Pope on the subway

Photo: María Elena Bergoglio

Written for the November edition of the Hungarian book review Könyvjelző.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis, like every day, travels on the subway. Where does he go? To the periphery. This is one of the key words of his volume now published in our translation by the Európa Publisher (original edition: La Chiesa della misericordia, ed. Giuliano Vigini, 2014).

The periphery primarily means the edge of the city, where “there is suffering, loneliness and misery”. To go there every day is a self-evident duty of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as well as that of any other Christian. And not for the sake of the everyday complacency that, because one made this sacrifice with the one hand, and with the one hand because one is, thank God, not like those to whom one went. But because of two things, whose importance seems to have been somewhat thrust into the background in today’s Christianity. These are solidarity and freedom.

As to what solidarity is, Francis explains it with a simple example. It is precisely these simple examples, as an easy-to-grasp and hard-to-forget lesson, that provide the basic structure of the writings collected in this volume:

“When I go out to hear confessions – here I cannot go out, but this is another problem –, so when in my previous bishopric I went to hear confessions, and someone came, I always asked the question: “Do you give alms?” “Yes, Father.” “Very good, very good.” And then I always asked two more questions: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look in the eyes of him or her whom you give?” “Oh, I don’t know, I have not yet observed it.” And the other: “And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of him or her whom you give, or you just throw the money there?” That’s the point: the body of Christ, to touch the body of Christ, to keep alive in us the pain for the poor. Poverty for us Christians is not a sociological or philosophical or cultural category: no, but primarily a theological category. I would say, category number one, because our God, the Son of God, when came among us, came poor, and so he comes with us along the way.”

The key for Francis is not to “practice charity”, to give something, either just some alms from our surplus, or more than that. This is only about us. But rather to see the person in him or her whom we give, to enter in an equal relationship with him, and even to be thankful and feel honored that we can enter in relationship with him, because, being poorer than us, is closer to that Christ, who not by chance wanted to be born among the poor and live all his life in poverty.

And this basic concept of solidarity leads to a radically new worldview:

“The term “solidarity” has been considerably worn out, and often misinterpreted, but it is definitely a lot more than a few sporadic manifestations of generosity. Solidarity calls for a new mentality which thinks in community concepts, and which puts the lives of each member of the community much before the expropriation of the goods by a few. … The encounter and solidarity – this word, which has been so much hidden by our culture, as if it had been a dirty word –, solidarity and brotherhood make our civilization truly human. … This is why we must rethink solidarity, not just for the support of the poorest, but for the global reshaping of the whole system, to transform and improve it in accordance with fundamental human rights, with the rights of every human being.”

But to go to the periphery – and in this sense the term refers not only to the edge of the city, but also to the peripheries of our existence – also means that we undertake to exit from the habitual, to encounter the unknown and the unexpected. And in return we obtain creativity and freedom. Francis illustrates this with the reinterpretation of the story of Jonah, and these creatively reinterpreted biblical passages provide another value of the volume:

“Jonah is a particularly interesting figure for our time, the age of changes and uncertainties. Jonah is a man of faith, who lives a peaceful and orderly life: therefore he developed his own clear patterns, and judges everything and everyone on the basis of these rigid patterns. He sees everything clearly, this is the truth. And rigidly. Therefore, when the Lord addresses him, and tells him to go to preach to Nineveh, the great pagan city, Jonah first leaves the thing unheard. What, go there?! Away from where he is in possession of the complete truth? He does not want to… Nineveh falls outside his routines, is at the periphery of his world. So he prefers to flee. … What does this story teach us? To not be afraid to step out of our routines for God, because God is always beyond them. … We are afraid of God’s surprises. But He will always surprise us, because He is like this.”

Or when he reinterprets a verse of the Book of Revelations in the same unexpected way, encouraging in us the same freedom:

“Think about what the Book of Revelation writes, that extremely beautiful passage, where Jesus is standing at our door, knocking at it, calling us, to enter in our hearts (cf. Rev 3:20). This is the meaning of the Book of Revelation. Now ask yourselves: how many times Jesus is standing inside, knocking on the door to exit, but we do not let Him go, for the sake of our own certainty, because so often we close ourselves in transitory structures, which are only good to make us servants, and not the free sons of God.”

Solidarity and community, freedom and creativity, the acceptance and joy of novelty. These few basic concepts are the subjects of the writings collected in this volume. Of which the third great value is credibility. Francis as a writer does not take on the role of the theologian, the teacher or the authority, but writes for us like one who travels on the subway to other fellow travelers, about those few things that he has been thinking about during the many mileages covered, and about which he can speak with conviction. Which is the most an author can give.

Pink postcards 3

Address: To the honored Miss Antónia Zajác
3rd district, Kis Korona Street 52.

