bruecken_schlag_worte

Brückenschläge und Schlagworte

Tag: religion (page 1 of 2)

Bridge in Međugorje, Bosnia and Hercegovina

I have previously written about Međugorje – the third largest pilgrimage site in Europe, although not recognized by the Vatican. There are places in town that I am sure hundreds of photos are taken of daily. This is probably not one of them.

Bridge, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaOn the street that passes the cathedral and leads to the massive, and I mean truly massive and humungous parking lot, a small bridge spans a dried up ditch. The houses lining the streets are the same as most other houses in any mid-sized town in Hercegovina – shops on the ground floor, apartments on the upper floors. People make a living downstairs and spend their lives upstairs. Almost all the shops in town are souvenir shops selling mainly rosaries and icons.

Međugorje has become a wealthy place because of the pilgrims. Houses have sprung up almost out of nowhere. Maybe it is due to the speed of the towns development that a lot of it looks a little – fake. Like plastic. Like you could nudge a wall and the house would just crumple down like paper mache. This is why I liked the bridge across the ditch. The stone base to the side is solid. The bridge is not old, but it is not pastel coloured or in any way trying to be glorious and shiny. This could be almost anywhere in the Balkans, whereas most of the rest of Međugorje could be anywhere at all in the world. The bridge grounded the place for me.

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

Spiritual Places in Hercegovina

The reason that Bosnia and Hercegovina is equally as complicated as it is beautiful is hard to explain, and I am the last person to claim that it can even be understood at all. Part of it, however, is how nationalities and religion are weirdly intertwined in the Balkans. Talking about a Croat means talking about someone who is Catholic, a Serb is someone who is orthodox, and a Bosniak is Muslim. A Bosnian Croat is a Catholic from Bosnia, and a Bosnian Serb is an Orthodox from Bosnia. Adding to the confusion quite a few of the people there are not even that religious. They grew up in Yugoslav communism and don’t identify much with their religious heritage that was to define their identity in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Travelling in Bosnia and Hercegovina, however, the impact of religion on the country in its political and societal struggles is impossible to miss. At the same time, it is its multiethnic and multireligious history that founds its potential as a modern country that has an amazing amount of beauty to show. Today I want to talk about two places in Hercegovina that have significant spiritual meaning for Catholics and Muslims respectively, and that still are so fundamentally different from one another.

The first one is Međugorje, a small town that lives up to its name which means „between mountains“. It is set between the barren karst hills that turn the gorgeous green colour with thick forests only further North. About 30 years ago this was an insignificant village. Today it is the third largest pilgrimage site for Catholics in Europe.

Medugorje Cathedral, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaIn 1981, six teenagers witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the hills outside the village, and some of them have continued to have visions of her ever since – or so the story goes. Not much is known about the nature of the apparitions, and they aren’t recognized as a miracle by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop pilgrims from coming here – thousands of them!

Souvenir shops, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaMeđugorje has turned into a huge industry. There are souvenir shops upon souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, a huge sports centre, and a retail industry that might be unmatched elsewhere in the country. People who live here are wealthy, rents  and land prices have skyrocketed. A highway is being built from Croatia where a lot of the pilgrims are coming from. But it is by far not restricted to the neighbouring countries. They are coming from all over the continent, if not all over the world, to walk up the now so-called Apparition Hill, to catch the tears from the weeping Jesus statue (another miracle, supposedly) and to visit services in the Cathedral.

Rosaries for sale, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaSince there is so much commerce around, I have to say that Međugorje doesn’t feel like a very spiritual place to me. But I very much agree with Bata, my friend who has taught me so much about this country, who says, in a gist: „You don’t have to believe the miracle of the apparition. But 30 years ago there was absolutely nothing in this place, and look what it’s become. I’ll easily call that a miracle.“ Certainly the pilgrimage site illustrates how religious matters can influence the economy and thereby the politics of a region.

Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaThe second place I want to introduce to you is Blagaj. Not only does it hold the ruins of Stjepan grad, or the Blagaj fort, a medieval fortress that was seat to the dukes and counts of Hercegovina region – but also it is home to a beautiful Tekija. Tekija is the Bosnian term for what in Albania is usually called a Tekke or what is found on Wikipedia by the name Khanqah. It is a place for retreat and meditation of members of the Muslim Sufi Order.

Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaAs is the case with a Tekija traditionally, it is set in a place of natural beauty and power. The house is cuddled under the mighty hill that carries the fortress, right next to a cave in the cold stone. Out of this cave flows ther river Buna, shooting out with all its might. The place is called Vrelo Bune, source of the Buna, but the actual source is 19 km away somewhere deep inside the mountain. Satellites have been sent down there to find out about this after divers had unsuccessfully tried to find the source.

Vrelo Bune, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaI love Blagaj. I have been there seven times in total now, and my favourite moments were when I had time to enter the Tekija, scarved up and wearing a long skirt, sit down and listen to the forceful sounds of the river and absolutely nothing else. There is a scent of peace in the air, a quiet feeling of content that settles right in my heart whenever I go. The beauty of the house, in- and outside, is of great simplicity. Not much is needed here. Just an honest and open heart to hear the spirits of the earth and skies, and the voices inside of oneself as they slowly calm down simultaneously with the body. Yes, Blagaj holds a very special place in my heart.

