Beauty, darkness and hope: or today would be a good day to be in Kraków

I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.

Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.

What did I love about Kraków?

Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.

At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.

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Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,

and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.

Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.

Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …

… and gardens  …

… and courtyards.

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Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,

with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.

The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.

Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.

From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river

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with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.

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What did I learn from Kraków?

It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.

Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.

It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.

A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.

Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.

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One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.

But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.

Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.

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Feet and pathways … groundedness and walking in the lands of the Bible

Looking back through the photos from my recent time in Israel and Palestine, alongside the Walls and Windows, I was struck by the number of photos I took of my feet and of pathways I was walking on. This is not uncommon. Many of those I traveled with did the same.

There is something about walking in the lands of the Bible that causes people to look down often and to marvel as they do so.

“My feet are standing where Jesus stood.”

“I am walking where Abraham walked.”

“This path is one Paul would have used many times.”

For me, this is tied to one of the key benefits of the study purpose of the trip we did. It provides a sense of ‘groundedness’ to the biblical text. It highlights that the story we read and live out of is a story that took place  in real time and real space. It enables us to picture the contexts of it in concrete ways.

There is a connection to history and story through a sense of place. And a reminder that God continues to meet us within our own real place and time.

This is something I think many from other cultures, including that of the Aboriginal peoples of my home land, understand much better than I do. The connection that walking the land brings to history, identity, story, family, belonging, and being.

I’ve also been struck by the idea of walking as a means of making sense of the world. During my PhD studies I read a book that introduced me to the idea of the foot as a ‘sensory organ’ in the Old Testament. It has resonated in my own life and in my church community in multiple ways.

It’s something that I’ve noticed about the way I travel. I find it important to walk a place when I arrive to get a sense of it.

It’s also something I’ve appreciated more since moving to the city, spending less time in my car and more time on foot around my neighbourhood.

And it’s a truth in how I understand my faith, seen in the call of Jesus to follow him and in the common phrasing of the New Testament letters to walk in his ways.

And of course it is connected to the Psalms I studied and the image of pilgrimage,  which I am convinced is more than a metaphor but the lived experience of the people of God.

And it is the explanation for the tattoo I got last year on my foot, the Hebrew words of Psalm 121:8, which says “The LORD guards your coming out and your going in” or as our tour guide in Israel read colloquially, “The LORD guides your steps.”

What does it mean for you to consider how your feet and the land you walk on grounds your experience and makes sense of the world today?

Walls and Windows: an initial reflection

I spent most of April in Israel and the West Bank, perhaps my favourite part of the world, and also one of the places I find the most confronting, confusing, challenging and heartbreaking. There is so much I want to share but so much I am still processing and so much I don’t understand. So much that I want those who live there to be able to share for themselves. It’s difficult when people ask for highlights to try to summarise what stood out. But looking through my photos from this trip, I was struck by the predominance of these two images: walls and windows. Perhaps exploring them will capture something of all that I am reflecting on.

Walls represent barriers, boundaries, and demarcations. They stand for keeping people in and keeping people out. They often divide. Each one tells many stories, all with at least two sides.

Windows represent visibility, perspective and viewing. They are there not so much to be looked at as to be looked through.  Each one invites reflection, and the opportunity to look at things from a new angle.

Ancient city walls

Walls have been part of human history for millennia. This gate, built by the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE, is what remains of the oldest wall I saw, one which it is probable people like Abraham would have passed through.

It’s at a site called Tel Dan, where there are also these ‘newer’ Israelite city walls – dating to the 9th century BCE.

At Megiddo, excavations lay bare the layers of various city walls built over thousands of years in this city which was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times.

At the entrance to the city are the walls of the fortified city King Solomon built.

At Masada, the remains of walls built to protect a desert mountain fortress still stand.

And inside the ruins of Herod’s palace, parts of the walls of an opulent bathhouse can be glimpsed.

Jerusalem Walls

The Old City of Jerusalem can certainly be called a city of walls – it is surrounded by them and contains within it one of the most famous walls in the world. The current walls around the city were built in the Ottoman period, dating to around 1540 CE. In places like this, you can also see the remains of much earlier walls.

The city’s main northern entrance is the impressive Damascus Gate, built on top of a gate dating back to Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.

On the other side of the city, the Zion Gate bears bullet marks from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Within the Old City are remnants of much older walls, including the broad wall built by Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE.

And inside the newly excavated Kishle, remains of a wall built during the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence in the 2nd century BCE.

