Sunday, 23 June 2013

To Munich

I am not a born adventurer.

But I do have a Tookish side. So when my most esteemed Philosophy teacher, Dr. Fendt, said he would be in Europe and asked if it would be possible to meet, I looked at all the possibilities. Cardiff and Prague, where he would present his papers, were too far away. He might be able to come to Munich, which was closer. But the plane trip was still too expensive.

So it was that on Friday evening, I found myself in a tourist waiting room of the coach service Eurolines. People who went to Paris checked in. Then the ones bound for London, together with us, bound for Germany or the Czech Republic. A large bus would leave at 10.30pm to take us to Frankfurt, where a number of us would have to take a further coach to Munich at 5am.

We waited, a quiet group of individuals from various countries. There was not much more talking in the bus. I tried to start a conversation with the girl next to me, but she was disinclined. Behind me were a Dutch and a Czech person who were a bit more talkative, especially, of course, the Dutch guy. He expressed his opinion that the Turkish government was oppressive, but that the Turkish people would become stronger because of it. I suppose he was a foreign policy expert of some sort. The Czech guy said that Turkish people were strange. I suppose he had inherited folk wisdom of some sort.

We picked up more people at Utrecht and Arnhem. I dozed off. After midnight we got to stretch our legs; many passengers smoked. The ritual was repeated around 2.30 (I think) and 4.30, just before we reached Frankfurt. By then it had started to dawn, sunrise after the longest day of the year. When we transferred in Frankfurt at 5am, it was light.

The next bus did not stop to let us out; I was glad I had something to eat. We stopped only to let people out: Mannheim, Stuttgart, Ulm. At the last stage, the bus was almost empty. By chance, my neighbour from the first bus sat across the aisle on the second. She and a few guys tried to sleep until we arrived, after 11am. By then, I had been reading for several hours, sufficiently refreshed: the Breviary, notes on Church history, and A Song of Ice and Fire. A fellow seminarian had ‘lent’ me his Game of Thrones e-books, and a long bus ride is a good place to start reading.

On arriving, I took the underground to Karlsplatz. When I emerged, this was the first thing I saw:

The Fendt couple had agreed to meet me at the Bürgersaalkirche, where we attended a beautiful German Mass. No better way to start the day together! The first word I said to Mrs. Fendt was ‘Peace’. The church was beautiful, high-ceilinged, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When we walked out, I said to Dr. Fendt, ‘I suppose you arranged the Augustine in the postcommunion song?’ (The text had clearly been lifted from Confessions.)

He laughed in his own way and said, ‘That was just a happy accident. Or – something else.’

We walked along the Neuhauser Straße, visited a Jesuit church, sat down somewhere for lunch (the Fendts not only made my day, but even paid my day) and talked about anything that sprang to mind: family, people from UNK and Kearney (like people Dr. Fendt had met in church, such as Scott Hahn’s son and an Evangelical missionary out of Wheaton), seminary, recent developments. I ate Bavarian sausages with mustard.

At Dr. Fendt’s suggestion, we went to the Neue Pinakothek, an art museum with paintings and some sculptures from the Modern period. Most of it was not ‘modern art’, but figurative art from the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a room with a series of paintings from the 1850s by Rottmann. When the German king Otto ascended the throne of Greece, Rottmann depicted the remnants of many ancient Greek cities like Corinth, Aulis, Eleusis. The works were made on plaster: we looked not at canvas, but at pieces of wall (you could see the thickness). Dr. Fendt was really impressed by the Rottmann room.

When I was looking at The Disquieting Muses by Georges de Chirico (more symbolist in nature), a few girls joined me. They were not German, so I asked where they were from, which turned out to be South Africa. I said a few words to them in Dutch and they asked in Afrikaans if I could understand them.

Dr. Fendt had heard that I still had exams – that I had ‘taken time off my busy schedule’ as he put it – and predicted that I would look something like the poor guy on the right (full view):

(Hasenclever, Hieronymus Jobs im Examen, 1840)

While we’re at it, I’d like to share some of my favourites among the paintings I’ve seen at the Pinakothek:

(Appiani, Zwei Kinder, 1808)

(Overbeck, Italia e Germania, 1828)

(Riedel, Felice Berardi aus Albano, 1848)

Mrs. Fendt liked this one:

(Waldmüller, Junge Bäuerin mit drei Kinder im Fenster, 1840)

On exiting the Pinakothek, we met Rasheed, Dr. Fendt’s nephew, who was probably about my age. Since we were getting rather thirsty, we sat down somewhere for a Franziskaner Weissbier. Rasheed told us what he was doing in life at the moment. Then we got into a discussion about my thesis on Plato (whether it was appropriate to disguise truth, in order to get the non-receptive to like it), and about civil and ecclesiastical marriage.