Inside the Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaDon’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Međugorje is a bad place while Blagaj is wonderful. There are places sacred to Christianity in the world that really speak to me as well – not least in the Balkans! And Međugorje certainly has that feel, that indiscribable aura. It is just a lot more frequented and, as I said, commercialized which I find a bit unfortunate, but that is certainly a very personal thing. Both places are absolutely worth a visit, and both tell a lot about Hercegovina’s history and its situation today.

What are spiritual places you have visited? And how have they spoken to you?

Fieldstone Churches in Brandenburg

Last week I had a day so bad that I knew right away that it was time to take some distance, get out, and leave my job and my life behind for one day of discovery and enjoyment. I rented a car, not knowing where I wanted to go. Just out.

Blossoms, Lindow, GermanyI picked up the VW Polo at Alexanderplatz and took random turns through the city. Finally there was a sign directing me towards the Autobahn. I took that turn. On the Autobahn there was a sign toward Stralsund. I knew I probably wouldn’t make it that far, but I love that town, so I followed it off of the Autobahn. And then all there was were rape fields, lakes, forests, and a horizon so wide that it made my heart jump.

Rape Fields, Brandenburg, GermanyThere is something about rape fields. The bright yellow spreading for miles and miles like an overdimensional carpet. I’ve often met southerners who think Northern Germany’s landscapes were boring due to the lack of hills and mountains. Well not to me they aren’t. There is nothing like the tree lined alleys and the  contrast of juicy green grass, the intense blue skies sprinkled with white cotton clouds and golden yellow rape.

I felt so wonderfully free, there was music on the radio, and the day awaited me with nothing but beauty to show. I spotted a gorgeous small church in the distance – so I took a few turns and went there to take pictures. The signs told me I was in Herzberg – wasn’t a village that had the word Herz, heart, in it, the perfect first stop.

Herzberg, Germany

Fieldstone church in Herzberg

There is fieldstone churches galore in the Northeastern part of the country. A lot of them are not well-kept, but this one must have been recently restored. The little cemetery was lovingly cared for, fresh flowers lined the graves, and daisies and dandelions drew patterns on the lawn. Someone was laying new bricks on the steps from the street to the church, he was listening to well-known German hip hop singer Jan Delay on a portable radio which seemed unfitting for work on a cemetery – but I didn’t mind, I thought it was funny. The guy eyed me suspiciously as I entered the church yard. Surely they don’t get many visitors. I just smiled at him and he shyly smiled back. I booked that as a success. To my surprise, the church was open, so I took a look around.

Church, Herzberg, Germany

„I am the light of the world“ – the church altar and pulpit in Herzberg

The inside was every bit as pretty as the outside. The beautiful wooden ceiling with its dark red, yellow and grey colours was intricately done, and had me look up at it for a long time. Of course I was overcome by the powerful urge to sing, and so I did. It’s not like anyone would have been disturbed by it. It was just me and the presence of that unseizable something that is bigger than all of us – call it God, call it fate, call it life itself, I don’t care. I just know that there was something there when my voice rung through the tiny church.

Church, Herzberg, Germany

Levitating angel in the church in Herzberg

There were two levitating angels, one of which I stood eye to eye with for quite a while. Presenting his stoup, it had a mysterious look on its face. I say it, because it was weirdly genderless which I quite liked. Angels aren’t male or female. They are bigger than the dichotomies we use to grasp our lives. I felt like it was there to give me a small blessing and reassure me that I was watched over, but that I nonetheless had all the power I needed to prevail inside of me already. I left the church feeling stronger, smiled at the construction worker at the steps again, got in my car and drove on.

A few rape fields and shadowy alleys later, I found another church that prompted me to stop.

Radensleben, Germany

Church in Radensleben

I had missed the town sign, so I had to check my smartphone to see where I was (and I loved the fact that it was of no real importance whatsoever, but just my curiosity that made me do so!), and it was a village called Radensleben. The churchyard was much more overgrown than the one in Herzberg, but I loved its romantic atmosphere. The church was closed, so I just aimlessly wandered around the church.

Chapel, Radensleben, Germany

Chapel at the church in Radensleben

There was a brick stone chapel on the backside of the church. The low walls with the cross pattern in them allowed for a beautiful play with light and shadow, and of course all my avid readers know that I love red brick stone more than any other material. Moving on, I found a wooden gate behind which I spotted a small cemetery. As I pushed down the handle, thick cobwebs tore on it, and the door creaked loudly as though I was about to enter the Secret Garden from Frances H. Burnett’s childrens‘ book. Magic was about to happen.

Church, Radensleben, Germany

The cemetery behind the church in Radensleben

The small cemetery was partially buried in deep black shadow, but the sun still shone hotly on most of the pretty tomb stones. The daisies were so big that they bordered on marguerites. While from the front the church had looked somehow bigger and cooler than its sister in Herzberg, from this angle it radiated the simplicity I find so inviting about field stone churches. They are down to earth. They don’t look to impress with pomp and grandiosity. They just are.

