Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Taizé in Brussels: day two

The weather is cold (-4 centigrade); cars, houses and trees are iced with frost; but the skies are clear and there's no hail, drizzle, sleet, snow or freezing mist to contend with. Yesterday was the second day of the Taizé pilgrimage in Brussels. The hobbit-like habits of the Belgians are much in evidence: nobody is willing to let the pilgrims walk anywhere in the cold, and many will happily drive miles out of their way to see that they don't; before morning prayer the pilgrims get breakfast with their host families, then after morning prayer they get second breakfast in the local primary school that's functioning as reception centre and meeting place for the discussion groups. Although they're supposed to get noon and evening meals at the Heizel, some of them are given yoghurts and other odds and ends to take with them. After they get back, they're virtually force-fed supper (soup, tea, cake, weak coffee) before being dispatched to their various host families.

A couple we know in the next parish along have Serbian guests who manage to get lost when they go to the Heizel, and end up sight-seeing. I don't know whether our guests have that problem - I'm not particularly worried what they get up to, as long as they don't roll in drunk at three in the morning.

I'd planned to go to sit in on one of the "workshops" yesterday afternoon, but a rush job came in around lunchtime and by the time I'd turned it around and got to the Heizel all the afternoon workshops were over, and everybody was at a loose end for the hour before they began serving the evening meal. So I went to the "silent" area, which had a tremendously restful atmosphere, despite being busy with hundreds of people engaged in silent reflection or in muttering with the dozen or so priests and spiritual counsellors who, with decent distances between, were lining the walls of the hangar-like space. There were banners hanging from the roof, carpet on the floor, and images of Christmas-themed Brueghel paintings being projected on a massive screen at one end of the room. I poured out my woes to a South-East Asian priest whose main European language was French, and received a blessing and some sound advice that had nothing whatsoever to do with what I'd been talking about. Still, no reason to neglect it on that account. Then I poured out my woes to a Dutch sister, and got advice that was relevant. Two sets of sound advice at the price of a single set of woes - a bargain by any reckoning.

Today is actually day three, but I won't know how it's gone until this evening (when we have a peace vigil, followed by a New Year's party until 2 tomorrow morning). After morning prayer I took the children to sing out the old year in the little village that my mother-in-law is from (and where my sister now lives), so that old ladies who went to school with their grandmother can give them sweets, crisps, pieces of fruit and loose change.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taizé in Brussels: day one

Our parish's Taizé-inspired visitors arrived yesterday morning, around half a dozen at a time, every half hour that the bus from Brussels stopped. We (that is, my family) have been assigned 2 Poles, 2 Italians, and there are 2 young pilgrims from Sweden staying here too (but that's a private arrangement: it's actually my youngest brother and his girlfriend). In our parish everybody was processed by 2 p.m. Then I went to help in the next parish along, to be greeted by scenes of chaos (they had twice as many visitors to process, and nothing nice and simple to deal with like groups of half a dozen, at half-hour intervals). I ended up hanging around until it was time to put the children to bed, with 7 of the assigned pilgrims still not having turned up in the parish. I hear they all made it in the end, so I don't feel too guilty about coming home into the bosom of my family.

It's a nice interaction of individual spirituality and the institutional church. I did read somewhere that the two have nothing to do with one another, but without the parish structures there would be no way to greet all these pilgrims, unless we were happy to run the risk of some of them freezing in the streets (crushed by the juggernaut of enthusiasm). And of course, the spirituality is a nice reminder of what the structures are actually there for.

Again, there was more, and more sympathetic, coverage on national news than I would expect in England:

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Falling at the last hurdle!

But just in case there are any chance readers in Hawaii:

Yesterday I finally got round to finishing my Christmas shopping (finding DVDs of Mole and the Three Robbers in the bookshop of the Palais des Beaux Arts), with the shops and streets in the city centre a jostling mass, pretty much shoulder to shoulder in places. In the evening there was a final Taizé meeting from 8 till after 11 (this is my excuse for being 14 hours late with the final O Antiphon).
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

O Oriens

Only two more days before Christmas Eve. I was surprised we didn't have "O Come, O Come Emanuel" in Mass this morning. And it's the last shopping Sunday before Christmas, the news reporting that the shops were hell. Not having done any shopping today, I'm willing to take their word for it (now, if the Post Office had Sunday opening I'd have been tempted to take the occasion to post our Christmas cards). For three hours this afternoon I was in a general informational meeting in the basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels, together with hundreds of other local organizers for the Taizé pilgrimage (one week to go!) It seems we can expect Poles, Croats and Romanians in our parish. The next parish along will be getting Poles, Portuguese, Belorussians, Italians, Lithuanians and Serbs; and Sint Martinus will have Poles, Germans and Hungarians. I'm not sure what parish will end up with Poles, Poles, Poles, Poles and Poles. In any case the whole has a rather Eastern theme (suitable for today).
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Two days gone at once ...

or so it feels like. Is Christmas some sort of black hole, that bends time as you get closer to it? So today I'll post early, to avoid the rush:

Last night, on the way to a Taizé preparation meeting in the next parish along, I was breathalyzed for the first time ever, which was rather entertaining (especially the way the police officer stood fidgeting with his hi-tech breathalyzer, apologetically saying "It has to warm up for a couple of minutes first.") I was late for the meeting, but I'd be lying if I put it down entirely to the police. Yesterday was just not an organized day.
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The countdown to Christmas...

has now begun in earnest:

And there was me wondering why "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" was going through my head all morning!
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Opening scene of Gladiator - for real

(Updating to embed CNN report, with actual opening scene of Gladiator)

It seems as though somebody has whipped out their history books and cottoned on that the Romans did send expeditions across the Rhine, most famously those led by third-century emperor Maximinus Thrax, who boasted about it by taking the name Germanicus Maximus.

