The Bodies

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The Capuchin Crypt started accumulating bones during the mid-17th century and continued until shortly after the Unification of Italy in the 1860s, when they were banned from continuing. During this time the monks of the Crypt managed to acquire between three and four thousand skeletons, some of them from deceased Capuchin monks of the attached monastery, but most from those too poor to afford decent graves, many of them children. Friars of the Capuchin monastery would travel around Rome and its surrounding environs to requisition such remains for the greater glory of God, or so they saw it. The Capuchins insist the display focuses the mind on the brevity of this life and the permanence of the life thereafter. The display is extreme in its nature; it has one entire room of pelvises arranged around skeletons and that is not in fact the most disturbing room. Perhaps my upbringing was too Protestant to appreciate the nuances of Catholic teachings concerning death, but I found the experience unsettling. No matter how open-minded I try to be, I feel it’s disrespectful, perhaps even idolatrous, to take such liberties with the remains of the dead. Nevertheless, there is something oddly alluring about the contortions of these bones. I couldn’t help but compare the Capuchin Crypt to Crossbones Graveyard in London, where a ragtag group of misfits try to bring life to a place of death. I prefer the approach they took to the Capuchins. The Crypt is both beautiful and horrifying; I’d like to know what others think.

Home Sweet Liminal Home

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Living in between houses and homes, and navigating through my third travel term in the last year and half, the theme of place and displacement have come up in my thoughts quite a bit. One item of many that’s arisen in surviving the dozen countries I’ve been to is my need for liminal space.

We’ve spoken about it in terms of the metaphorical space one occupies in transition between phases of life, or worldviews. For me, though, the most important liminal spaces are the physical liminal spaces I have occupied: planes, trains, buses, vans, cars, and the like.

Place is beautiful, it contains the relationships and stories that form the fabric of culture, the reservoirs of everyday thought, and the foundations history was built upon. Place is also exhausting.

Every time I enter into a liminal space, I find it not only an opportunity to rest my body, but it also gives me a break from being anywhere. I, for a moment, can live without having to connect to any particular thing in my surroundings. I’m no longer in Cuba, Thailand, or Austria; those spaces merely exist outside of my window. There is merely time, and the passing of places I’ll never know.

I think it is perhaps necessary for us to feel like we don’t exist anywhere in particular for times in our lives. It is not only important because these spaces give us opportunity to reflect on where we were and in what direction we are going, but it also forces us not to be dependent on being anywhere at all, really.

Displacing the Sacred

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One of my favourite activities in Europe has been adventuring into the many cathedrals and churches and simply breathing in the beauty and the spirituality that has infused these places of worship for hundreds of years. Because of this I was greatly looking forward to visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. After receiving our tickets and waiting in line we went through a security check that was stricter than the airport we went through a couple days later! As soon as we walked into the main sanctuary I was awestruck by the stain glass windows and the incredible interior that had been under construction for the past 100 years. Surrounded by such majesty I should have been happy to take it in as usual, however, something felt strange to me. The visitors walking around me seemed more preoccupied with ensuring they captured the perfect photograph and documenting the fact that they were there instead of experiencing the beauty around them. The selfies and posed photographs were at an all time premium and I found myself becoming more and more frustrated as I wandered around getting bumped and jostled by tourists. The question that became very prominent in my mind – and has continued to be a source of reflection and wrestling for me – was: Have we displaced the sacred to make room for tourism and entertainment? Do these people know what they are experiencing, or is there a sense in which they can be impacted even without full knowledge of the truth, goodness, and beauty they are encountering?

Shifting Perspectives

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I had the strange experience of a shift in perspective as we explored the Cathedral of Saint Clare in the rolling hills of Assisi. I asked one of the other students why the church hadn’t finished exposing the frescos on the walls. After a moment of confusion, he explained that the frescos were incomplete because they were actually chipping away, not being revealed. In an instant my perspective went from excitement to a very deep disappointment. Instead of being revealed to us, these beautiful works of art and storytelling were being lost. Because of this realization my entire experience of the church was transformed and displaced from what it was before. This made me think about the ways in which travel, and specifically the engagement with different cultures, can displace our perspectives of the world around us. We might view a specific aspect of culture and society in one way but find out through intentional exploration that it is actually the exact opposite. The more we are able to interact with and get to know people, the more our biases and prejudices can be displaced from the way we view them. In my opinion this is just one of the great benefits that can be gleaned from intentional travel abroad.