Walking out of the creaking gate and making my way back to the street, my eyes lost themselves for a little while on the cute cobblestone street that the village arranged itself around. Deadstraight it ran into the distance, as though it lead right into eternity. Dusty, empty. Peacefully sleepy. No one about. The moment was perfect. But I think it was so only because the road promised so much more to be ahead.

At the next rape field outside of the village that lined the country road, I stopped, got out of the care and walked into the rape. The smell of nature embraced me, and I realized how very far away my very bad day was, even though it was only two days ago.

Point proven. Travel heals.

Mariella in a rape field, Brandenburg, Germany

Early Morning Rome – The Colours of the Eternal City

Four years ago, in 2009, I spent four days in the Eternal City with the family I had lived with in the US for a year when I was 16. It was simply an amazing city trip. My host father had organized tours of all the major sights, we had all the delicious food (oh! the gelato!!) and the weather was perfect. What meant by far the most to me, however, was having time with my second family. Even though I only spent a fraction of my life with them, they do feel like my dad, my mom, and my little sisters. I am blessed to have not one, but two families in this world who I love and who support me so much.

In the light of this, I was soaking up the company of the people I love and don’t nearly see often enough so much that my heart couldn’t even take in all of Rome. On my last day, my host family left around 6 am to catch their plane. I got up with them and decided to re-visit the places we had been to during the last few days, but this time in the early morning hours – without the masses of tourists and the burning August heat of the day.

Rome, ItalyThe light of dawn slowly turning into day accompanied me on my walk from Vatican City, via Piazza Navona with its beautiful renaissance fountains, to the Piazza della Rotonda with the Pantheon. The colours were simultaneously intense and almost muted – a weird twilight state, hard to describe. I took many opportunities to just sit down anywhere – on the pavement, if need be – and just note down my thoughts in my journal. I will quote from it below.

Vatican City Walls, Rome, ItalyI have a thing for inscriptions, or any kind of writing on the wall (pun absolutely intended). I call them word sights.  This one is a quote from the Bible in the Vatican City wall. How could religion not be omnipresent where Vatican City is? I was thrilled to remember my Latin well enough to understand it right away. This is Psalm 91, 11 – „For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.“ I was grateful that this inscription made me feel protected in this moment, because just a second earlier I had felt a tiny pang of loneliness after the last few days that had been spent in constant company.  St Peter's, Rome / Vatican, ItalyVatican City was incredible at 7 in the morning. I remember sitting and looking at the ginormous basilica for a very long time, marvelling in the light effects the sun created. My journal says:

I am sitting in St Peter’s Square, the place that impressed me so deeply when I set foot in it for the first time on Saturday. It still reverberates in me – the presence of an unearthly power. Is it Love? Is it Beauty? Is it God? Does it really matter what we call it?

I pondered deeply on religion sitting there, and the difference between faith, religion and the church. I won’t bore you with all my babble on it. But I do think that no matter if you believe or not, no matter if you even care about religion, no matter your confession – having seen Vatican City will make you see things about it that you haven’t seen before.

Rome, ItalyOn I went through the sometimes small and narrow, sometimes broader streets. One thing I regret is not having taken any pictures of bridges across the Tiber river – but I wasn’t the Bridgekeeper back then. All the more reason for me to go back, I am sure. I reached Piazza Navona still deeply in thoughts.

Piazza Navona, Rome, ItalyThe beauty of the Renaissance fountains was so perfect, so aesthetically impeccable that it was hard for me to believe it was not some kind of trick. The enormous dimensions of everything in this city extended to the beauty. It was unreal. Next to me street musicians played jazz classics in a group of a cello, a guitar, an accordion and a saxophone. Their style turned everything slightly latino-pop, and it added greatly to the relaxed morning atmosphere. Piazza della Rotonda, Rome, ItalyMy last stop before I had to make my way to the airport to fly back to Germany was Piazza della Rotonda where I took a look at the Pantheon. I loved the deep orange and red colours of the houses in the square. They contrasted harshly with the white marble of the Pantheon – The temple for all the Gods, as the name tells us. An ancient Roman temple converted into a church.

CIMG3135My journal says:

Beautiful and horrible: How vehemently Christianity takes possession of everything. Beautiful, because it creates an impressive case of interculturality. Horrible, because the Christian church thus makes a claim for power that might be deeply un-Christian.

Such were the ways that Rome inspired me to think. How is it that philosophising seems to come to me more easily when I am surrounded by beauty? In that sense, Rome made it very easy for me. I think I shall return, sleep during the day, and roam the streets between midnight and early morning every day.

Guest Post: Jenni’s Top 5 Museums in Armenia

Jenni and I started talking on twitter in the realms of our respective rotation curation of the @i_amGermany account. Her blog on museums, Museum Diary, is insightful and thorough and a true joy to read. You should also follow her on twitter @jennifuchs. Thank you so much, Jenni, for writing for me about Armenia – a country I personally cannot wait to visit!

Hello, my name is Jenni, and I write a blog all about museums. Many thanks to Mariella for asking me to guest post here. I want to share with you my favourite museums in Armenia, a country I had the privilege of visiting for the first time last year.

