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Europe

As I Am

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Before I even left for this wondrous and harrowing adventure, I was struggling with the idea that my spirituality wasn’t up to snuff. The struggle became more prominent after a mere two weeks. My devout classmates made me question my interactions with God. Was I only paying the bare minimum dues or was I not even close?

Through prayer, I ask for strength, then I try to remember to show gratitude. That’s the extent of our relationship. Sharing my spirituality is hard, so anything besides silent prayer makes me feel more awkward than usual. This will be the first time I publicly talk about my faith and quite possibly the last (depending on the response I get).

In Florence, I came face to face with Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene. She was wretched – nothing but skin, bones, and scraggly hair. She was pleading through her brokenness, pleading for someone to give her a chance. She was beautiful.

Penitent Magdalene

 

She helped me realize that I should not be ashamed to approach God as I am. My spirituality doesn’t look like my peers’, but why should that mean it isn’t valid? Mary Magdalene was readily accepted by God despite her sinful past. I had spent so much time worried that I would be barred from heaven for a whole lot less.

My spirituality is not less because it is private. I can praise God behind closed doors and not feel guilty because others sing for the world to hear. I’m not a bad Christian because I don’t have the Bible memorized. These are things I’m trying to believe. If Mary Magdalene found her own way to live faithfully, then I can too.

Different Deities Have Dignity Too

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I was perfectly content admiring the depictions of Christ in just about every section of Western European history in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Each one was beautiful to me, and I took a moment to give attention to each piece. When I began to walk down a hall filled with images of Hindu gods, I did not have the same reaction. I thought they were boring, portraying the same four armed goddesses over and over again. As if struck with lightning, I suddenly realized how hypocritical that was!

Vasudhara

I would feel indignant if someone looked at the medieval crucifixes and thought they were uninteresting because it was the same image of a man on a cross, but I was completely refusing to connect with the Hindu art because they weren’t my culture. To think the gods of another culture are boring without making an effort to understand them disrespects what they mean to the people who hold it as a symbol intrinsic to their faith and culture. Even if I do not agree or even understand the images, it does not mean that they are any less worthy of dignity and respect.

The goddess I got to know is the goddess of abundance, Vasudhara; her name means “holding the treasure”, because in her arms she holds symbols of knowledge, teaching, and fertility. These are virtues that both Hindu and Christian culture can agree are treasures worth asking a deity for an abundance of.

History is Deep and the World Was Created by Others

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Traveling through a continent with thousands of years of documented history as a 24 year-old North American causes you to feel small in the right way. We are traveling through these cities (London, Barcelona, Rome, Perugia and now Vienna) which have been here since at least the Roman times and in the cases of Rome and Perugia even further back (Rome was founded in ~700bc).

The theme for our travel term this time is ‘seeing the other’ and really I think this theme is more of a skill or a practice that one takes part in all the way through your life’s journey. Whether at home or abroad, learning to grasp another’s reality, or at least to attempt to imaginatively empathize with their experiences, is so valuable. In this process, of seeing from another’s perspective, in sharing experiences and dialoguing, we are enabled to encounter wonder, depth, worth and excitement anew.

Discovering how artwork, a stroll down a city street or a tour of medieval Italy is meaningful or impactful for someone else in a way that is other than your experience is integral aspect of learning to come to a deeper sense of appreciation. Sometimes, it’s not a thing in and of itself that we find alluring or intriguing, but rather the dialogue, passion and curiosity that surrounds it that we feel drawn to.

This travel term has had many rich and deep points of contact with history. Coming into contact with the ways in which peoples of the past interacted with the world around them (in  building great Cathedrals, vast underground metro systems, communal squares, elaborate statues or tower-houses) and contemplating these past lives together has helped to deepen my desire to know more about the lives of those who lived life together before us. For me, it’s here in this question where ‘seeing the other’ becomes a journey into a great unknown.

As I explore and learn more and more about what people’s lives were like in the past, and who they were, I find that I come to deeper sense and appreciation for where I am now and how the world I’m existing in came to be built. I find that I come to a better sense of who I am and how I am supposed to function in this world that has been passed down to me. We don’t need to be overly nostalgic or lost in the past but we also can’t be historical amnesiacs. We should know, how the society we have inherited was created, otherwise we’re less likely to steward it properly, or hand it on to our grandkids in a respectful manner.

 

Seeing A Lot More of the Other Than Expected

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Nudity. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting it. After all, Rick Steves does warn his readers in his book, Travel as a Political Act, about the German baths that he went to and the couple both stripping down shamelessly in front of him as if it was nothing (at least that’s how I envisioned it). I was expecting (or at least aware of it coming to Europe), but I guess it just feels different living it out when you’re in the midst of it.