And of course, in the heart of Jerusalem are the remaining parts of walls of the Temple built by King Herod in the first century BCE. This is the Temple Jesus visited, taught at and pronounced judgment upon.

The Herodian stones are massive and impressive, up to 13 metres in length.

The closest part of the wall to where the Temple was forms a centre of Jewish worship and patriotism in the Old City, commonly called the Wailing Wall. Thousands gathered to received the priestly blessing during Passover.

Thousands more came to celebrate national pride on the country’s Independence Eve.

Spending time at the wall to welcome in the Sabbath is a pretty amazing opportunity to see something of the celebration and joy that Jewish worship can encompass – in a multitude of different ways all at the same time.

The plaza in front of the wall is divided by a different kind of wall, separating men from women, leaving mothers to stand on chairs craning to look over as their sons undergo their coming of age ceremonies.

One of my favourite Jerusalem walks is up on top of the Old City walls, where it is usually quiet and you can look down into the city upon all these things and ponder the stories they tell and the values they signify.

And you can also look outside the old city and in the distance catch a glimpse of the most modern of the major walls in this land … the Separation Wall.

The Separation Wall

Israel started building this wall in 2002. It is actually only a wall when it surrounds towns. For most of its length it is two barbed wire fences with an exclusion zone in between.

The Israelis say this is a security barrier to protect them against terrorists.

Many Palestinians call it a racial barrier or apartheid wall.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice found that the wall violates international law and in response the United Nations passed a resolution 150-6 (with 10 abstentions) condemning it and calling on both sides to meet the obligations they had already agreed to under the ‘roadmap’ to peace. I find it difficult to comprehend that my country was one of the six.

Politics aside, it’s hard to overestimate the psychological effect  growing up inside a wall like this has on children.

Frustrations and heartbreak are expressed by locals and visitors alike in graffiti and art all along the wall.

Famously, UK artist Banksy has painted various iconic images of subversive peace on it.

He also founded this establishment that bills itself as “the hotel with the worst view in the world.”

Inside is a small museum examining various perspectives on the impact of the wall.

Most mornings, those workers who have the right permits line up in this corral to cross the wall from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. Unless of course it has been closed for some reason – which seems to only be for those who live and work here, not tourists. Even when it is open to all, crossing a checkpoint with ease when most around you are questioned and searched is certainly a humbling experience.

Near the wall are a number of ‘refugee camps’ – but quite unlike what that name might suggest to many. Established just after 1948 and still under UN agency control, Aida camp, for example, is a rabbit warren of streets and apartment blocks home to five and a half thousand people in an area of 0.1km2.

Its residents use parts of the wall as memorials to children killed in fighting with wall security forces.

It is hard to see hope here. Surely there must be a better way forward. This kind of wall grieves me and I believe it grieves my Father. The founder of the Bethlehem Icon School painted this beautiful commission on the wall, a symbol of grief from this town’s most famous mother.

Windows

I have no solution to offer to this mess. And it wouldn’t be my place to offer one anyway. All I can do is share what I have seen, heard, and felt. But if there are any glimmers of hope I see in this place it is from the people I met who live there and are seeking to find and walk in ways of reconciliation, restoration, and peace. To me, in this place of walls, they are like windows.

I think of this window in Jerusalem from a church called Dominus Flevit, meaning the Lord wept. It looks over the Temple mount and remembers the place where Jesus paused to weep over this city. It causes me to ask where He is pausing and weeping today.

Or this window in Nazareth picturing Mary receiving the most surprising news of God coming in a completely unexpected way. It causes me to hope that just because we can’t think of a way forward doesn’t mean there isn’t one. God can still bring Peace in unexpected ways.

Most frequently, I found myself struck by many of the modern, abstract stained glass windows we saw in various churches in this land.

And the way each one reflects light in its own unique, often surprising, way.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jerusalem to Galilee, I found myself drawn to the ways they let in and refract the sunlight.

The same sunlight, yet each has its unique beauty depending on its shape, colours and position.

To me that is a beautiful metaphor of what it means to be people of peace. People of light. People of faith.

And I met people like that in this land. People whom I continue to pray will find unexpectedly beautiful ways to shine light in the darkness.

A particular favourite of mine are these windows in a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. They are made of very thinly sliced alabaster. I am attracted to their incredible beauty, but I’m also intrigued by their very existence.

Windows made of stone. Who imagined that possible? And is it therefore possible that there might be a generation in this place who are able to imagine the impossible and even somehow turn walls into windows?