The Yerevan “Cascade”

The Yerevan “Cascade”, as it is known, is part of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. It is the most impressive sculpture park I have every come across, and  it’s easy to see where it gets its nickname from – set against a staircase with 570 steps and a 15 degree incline, a series of plateaus and fountains seem to literally cascade down the hillside, continuing into a park at the foot of the staircase. If all those steps are too much for you, there also escalators inside that will take you most of the way to the top. And it’s worth it – the views of the city are fantastic!

Yerevan Cascade, Armenia“Matenadaran” – Ancient Manuscript Museum

Located in central Yerevan near the “Cascade”, “Matenadaran” means “depository of ancient manuscripts” in Armenian and is home to one of the world’s richest collection of medieval manuscripts and books. The subjects span a broad range,both in Armenian as well as in many other languages. The displays include not only many precious books, but also maps and calendars, as also some displays on the restoration of books, and on the plants and minerals used to create inks and paints used in the illumination of manuscripts.

Matenadaran, ArmeniaArmenian Genocide Museum

Although it covers a rather grim episode of 20th century history, to gain an understanding of Armenia and its people the Armenian Genocide museum is not to be missed. The museum opened in 1995 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Remembrance Day for all victims of the Genocide, and stands alongside the Armenian Genocide Memorial which overlooks the city of Yerevan. Be prepared for an emotional visit.

Genocide Museum, ArmeniaEchmiadzin Treasury Museum

Echmiadzin is located in Armavir Province in Central Armenia, about 20km from Yerevan, and is home to Echmiadzin Cathedral, the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. The cathedral, dating back to the 4th century AD, is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and worth a visit itself. Right next door to it is the Treasury Museum, which displays rare and precious treasures of the Armenian Apostolic Church throughout history. One of the highlights of the collection is an alleged piece of Noah’s Ark (though sadly this was on loan elsewhere when I visited).

Echmiadzin, ArmeniaZvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve

Another beautiful cathedral I was introduced to, this time from the 7th century, was sadly destroyed by an earthquake, but it’s ruins were discovered and excavated in the early 20th century. The Zvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve tells its story. As well as visiting the ruins themselves, you will find out about the architecture and construction techniques of the cathedral, its artistic decorations, and its excavation and reconstruction (on a model scale). There’s also a small display about Armenian architectural history and influences across the country.

Zvarnots Cathedral, ArmeniaTo find out more about these and other museums in Armenia, as well as museums in the rest of the world, please feel free to check out my blog, Museum Diary

„All Are Welcome“ – The Bahá’í House of Worship

Before I came to Chicago, I had never heard of the Bahá’í. When my friend Jesse suggested that I go to see their House of Worship in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, I was open to it because I have a general interest in religion and places of worship, and the pictures Jesse showed me of the temple looked stunning. But I did not foresee how much everything I found would speak to me.

The commute out to Wilmette is easier to take during rush hour, because the purple line of the L, Chicago’s metro, goes from the downtown Loop area directly to the quiet suburb in the morning from around 7 through 10 and in the evening from around 3 to 6. I take it to the last stop, Linden, and when I walk out the station, I can’t fail to see the sign that points to the Bahá’í House of Worship. I walk along Linden Avenue with its beautiful villas and only about five minutes later, while crossing a bridge over the North Shore Channel, I see the white dome glisten through the trees. Then it opens up before my eyes in all its splendour.

 Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisWithout knowing much about the faith at all, I just feel impressed by the white beauty of the House of Worhsip that was built here in the beginning of the 20th century and is the oldest Bahá’í temple in the world. As I approach the door, it is opened for me by an usher who moves somewhat solemnly. I enter the simple room that seems almost round – it is actually a nonagon with nine alcoves that are topped, like the outside walls, with quotes from the holy scripture of the Baha’í. I especially like

The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun.“

I wonder briefly how spelling something with a th instead of an s can make a sentence sound so much more meaningful – a „surpasses“ might not have impressed me as much.

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisAfter a bit of quiet contemplation there is a devotion in which the lofty usher has read parts from Bahá’í scripture. It is unpretentious, simple and without any rite or big gesture. Just reading. Lutheran services are bombastic by comparison. I sit and listen and look around me in the big room under the high dome. I sense that the nine sides with their nine glass doors are to symbol that people are invited from all directions and, metaphorically, all backgrounds. If the chairs weren’t pointed to one side of the room, there would be no hierarchy in the structure of the room. Just equality.

I sit out in the gardens of the temple for a while. They seem to me like the proverbial gardens of Alamut Castle that were said to resemble paradise. Not because they are so beautiful (although they are), but because they have that oriental touch with their fountains and flower beds.

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisAfter my visit to the gardens, I visit the Help Center underneath the temple not really expectant of a lot – but there is a small exhibition on the history of Bahá’í Faith and the House of Worship where I end up spending two hours learning about the Bahá’í, and after that, I understand much about the temple’s architectural symbolism.

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisThe Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion which roots in Persia around 150 years ago and is based on the teachings of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh. Its three main principles are the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of humanity. The faith is therefore quite syncretistic. It says that there is just one God, and that all religions point to that same God and thus are essentially not different. Analogically, the equality of religions is mirrored in the equality of all human beings. I remember the feeling I had in the temple, that people were invited from everywhere and from each background and direction. The architect’s intention to symbolize that worked well on me.