Whether it is tourists feeling the freedom of being in a place no one knows them or a different cultural value placed on nakedness, it is a sight that anyone needs to prepare for before coming. The normalisation of nakedness in Europe made me wonder whether nakedness is more taboo in North America. Some people might see it as a dirty thing, however I think a significant percentage of people believe the human body to be good, beautiful and true, and that it is worth protecting its sacredness.

Some might believe their body’s sacredness should be protected, but if you’re ever visiting any European beaches, be ready to possibly witness the freedom exercised by grannies with no tan lines, or any age or gender for that matter.

Travelling Well

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I’ve been learning a lot about tourism and the different effects that it has on the local people of each region. This trip to Europe has shown me that there are both pros and cons to the growing convenience of travel. There is a stark contrast between well known tourist destinations and other cities that are off the beaten path.

While London, Rome, and Barcelona are packed with fascinating historical and cultural icons, I have heard from locals and I have felt as a tourist myself that the identities of the people of these famous cities have been altered due to the impact of tourists. Catering to herds of tourists each day has stretched the patience of some, and being confronted with homemade posters saying “Tourists, go home” has left me pondering some bigger questions about intercultural competence.

In these classic tourist areas, I can see that it is important to be respectful and aware that while, yes, Westminster Abbey is amazing, there are busy local people also sharing the same sidewalk! To me, travelling well has become a balance of taking in the sights and sounds of each place while practicing blending in with the local rhythms of daily life. I am still working on the skills it takes to be a better tourist, but it is exciting to take steps in the right direction.

Tourizing a Culture: Juxtaposition of Tourism and Pilgrimage

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Tourizing a Culture… interesting title, you may say. This guy has issues with tourism. Does he not understand that he is a tourist himself on this European excursion.The answer is that I do have an issue with tourism, and I do not consider myself a tourist. I’ll explain. Okay, so, it may be true that I fit the tourist stereotype with my camouflage backpack, cutoff jeans and water bottle (that leaks when you lay it on its side). Whether or not I look like a tourist, I don’t feel like one (or I don’t like to feel like one). What defines me as an other-than-tourist is my disposition of heart.

Okay, so if you’re not a tourist, than what do you define yourself as? A hillbilly lemming or a student just wanting to complete his BA? Though both terms may be moderately accurate, I define myself as a pilgrim.

What’s the difference then between being a tourist or a pilgrim? From my experience on this European adventure, and from many academic discussions with profs and peers on this topic, I have concluded a pilgrim to be a giver and a tourist to be a consumer. As I mentioned, the defining feature between a tourist and pilgrim is disposition of heart. The monks of Montserrat, Spain, define a pilgrim “as a person on an outward journey with an internal quest“.

A pilgrim intentionally seeks inner transformation through geography, place, culture and its history.

A pilgrim has to outwardly seek experience other than his or her own with an intentional curiosity and with a desire for inner transformation. She then can encounter place, culture and history as gift.

A pilgrim allows his experience to transcend his spirit, while a tourist allows their experience to expand their photo collection and trinket accumulation while encountering cultural history from a place of ignorance. Tourists ignorantly rob culture of its voice and history by making “cultural experience” a sport.

“A pilgrim has to outwardly seek experience other than his or her own with an intentional curiosity and with a desire for inner transformation.”

It saddens me to visit historical hallmarks such as St. Paul’s cathedral in London, England, and the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, as being caterers to tourism rather than sites of pilgrimage.

Visiting Assisi, Italy, we were greeted as “dear pilgrims” by a Fransician priest, Fr. Klaus. It hit me that my being here was not to seek out what I could consume from Assisi, but to listen to what Assisi wanted to say to me personally in relation to the whole of humanity in its wonderful difference. It is apparent that Christ spoke to St. Francis through the iconographic crucifix of San Damiano, asking Francis “to rebuild my Church that is falling into ruin around you”. I waited in the silence of San Damiano and there I heard the place and its history speak. It spoke the same words “rebuild my Church”. Because I did not go looking for what was lost to me, I was found.

This place and culture revealed to me my internal quest. After this experience I stepped into a “tourist” shop with a pilgrim’s heart and carefully chose a San Damiano cross as a reminder that I, like St. Francis and so many other pilgrims of beauty, am meant to rebuild Christ’s Church (an expression of love) by sharing the gift of love with all those I meet and think about. As I approach life, cultures and humanity in this way, I hope to become a competent giver and not a tourizer.

A Vast Empire

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I remember the first time I ever saw a Roman aqueduct. When I was about six or seven years old my family took a trip through Syria. I specifically remember being really excited about it because we had learned about them in class not long before. It was three arches high and seemed to stretch on forever.

