My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 30 November 2015

Ethiopia - a pilgrimage in search of the Ark of the Covenant

Addis School children 
All my inoculations are up to date - hepatitis A, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, polio and yellow fever, and I've been taking the malarial tablets for a week. I'm ready to leave for Ethiopia "in search of the Ark of the Covenant" along with the other 13 in this party of pilgrims organised by McCabe Pilgrimages. So it is that after a busy Sunday in our local church I find myself at the airport in the early evening for the overnight flight to Addis Ababa, the world's third highest capital city - sprawling across the southern slopes of central Ethiopia's Entoto hills and reaching an altitude of more than 2600m at its highest point.

detail of the roof in Holy Trinity Cathedral
As we start the descent into Addis Ababa after a fairly sleepless night - why do airlines turn up the lights again and serve breakfast just as you are beginning to nod off from sheer exhaustion? - the scenery below us is stunning - the rock formations are incredible, and the mountains appear to be cut into huge slices of cake with precipitous drops from huge plateaus. I fear I see a little air pollution hanging at the base of the hills in the near distance though.
Addis street view on way to hotel
We arrive into a chilly dawn, staggering bleary eyed into an airport which is much quieter than I imagined. We are very soon being whisked off to our small coach and introduced to our driver and our wonderful guide Johannes who will accompany us throughout the trip. Although the air is brisk, the sky is a clear pale blue, tinged with the various hues of a pink dawn and promising a pleasantly warm day ahead. Already the streets are very busy with people scurrying to work, if they are lucky enough to have a job to go to. It is soon apparent that unemployment is a problem here, as we see scores of young men poring over the huge notice boards which we are told list work vacancies. The contrasts everywhere are stark: modern buildings tower over mud and corrugated iron roofed huts, beggars plead on street corners as children in their neat uniforms stride purposefully to their schools, bundles of books under their arms, and there are small flocks of sheep standing around for sale awaiting their fate - these are destined for private homes where they will be slaughtered by the family, skinned and butchered for the next few meals.
City of Refuge Church sign

bustling Addis early morning
We are glad to arrive at our hotel where we have a welcome breakfast. Eggs will be cooked however you like them as you watch - I particularly like the omelettes which incorporate finely chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers and chillies - very tasty. We have time for a few hours rest before we are taken on an orientation tour of the city. The National Ethiopian Football Team is staying in the hotel - there seem to be presentations going on and much noise in the room next to mine! I am reluctantly forced to ask a maid if they could please be quieter. Once we are suitably refreshed we will visit the National Museum of Ethiopia, a must to see on everyone's visit to Addis Ababa, and the Trinity Cathedral where Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife are buried, with its wonderful stained glass windows and wall paintings.More about that in the next post...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Ethiopian pilgrimage

The Google Doodle when I fired up my computer on 24th November celebrated the 41st anniversary of the discovery of Lucy near a village called Hadar in Ethiopia - the unearthing of skeletal fragments which were to rewrite the story of human evolution.

The National Museum Addis Ababa
Just a few days before that I had actually visited the National Museum in Addis Ababa where Lucy's remains now rest. We were on another McCabe pilgrimage, this time to visit the famous rock hewn churches of Lalibela and to see much more that this wonderful country of Ethiopia has to offer, over eleven amazing days.
reconstruction of Lucy
It is no wonder that in July 2015 the country was winner of the World Best Tourist Destination for 2015 award and  receiver of the Favourite Cultural Destination Distinction for 2015 by the General Assembly of the European Council on Tourism and Trade(ECTT).

So many of the sites we would see are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Add to this the stunning scenery, fascinating culture and lovely people and this country should be on every traveller's list to visit.

one of many stunning windows in Trinity Cathedral
Addis Ababa

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing with you some of the stories of our travels illustrated as usual from my vast collection of photos from the trip. I hope you will enjoy!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Corinth - the climax of our pilgrimage In the Steps of St Paul

The sea is grey today, reflecting the cloud cover as the sun struggles to come out. We are following the coast road to Corinth, 70 kilometres south of Athens beyond the Canal of Corinth, which connects the Aegean and Ionian seas. We enjoy beautiful views of the sea to our left for much of the way, with the Island of Salamina clearly visible in the distance across the bay.
Corinth was second only to Rome in its ancient heyday, and we are promised something much greater than Ephesus, which I recall clearly from a baking hot visit on holiday in Turkey many years ago.
We are to see the Bema - the seat of judgment and authority, elevated above the crowds. The Jews were offended by Paul saying that Jesus Christ was the chosen one, resurrected for us. The leaders and Kings were offended that Christ through Paul's teachings usurped their authority. But Gallio the Proconsul before whom Paul was brought by the angry Jews could see no case to answer and dismissed Paul before he even needed to defend himself. See Acts 18.
Corinth is forever remembered through Paul's letters to its church there, formed after his first visit. a young church which has become tainted by the general paganism and immorality of the day. Here he recruited two assistants in his mission - Priscilla and Aquila. Paul departed here from the port of Corinth, Cenchreae on his way to Ephesus.

