Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bruges, Belgium: The Procession of the Holy Blood

                                                  A reenactor of Jesus blessing the people...

      On the day of The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium, you can see a colorful parade of Bible characters and people dressed up like they were in the Middle Ages. It is always held on Ascension Day--beginning in 1303. It started when Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, brought back the holy blood that was said to be collected by Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus' tomb. In 1578 when the Bruge was under the Calvinist rule, the celebrations and procession were halted. The dried blood is held in a crystal and rock tube that has been protected in the Basilica--except during Calvinist times. The relic was hidden for several generations until it was safe to bring it out again. This year, the UNESCO-event was canceled and will be held next year on Ascension Day. It is a rich feast of religious storytelling in costume, music, and history. 

Last year on May 30, 2019, we happened to be in Bruges, Belgium before heading south to Normandy, France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. All that seems long ago now with the COVID-19-virus... We happened to be on a long bike ride around the countryside in Bruge, and then some people began telling us about a festival or celebration that would be held the next day. We were not exactly certain what they were talking about but decided their excitement merited staying in Bruge another day. With some strangers' persuasion, we changed our schedule. We were so glad we did. Along with people dressed up in Middle Ages costumes and masks, there were brass bands, choir singers, dancers, and flag twirlers. Several thousand people participate every year --sometimes being the same character year after year. It was a fun, solemn, and historical afternoon all bound together. 

On Ascension Day we headed for the center of the charming, medieval town of Bruges that resembles a backdrop for a fairy tale book. About 50,000 people briskly walked alongside us, and suddenly we began to see sheep, camels, and donkeys in the street. (In 2016, some sheep got loose and started frequenting the shops. But this year the shepherds were reigning them in). 😃  About 2,000 people were dressed to match this Middle Ages UNESCO town. It was like a medieval play, along with Old and New Testament reenactors. More than anything, I would say it is a strolling passion play that reenacts the last week of Jesus Christ's life. 

The procession is told in three parts: the first part is the Biblical characters strolling by, and then second, the reenactment of Thierry of Alsace when he brought the holy relic back to Bruges in 1303, and the third part is the procession of the Holy Blood Brotherhood who have guarded it since 1400. At the end, there are prayers given in various languages. In between the three segments are strolling musicians, acrobats, live animals, and amazing costumes to see.

To see a local festival was amazing--especially when we were not really planning on it. There was a tangible pride and coming together of Flemish history. People were sitting on windows for the best views, you could buy some seats in front of restaurants and shops or just stand for free. And if you love chocolate, Bruges is proud to say they have 100 chocolate shops in this beautiful fairy tale town. 

Personally, it was a wonderful afternoon that I can only dream about now attending. Although I am not of the Catholic faith, there was a palpable reverence and respectfulness in the air. I will never forget following Jesus in the crowd that day. I bustled and ran down the street to see him. It made me think of one of my favorite New Testament characters who ran to touch the hem of His robe. For just a moment in Bruges, I felt like a glimpse of how it must have been to maneuver your way through a crowd to see Him. 


                                                              Celebrating their town of Bruges

                                                            This was Cain who killed Abel. 

                                             It was fun to meet Joseph of Egypt on the streets of Bruges.

                                                                  Reenactors for Abraham and Sarah

A reenactor of Moses walking the streets in Bruges

Slaves from Egypt ready to cross the Red Sea...

King David playing his harp

Reenactors of Mary and Joseph with the Baby Jesus

A Bethlehem shepherd

A young girl with the Three Wisemen camels

A shepherdess in Bethleham

Finding a donkey in the street

Young Jesus walking with the priests

Jesus as a child with the priests at the temple.

A reenactor of John the Baptist preaching on the streets.

Salome dancing in front of Herod Antipas 

A Roman soldier carrying the head of John the Baptist

Blessing the children.

These people who waved palm branches posed for me. 

Apostles at the Last Supper

Roman guards

Roman guards in front of the tomb sleeping

A reenactor of Jesus carrying the cross 

People from the area portraying the people of the Middle Ages

       Biblical and Middle Ages reenactors on the streets    

At the end of the procession, you could meet some of the reenactors. You notice one Middle Ages actor is 
talking on his cellphone. 