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisThe syncretism in this really speaks to me. It has been a conviction of mine for a long time that at least the big monotheistic religions really promote the same spirituality with the use of different stories and rites. My American hostfather always says: „Same God, different names“. That is exactly what the Bahá’í Faith says.

And it is beautifully symbolized in the columns on the temple that show, from bottom to top, the ancient pagan sun symbol (weirdly reminiscent of a swastika, which unfortunately stems from this rune indeed), the Jewish star of David, the Christian cross, Islam’s moon and star and finally the Bahá’í’s nine-pointed star. Nine is the holy number of Bahá’í Faith – hence the nine alcoves of the temple. It is the holy number because it is the highest single digit and as such is supposed to symbolize unity.

The Bahá’í justify their syncretism (which extends to Bhuddism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism) by the idea that new religions emerge at different times throughout history to enable people to have a faith that can be actively practiced in the society they live in. Basically, a new prophet will renew the ever-same faith in a contemporary sense. This makes a lot of sense to me, and it explains why Islam, the youngest monotheistic religion, accepts science as a godly way to explain God’s creation – as does Bahá’í Faith.

I enjoy learning about the founding myths of Bahá’í Faith, and the principles the belief functions by. They all come back to the three basic principles. In the exhibition, quotes of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh, another spiritual figure of the Bahá’í called the Báb, and the prophet’s son are posted to the walls, and some of the words speak to me deeply, most of all the last sentence of this:

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, Illinois For a while I think about what would keep me from converting. I then realize that it is the existence of a prophet. I would have difficulty to all at once recognize the existence and sacredness of a prophet that was unknown to me so far. I then ask myself if a prophet is necessary for a faith like the Bahá’í Faith. But it must be – because people need words like the ones above from an authority to keep to a faith, I think. If they didn’t, maybe religion couldn’t do so much harm.

Bahá’í Faith is beautiful to me – inclusive, accepting, and sensible. It promotes equality and unity, and it says that worship is done by being an active member of society, thus bringing faith into the midst of modern life. It holds up principles that I can believe in. That might not be the function of religion – but it makes it easier. I at least found lots of unexpected spiritual inspiration in Wilmette.

Bahai House of Worship, Wilmette, IllinoisHave you ever gotten to know a religion that was previously strange to you through travel? Had you heard of the Bahá’í before? What do you think about them – and about their House of Worship?

Gretchen’s Question, or Travel and Faith

In one of Germany’s most prized pieces of cultural heritage, Goethe’s monumental drama Faust, there is a phrase that has become proverbial in the German language as the Gretchenfrage, or Gretchen’s question. This now refers to any question that is very hard to answer, but crucial for the inquirer; a question whose answer has so far been deliberately withheld or even avoided. You know that moment in a fresh relationship when you come across something that might be a deal breaker and you are reluctant to ask about it – or be asked about it – because it might drive the whole thing with this new person to an untimely end? Yes. A classic case of Gretchenfrage at stake.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Places of Worship? The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is certainly one of the most impressive ones

The original question that Gretchen asks Faust in the drama is if he believes in God, or actually „Say, as regards religion, how you feel.“ Faust tries to wriggle out of it, prompting Gretchen to be certain of his atheism. Many travellers visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and many travel bloggers have written about places of worship – I myself have done posts about St Paul’s in London or the Cologne Cathedral. Yet the question of faith or religion is hardly ever addressed. I wonder if this is because less and less of us believe in God or if it is just a topic that people try to avoid out of fear of stepping on someone’s toes.

Studenica, Serbia

Studenica Monastery in Serbia – a deeply spiritual place

My one explicit travel experience related to this was when I got into a very strange discussion with a girl I met in Croatia. I wear a cross on a necklace – a bit of a superstition really, but also a small commitment to my faith. The girl saw it and asked me if I believed in God. I said: „Yes.“ She asked: „Hardcore?“ I didn’t even really know what she meant by that, but since I don’t fanatically run to church every Sunday, I said: „No, not really.“ She said: „Good.“ And then she went on to explain to me how every person in the world who believed in God wanted her to go to hell because she was a lesbian. I tried to tell her that this wasn’t true, that I have a lot of gay friends and don’t want to see any of them in hell (a concept I do not even believe in). She wouldn’t have it and we didn’t exactly part on excellent terms.

Dominican church, Krakow, Poland

My favorite church in Poland – the Dominican church in Krakow. They do student services on Sunday nights that are great for just the atmosphere even if you don’t speak Polish!

Personally I find my own faith to be a bit of a conglomerate of different ideas from various religious backgrounds. I was baptized Lutheran as a baby and had my confirmation aged 14. I went to a catholic primary school. I hung out in college with people who were into Hinduism. I have long had an inexplicable fascination with Islam. One of the reasons I loved the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is that the protagonist calls himself a believing and practicing Christian, Hindu and Muslim. How cool is that, really.

What’s more important to me, though, is that I have always put the values of humanity before the values of any religion. I actually think they should be the same thing anyway. I don’t believe it to be important what your God is called, as long as he gives you a few ideas as to how to live a good life. Anything destructive that religions do doesn’t go with the general idea in my book. The Oatmeal has really said it all in his brilliant comic How to suck at your Religion.