The Corinth Canal service area where we make a comfort stop on the way to Corinth served for an expensive 2.50 Euros what was without doubt the very worst coffee of the trip, and it was surely instant coffee. 
Comfort break!

The City of Corinth and the Island of Rhodes apparently have the most sunshine in Greece, but it's still quite cloudy when we arrive, although the sun soon comes out for us.

Here among the ruins at Corinth in a lovely setting we gather together for our final open-air Eucharist. A distant church bell strikes twelve as we begin and the Dean gives a homily on Paul's reading in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4: 7) - we now have this treasure as a light from God in our hearts, but we are like clay jars in all their fragility and all power comes from God alone. The Dean reflects on the fragility of human nature and the difficulties of getting on with each other even today, so visible in international tensions. It is lovely to hear a Hong Kong pilgrim group echoing our service in the distance and singing hymns and alleluias. Finally Rob reads with great sensitivity the letter from Paul to the Corinthians on love ("If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels but do not have love...") and two tourists listening on the periphery of our group are visibly moved: as indeed was I.

the dog who accompanied us all
around the site!

We finish with the Grace - "The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore Amen".

So much information is available on line about Corinth - with a good article on its biblical significance here and its history here - suffice here to show some photos of our visit.

As we leave some of us have time to rush down to the theatre - where we find the name of Erastus carved in the stone - possibly this being Paul's friend Erastus mentioned in Romans 16: 23 and 2 Timothy 4: 20. This is a rare and important archaeological find.

Erastus plaque
A taverna on the bank of the Corinth Canal gives us the best food of the holiday - great ambiance with Greek locals making music and dancing as only they can - some of us even join in. Two of us share a vegetable platter - very good indeed for just 7 Euros, plus two local beers, as we watch the canal road bridge lowering into the water to allow boats through. As the level is raised again, seagulls and local boys compete in trying their luck at catching the trapped fish brought up from below. The waiters are rushed off their feet serving us all and do a great job. If Corinth was spiritually satisfying, this restaurant experience was magical in its own way.
Tonight we have dinner all together in the Thissio View Restaurant which has the most fantastic views over the Acropolis - for a while many of us try to get the perfect shot from the restaurant balcony of the Acropolis at sunset, while all food is forgotten.

So Saturday arrives and it is time to go home. In the morning we are left to explore Athens on our own and many of us make immediately for the marvellous new Acropolis Museum in an attempt to beat the later crowds who will throng through its doors. And this museum should certainly not be missed on any trip to the city.
the Acropolis at night
I then have time to further explore the area around the acropolis, and the plaka, or shopping area, and I have to revise my initial impressions. Athens is a remarkable city and I would love to return to see even more of its many treasures. 

Corinth Temple of Apollo
The pilgrimage has had its highs and lows for me. But overall it has been a wonderful experience both spiritually and culturally even if I have not always been as receptive in the moment as perhaps I could have been.

Images that will stay with me:

The warmth and friendliness of the people
The lovely hot dry sunshine and the sparkling blue sea
Plentiful food - at the centre of life!
The beauty of the countryside and the pink and white Oleander everywhere
Religiosity of the people in its sense of "piety", or "the state of being religious".
Crazy drivers and the general disregard for seat belt and other laws - reflected in so many sad roadside shrines.
The Bema information board at Corinth 