[27 Oct. 1914]

My dear Janka
I’m writing by candlelight these few lines, which I wish to find you in the best mood. It will be a bit strange to get used to this, but it will be pretty easy. There is a big mess-up here. My sergeant is a very fine man. And our company is all made up by boys from Pest. My bed is a bit hard, but it does not matter. Until Sunday I might come home, and now we have to line up. God bless you until seeing us again, and now bye-bye. Many kisses from your Jew.

Be good… you already know what I mean.
As to the rest, ask it at home!

Previous letters (indicated in grey on the map):

Debrecen, 25 September 1914
Szerencs, 28 August 1914
[The recovery was quick, the bullet wound in his right arm healed rapidly. The weeks-long break in letter writing, as well as the petting words gleaming behind the short text suggest that they probably managed to meet several times during this period. The letter, the exercise and the preparations take place in a somewhat chaotic and erratic mess-up, in the Franz Joseph infantry barracks at Üllői Street. Károly finds himself in the second wave to replenish the human stock of the front, enlisted in a company of “volunteers”.

The war constantly requires new supplies. The battles along the river San bring a lot of sacrifices and few success to either opposing side. Each pass in the Carpathian ridges is a potential threat of hostile invasion. The protection of the Dukla, Uzsok, Verecke, Toronya and Tatar/Jablonka passes, the keeping back of the Russian and Cossack soldiers breaking into Hungary around Maramureș requires the mobilization of increasingly more troops. Virtually every operational man is recruited. In this condition, the wound of the letter writer only means that after a quick declaration of health and a brief training period, he would be returned to the theater of war as soon as possible.

The letter is interwoven with the perpetual dream of the soldiers. A moment is enough to forget the continuous pestering, and the thoughts are already about getting and staying home.]

Against the Russians • Asia also starts to fight! • Battles around Máramarossziget/Sighetu Marmației • Fighting starts again in Galicia

A Hungarian postcard: “A Cossack’s death in Maramureș”

Next postcard: 18 November 1914

Memorial wall of fallen plaques

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The forest of plaques as a protective layer preserved the pre-war German ghost signs for a time, when they would not be beaten off any more, unlike thousands of their more unfortunate companions immediately after the war.

Ärztliche Beratung (für) Alkoholkranke (Medical consultation for alcohol dependents)


Warren Ellis, Three Pieces for Violin

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The Moravian sea

The boat with the two noble young men is tossed about on a stormy sea. They are chased by the galley of the pagan Indians, with a bloodthirsty vulture head on its prow, and all around so many other beasts that look out for the pious traveler: in the ship’s wake a whale with terrible teeth in its open mouth, on the shore a male and a female lion, on the other shore an indeterminable black beast, a bear or a panther, which is struck dumb from seeing the beast which is more evil than any other, the human being, of which two particularly vicious specimens are just beating to death a poor wanderer in the foreground. The two noble young men, however, do not have to be concerned about all this, because their boat is guided by an angel to a safe haven, where a magnificent castle is waiting for them on the top of the rock, with the moral lesson beneath: Vor allem Orth beglückter Porth! – “Of all places is happier the harbor”, that is, “good to travel, but best to arrive”, or, “everywhere is good, but no place like home”.

But, then, where is this happy harbor? We will immediately see how much it must be understood in a moral sense, as we begin to compare it with contemporary engravings. Because the magnificent castle exists indeed, this is how it has been standing since 1719, when the Dietrichstein princes rebuilt it after a fire. However, not on the shore, but in the Moravian hills, on today’s Czech-Austrian border. In Nikolsburg, that is, Mikulov.

The castle of Nikolsburg in an early 19th-c. colored lithography, seen from the Goat Hill (in the foreground, the roofs of the famous Jewish quarter of Nikolsburg)

According to the date of 1725 in the foreground of the seascape, this view must have been quite a novelty at that time, and perhaps this is why it was included in the painting. Which was perhaps ordered precisely for the inauguration festivities by the Nikolsburg Rifle Club, which used it as a festive target.

The rifle club was spontaneously formed in April 1645 by ninety burghers in arms, who joined the Dietrichstein Guard to protect the castle from the siege of the Swedish army. They were unable to resist the siege, but in 1656 they received for their courage a flag, and in 1709 their own shooting range from the Prince. In 1828 their wooden range was replaced by a stone building, whose attractiveness was also increased by its own pub.

Nikolsburg on an 1826 map. In the middle, in red, the castle, to the east the Heiliger Berg (the Calvary hill), to the north the Goat Hill. No traces of any sea.