Ohrid, Macedonia

I had a moment of spiritual awakening in this church in Ohrid, Macedonia – a moment of truly being at peace with myself.

Now the beauty of travel is that it puts forward all the ideas of humanity that ideally religion should enhance as well, and more than that – travel can help you learn about what you believe in. And I don’t just mean that in terms of denomination – but that too. I learned so much about Islam when I was in Bosnia and Turkey, and it helped me understand certain debates that I only knew from the media so much better. I went to services in England, in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and many times in Poland and it’s taught me about the way that people celebrate their own beliefs.

It is hard to argue that in many cultures religion contributes immensely to the belief system of the people. Because of this, I think we should ask about religion more and learn as much about it as we can while we travel. Things are only ever scary as long as we don’t understand them. That goes especially for the weird fear-respect-scepticism mixture that I sense in many Westerners toward Islam – a beautiful and peaceful religion full of wisdom and love, from all I can say about it.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

This is the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther started reformation by proclaiming is 95 theses.

When I had my preparatory classes for my confirmation 15 years ago (OMG did I just really write that…?), we discussed the concept of sin. I never liked it much, it had the whole guilt trip thing about it. My pastor explained to us that the German word for it, Sünde, is related to the word Sund – in English sound, a strait of water in an ocean between two landmasses. When we sin, we put a sound between us and another person (or, if you will, between us and God), we divide ourselves from others, we cease to be whole. In that explanation, the concept of sin made sense to me for the first time. And if we accept that this is so, then forgiveness means to build a bridge over the sound that has been created so that we can come together again. And once again the bridge is the symbol that, for me, sets everything right.

What do you think? Do you believe in God? Have you been confronted with questions of faith when you travelled? Do you talk to people about religion when you travel?

A World of Its Own – Kosovo

This post is based on this German original / Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Original.

While I figured fairly early in my big Balkans trip three years ago that I probably would not get to see all the countries I had originally thought about, I also knew that there were certain countries that I would most definitely not skip. Mainly those that my mum would have felt better if I’d skipped them. „Honey, you sure you need to go to Albania and Kosovo, all by yourself?“ Hell yeah. I’m not going to go to Serbia and not also go to Kosovo! There was a story there with those two countries, and one I had not the slightes understanding of, and I was not about to let that be the case for much longer. So I did go to Kosovo. And the country surprised me in all the right ways.

Prizren, KosovoI went into Kosovo from Skopje in Macedonia. If you enter into Kosovo from Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro, you won’t be able to leave the country straight to Serbia, and if you enter it from Serbia, you won’t be able to leave straight to Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro. Getting into Kosovo from Skopje was certainly the easiest route in my time, if only for the direct bus connection between Skopje and Prishtina, but that may have changed and other options may be available. So why is it so complicated again?

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, after there had been war there from 1998 through 1999, followed by a long UN administration period. I won’t go into detail because I don’t know much about it myself, but as is custom in the area (note the irony!), it was mainly a conflict of ethnicity, religion and possession. Serbians see Kosovo as an area of their cultural heritage, with beautiful Serbian orthodox monasteries and the site of the Battle of Kosovo – a founding myth of modern day Serbia, if you will. It took place in 1389 between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbians and delayed the Ottomans taking over the area for a little while. Today, however, Kosovo is mostly populated by Albanians who are Muslim. And that is where the problems start. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, so if you enter Kosovo from, say, Macedonia, through Serbian eyes you have entered Serbia already, but don’t have an entrance stamp which is why you cannot cross the boarder from Kosovo to Serbia. And if you enter Kosovo from Serbia, in Serbian eyes you have never left the country.

Going to Kosovo was, considering all of this, not at all a big deal. The boarder police asked me if I was coming on holiday, and bid me good day. I never even got a stamp, which I chose not to mind because I wanted to return to Serbia at one point and knew that a Kosovo stamp might give me trouble. I am still a bit sad though that I have no sign of having been there in my passport.

Prishtina was grey and ugly, and the traffic was pure craziness – but downtown there was a pedestrian zone where the atmosphere was that of an on-going fair. Hideous plastic toys of all provenance where sold, and I immediatly felt the information to be proven that the average age in the country was 25. There were no old people – not even older people, it seemed to me. But there where children – everywhere! They ran and played and screamed with the joy of life, and they made me smile with the realization that beauty exists even in a grey, dull pedestrian zone with ugly plastic toys and socialist concrete buildings. And sitting or working in coffee places, the Kosovar people laughed just like the children of their country – open, untainted, honest.

Grand Hotel, Prishtina, KosovoPeja reminded me of Ulcinj in Montenegro and Novi Pazar in Serbia – formerly Yugoslav cities with a big Muslim minority and influence. I had a cappucino in a street cafe. It was pouring rain. Just outside the terrace that I was sitting on, there was a fountain. The waiter put the coffee on my table, had a water glass in his hand, went over to the fountain to fill it, and put it on my table where it was dripping water on the notebook I was scribbling my impressions into. The waiter gave me a big smile with this. Then electricity stopped going. I had heard the generator all the while. Kosovo runs on two power plants, and one had gone broke that morning, so half the country was on generators, and a bit overstrained with it, I take it. No one seemed to mind, though – and that fact calmed me with quiet joy.