The Bema or Rostra at Corinth

The fountain courtyard Corinth
Enormous thanks go to McCabe Pilgrimages who as ever organised the whole trip so well for us, to our lovely guide Mara who gave us so much guidance and information and our driver Tassus who looked after us so carefully, to the Very Revd. Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark cathedral for his excellent spiritual guidance and leadership and to Mark Vernon for adding so much to the pilgrimage with his philosophical perspective on early Christianity. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Eleusis on our way to Corinth - In the steps of St Paul

view towards the Greater Propylaea
At the moment you will have gathered that, at least to start with, I didn't much like Athens. My first impression is that it is noisy and dirty and assaults all the senses; but this perhaps is saying more about me, not a great city lover at the best of times, and others may well feel very differently and wonder what I mean. There are not enough of what I would call "thin" places here and I feel I shall be glad to get out of it to visit Corinth. Sometimes I have struggled to feel like a pilgrim on what for me has often felt more like a cultural tour. We were not allowed to hold a service at the Acropolis. I guess if everyone wanted to do that chaos would ensue - the sheer numbers there mean that the crowds need to keep moving. But it is mainly the pithy and pertinent blogs from our Dean which have grounded me in the pilgrimage and helped me refocus on the real purpose of our trip - in the steps of St Paul on his second missionary journey into Europe.  
Today our final destination and the climax of our pilgrimage is Corinth, (it was a very special place for Paul as well - he stayed for one and a half years here plying his trade as a tentmaker and taking full advantage of the reception given to his missionary activities especially by the pagan Gentiles).

But first we visit Eleusis. 

We are driving along the route of the sacred path that Athenians would have taken to Eleusis. They would have stopped frequently for dancing and making sacrifices along the way. This is one of the few sites not given over by Greeks to archaeological experts from other countries. 
the well
So we arrive. Wow! Today the town has become a suburb of Athens and the archaeological remains of this important site, first inhabited during the period 1900 - 1500 BC. when it was more important than Athens, is now surrounded by industrial estates and close to the largest oil refinery site in Greece, where the majority of the country's crude oil is imported. Small wonder that many tourists just drive by on the nearby motorway with scarcely a sideways glance, but it is worth much more attention than that. 
Marble sarcophagus of Roman Times (2nd century A.D.)
with a scene of the hunting of the Calydonian Boar
on the front
The extensive temple ruins here are famous for being the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most important religious initiation ceremonies of the Ancient Greeks, held annually since the Mycenian period (c. 1600 - 1100 BC) celebrating the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the God of the Underworld Hades. Mara tells us of this myth of Persephone - as we drive to the site. The cult of Demeter and Persephone may have been based on an ancient agrarian cult, the myth being used by the Greeks to explain the different seasons of the year. The secret rites, complex ceremonies and sacred meals were thought to confer rewards to the initiated in the after-life and it is possible, according to some scholars, that psychedelic drugs would have been brought into use to induce visions. It is also thought that these experiences could have influenced the early Christians and even have links with our Eucharistic traditions taught by Christ. 

Dean Inge, William Ralph Inge, formerly of St Pauls Cathedral, London, in a series of divinity lectures on Christian mysticism delivered in the late nineteenth century, (now available in digitally remastered book form )

concluded: "It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission." Mark Vernon in his own blog writes: 
Eleusis amphora from 7th c. BC
"Personally, I think that this adoption of the practice and theology of the mysteries is crucial to knowing the life in all its fullness that Jesus lived and taught, and Paul so profoundly experienced and knew."  

Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the founders of mystical Christianity, may have been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries and therefore he was ready for Pauls' further insight into the mysteries of Christ, for example when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: 51-58:
" Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed ...“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Dionysius used the language of the Mysteries frequently, drawing on their good aspects without their corruptions in writing about the Christian faith. 
There is plenty of the language of mystery in Paul's letters to the Corinthians. 

1st c. BC Caryatid in museum

Here I find my first wonderfully "thin" place, Delphi running a close second. The spirituality is palpable. Perhaps we are the only ones here at the moment. There is clearly much excavation work to do and it seems that the Greeks are very clued up to saving valuable archaeological evidence whenever there are new projects in hand. 

There is a fabulous albeit small museum, not to be missed, where the most priceless artefacts from the site are stored. It is small but well worth the visit for all the statues, vases, friezes and many small objects on display. On pressing, the shop produces an excellent English guide which many of us buy for further reading.
The Telesterion - the large hall where initiates watched
the rituals 

The breeze here at Eleusis is cool and gives a pleasant relief from the heat for many, although I am one of the fortunate ones as I have not been overly bothered by this week's temperatures in the mid 30s. It is such a dry heat, not the enervating humid sticky heat of so many other places.
We move on towards Corinth...

