; the previous two were largely wooden structures which were brought down by fires set by rioters. The present structure was built in the unbelievably short period of 5 years, between 532 and 537, during the reign of Justinian the Great. For over 900 years, it was the most magnificent Christian temple in the world. For nearly 500 years after the capture of The City by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was one of the world's most important mosques. For the past 70 years, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Turkish state, it has been a museum, though still decorated as if it were a mosque. Once again, wikipedia offers an excellent survey of the Church and its long history (, and there is an impressive virtual tour available on line as well, at (If you've never done a virtual tour, the trick is to point your cursor in the direction you want to go, then click.)

If I had arrived in The City on November 24, 1437, exactly 571 years to the day before I actually arrived this past Monday, I would have been just in time to witness a singularly spectacular sight: The Holy Roman Emperor John VIII Paleologus and His All-Holiness Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople boarding separate ships, with an entourage of hundreds of hierarchs, clergymen, lay theologians, noblemen and courtiers from throughout the Orthodox Christian East. They would have been preparing to set sail for Italy, to attend a Council summoned by Pope Eugenius IV for the purpose of healing a schism between the Churches of East and West that had been in effect, technically speaking, since Sunday, July 16, 1054, when three papal legates disrupted the Divine Liturgy in Haghia Sophia by depositing a Bull of Excommunication on the Holy Altar before storming out of the building. And I will be returning to the sad story of what happened in that Council when I myself return to Italy early next week!