St. Bride’s Church in London: a place to honor fallen journalists

St. Bride'sI am not a Christian. I have read the Bible twice and have attended the services of several denominations and remain unconvinced. Despite this, any time I’m in London I go to an old church off of Fleet Street to pay my respects.

Fleet Street used to be the center of London’s journalism industry and St. Bride’s was the journalists’ church. The newspapers have since moved away to less expensive neighborhoods but St. Bride’s still maintains its connections to the journalistic profession.

At this point I would usually launch into my historical song-and-dance and tell you how St. Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, how its steeple may have inspired the shape of wedding cakes, and how there’s a Roman building in the crypt. None of that makes me go there. I go there because to the left of the altar is a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A few candles illuminate photos and cards and a list of names. Yesterday two more names were added.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the house they were staying in got shelled. They were both seasoned war correspondents. Colvin had lost the use of an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001. Both knew the dangers and both went to Syria anyway.

I was familiar with their work because I’ve been watching the carnage in Syria closely. I spent a wonderful month there back in 1994 enjoying Arab hospitality and seeing the country’s many historic sights. I was there when the dictator’s heir apparent Bassel al-Assad died in a car crash and the nation pretended to mourn. His younger brother Bashar now rules Syria and is ruthlessly suppressing his local version of the Arab Spring.

When I visited Hama, I learned how the al-Assad family leveled the city to quash resistance there back in 1982. Once the fighting started in 2011, I feared Hama would be leveled again. I was right about the massacre and wrong about the city. It’s Homs this time, or at least it’s Homs for the moment. Syria’s dictatorship would level every city it owns in order to stay in power.I never had the honor to meet Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. From their work I bet they were like the war correspondents I actually have met, with a deep love of humanity and a firm commitment to the truth. It would be presumptuous of me to put my job on a level with theirs, but it has taught me the same valuable lesson–that the majority of people around the world are good. Lots of folks believe that, but I know it to be true. I’ve had it proven to me over and over again in places my friends think I’m crazy to visit. Somaliland. Kurdistan. Palestine. Iran.

And Syria. The fighting and oppression and state-sponsored terrorism that Colvin and Ochlik gave their lives to reveal to the world do not diminish my estimation of the Syrian people one iota. The majority of Syrians are good, just as the majority of all people are good. And if you disagree don’t argue with me, argue with Anne Frank, who wrote the same thing in her diary while hiding out from the Nazis.

The news is so often negative that it’s easy for us to develop a negative view of the world and its many peoples. It’s important to remember, though, that those who travel the world for a living don’t share that view. Their travels have taught them better.

So when I’m back in London next month, this agnostic is going to St. Bride’s Church, not for a dogma I don’t believe in, but for an idea I do.

Photo courtesy St. Bride’s.

Three nights in a haunted hotel room


The best thing about being an agnostic is that you don’t have to live your life fearing the unknown. The worst thing is admitting the possibility that there might be something to fear after all.

Instead of pretending to have all the answers, my belief system ranks things in order of likelihood, and ghosts are pretty far down the list. Not as low as Santa Claus or the “we never landed on the Moon” conspiracy theory, but a poor ranking nonetheless. So when I heard that my hotel room in England was supposedly haunted, my only thought was that I’d bagged a good story for Gadling.

Unlike a lot of supposed hauntings, this one’s actually based on a true story, related to me by local historian and folklorist Steven Wood.

Back in 1906, Haworth, Yorkshire, was holding its annual gala. Like in other years, brass bands played, entertainers wowed the crowd, and food stands sold all sorts of delicacies. This year, however, the people of Yorkshire had been promised something special. Lily Cove, a famed “aeronaut”, was going to do a death-defying parachute jump from a balloon. This was only three years after Kitty Hawk, so nobody in the area had ever seen an airplane, and balloons were a rarity too. Seeing a lovely lady jump from one and land safely was something of a miracle.

Lily Cove stayed at The Old White Lion Hotel in Room 7, the very same room I had. While waiting for a day with good weather the glamorous aeronaut made many acquaintances in town and became very popular.

On June 11 the weather was fair and thousands gathered to see her performance. After she and her manager Captain Frederick Bidmead checked the balloon, she secured herself to a trapeze hanging from the bottom. The balloon soared into the air with Lily waving to the crowd with a handkerchief. The idea was that once she got to a good altitude, Lily would leap from the trapeze and a ripcord would open up her parachute. She’d then float gracefully to earth.