Being from a place that was no stranger to Roman ruins, I found a particular interest in these systems. The first running water in history and how much these masterpieces have shaped society all around the world is fascinating to think about.

Yesterday we toured the town of Perugia, in Italy. When we were heading to supper, I had the great joy of getting to walk on one that had been turned into a path. As I stood on the cobblestone path built so long ago, I was instantly brought back to seeing the aqueducts in the Middle East. In the moment of reminiscing on childhood memory one thought came to me. I was just in Rome the other day, and now I’m standing in one of the greatest architectural achievements of their empire. Thinking back to the ones in Syria I was suddenly hit with the true span of the empire the Romans had. Thinking about how far away the Middle East is and how they have the same things built by the same people really hit me hard. I always knew the Romans had a massive empire that reached the Middle East, but thinking about how far away I am has been on my mind lately. These last few days have really put into perspective for me how vast and great the empire truly was.

Legacy. What is a Legacy?

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I’ve been thinking about death a lot, or more accurately what happens to us, to our stories, after death. Our trip to Park Güell and the Sagrada Família has been no exception.

Not knowing anything about Park Güell I was overjoyed to find myself amongst whimsical buildings. I felt as though I had stepped into a Dr. Suess book. Not only was this park aesthetically stunning, but it had been built to be fully functional as well. Antoni Gaudí had fully intended this park to be finished and lived in and it broke my heart a bit that his design wasn’t being fulfilled to its greatest potential. It is an amazing achievement but it felt like something was missing.

From there we headed to the Sagrada Família. Actually being there and seeing it with my own eyes was better than I ever could have imagined. There are so many details that you just don’t see in pictures. The way he uses light through the stained glassed windows to flood the whole auditorium with colour is indescribable.

Sagrada Família

There is a line in a musical that I think about when I think of Gaudí. It goes: “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Gaudí’s legacy is not his untimely death or his unfulfilled Park Güell. It is the Sagrada Família, a grand church that is well before his time. The people who have recognized the genius of his design have carried on the construction of the church for over a hundred years. They tell his story, they carry on his legacy. Through them, through the Sagrada Família, he lives.

If I Ruled the World

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If I ruled the world, how would I do it? How could I lead a multi-everything society without excluding or “othering” those who are different than me? I don’t know. I don’t really think that anybody knows. But while we may not have the exact answer, we have to try harder to find a way for harmonious co-existence and the longer I am in Europe the more convinced I become that secularism is not the answer.  

Secularism cuts to the core of what it means to be a human being. If religion and faith in their many forms are an integral aspect of the human experience then secularism, by its very nature, rends the sacred unity between man and the “something more” that he seeks to understand and express. While Europe’s recourse to secularism is understandable given the history of religious wars in this part of the world, I can’t help but wonder if they are somehow shooting themselves in the foot. In another chapter of the world’s history, terrible things were done in Communist Russia when a man tried to implement a political system that was intentionally bereft of God.

Clearly, as the future ruler of this culturally diverse world, the path ahead of me is complex, burdened with a vast history of religious injustice and systemic exclusion of the “other”. However, perhaps what the world needs most is not the separation of church and state but the collaboration of educated multi-faith leaders who are passionate, political and people minded.

 

The He{art} of Preserving Cultural Heritage

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Cultural heritage is an expression of a certain way of living, that often impacts our identities and world views. Generally, it’s a tradition, custom, or practice within a culture that gets passed down from generation to generation. But what happens when that tradition starts to become uncommon? Over the years some traditions have slowly begun to fade, and rather than just living out our cultural heritage from day to day, we begin working to preserve it, instead.

In the Province of Umbria (Italy), we had the opportunity to visit a local textile studio, located in an old gothic church, within Perugia’s historic city walls. As the last one of it’s kind, we became witness to the lengths that people will go to preserve old world culture and heritage.

Upon our arrival, we met Marta Brozetti, the last in her family’s line to continue her great-grandmother’s weaving enterprise that began in 1921. Weaving has always been a longstanding Umbrian tradition dating back to the mediaeval and renaissance periods, and the Brozetti family has sought to ensure it’s continuity. Using manual pedal looms and jacquard machines to reproduce authentic textiles and designs, dating back to it’s original time periods.

As much as weaving has been Marta’s lifelong passion, you can hear from her story that upholding a dying tradition hasn’t always been easy. Household weaving faded quickly when automated machines began producing quick and cheap fabric. With authentic weaving being so labour intensive, her beautiful work doesn’t come cheap.

In this experience I was inspired to embrace the importance of cultural heritage, and learned how much heart and meaning goes into preserving it. With that being said, it’s important for us to be intentional about continuing our own traditions, and learning from new ones.