Journey’s end is journey’s beginning. My month sabbatical completed, I returned home Thursday to begin another journey: my pastorate with a congregation that is growing, whose distinctive voice on behalf of the marginal is very much needed in a world riven by hatreds and bigotries.
There are so many lessons from a pilgrimage (or travel) that to enumerate them all would be a disservice to them I suppose. Planning, connections, patience, risk, serendipity, boundaries, hospitality to strangers, openness to the other and God’s universal presence incapable of being grasped by any one geography, ethnicity or religion. You can tease these lessons out without having stepped foot in another country. But the physicality, the incarnational quality of actually placing oneself in a context outside of one’s comfort zone or routine is simply invaluable for receiving these lessons. A pilgrimage is a baptism of sorts where one is immersed within the language, customs, perceptions and beliefs of those who are different. It is waking up to being the stranger. The Gospel of John says in the first chapter that Christ appeared to us as a stranger. Suddenly we can loop such an insight into a theology of journey. I could go on…
I am grateful for the leadership of our church who advocated my taking a sabbatical after twenty years of service, grateful for a congregation willing to be engaged and to engage the ministry of another servant of God (Michael Kinnamon) and grateful for all who served and kept being the church in this place for this time. I will enter our sanctuary with joy tomorrow and hope and pray you will join me there, not only for our reunion but for the beginning of a new journey. Grace & peace,
postscript The picture in my post is of the cloister of the convent called The Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati. It is near the Coliseum in Rome. I had discovered it eight years ago when I traveled to Rome for the first time for my 50th birthday. I was so pleased to be near it this trip, for my hotel was just down the hill from it. My first night in Rome, I ambled up the hill and entered the small, ancient sanctuary for Vespers, led by the chants of about a dozen nuns. My first trip, however, I did not even know there was a cloister available for visiting. One day I entered its quiet, peaceful square of light and took this picture.
Saturday night, 10:30 and I’ve listened to the Adhan, the call to prayer, piped through loud speakers attached to minarets like kudzu. The night is inky, parts blue and black, white bodied gulls fly near and over the dome of the Blue Mosque and my thoughts are beginning to stray toward home where, in one week, I will be standing in a familiar pulpit with a beloved congregation.
A traveler must be careful about drawing conclusions about any place s/he visits since first impressions are often misguided. A city and a people take time to reveal themselves. That said, there are impressions and they should be freely but carefully offered. For me, Constantinople is where I wanted to travel–a place no longer in time but whose remnants can be found beneath layers of stone and centuries of art and political life. I have had some success touching Constantinople with the help of good books, the experience of being here on the ground and because Dr. Kinnamon has, while preaching and teaching to you about ecumenical life, gained me an audience with His Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I also have had the pleasure of speaking to a young man who converted to Christianity and has put me in touch with a pastor who has a small house church where on Siunday, I hope to worship. And I have had many occasions to drink tea with hospitable Turks who have invited me not only into their shops but briefly into their day and their lives. I have many more impressions but far too manny for a blog entry! The love of God and Peace of Christ unite us,
Thursday morning I will awaken at 3 o’clock in order to take a taxi at 4 o’clock in order to catch a plane to Zurich and then switch planes there so I can arrive in Istanbul. And it is true, I am going to Istanbul but in a deeper sense, I am traveling to Constantinople, the seat of the New Rome, the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity which has influenced the world more than we in the West realize. I am excited to see this great city, plundered by Venice, depended upon by Florence for the Renaissance, particularly with regard to classic Greek philosophy and interactive with Latin Christianity but alas, separated.
My time in Rome has been separated by eight years. I first came here when I was fifty. The truth is, however, this ancient city is layered by history, architecture, theology and social and political life. Digging into those layers takes time. I gladly take this metaphor and apply it to my journey since I have been digging into the layers of my self. Of what am I comprised? How does my present age change my perceptions of the world and my soul? When I remove the layers, what lies at the core of me? These and many questions are packed with my clothes and books. I take them to each city and tonight, I will take them one last time into the convent sanctuary of Quattro Coronati for Vespers and as I listen to the sisters in their black habits chant their prayers, as the dusk light of Rome filters into that ancient space and glints off ancient and faded frescoes, I’ll take my questions to God, giving thanks for a soul and a mind endowed with the power to ask, seek, knock …and find.
Having arrived in Rome after my train trip from Florence, I taxied to my hotel near the Colosseum. I had fond memories of eight years ago when, for my fiftieth birthday, I had traveled to Rome and found in my ambling about a convent, the Quattro Coronati that is a ninth century building (originally founded in the fifth century), very old obviously and humble by Roman standards. One day eight years ago, I went inside and listened to the nunns sing noon prayers. Now I realized, I had booked a simple hotel at the bottom of that hill and within minutes, walked to the convent where, at 6 pm, I had the joy of reentering the church and listening to Vespers. This was a wonderful beginning to my time in Rome.