Thursday, 19 November 2015

In the Steps of St Paul - we arrive in Athens

The Erechtheum at Acropolis
Clouds are banking up ahead and rain threatens as we join the main road to Athens at Kastro on our way from Delphi. We pass Lake Yliki on our left. It is very pretty with the rippling water sparkling in the evening sun. Then we have views of the sea at Schimatari. The scenery is becoming more built up as we near Athenssigns of the current financial crisis very evident in the derelict factories behind locked gates on industrial estates. We glimpse the Bay of Evia and the Island of Evia, Greek's second largest island. It is long and narrow, but not very fertile, and it is to here the Athenians escape from the city for their recreation. It has been connected to the mainland by a bridge since the 1990s. We also see the vast Parnitha national park to our right, spanning the highest parts of the mountain of the same name. This park is of great aesthetic and ecological importance for its rich and protected flora and fauna.    
The larger than life female statues (caryotids)
on the Erechtheum

For me the build up of urban sprawl is very depressing visually; it is ugly, with graffiti everywhere, even all along the road side sound barriers. I feel more and more gloomy as we drive deeper into the centre of Athens. It has to be explained that cities are not my scene at the best of times. They often seem so dirty and I quickly become overwhelmed with traffic and people. Not to mention the ubiquitous chewing gum adorned pavements. I'm beginning to wish that Paul had travelled in the other direction so we could finish in Kavala! 
Parthenon detail
My mood is not lightened when I step out onto my small hotel balcony to a view of a Shell petrol station and high rise flats, but I am agreeably surprised when all falls silent well before midnight. And imagine my delight and surprise to wake up in the morning to hear birdsong above the build up of traffic noise at 7.30. What a real treat. And as Athens reveals its many treasures to me over the next couple of days I warm to everything it has to offer. I very soon appreciate that Athens and Corinth are indeed the right way to end our pilgrimage after all.

The hotel is clean, comfortable and very friendly indeed with true Greek traditions of generous hospitality awaiting our enjoyment. The food is OK, although there is really far too much for me - no less than four courses tonight - in an obvious endeavour to please and delight with generosity I fear our host the patron has overdone it. No wonder so many around here seem to have rather large stomachs!

I feel rather self conscious the following morning as I go down to breakfast in my purple shorts, but they are to prove sensible attire in the extreme heat of the day. Breakfast is a good range of cooked foods, not so overwhelming on the pastry front but it is the first really good cup of English Breakfast tea, in fact any kind of tea, that I have enjoyed since the start of our trip.
We have been generally underwhelmed by the quality of food in Greece, but perhaps with the Greeks struggling to make ends meet at present, savings must be made on the quality of ingredients and we cannot blame them for that.
the Theatre of Dionysius at Acropolis
There is another coach party in our hotel - a tour of Europe by a group from Brisbane in Australia
A walking tour of Athens awaits us today, a city seen by many as the cradle of civilization and democracy; although not much remains of the former glories of the 5th century BC. 
The Acropolis, foremost site of classical Greece, with its famous Parthenon, is awesome. We are there at 8.10am to enjoy this monument to best effect, because by 11am the tour coaches, taxis and backpackers will have poured in and it becomes total madness.

painstaking restoration
  Restoration of the Acropolis has been going on for some time and is nearing completion. Oldest methods as well as latest technology are being employed, using existing stones etc from the ruins wherever possible and making it easy to recognise where new materials have been used. The rebuilding is also such that if at any time in the future ideas change on what should be restored, the work is readily reversible.
Mars hill

But in spite of the sheer numbers of people and the heat and the general filth of the surrounding streets and the wider town as viewed on our way here yesterday, within the site's boundaries it is all kept immaculately, swept by numerous cleaners and polished by thousands of tourist feet as they buff it up each day. Rather like Dubrovnik.
The new Olympic Stadium
From the Acropolis we walk down to the site of St Paul's sermon on Mars Hill, the Areopagus. Paul's reception here was very mixed. While waiting for Silas and Timotheus to join him here and concerned about the idolatry he sees all around him, he has been talking to many in the synagogues and in the market place, and certain Stoics and Epicureans call him to explain himself more at the Areopagus. There he preaches his disquiet about the altar inscription he has found "To the Unknown God", and tells them of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection promise. Some mock him,but others are persuaded, including Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris. (Acts 17: 15-34). 
Greek soldiers at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior

We then visit the Agora, the centre of public life in Athens at the time of St Paul.
After our own guided tour I return later on my own to climb the Hill of Mars to take in the view and contemplate the significance of where we are in my own way. Some go to buy souvenirs and presents in the Plaka shopping area.