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The balloon floated over the fields. After it got up to about 700 feet Lily jumped. The parachute opened as planned, but one witness saw Lily shrugging her shoulders and a moment later she detached from her parachute and plummeted to the ground. Farmers rushed to the spot, but she was dead. Her broken body was carried back to her room, my room, and laid out until a coffin could be made for her.

The whole town went into mourning. Captain Bidmead, a veteran of 83 parachute descents, said he might never fly again. At the inquiry he gave the opinion that she’d deliberately separated herself from the parachute. He suggested that because she was drifting towards a reservoir and didn’t know how to swim, she decided to get to the ground early. She must have thought she was much lower than she was and could land without injury. Others said she committed suicide, but there seemed no reason for this. The court ruled that Lily Cove died of “misadventure.” Parliament soon banned parachute performances so such a tragedy would never happen again.

According to local ghost story collector and guide Philip Lister, it wasn’t long before guests began reporting strange happenings in Room 7. Some woke up with a start, thinking they were falling through the air. Others saw an attractive young woman standing at the foot of their bed. The sightings have continued to the present day, and everyone in Haworth knows of Room 7’s reputation.

I didn’t hear any of this until I had spent my first night in the room. Tired from a day’s travel from Madrid, I slept fine, although I woke up once, glanced at the clock, saw it was 4:10, and went back to sleep.

The next day one of my travel companions told me my room was haunted. She started telling me the story but I stopped her. I didn’t want to be subject to suggestion. I wanted to test Room 7, and not have my own mind play tricks on me. The conversation turned to ghosts stories in general, and over the course of the day four of my nine travel companions told me they’d seen ghosts at least once in their lives. I was amazed. These educated, quite sane travel writers were telling me in all seriousness that they’d seen spirits. Nearly half of our group had a story to tell, and I didn’t even get around to asking all of them! Apparitions from the beyond are more common than I supposed.

The second night I slept fine again, although I briefly woke up again shortly after 4am. I think it was 4:08, but I was too sleepy to be sure.

By my third night I’d heard the whole story. I even went on a ghost tour, which I’ll describe in my next post in this series. So when I tucked myself in I knew just what had occurred to that poor woman who had stayed in my room. Once again I saw nothing, except I briefly woke up and looked at the clock.

It was 4:11 in the morning.

Waking in the middle of the night isn’t unusual for me, but I never wake up at the exact same time three nights in a row. Is this significant? Well, by the third night I was wondering if I would again awake shortly after four, so that might have been autosuggestion. The time seems to have nothing to do with the haunting, since Lily did her ascent at seven o’clock in the evening.

So was Lily Cove waking me up? Probably not. The tricky thing about ghosts is they’re unprovable. Even if I’d awoken to see a spectral woman at the foot of my bed, that wouldn’t prove anything except I had a weird experience that could have been a hallucination. Yet ghost stories are found throughout history and in most if not all cultures. We seem to need ghost stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s life beyond death or that dead people occasionally come back to scare the crap out of the living, but it does show ghosts are a part of the human experience. What they signify is something we’ll probably never know, and not knowing is far more interesting than pretending you have all the answers.

Don’t miss the rest of my series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: The good old days were horrible!

This trip was sponsored by VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who really should have put someone more impressionable in Room 7.

The Purgatory Museum

I’m not sure what I’m looking at.

A rectangular slab of wood bears two burn marks–one in the shape of a cross, the other resembles a human hand. Nearby are other items–a shirt, a prayer book, a pillow–all with burns that look like they’ve been made by fiery fingers.

I’m in Rome’s smallest and strangest museum, the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio, the Little Museum of Purgatory. Housed in the church of Santo Cuore del Suffragio, which is dedicated to relieving the souls tortured in Purgatory, it stands barely ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican. Small it certainly is, just one long case along a single wall, but the questions it raises are at the center of an increasingly acrimonious debate that’s dividing Western civilization.

Purgatory is a halfway point between Heaven and Hell, a place for the souls of people who lived good enough lives to avoid eternal damnation, but not quite good enough to join the angels. In Purgatory these souls suffer torment for enough time for their sins to be forgiven, a sort of celestial spanking with no Child Protective Services to intervene.

But there is hope. Prayers by the living can reduce a soul’s time in Purgatory. Faithful relatives offer up prayers or even pay for entire masses to be said for the departed. Others neglect this spiritual duty, and it is said that sometimes a tormented soul will return to Earth and ask for help.

During the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries these visitations happened fairly often and took on a common pattern. A spirit would appear to a relative or friend, reveal it was in torment, and ask for prayers to shorten its time in the cleansing fires. As proof that the spirit had been there, it would touch its burning hand to a nearby object. These events were one of many types of miracles common in the Catholic world such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary and bleeding statues of Jesus.