We have already seen, and we will also see later, how emphatically the idea of the “a sea of their own” is present in the thought of landlocked Bohemia. A nice early example of it is this target. Even its inscription seems to echo the expression of Shakespeare, the creator of the “Bohemian sea” in his Winter’s Tale, where the Sicilian sailors driven by the storm can finally moor on the Bohemian beach: “Blessed shores…”

View from the Calvary Hill to the south, where the sea should be. Below: The castle and the town square on postcards from the first half of the 20th century.

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And this montage postcard from 1910 has the sea again!

Berlin, Steglitz, Saturday morning

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Ion Ivanovici (1845–1902, born in Temesvár/Timișoara, Serbian bandmaster of a Romanian military band): The Waves of Danube, in the Hungarian version by Pál Szécsi: A single bluebell

Monasteries in Kosovo

I never thought of visiting monasteries under military protection.

This afternoon, leaving behind us a storm over Novi Pazar in southern Serbia, we entered Kosovo via Montenegro by the spectacular road which crosses a pass at over 1,800m. At the border post, while buying insurance (the green card is not valid in Kosovo), the truck drivers warned us of the dangers of the road, repeating langsam, langsam fahren, and drawing hairpin turns in the air, the dizzying descents and loops of some terrifying roller-coaster.
In fact, from up there, the plain was invisible for a long time.

In Peć, we wanted to visit the Patriarchate in the Rugova Gorge, and the monastery of Dečani to the south. The first seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church was founded in the Middle Ages at Žiča near Kraljevo, at that time close to the northern border of medieval Serbia, but as the region was regularly subjected to wars, the first bishops moved the seat of their authority to Peć in today’s Kosovo, protected by nearly impassable moutains.

Nevertheless, peace never came, and the monastery stood for centuries under the protection of some great power, either the Ottomans or the KFOR.

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In Peć, no guide-post indicates the direction to the Patriarchate. Just as the monastery of Dečani will not be indicated later: there are only signs to the Rugova Gorge and its natural park. However, the Patriarchate appeared very clearly on our map, just at the beginning of the gorge, but driving along the long road at the foot of the cliffs, also encountering a joyous Albanian wedding procession, we saw no monastery. Ultimately, coming across a police car at one of these poor taverns bearing the false banner of “pizzeria”, we asked for the way.
The Patriachate? We have long since passed it.
The officer only had an approximate command of English, don’t worry, you drive one kilometer maybe two, I call my colleague, he make you signs when you come on the road, you see him. He made a long phone call, describing the car with a French license plate, and yes, yes, he assures us, he make you signs when you come on the road, you see him, you can go.
One mile, then two, and no monastery in sight yet – just a sort of military camp with long walls protected by barbed wires and one or two watchtowers. A guard we pass by before seeing the tired soldier, who waves us hand without rising from his chair. We are on the right way to the Patriarchate. The guard and the lowered barrier bear the emblem of KFOR, and we must leave our passports there – just as we will do later, in the Dečani Monastery –, after passing the barbed wire entanglements, waiting in front of an armored vehicle, and the military interrogation (of course, we  should also have left our arms there, this is self-evident).

Once we leave the barrier behind, the road gently slopes toward the river, and we are alone. Over the large concrete walls some older walls are revealed. The portal of the Patriarchate opens westward, facing the river, and the monastery appears as an island, encircled with the monastic buildings which form a circle, an orb, in the center of which lies a garden with its canals and mulberries planted in the 13th century – the church is in the background, behind the motionless branches –, as an image of the heavenly Jerusalem.
One, two nuns pass by without rushing. Another with a bucket. Very young and very elderly ones.
Yes, you can eat the mulberries. The old lady dressed in gray lowers the branches, so we pick the fruit. Flies buzz over the creek. The blue juice spots the slabs.

Like in many monastic churches of Serbia, the building complex of the Patriarchate is also painted red, on the model of the churches of Mount Athos, and still there are traces of frescoes on the façade of the narthex. Behind the façade, on the northern side, there is a small cemetery where, not far from the nuns, there lays a man with a feverish face.

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But the external architecture with its apses and domes does not immediately reveal the complexity of the internal organization of the building.
Three gates open in the dark narthex. This is not a single church here, but a complex of three joined churches, plus a fourth one at the southern side of the building. The central gate leads into a short nave with a barrel vault submerged in obscurity, like a tunnel to be crossed in the dark to reach the ineffable, the space opening under the dome. This is the church of the Holy Apostles, the oldest of the three, perhaps founded by Saint Sava himself around 1250. The left door provides access to Saint Demetrius, a smaller building filled with light, while the right one to that of the Virgin Hodigitria, a broader and higher church. The fourth, closed church is dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

The bright narthex, paved with marble, completely covered with frescoes from the mid-fourteenth century, prepare you for the vision of the three major churches it precedes. But it was also the place where the Serbian Church held its councils. Hence the emphasis on the mission of the apostles and the message of the gospel. The fresco cycle represents the miracles and parables as they are described in the Gospels, and in the order in which they will be read during the liturgy of Lent. Above the main door, the encounter between Christ and the Samaritan woman accompanies the healing of the blind.