Some Biblical characters smile for the crowd. I think this was Isaiah. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Minerats and The Call to Prayer: Ramadan 2020

          Successful indeed are the persons who offer prayers.
                                             --Quaran 23:02

      The Muslim call to prayer is one of the prettiest sounds on the earth at sunset.     
                                            --Barak Obama

My favorite Middle East landscape...looking out on Jerusalem

Often, when I lived in the Middle East for five and a half years, I would climb to a rooftop or other high place and look over whichever city I was in. Any balcony or hill would do. I enjoyed gazing out on the luminous mosques at night or with the glaring sun sparkling on them. Depending on the Middle East country you are in, they can be lavish and ornate, richly carved, or tiled by craftsmen of old. Other times they are ordinary beige in color, easily fitting into the sand landscape. They do not even stand out--only simple buildings with a small tower and a speaker for everyone to hear the imam call them to prayer. If you are high above the city or on a flat plain with minarets (towers from the mosques) surrounding you, their calls become a beckoning: to put your distractions down and figuratively come home.

Sometimes I miss the sprawling vertical horizon of sand and the everpresent sun that seems more bounteous in its size than anywhere else in the world. The Middle East hospitality, taught for dozens of generations, widens doors for strangers like me in a parched wilderness. I am not Muslim. Yet, I was generously welcomed--sometimes embraced like I was one of their own. Hearing the calls of the minarets throughout the day made me feel like I was part of a community and neighborhood, and in a way, I began to feel like we are all on the same path.

During the day, the ubiquitous minarets calling all to prayer was a rhythm I subconsciously depended on. I did not realize how much--until I am now away from the sound of their call. Although I have to say some imams have more melodious voices than others, their calls, sometimes accumulating like a chorus, reminded me of my own promises to keep. Often, I saw and was moved to tears when I saw people stop everything to pray. When they heard the minaret, they pulled out a small rug and thrust it in the sand or knelt in a grassy area of a park. I have witnessed many moments of holy solitude.

When I lived in Qatar, the five prayer calls were often like our pulse of life. They punctuated my day, schedule, reflections. I heard their clarion call if I was awake, and sometimes drowsily woke up to it--remembering the echoing call in my dreams. To hear their invitations or calls to prayer, I think, richly added to my daily life. When my Muslim friends told me of the prayers they made on my behalf, especially during Ramadan, again tears filled my eyes. I knew I was loved.

The mornings began with a call. At 4 am I knew my dear Muslim friend next door was awakening, and her husband was going to the mosque. At night, I watched the children run home in my compound when they heard the call around dinner time. I remember when I taught tennis classes to about ten or fifteen kids in our compound. They would quietly watch the sun start to slip behind the sky. Soon we would hear the minaret's call not too far away. In a moment, all of them were scurrying off. Suddenly, my son and I were standing alone on the tennis court. The call was dependable, predictable--reminding us to keep our commitments and rendezvous. Somehow our schedules all wove together--respectfully acknowledging and helping others keep their commitments.

When I asked my son who had just graduated from high school and moved back to the US what he missed the most about the Middle East, he immediately replied, "I miss the call to prayer." It has made me think we all do better with a pattern, some hallowed habits, and keeping our heavenly appointments. In coronavirus times, these days, weeks, and months can blur together if I do not have a pulse of life--reminders to have my own holy moments. I think whoever we are, especially now, we crave a little predictability of allotted time. Being in the Middle East always reminds me to respect others' appointments with their God--and to keep my own.

    A few favorite moments with minarets and mosques:

Blue Mosque--Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia--Istanbul, Turkey

I strolled around the ruins here at sunset, and then suddenly heard a choir of minarets--here in Jerash, Jordan

Muscat, Oman

The first mosque in Oman

Muscat, Oman

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt
Doha, Qatar

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Tangiers, Morrocco 

Marrakech, Morroco 

Up on a rooftop in Marrakech, Morroco

Monday, May 18, 2020

You are not broken, and the story of the Chinese pot...

"Depression thrives in secrecy, but shrinks in empathy."
                                                     --Jane Clayson Johnson 

The China House, in Tianjin, China a museum full of rehabilitated broken pots and plates.
Last summer I spent a glorious day with a dear friend whom I have known for many years. Through the decades I have known her, she has confided several times to me about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child. As a friend listening, I could feel, but not know, some of the shadows and darkness she has experienced. To me, she has always been a woman of immense strength, wisdom, and creativity. I felt pain for both the child and adult chapters of her life that have known such agony.