Regarding Starbucks Abroad

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I already see some of you rolling your eyes at the fact that I went to Starbucks a total of four times over the seven and a half weeks we spent in Europe. It’s not lost on me that I won’t have a chance to have European coffee again for a long time, and that each country has a unique coffee and cafe culture to explore. I could write aeons more about my experience of that, but here I will detail insight one can find from going to a place you can theoretically go anywhere.

Because so many standards at Starbucks are universal, seeing where they’ve changed in different places (changes I can pinpoint with my experience working there) indicates what a culture prioritizes and regulates. This may be a regulation on the part of authorities in Starbucks but I suspect some of these changes are actually mandated by law.

For example in France, unlike anywhere else I’ve been (Southeast Asia and China included), they actually change the ways Starbucks partners indicate drink qualities on the cup to reflect the French language… sometimes. It seemed to depend on the age (how long the drink has been around) and nature (how easily it could be translated) of the drink.

In Austria they standardized the Starbucks invention (as far as I can tell) the ristretto bianco (coffee geeks: think flat white) to a short (one size below a tall/small) version. This, to me, reflected the particular style of Viennese coffee drinking that would see a twenty ounce, quadruple shot version of this delicate drink as somewhat of an abomination (and I don’t blame them).

These things fascinate me! Sure, that’s because I’m a big fan of systems and codes, and enjoy judging the every move of my barista. It’s also because those codes and the way they are modified show you tiny glimpses of what people in a place expect and enjoy out of their standard cafe experience. This allows me to use these small cultural understandings as groundwork for the things that actually matter in the workings of a different culture… and, yes, to have something covered in caramel drizzle every once in a while…


Two Paths Diverge

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One of the classic themes that this trip constantly refers me back to, is identity. How do we know who we are, what we are, and what we are for? One unexpected place that I have found answers to this in through art.

Bruegel, a Dutch artist, paints what I would call very ‘busy’ scenes with no clear focus. He captures the mundanity of life in an attempt to beautify it, perhaps making the ordinary, extraordinary. For example, a simple wedding celebration or a town festival. On the other hand, you have Caravaggio, an Italian artist painting in the baroque style. He reveals to us what is significant and of the utmost importance. Using lightening and darkening techniques, he directs our focus. He generally contrasts the ordinary with the extraordinary. This is demonstrated, for example, by Christ’s face and body being bright, and the figures next to him being darkened.

Where does identity fit in? The connection to identity comes if you can imagine two general approaches people take to understanding identity. “I have been given a purpose and meaning, now let me discover it!”. This is the Caravaggian approach of discovering what has been highlighted, looking for what is meaningful, being given purpose and importance. The other approach is “I make my own purpose and meaning,” which I would say is the Bruegelian approach. For instance, given a plain scene: “I will tell you what is meaningful, I will give it purpose”. There is nothing to discover because the importance lies in one’s choice. The deeper question might be: Can we learn to appreciate Bruegel AND Caravaggio? Can we harmonize these two approaches or are we bound to oscillate between them?


Nature vs (Human) Nature

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Throughout a series of visits to places like concentration camp grounds, battle trenches, war museums, and Hitler’s bunkers, I was beginning to lose faith in humanity: I mean, are humans evil by our nature, or do some people just mismanage their capacity for evil? Either case is discouraging.

However, a common thread among many of these physical places that I couldn’t help but notice is the sheer amount of life that was defiantly thriving everywhere I looked. I was struck by nature’s determination to break through the dark, deadly histories and grow into something so vibrant and full of life. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp, for example, a place that was once saturated in death and evil, life is insisting on taking back over. The quarry, where bodies were once worked to the bone and sometimes physically crushed, is now overgrown with lush grass. Every path, where prisoners once walked in fear and dread, is now lined with an unleashed array of colourful wildflowers and busy insects. The hospital grounds, once an area of unspeakable loss, discomfort, and contamination, are now an open field of fresh air.