Nevertheless, they're sticking to the earlier story that the battle site at Kalefeld is the "find of the century", tracing the progress of the battle through finds of arrow heads, ballista bolts, broken harness, horseshoes, sandal nails, and other odds and ends (including an army-issue axe), scattered over an area of one and a half kilometres by 500 metres (suggesting that a substantial column came under attack and fought off its ambushers). Gosh, exciting stuff. They also say that the 600 finds already turned up barely scratch the surface.
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The Voice of Professor Yaffle

Having blogged about Bagpuss recently, I've just noticed a post elsewhere that includes the voice that inspired the character of the "carved wooden bookend":

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Roman trouble-making in Germania libera

For those interested, a post on my more historical blog about Roman-German confrontations post-AD 9. From around 300 Roman weapons are to be found in Norway (says Sigrid Undset in Saga of Saints), so I'm a little surprised at the surprise that a century earlier there was now and then something of a Roman military presence in Germany beyond the imperial frontiers.

(Update here)
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea

The most poetic and evocative line ever spoken on a children's television programme. OK, it's not Sigrid Undset, but it's as close as an eight year-old can want. I found an episode of Noggin the Nog on youtube but didn't embed it because the "related videos" include filth. I've flagged them and left a note for whoever is responsible for such things on youtube, but given their failure to act on eucharistic desecration videos I somehow don't hold out much hope of them doing anything about having put filth one mouseclick away from a children's programme ...

But now (updating an hour or two later) I see that In hoc signo vinces has found a "clean" version, so with thanks:

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Oliver Postgate RIP

Or: how the computer ate my afternoon. Going online to check my email for a phone number, I saw an email notification of a comment on the blog; on the blog I saw that Outlandish Knight had put up a new post: Oliver Postgate, it seems, has died. I've been following links to online interviews and videos ever since.

Being a thirty-something Englishman with four young children and a DVD player, Oliver Postgate's name calls up more associations than I can easily define and distinguish - all of them pleasant. Never much of a fan of Ivor the Engine (although I remember some of my younger siblings enjoying it), I was a childhood devotee of Bagpuss, the Clangers, and (above all) Noggin the Nog. My own children love Bagpuss, which we have on DVD (why are these things not repeated on the box? they're far superior to lots of what gets broadcast!) It was only when watching Bagpuss with my children that I realized how deeply the characters, stories and songs had embedded themselves in my own psyche. It's surprising that nobody has yet come up with the Facebook application "Which Bagpuss character are you?"

So for those of you who have no idea what I'm on about:

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

And for the occasion the Daily Gospel Online provides the text of a Marian hymn by Saint Ephraem (c.306-373), with the line "She suckled him who gives nourishment to the peoples". Dignity of breastfeeding and whatnot.
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Belgian Cultural Festival in China (continued)

The day after my lecture I took off to go and visit the Great Wall, in company with three musicians, a lecturer, and a lecturer's spouse. We left before dawn, to avoid the rush. Before leaving I asked at the hotel desk whether it would be possible to get something from the kitchen to take with us. The girl at the desk told me that breakfast wouldn't be served until 8. I asked again if we could take something, bread rolls, apples, anything, that wouldn't need cooking or serving, and she told me that there was a shop around the corner, but it wouldn't be open. I asked at the desk rather than at the kitchen because my Chinese was hardly up to the task, but having met such stubborn unhelpfulness at the desk I ventured my Chinese in the kitchen, and left laden with slices of cake and a plastic bucket of cherry tomatoes. The cooks wouldn't let guests go hungry, whatever the night clerk might say. The Great Wall just after dawn, with no one else about, and in a blaze of autumnal scenery, is quite a sight.
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Friday, December 5, 2008


I've just been looking at an alternative view of the Belgian Cultural Festival in China. Can't say I'm much the wiser - must improve my Chinese!

The programme for the festival had the letters of my name in the wrong order, but I didn't much mind that. What did disappoint me was that there was also a lengthy Chinese transliteration. My Chinese name is 安博远, as I'd have been happy to say if anyone had asked, and I really would have liked the chance to use it properly.
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Jesus grew in Mary's womb and was fed at Mary's breasts

A week ago I was in the church of St Martinus, in Sint-Martens-Bodegem, for the first time ever. I didn't have a camera with me, or I would have snapped a shot of the statue of a visibly pregnant Mary that stood before the altar. By chance there have been news reports about another such statue (it must be said, much more visibly pregnant) in America. And reading the report just linked to (following a link from this blog) I was struck (and it seems I was not the only one so struck) by the claim that representations of a pregnant or breastfeeding Mary were uncommon in art because considered undignified. (This is perhaps why there are so few images of Jesus being born in a stable or nailed to a cross?)

If such representations really are uncommon, I have been fortunate enough to see a disproportionate number. Not so very far from here is the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Halle, whose miracles were written up by none less than Neo-Stoic philosopher Justus Lipsius. The church is one of the very few in the Low Countries to retain anything of its medieval interior, thanks to the Virgin's saving it from the Calvinist forces who attempted to surprise the town in 1580.

And on wikimedia commons: the best such painting imaginable:

This is without even considering representations of pregnancy which "peep", such as this or this...
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Note on previous post

This will give some idea of what the trio (Ensemble Sirocco) were performing. Nothing I know can give any idea of the music the choir was singing.
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