I had the joy today (Saturday) of meeting a representative in the Pontifical Council For Promoting Unity. Dr. Kinnamon has been teaching and preaching to you in my absence about ecumenical life and our shared unity in Christ and has taken steps to connect me to those in charge of such dialogues for which I am appreciative. Who knew Baptists and Catholics were in dialogue? thanks be to God! I then walked over to St. Peter’s which was packed with pilgrims and took in the art and heft of that magnificent building. But I can truly tell you this: the power and beauty represented in that cathedral cannot come close to the beauty of genuine worship experienced in humble places like Riverside, or the convent at the top of the hill near a colloseum where Christians were martyred for their faith in Christ. Grace & Peace, ~ Pastor Bledsoe +
The train ride from Venice to Florence did not take long (about 2 hrs). As I prepared to leave Venice, I had the same feeling when I prepared to leave Zurich–I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave and wished I had more time to learn the city. That said, I also had the same feeling upon entering Florence as I did the previous two cities: wow.
As I read Colin Well’s, Sailing From Byzantium, I enter Florence, one of the culminating points for the subtitle of Well’s book, “How a Lost Empire Shaped the World.” The relationship of Venice to Constantinople (its traffic of goods, material and ideas, particularly classics by Plato and Aristotle and the scholars who could read Greek) impacted Florence since many of those things, ideas and people ended up here. And you know the rest of that story–the Renaissance was born here. The intersection that is Florence is comprised of roads that run to Venice, Constantinope, the Silk Road East and of course, the Islamic influences that began to surge through the world after the seventh century.
Since I arrived in the afternoon, I have visited the Duomo, eaten lasagna (well!), walked the lasagna off, unpacked and then visited the Museum di Palazzo Veccho, the hub of Florentine politics, economics and commerce and the palace where the Medicis lived. I toured that at 8pm until 10pm. This museum is open until midnight! what a fantastic idea. I plan to visit the church Santa Croce on Tuesday, the Basilica of San Lorenzon on Weds, take time to write, read and digest and then on Thursday afternoon I head to the Eternal City, Rome. As they say in Latin, Pax Christi ~the Peace of Christ.
Not exactly what Julius Caesar said upon his triumphant entry into Rome, but arrived in Venice not as a conqueror but a weary traveller who had awakened in Zurich at 5 a.m. To catch my train (which switched in Milan). I won’t bore you with the details of nearly missing that connection and then the slow and sometimes lumbering journey to Venice. I arrived an hour late but because I am on Sabbatical, I had no engagement other than to check into my room.
Venice is beautiful and a little smelly in May (cannot imagine what August must be like). Yesterday (Friday), I spent the morning at St Mark’s,marveling at the rich mosaics and Byzantine achitecture and then sitting atop the front ledge some six or so stories high, looking out at the piazza and reading for an hour Roger Crowley’s terrific history of Venice, City Of Fortune. That evening I took a vaporratto (a boat bus) to the Jewish ghetto. Venice was the first European city to create a ghetto where they made Jews live and locked them in at night! There was a Holocaust memorial outside in the square and as Shabbat descended, I stood near one of the two synagogues hoping to hear evening prayers. I am grateful to be able to visit in this ancient city where history slashes and swirls like the tides of water breaking into canals of lived existences.
I landed safely in Zurich Saturday morning (Zurich time). As I write, it is Tuesday evening and I have had a restful yet engaging few days of one of Europe’s most charming cities. A glacial lake, a lucid river, parks and cafes… it is easy to get used to Zurich. I didn’t come here however to vacation but to deepen my knowledge of and about the reformation city led by the great Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. I worshipped in his church, Grossmunster on Sunday (having toured it the previous day) and then the next day spent hours at Fraumunster, a church that had been founded as a Benedictine convent but was transformed into a Reform church under Zwingli’s direction. Inside Fraumunster, I was met by luminous stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall. I took a pew far in the back and meditated on these windows, my context within this historic church and city, read Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be to completion and prayed and thanked God for my father, recently deceased. It is one thing to read about these events, another to tread over the sacred ground of men and women who exhibited such courage in the face of tyranny and great odds.
I arrived Saturday morning to see the beautiful cherry trees arrayed in a multitude of pink blossoms against a blue sky. These trees are along the eastern border of the church. Last Sunday the Japanese Cherry Tree out front that Emma Wright donated a few years ago to our church was in full blossom, along with its cousins all along the Tidal Basin. The world is beautiful.
Easter is a week away. Tomorrow we begin Holy Week by marking Palm Sunday and then on Thursday is our Maundy Thursday service at 7pm. This is a holy, solemn week in which we ponder not so much the beauty of the world as the harsh truth of the inhumanity of humankind. Please be sure to join us. The services will prepare you for Easter when we baptize three people and celebrate the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
Holy Week begins with the processional on Palm Sunday (led by our children’s choir this year, directed by Chris Covell and our Howard Divinity intern, Dion Thomas). On Maundy Thursday is our Service, Stones of Remembrance, that includes communion, prayer, a meditation led by our pastor and the placement of stones on the Lord’s Table as we name aloud those dear to us who have left this mortal world. Then of course, we arrive on Easter to worship. This Easter we will baptize three persons, the choir will sing and we will give thanks to the love of God that has overcome death itself. Join us for worship. If you find the parking lot full, please park on Maine Ave. in front of the church, along the curb. Meters do not run on Sundays, so the parking is free. Let us go now to Calvary…