Temple of Hephaestus at Agora
The streets of Athens are prettily lined with many orange trees, relieving the graffiti, but apparently the glossy and inviting fruit is bitter and only good to make marmalade with plenty of honey to sweeten it. Like the mulberry, these trees provide much welcome shade.
95% of Greeks are practising Greek Orthodox, we are told, with just 1% Catholic.
From the acropolis we are driven to the Olympic Stadium, built for 60,000 but 76,000 were counted when David Beckham started the Olympics with the symbolic torch in 2012. There is a great view of the Acropolis Parthenon from here. We watch the presidential guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

It's nearly 11.30 and the storm clouds are gathering across the city.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Our journey through Greece continues - Delphi - where man is closest to God

cone marking the centre of Delphi

We are following in the steps of St Paul on his second missionary journey through Greece. As we drive towards Athens from Thessaloniki we have some diversions from Paul's route along the way, one of which is Delphi

The reconstructed Athenian Treasury
Leaving the amazing Meteora Monasteries behind us we now have two mountains and many smaller roads to traverse before we reach Delphi so we settle for the long drive. There are really fabulous views now. The scenery is simply stunning up here. There are green meadow clearings far below us in the valley but not the lush rain drenched vegetation of say Austria or Georgia. These are of a more sombre hue.There is also plenty of mining activity, huge machines extracting the red sandstone for the road building going on around us. A small vineyard clings precariously to the side of the upper slopes on the other side of the valley. A small waterfall gushes out of the rocks by the side of the road. We see wind farms marching across the mountain peaks.
Delphi, we are told, unlike Olympia which was just for the Greeks, was there for everyone to get answers from their gods. Dating back into prehistory, and featuring prominently in the ancient Greek myths, here was for many centuries the cultural and religious centre of the Hellenic world. It is here that two eagles sent out in opposite directions by Zeus on a mission to find the centre of the world finally met. The site was sacred to Gaia or Mother Earth and guarded by Python, the terrible serpent. Apollo later killed Python and the Cretans, arriving at Kirrha, the port of Delphi, with Apollo disguised as a dolphin, built Apollo's Sanctuary. 
With 25 km to go to Delphi according to the signpost, we come down the last slopes of the Parnassos mountain range with small family Bed and Breakfasts all around us, catering for the skiing tourists who visit in winter - there are some very charming ski resorts here.  We descend into the massive olive groves now stretching into the distance on either side of the road, tall cypress trees standing out above the olive trees like dark sentinels. The olives are Amfisa - having a particular colour from the way they are cured. The Corinthian Sea can be glimpsed down to our right.
So we arrive at Delphi - seemingly clinging to the edge of the cliff on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassos
Delphi is a totally enchanting site and I am captivated. 
The fourth century theatre
No wonder it is one of the most popular places on the tourist trail in Greece and sometimes described as the most attractive Greek classical site. Delphi was regarded as the centre of the world by the ancient Greeks and is deeply engraved on the record of Greek history, being a place of incalculable religious and political importance, attracting pilgrims from all over the Hellenic world. Here the Oracle was consulted by both states and individuals. 
This was the religious background against which Paul was preaching the Christian gospel. 
After lunch in a local restaurant we head for the excellent museum where priceless artefacts from the site are preserved with excellent detailed explanations including English and French translations as well. We see the world famous bronze Charioteer, the wonderful frieze from the Siphnian Treasury, the larger than life-size statues of the Twins of Argos, beautiful gold and ivory jewellery and statuettes, and much, much more. The museum shop is sadly closed so those of us who still like to buy souvenirs and glossy booklets. 

Looking down onto the Apollo Temple and scenery beyond
There is so much to see here and we couldn't possibly see everything. There is an excellent write-up on Delphi here. I would love to come again on my own and take it all in at my own pace. Climbing down the path back to the coach I see a small group of visitors cross legged in the shade meditating - what a place for this - I would have loved to join them but our time table does not allow for any more time here and we are soon back in the coach settling down for the two and a half to three hours drive ahead to Athens. The coach is very quiet - we are all very weary and perhaps also in different ways touched by the atmosphere and the spirit of Delphi!
Doric columns of the Temple

We see glimpses of God everywhere - I certainly find God in all this great beauty - in the sunsets, the churches and their beautiful frescoes etc - but we have to surrender ourselves to feel in touch with the transcendent - Socrates was in touch with this all the time and Jesus himself was a mystic. 

Now driving Eastwards towards Athens, the Bay of Corinth far to our right, Mara tells us there are 9 million olive trees here in the vastest of olive groves imaginable, while Mark reminds us that Athens is of course the spiritual home of ancient philosophy - still so important in guiding the way we live and flourish, through rational argument and debate. We are reminded that Paul was born into this background and both he and Jesus were Hellenic Jews, influenced as much by that as by being Jewish. 
panoramic view of theatre