The Purgatory Museum collects these soul burns and tells their story. The hand and cross that I am seeing was left on a table by Fr. Panzini, former Abbot Olivetano of Mantua. In 1731 he appeared to Venerable Mother Isabella Fornari, abbess of the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Francis in Todi. He appeared to her on November 1, 1731 (All Saints Day) and said he was suffering in Purgatory. To prove his claim, he touched his flaming hand to her table and etched a burning cross in it too. He also touched her sleeve and left scorches and bloodstains.

%Gallery-101999%I have to admit I’m skeptical. I am an agnostic, and while I can’t disprove the existence of some sort of deity, I’m having trouble believing this story. The hand doesn’t look quite right. I take several photos, including the negative black and white image shown here. On this image details become clear that aren’t easily spotted with the naked eye. The burnt hand and cross are made up of a series of circular patterns as if they were made with some sort of hot poker. Other objects, whose images and stories can be seen in the attached gallery, appear more convincing but could still easily have been made with a bit of flame and ingenuity.

This doesn’t dissuade the two guys I’m seeing the museum with. They are a devoutly Catholic gay couple here in Rome on pilgrimage, something I find far more mysterious than a few burns on a nightcap. They go from object to object with wonder in their eyes. Looking at that same hand they don’t see its shape as odd, and they don’t see the circular patterns that make it up as a sign of forgery. A burning hand, of course, would have flames coming out of it, which would distort its shape and lead to some areas of the imprint being more scorched than others.

And that, I realize, is what the Purgatory Museum has to teach. For the faithful, it is yet more proof of Divine Judgment. For an atheist, it is proof of the gullibility of religious people and the nasty web of lies that supports organized religion. For the agnostic standing between two fundamentalisms, it proves nothing. Personally I think these objects are the products of overzealous fraudsters wanting to make converts by any means necessary, yet debunking them doesn’t disprove the existence of spirits any more than showing there’s no life on Mars would disprove the possibility of aliens on other planets.

As I stand there wondering where the whole debate over religion is going to lead, an attractive young American nun walks in, hands me a pendant of the Virgin Mary, and hurries off before I can ask her what the Latin inscription says. This sort of thing happens a lot in Rome. The inscription reads, “O MARIA CONCEPITA SENZA PECCATO PREGATE PER NOI CHE RECORRIAMO A VOI” and bears the date 1850. Translation, anyone?

So I leave the same as I entered, “knowing” nothing but insatiably curious about everything. That’s a pretty good place to be, I think. Walking down the nave I see one of the gay Catholics gazing upon a reclining figure of the crucified Jesus. His face is transfixed with reverence, wonder, and sadness as he bends down and kisses the statue’s feet. His visit to Rome will be very different than mine.

This starts a new series called Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. I will be looking at the Eternal City’s obsession with death, from grandiose tombs to saints’ relics, from early Christian catacombs to mummified monks. Tune in tomorrow for The Tombs of Rome!

Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel

For an agnostic I’ve certainly been to a lot of holy places.

I’ve always been skeptical of received wisdom, and fascinated that so many people dedicate their lives to a deity they can’t see, can’t prove exists, and who has left them in the lurch on more than one occasion. I’m also fascinated that this strange behavior called religion often makes people better people, and just as often is used to justify appalling crimes. Nor am I impressed by atheists who claim to “know” there is nothing higher, since that’s unprovable too.

So when I travel I always end up at the holy places–camping among the 70 million pilgrims at Kumbh Mela, or sitting with sadhus at the burning ghats in Benares, or discussing Islam in the shady courtyard of a mosque in Isfahan, or climbing up a dubious-looking rope to reach the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo.

One of my friends, a devout Catholic who likes to debate theology as we go on pub crawls, is convinced my interest in religion means I’m going to convert. I could tell him that devoting his academic life to studying the works of Samuel Beckett means he’s going to become a nihilist, but that hardly seems sporting.

I wish he’d been along for my visit to Lalibela, because not only is the town a monument to Ethiopia’s faith in God, but it also brews the country’s best tej. We would have had a hell of a metaphysical boozer.

Lalibela is off the main highway and reached after many miles bouncing along ass-punishing dirt roads. It is here, starting in the 12th century, that a series of churches were dug out the bedrock. This construction-in-reverse was the brainchild of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a king of the Zagwe dynasty. The eleven churches he dug here were meant to be a New Jerusalem, in response to the Muslims capturing Jerusalem and making it difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit. The river flowing through Lalibela is called the River Jordan and a pilgrim can visit the Ethiopian version of Bethleham, Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulchre.