Agni parthene (Oh pure Virgin). Serbian church hymn of Greek origin, sung by Divna Ljubojević

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The nun joining us is very old, very small and fragile. Leaning on a long curved stick, which is surely higher than her, she speaks with a clear voice, passionately and eruditely. She reads us the pictures as if she were reading a language which is both far away and familiar, she speaks about the images which evoke texts, and the texts that are contained in the images, she connects each fresco to the next one, she reveals what is hidden in the painting, she recalls not only the men of the thirteenth century, but also the thought of their time, and suddenly the frescoes come to life, and the thought takes shape before our eyes. How to convey this moment?

Thee narthex, the three elongated churches one along the other, the walls, the arches, the domes, everything is covered with frescoes, painted nearly eight hundred years ago by artists from Thessaloniki. High above us, in the church of the Holy Apostles, which pretends to be a replica of the room of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, Christ’s ascension. Below, in successive circles, angels and apostles dancing with hands raised to celebrate the celestial Mass.
On the southern wall, in the lunette above the arch, Christ calling Lazarus. The painter, having not enough place to represent Lazarus standing, chose to show the moment before the call, when Lazarus had not yet risen. A man in red stretches a long ribbon from the corpse sitting in the grave, a ribbon which he strips off him as the sins of Lazarus fall off him; but the most surprising sight is Christ, whose eyes, while leaning forward at the left side of the arch and drawing a cross with the hand, are at the same height of those of Lazarus, and their eyes meet above the man in red, who stops in his work, and waits, with one hand lifted as a sign of interrogation. Above, almost following the vertical of Lazarus resurrected, Saint Thomas slips two fingers into the wounds of Christ – and these are like three questions, three question marks following each other on the wall.
Under the arch, the Nativity of Christ facing His baptism in the Jordan. The two scenes are related to each other by the long silver beam emanating from both sides of the arch, the star of the Holy Spirit. Opposite, on the northern wall, just above the arch, Christ is lying under the right side of the arch, on a pink cloth. This is how He participates in the Last Supper, already separated from the apostles who are almost invisible in the darkness enveloping the table, hidden behind the great dishes. In the scene just behind it, on the arch under the dome, the apostles are in the forefront, in the supper of Pentecost, flooded with light and gold.

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A few kilometers away, in another valley in the woods, the monastery of Visoki Dečani was built on the orders of King Stephen Uroš III (1321 - 1331) by a Franciscan architect, Fra Vita, and by Dalmatian builders coming from Kotor.

The monastery of Dečani, also enclosed in the circle of its fortified walls, also protected by barriers, fences, barbed wire entanglements, soldiers, camouflage nets, concrete blocks, reveals itself having an appearance from somewhere far away, perhaps the south of Italy. The refinement of the sculpted portals and windows, the texture of the white stone, the barely dimmed, barely pink marble, the strips of pilasters that run around the walls. From the outside everything seems to announce a long Romanesque nave and transept, but a completely different structure is hiding behind the walls: a narthex with double nave at right angles to the church, the nave and the choir inscribed in a square – and so dizzying when you contemplate, with the head thrown back, all the height of the church (this is the meaning of visoki), completely covered with frescoes.

Foundation charter of the monastery, 14th century. King Stephen Uroš III of Dečani is represented in one of the frescoes of the church according to the Byzantine iconographic formula used for the emperor as a church-builder.

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At the foot of the iconostasis, the sarcophagus of the founder, King Stephen Uroš III of Dečani, who died in 1331 and, it is said, remained intact to this day. Behind him, on the western wall, an immense fresco of the Parousia or the Second Coming shows Christ descending from the heaven on a throne carried by angels, with the open Gospel on the knees, and the instruments of the Passion laid out on a strange, black veil. Just above the portal, under Christ the Judge, the Assumption of the Virgin. As in Peć, one of the chapels contains a fresco cycle dedicated to the Genesis, and another to the life of the Virgin; one wall recounts the Acts of the Apostles, others line up the holy soldiers like St. Demetrios and all the archangels, whose swords will slice up the sins. All in all, about a thousand scenes covering the walls.

A taciturn monk follows us slowly in the church, with a voice like a whisper, and strange gestures, like a big, patient shadow at our side. He invites us to see the cells of the monks, and he remains behind alone in the garden.
We have coffee on large tables under the covered arcades. Voices, not far, behind the closed doors. Outside, flies buzz in the trees.

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