Peja, KosovoPrizren, which I have written about already, was certainly the prettiest town there. I had met an American guy on the bus and we went to see the Serbian Orthodox church up the mountain. Meters of barbed wire and KFOR protection. We were not allowed to enter even the premises.

Serbian Orthodoc church, Prizren, KosovoBack down in the town, we passed the Catholic church, and two teenagers that saw us asked us right away if we wanted to go in, and fetched the priest. He spoke German very well and I translated to English for my American friend. „We don’t need military protection down here,“ he said, „but in my opinion the Serbian churches don’t need it either.“ In the yard, yellow and orange roses were in full bloom. There was peace.

Every coffee house had me meet someone who I had a quick chat with. I got asked on dates and invited to house parties in Kosovo, had delicious Albanian food and bought an English book in a great little international book shop. War? Please, that was more than ten years ago!! Still there were the occasional reminders. Bombed out Serbian houses. A long fence showing pictures of missing relatives.

Missing people's fence, Prishtina, KosovoAnd the big statue of Bill Clinton in a suit with a briefcase, waving fatherly – I almost broke into loud laughter at the sight of it because it seemed ridiculous, but it is a serious matter for Kosovar people. The States have supported the country massively in its fight for independence.

Bill Clintin, Prishtina, KosovoI had asked couchsurfing hosts in Serbia what the big deal was with Kosovo – a naive question that might have gotten me in trouble in the wrong company, but quite usually the answer to me was simply: „What would you say if a part of your country decided to break away and be independent?“  I didn’t say it, but thought: „Well, some Bavarians would like to do that, and to be quite honest, whatever, you know, let them do it, only the German economy would break down and not be able to handle it I guess.“ Kosovo is not economically relevant to Serbia though. So I still didn’t quite know what to do with that argument. I understood, though, that it was really mainly, if not purely, cultural.

One impression was particularly overwhelming in Kosovo: This was not Serbia. It was not Albania, either. It was Kosovo.

Being Drawn to Cologne

It was a big deal when I turned 12 years old for two reasons. One: I was allowed to sit in the front of the car now. Not that I got to do it very often as long as my older sisters were around to steal that much desired seat from me at every option. But it did make me feel very grown up when on my 12th birthday I was sitting next to my dad in the front seat of our family car. Two: My dad had made it a rule to take each of us girls on a small trip to a destination of our choice for their 12th birthday, just he and the respective daughter. My oldest sister chose to go to Berlin with him. My middle sister went skiing. And I went with my dad to Cologne. I do not remember why I chose that city, but I have beautiful memories of it.

So when last week I was due to go to a meeting in Düsseldorf, I decided to stop by Cologne for a few hours – just to check if everything was still there, you know. When I got of the train at the main station, I was a bit taken aback by the cold. I had spent the last few days in Southern Germany where Spring had made its first careful appearance, and the icy wind in Cologne came as a bit of a shock. But the sun was shining, and upon leaving the station, the immediate view of the Cathedral erased any doubts as to whether this had been a good idea. It was majestic and elegant, humungous yet delicate. Once more  I stood in awe of this magnificent building.

Cathedral, Cologne, Germany I didn’t enter right away though, since I had absolutely no money on me, not even a coin to lock in my luggage at the train station, so the first thing I did was stroll into town in search of an ATM which proved rather difficult to be found. But who was I to feel annoyed by that. I was in Cologne, I had time on my hands, and walking through the city was fun even with pulling a carry-on the entire time.

Although I only meandered through what seemed to be the shopping district of Cologne, I found the city to be very atmospheric right away. People around me were talking in their funny, jovial Rhineland dialect and I kept listening in on conversations because I love the sound of it. But what made this afternoon most perfect, inspite of the freezing temparatures that sent me on to Düsseldorf with a cold, was the many many street musicians in the pedestrian zone I was walking through. I had to think of Istanbul where I first had the sensation of changing spheres every few meters with a new street musician adding to the moment’s glory.

I recorded a few examples for you. There was a guy with a flute and a few small jingle rings attached to his shoe that he was pounding with rhytmically so that his playing looked like a dance. And one with steel drums right in front of the cathedral that was a lot calmer, and his tune sounded funny in its solemn gravity. My favorite by far was a Klezmer Trio. Klezmer is a music style very dear to my heart which surely is rooted in my affinity to Eastern Europe. There is so much craving and longing, so much ambition in it. I feel that Klezmer is always driving onward, striving for more, urgently pressing to the next note, the next melody. And when it gets there, it is sighing in relief, only to move on right away. It speaks to me because I find myself as a driven spirit in its melodies and rhythms.

After having enjoyed these musical encounters in the pedestrian zone of Cologne’s downtown and having finally found an ATM, I made my way back to the cathedral.

Main gate, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

The square in front of it was lively and packed with people. I approached the front gates with their characteristically gothic arches, and as I came closer, I looked up toward the towers reaching for the skies, as though they were actually trying to connect this earthly world to its creator.