The most grand is Biet Medhane Alem, the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It’s a massive block of stone with 72 towering pillars symbolizing the 72 disciples of Christ. A stone passage leads to Biet Mariam, possibly the first to be built and easily my favorite. As our eyes adjust to the dim interior we see 800 year-old frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling. They show scenes from the Bible and their rich colors blend with the shadows to create a soothing, otherworldly effect.

%Gallery-90277%The most famous of the churches, the one seen in all the tourist brochures, is Biet Giyorgis. It blends with the surrounding stone even while standing out and dazzling the eye. It’s retained the same color as the surrounding rock–none of the churches are painted on the outside–and the builders cleverly left the roof pitching at the same angle as the rest of the slope, making the church seem like a natural part of the ground. At twelve meters high, it is the highest (or I should say deepest) of Lalibela’s churches.

At each of the churches a priest will come out on cue, bearing an elaborate medieval silver cross and wearing his colorful raiment. While this makes for great photos, I feel it cheapens the place somewhat, a bit like the monks trotting out illuminated manuscripts at the monasteries on Lake Tana. Still, it’s their choice how they respond to tourism, and tourist money helps maintain the churches and monastic libraries.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. Touts and self-appointed guides abound. While this is nowhere near as annoying as the situation at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, it can still be hard to find a decent guide. If you already have a driver, like we hired from Abey Roads, he can find you a reliable local guide. We went with Taye Abebe, who was knowledgeable, spoke good English, and took me to extra places for no additional charge simply because he knew I was interested. He can be contacted at taye_lalibela@ yahoo.co.uk.

On the second day of our visit, Taye takes me to a predawn mass. I leave my wife asleep in the hotel, skip breakfast, and go with him through the darkened town to Beit Gabriel. It’s Gabriel’s holy day today. Because of the steep incline of the original slope one wall of the church seems to soar to the sky. The Ethiopians call it the “Stairway to Heaven”. We cross a narrow stone bridge, with a sheer drop several meters down on either side, and enter the packed interior.

Inside, the rough stone walls are aglow with the light of candles, and resonate with the sound of chanting. Everyone is wearing white, from the aged priests leading the service to the village women leaning wearily against the pillars, exhausted from having spent the night in prayer. We stand next to a religious class of sleepy-eyed kids who take turns reading aloud from a holy book written in Ge’ez. None of them take the slightest notice of me, the only foreigner in the room. Instead they concentrate on puzzling through the ancient liturgical language.

The head priest comes out of the holy of holies bearing an elegant silver cross. One by one the faithful go up to him and kiss it, and he rubs it along their bodies to give them a blessing. We stay and watch as the sun rises and beams its first golden light into the interior. At last we go, but the priests and townsfolk and pilgrims stay. They’ve been praying all night, and they’ll pray all day too.

For the rest of the day I wander around more of Lalibela’s churches, amazed that people can be so sure of something they can’t prove that they’d dig out more than a dozen buildings from solid rock. I’ve met atheists who sneer at such feats, saying it’s a means of social control, a waste of money and effort to worship something that doesn’t exist. But that’s missing the point. People need these festivals and rituals and grand monuments. It takes them out of their day-to-day life and shows them something higher. Even a religion hater like atheist author Sam Harris says spirituality is an important part of life. And that’s what these places provide, even for a cynic like me. Because every now and then, you need to feel that rarest of emotions–awe.

And you don’t have to believe in God to figure that out.

Next time: Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s New Flower.

Check out the rest of my travel articles about Ethiopia.

Least Religious Countries

When you travel to Europe, don’t be surprised to find that many Europeans don’t believe in God. I have even witnessed some alcohol-infused conversations between Americans and Europeans that almost ended in fistfights over His/Her existence. When you travel to the following countries, you might want to pick a less controversial topic of conversation … umm, maybe George W?

Here are the Top 10 least religious countries in the world:

1. Sweden (up to 85% non-believer, atheist, agnostic)
2. Vietnam
3. Denmark
4. Norway
5. Japan
6. Czech Republic
7. Finland
8. France
9. South Korea
10. Estonia (up to 49% non-believer, atheist, agnostic)

The one that surprised me was Israel, ranking 19th, with up to 37% claiming to be non-believer, atheist, agnostic. Compare that with the United States, ranking 44th, with 3-9% non-believers, atheists, agnostics. (I think I have met them all on the streets of New York City, too.)

The survey concluded that “high levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world — particularly nations with high birth rates — atheism is barely discernable.”