We got up only to have dinner somewhere else, and passed an anti-Erdogan demonstration:

Apparently the issue gets lots of attention!

At dinner, the discussion about the good life was renewed. When it seemed to get heated, I asked Dr. Fendt: ‘If you could come back as an animal, what animal would it be?’ He said he’d never really thought about that. Rasheed chose a large bird, like a hawk; Mrs. Fendt opted for the swan (but not in England, as Rasheed pointed out, as she would then be property of the Queen, and she is Irish). I rejected wings (as I said, I’m not much of an adventurer), opining that I’d probably be a squirrel in a park somewhere.

Finally, when it was past 10pm, they took me to the Hauptbahnhof; I would go back to Amsterdam by train. We said goodbye. It had been a good day, more full of lightness than my arid narration could suggest.

The train ride, unfortunately, was less comfortable than the bus ride. Across the aisle were two guys, possibly American and probably younger than I, who talked loudly and incessantly. One of them called his girlfriend, wheedled insufferably and mentioned multiple times that he was drunk (that might explain some things). They were quite full of themselves and quite impatient for the train to get moving (it was somewhat delayed). Thankfully, they were told that they had to be in another waggon. But after they had gone, some more noisy people came in. They left, too. Around 3am, I was woken up by the older man next to me; he wanted to change seats so that he could exit. A fair request.

It seems counterintuitive that a night bus would be preferable to a night train, but such was my experience of this weekend.

Arnhem – I was getting close to home. Utrecht – I had to change trains. Amsterdam – I arrived around 9.30 on Sunday morning, walked around a bit and into St. Nicholas’ Church when the gates opened. It was a beautiful Mass. The priest had once been my fellow student (though over 30 years older). The choir sang very well, and there seemed to be a fair proportion of youthful faces in the congregation. Including my own, admittedly unwashed and unshaven, but bright-eyed.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Burning Ones

One of the five books of the Torah, In the Wilderness (known to us as Numbers), relates that the people of God complained. They were dissatisfied because they had no bread and no water, and hated the manna which they did have. So God sent them a serpent plague, at which they relented and asked Moses to intercede. Moses, the prophet of angelic patience, interceded. Then the Lord told Moses to make a copper serpent and put it on a pole for the people to look at. Those who looked at the serpent were healed.

Now as I happened to be reading this passage (21,4-9) in two translations, I noticed that one had God telling Moses to make a ‘bronze serpent’, but the other a ‘fiery serpent’. Whence the difference? I glanced at the Hebrew text to see if the words were alike. This was not the case, but one of the words was oddly familiar.

The ‘fiery serpents’ that the Lord sent His people are, in Hebrew, ha-nechashim ha-seraphim. The last word’s meaning is related to ‘kindle’ or ‘burn’; it probably refers to the effect of the poison. God tells Moses to make a saraph (the Hebrew-English Tanakh translates ‘a seraph figure’) and put it on a pole. So Moses makes a copper serpent (nechash nechosheth).

Intrigued, I wanted to find out if there is any connection between the snakes and the angels. It seems that seraphim do not often appear in Scripture. They appear in this story and its flashback in Deuteronomy. Other than that, they are only mentioned in Isaiah – but in very different contexts. Twice the saraph appears as a dragon-like creature, a horrifying enemy:

Rejoice not, all Philistia,
Because the staff of him that beat you is broken,
For from the stock of the snake there sprouts an asp,
A flying seraph branches out from it.

Through a land of distress and hardship,
Of lion and roaring king-beast,
Of viper and flying seraph,
They convey their wealth on the backs of asses…

But in one passage, we suddenly find the seraphim at the Heavenly Court – hardly less terrible:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.
And one would call to the other,
“Holy, holy, holy!
The LORD of hosts!
His presence fills all the earth!”
The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke.

These ‘burning ones’ do not seem to have any serpentine features; they are like winged men. One of them purifies the prophet’s lips by pressing a live coal to it. It is therefore assumed that there is no direct connection between the snakes and the angels. But the double meaning of saraph (in one book!) remains intriguing.

Traditionally, the Seraphim have been identified as the highest order in the hierarchy of angels, because they ‘burn’ with love for God; they surpass even the Cherubim, who are characterized by wisdom and deep knowledge of God. Apparently love is higher even than wisdom.

By the way, if you were wondering what happened to the saraph that God commanded Moses to make: it turned out just a copper serpent after all. After it had served its purpose, the Israelites started worshipping it as an idol, which was reason for King Hezekiah to smash it (2 Kings 18,4). Yet it still burns in the Christian spiritual memory as an image of Jesus, the life-giver lifted up on the cross (John 3,14-15) in the wilderness of the world; the Son of Man and Son of God, who burned with zeal for his Father’s house, and offered up ‘this temple’ as the final burnt offering.