These “before” scenes are now only detectable via the crumbling stone foundations outlining where the torture chambers once stood– just enough scarring to allow us to envision what horror once was. Similarly, Vimy Ridge is a place riddled with a history of gore, pain, and hatred. What was once a sloshy mess of mud, barbed wire, and bodies is now forests, abundant greenery, and flowers. This land is scarred with now-green craters and a stretch mark system of leftover trenches, but like the landscape of Mauthausen, those grass-covered scars serve as a reminder of what treacheries took place.

These landscapes are resilient: reclaiming their once-hellish spaces and turning them into places of avenging beauty and bursting growth. I may still be wrestling with what human nature means, but for now it’s enough for me to know that at least this kind of nature (flowers and trees and stuff) is good, beautiful, and victorious.

My Friend, the “Other”

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In our pre-trip work we focused a lot on encountering the “Other,” whether they be a different cultural, national, religious, or political group. We learned about the importance of this process in a travel term, and how to best facilitate healthy engagement with the people and places that we visited.

I had conversations multiple times on the trip with fellow students and leaders which brought me back to this theme of myself and the “other,” except this time it was someone that I already knew fairly well. These conversations centered around various ontological and theological positions that we disagreed on, and it was very interesting to consider response to religious difference within this particular context.

First of all, these people are my friends, and so often with our friends we do not address the gaps which exist between us. It seems risky or perilous for a friendship to admit to any drastic differences that exist within it, especially on important issues of belief. Secondly, when talking with fellow Christians, we often do not realize the distinct contrasts which coexist underneath this broad umbrella, and we fear the conflict and friction that broaching these dissimilarities may cause.

However, despite the two large danger signs, these conversations were some of the most enriching personal encounters that I had on the entire trip. And the crazy thing about all of this: I’m still friends with these people, and we are probably closer because we made the effort to understand one another. With relationship comes care for the “other,” and this care helps us to understand, which actually brings us closer together, not farther apart.

A Secular Religion

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Le Panthéon was originally a church to the patron saint of Paris, Genevieve. A church to her had stood on this site since early Mediaeval times, but fell into disrepair. Reconstruction on the site was started in the mid 18th century by Louis XV, upon his recovery from a serious illness, and was finished right around the outbreak of the French Revolution. The secular and anti-clerical regime which arose as a result of that sad affair rededicated the grand building to the glory of the nation as a repository for the veneration of the heroes of the Republic. To this day those deemed to be exemplars of French values are interred in this building (and sometimes removed depending on which way the political winds are blowing). I cannot help but compare this building to its namesake in Rome, which was built as a pagan temple and then converted into a Christian church. Le Panthéon was built as a Christian church and then converted (and I do not use this word lightly in either sentence) into a temple to secular republicanism. Just as the early church appropriated and built upon the framework of existing religious buildings and beliefs so is modern secularism built upon the bones of the Judeo-Christian civilisation which it has come to replace. Humans seem to have an inherent need for some sort of religion or spiritualism. If we throw away the old religions I suspect we will merely replace them with new ones.

Why Everyone Should Visit a Concentration Camp

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Visiting the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I was overwhelmed beyond words by the horrific acts that were committed there and the amount of suffering that the prisoners must have experienced. For me, standing in a concentration camp was so much more intense and raw than seeing it in a movie or in pictures at a museum. It was an experience that will confuse, upset, and haunt me for a very long time.

So why would I tell you to visit it? I think in many ways, we feel very separated from the second world war, we simply consider it a piece of history. It is so common to make jokes about the Nazis or play war-centred video games and not think twice about it. I think that many of us have forgotten the horror of war or, worse, never even considered it.

Visiting Mauthausen put in perspective the immense importance of learning how to set aside differences so that a whole group of people don’t become scapegoats to take out frustration and violence on. It taught me why we should never turn our backs or ignore the injustice around us for the sake of keeping comfortable. Most importantly, it showed me why we should never forget or make light of what happened in the war, and these are lessons I think we all need to learn.


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