But last summer our conversation was different. Through much therapy and remarkable people, she has been healing in the last few years. Somehow she has found mercy and forgiveness--forging her on a new path. Her spirit was light-filled for me that day--like suddenly discovering a tree full of fireflies on a dark summer night. Tears flowed in our eyes as she shared her journey. Although no child should ever know abuse of any kind, she taught me how she has come through the tunnel to the other side of light.

On that beautiful day when old friends connected soul-to-soul, I shared with her a Chinese folk tale story about two pots--one was seemingly perfectly perfect, and the other had some cracks and holes in it:

Once upon a time, there was an old Chinese woman who had two large pots. Each hung on the ends of a pole, which she carried across her shoulders. Every day, she used this device to carry water to her home. It was a fair distance to carry the water every day, but she managed cheerfully.

One of the pots was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of her destination. The other pot had a deep crack in it and would leak--all the way from the river to her home. She would arrive home, and the cracked pot would be half-way full. For two full years, the woman brought home one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, but the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection. The old cracked pot felt miserable and sad that every day she only brought a pot that was half full.

One day, the old woman heard an unexpected voice underneath her as she carried the water. She looked down, and who should be talking to her, but the old cracked pot. The pot woefully explained her sadness, "I am miserable because of my crack. I can only provide you half of a pot of water when you return from the river. I am so sorry that my crack leaks much of the water you daily carry to your home."

The wise old woman smiled and comfortingly said, "Have you ever looked out and noticed there are flowers on your side of the path, and not on the other pot's side? I have always known about your crack, so I planted seeds on your side of the path. Every day when we walk back home you have watered these beautiful flowers to decorate the table and give to my friends. Without you being the way you are, there would not be so much beauty in the world."

As I walk around China, I often see pictures and sculptures of people carrying pots of water they are transporting from a well or river. Beautiful porcelain pots and bowls adorn museums and restaurants. Here in Tianjin, China, there is even a large museum that is covered with old porcelain plates and pots that have been made into walls that adorn the broken pottery. The entire structure is comprised of broken Chinese porcelain or leaky pots.

Whoever we are and whatever has happened in our lives, we are never broken or shattered. Sometimes people have a constant battle of hopelessness, loneliness, fear-- feeling completely defective--broken. The best thing about the leaky Chinese pot is that she talked to the old woman. She revealed her overwhelming sadness of not feeling enough.

The cracked pot put some unnecessary burdens on herself--thinking she had to be like the pot on the other side of the pole the woman was carrying. However, she learned that she was not only enough the way she was, but she also had a gift to make the world more beautiful. But she would have never known her gift if she had not allowed herself to be vulnerable and talk to the old woman about her pain. As Reyna I Aburto says, "When we open up about our emotional challenges, admitting we are not perfect, we give others permission to share their struggles. Together we realize there is hope and we do not have to suffer alone."

During this worldwide coronavirus, people are in pain in a myriad of ways. Listening, being kind, and allowing others to talk about their fears and sadness can alleviate so much unnecessary misery. We can help others put together their broken pieces--reminding them of their intrinsic beauty and wonder. And if on a particular day or week or month we cannot shake our brokenness, get some relief and help. There are people out there to patch things up again. Like my dear friend, we all deserve to come through the tunnel to the other side of light.

We don't have to be exactly like every pot around us...

Some "perfect" pots in a market that haven't yet received their gold-filled repairs yet. But when they need it, we can show others that renovation is possible and even beautiful.

We don't have to carry a broken, burdensome pot around--and push it around for the rest of our lives. We can ask for help.

This picture is on all the billboards around here by the bus stops in Tianjin. We can all share and help one another when others have to carry some heavy burdens.

Sharing our burdens and sorrows allows others to share their struggles too. We become more bonded in our trials so we can heal again.

The best and most expensive kind of Japanese Kintsugi pottery is repaired with gold--showing the exquisite mended edges and cracks. It is thought to be more beautiful because it reveals the history of its brokenness.

      Some pictures of "The China House" in Tianjin, China--a must-see place if you visit here.