Towers, Cologne Cathedral, GermanyI entered the church with many many others – tourists mainly, I suppose, but I don’t think exclusively. At any rate there was still lots of German to be heard. It didn’t feel like visiting the great cathedrals in Italy that I sometimes find deprived of their spirituality due to all the tourists. I found a place where I felt like settling, and sat there for about half an hour with this perspective on the beautiful architecture of the Cologne Cathedral:

Nave, Cologne Cathedral, Germany I finally got up to move over to the candle stands. I really love the tradition of lighting a candle for someone. When I was still in school, my mother always used to light a candle at home when I had an exam, all the way through my final exam in grad school. She sat it on our dining table and every time she walked by it she would think of me and cross fingers.

I have lit candles in many many churches. To me it is a beautiful manifestation of my thinking and caring about someone. Looking at the stands filled with flickering lights, I was wondering who they had been lit for. I was wondering how many candles had been lit by people for themselves and how many had been lit for someone else. I though that there was maybe a lot of desperation and anxiety behind this – candles lit for people who were ill or had lost perspective and focus. So I thought about people dear to me and lit two candles out of the pure joy of living and experiencing beauty. Lights of gratefulness to shine and impart hope. And I hope amongst the candles were others like mine.

Candle stands, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

St Paul’s Cathedral the Non-Touristy Way

Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Originalpost.

Sometimes the reasons that make me want to see a place are not the most rational. The reason I wanted to see Prague, for example, was a Donald Duck pocket book that had an adaption of Franz Kafka’s „The Metamorphosis“. It started by the words: „Prague – the golden city by Vltava river…“ I read it when I was 9 years old, and I imagined golden rooftops and a golden river and golden sunshine, and I heard in my head the sound of Smetana’s Vltava, a piece I had already learned to love back then, and I wanted to see this magical place more than anything. When I went there 12 years later, it was every bit as golden as I had always pictured it to be, and the music played in my head and heart all the while I was there.

I had a similar reason I had wanted to see London for a long time. Not because of Big Ben, or the London Eye, or the Houses of Parliament, or Westminster Abbey. Not because of Oliver Twist or Peter Pan. I was always just drawn to one place – St Paul’s Cathedral. And again the reason was musical: Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and her song about the little old bird woman selling breadcrumbs to feed the birds with.

Originally I had wanted to visit a service at Westminster Abbey that morning – but there was security and a lot of people in uniforms moving about in a concerted way that struck me as rather funny and not as awe-inspiring as it maybe was supposed to. At any rate the service could only be visited if you held a ticket. Sometimes fast decisions have to be made. I ran to catch a tube, and another, running up the streets, and I reached St Paul’s having to catch my breath.

St Paul's, London, EnglandThe service hadn’t started yet, but it was high time, and so my first impression of the building was very different from what I had envisioned. I had seen myself carefully approach the church and slowly take in all the details, I had pictured myself walking about, barely being able to keep myself from humming the song about the old bird woman. Instead I ran and rushed up the stairs, „To the service?“ someone asked, I nodded, had a leaflet stuck into my hand, the sound of the ringing bells in my ears, and only found it in myself to calm down when I had already crossed through half of the nave. Finally slowly, I took step upon step forward to finally reach the dome, lift my head and let my eyes wander across it. Instantaneously, tears were running down my cheeks. I never even noticed the moment when I started crying. The beauty, the sublimity of it was completely out of this world. An usher approached me and asked: „Alright?“ I stammered: „It’s so beautiful!“

I sat down in one of the benches rather shyly. I love going to church in foreign countries, because every service in a different language or of a different confession that I have seen has only made my belief stronger that faith is universal, and spirituality transgresses the ideas of different religions. In this place of such great festivity, however, I was a little uneasy at the thought of someone realizing that I was somehow different, somehow not part of this. After all I had – and, as I shamefully must admit, still have – practically no idea about the Church of England and their principles.

As soon as the service started, however, all of this went away. There was a men’s choir all dressed in frocks. Their singing was unearthly, the sounds resonated with something deep inside my soul, and the melodies stretched out into the church dome and felt eternal. They were more solemn, more mighty than I knew church music at home to be, and they seemed to dissolve barriers inside of me and allowed me to fully give in to the entire emotional range that was at my disposition.

The sermon on the other hand was a graceful combination of philosophical depths and true-to-life happiness. It was about equality, and there was one sentence that has never left me since, and that said: „We are all one in Jesus Christ, whether we are male or female, black or white, straight or gay.“ I had never heard someone speak about matters of sexual orientation equality in a church, and I was equally impressed and touched. I do not think the sentiment of that sentence only holds valid for those who believe in Jesus. Equality is a value that is rooted in humanity, not in Christianity. This phrase is just a specifically Christian way of saying something that is bigger than any specific confession.

I left the service happier than I had gone in. I think that is what I like about religious services. They keep me from becoming cynic and restore my idealism somewhat – however much religious institutions may also have the power to destroy that same idealism when I look at other actions they take every day. Is it phony of me to concentrate mainly on those parts of it that go with my own belief system? I don’t know – what harm can it do if it may help me to be a better person?

Older posts