Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Ganges River, Varanasi, India

Varanasi - the Hindustani pronunciation, is also known as Banares, Banaras, or Kasha. It is the spiritual capital of India,  on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. It is considered as one of the sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. It played a very important role in the development of Buddhism. It is believed that Buddha founded Buddhism here in 528 BC when he gave his first sermon. It is one of the oldest, continually  inhabited cities in the world.

Located along the National Highway 2, Varanasi connects to several cities - Calcutta, Kanpur, Agra, Delhi, and served by the Varanasi junction and an international airport.

The religious importance of Varanasi continued to grow in the 8th century when Adi Shankara - a philosopher and theologian who is credited with defining the main current thoughts in Hinduism, consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, which "refers to the recognition that the true Self (Atman), is the same as the highest Reality (Brahman)." Add established the worship of Shiva as an official sect in Varanasi, even while under Muslim rule, in the 8th century. The city remained as the center for culture and education among the Hindu intellectuals and theologians during the Middle Ages. 

Adi Shankar also pointed out the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism: Hinduism believes that the self (soul) exists, while Buddhism asserts that there is no soul, no self.

He established the important role of monastic life in the traditions of Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, founding four  mathas (monasteries) at a time when monasteries were considered obsolete. He organised the Dashanami monastic order and founded the Shanamata worship tradition. This contributed much to the revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta.

It grew to be an important commercial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics. Much of the local population is is employed in silk weaving, carpet making, and in the tourism industry.

There are other prominent figures who were born here and were responsible for the Bhakti Movement - a movement that provided for an alternative view to spirituality, regardless of caste or gender. 

In 1507, Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Dev. A Sikh is a disciple. The fundamental tenets of this religion, in part, includes constant meditation of God's name upon a guru's guidance, living a "householder's life"  instead of in a monastery, with a duty to engage in "truthful action" and "selfless action" to others, to believe in the equality of all created beings, and to believe in God's grace.

Varanasi went through a cultural revival during the reign of the Muslim Mughal emperor, Akbar, in the 16th century. Modern Varanasi was built by the Maratha and Bhumihar kings in the 18th century.

Varanasi is closely associated to the  Ganges, with its many ghats - the embankments made with steps of stone slabs lying along the river bank, where the pilgrims go to perform  their ritual ablutions. The Hindus believe  that if they were to die in this city, they will earn their salvation, thus, making it a pilgrimage destination.
Tourists and locals, alike, filled up the streets on the way to the river.

Flower leis, leaves and fruits were for sale.

The Hinduism ritual we were about to witness is called Ganga Aarti. This artistic, symbolic ritual is held at the banks of the Ganges River. It is an intricate ceremony that involves the use of light and fire, different colors, textures, and performers who use hand gestures and body movements to the sounds of drumbeats and songs sung to praise the deity. This is symbolic of the religious worship of the holy river, the Ganges.

We are approaching the back of the center stage from which we were about to watch the ritual Ganga Aarti on the Dashawamedh Ghat.

 These are boats to rent, located to the left of Dashaswamedh Ghat

By boat, we went out at late afternoon to cruise along the river, to see all the activities going on, including the ritual of the dead, by the cremation site. At a certain distance, we were allowed to take pictures. But inspite of taking pictures according to the guidelines, our pictures came out distorted, even spooky,  as we were quickly shooting the proceedings.
 Maharika Ghat

Candles were floating on the river. It made for a solemn site.

By sunset, we sailed back as close as we could get to the riverbank.

The Ganga Aarti ritual began. This is held every night.

The drumbeats and songs set the tone and rhythm of this ritual worship.

Many, many boats were out on the river to watch the Ganga Aarti.
The next morning, we were back for another traditional practice - the sunrise ceremonies, a ritual where prayers are offered to the rising sun.
We are getting our supplies for the boat ride - flowers and candles. 

A boat had been reserved for us by our guide.

Our boat ride took us out.

The morning ceremonies began at early morning, on the Dashawamedh Ghat.  On our boat,  we headed into the river with fog cover, where only the street lights cast a reflection on the river, giving it a mysterious glow. 

Our boatman prepared our candles, by putting a wide base and decorated it with flowers all around the candle.
Then, we set our candles on the water as we said our prayers for our departed loved ones. 

And soon, the skies had cleared up and we were able to observe more about our surroundings, including something that was floating on the water that looked like a coconut. As it got near us, it turned out to be a dead, old man. My daughter freaked out. Our guide explained that it was no longer allowed for people to walk into the water to die, nor to bury or leave the dead in the river. For this, there are several cremation sites along the riverbank.

We caught a glimpse of the  early morning bathers who came from all over India, to clean and purify themselves in the water.

Boat-merchants were also plying the river.

Prayag Ghat

The locals also do their washing on the river and dry their clothes along the steps.

This was an interesting visit which gave me a better understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism, as practiced in India. It appears to me that Hinduism and Christianity may have some tenets of faith in common.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Nuestra Señora de Soledad de la Porta Vaga, Cavite, Philippines

Back in the days when the Philippines was under Spanish rule, an event took place in the province of Cavite, outside of Manila. There is a narrative which involves a soldier from the Spanish Guardia Civil who was on duty at the little garrison at the port in Cavite, at the Vaga Gate. 

It was a stormy night when the Spaniard noticed a bright light arising from Cañacao Bay. Startled, he immediately concluded that it was coming from a pirate ship that was coming to attack the port. But soon, the light came towards him. Alarmed, he commanded it to stop. As it continued to come towards him, he asked who it was: 
"¿Quién vive?" (Who is there?) 
With a sweet voice, the answer came: 
"Sodadito, ¿for qué el alto me das en niche tan friars? Dame paso. ¿No canoces a Maria? (Little soldier, why do you halt me in this night so cold" Give me passage. Do you not know Mary?")
"Perdoname, Virgen Maria, Reina de mi Devoción. Pues, solo soy un soldado que cumplo mi obligación." (Forgive me, Virgin Mary, Queen of my Devotion, I am but a soldier who complies with my duty.)

The next day, at the break of dawn, some fishermen and workers at the Cavity Royal Arsenal who passed through the Vaga Gate, discovered a framed image of the Virgin Mary on the beach, near the apparition site the night before. They picked it up and brought it to the parish priest, who temporarily enshrined it in the parish church. In time, the Ermita de Porta Vaga (Chapel of Vaga Gate) was built right along the walls of the port. The image of Our Lady stayed here for three centuries and this became known as the shrine of Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga.

The  Ermita de Porta Vaga (Chapel of Porta Vaga), along the walls of the Cavite Port -  the original shrine of Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga, c. 1899. 

In 1929, a new parish priest - Fr. Pedro Lerena - from Logroño, Spain, arrived and was assigned at the Cavite Port and became the restorer of the Ermita. Through the years, he worked towards the beatification of Our Lady of Porta Vaga and the beautification of the chapel. 

Sadly, during WWII, the Japanese Imperial Army had occupied the Philippines and disrupted life for the Filipinos. Fr. Larena found the image of Our Lady of Porta Vaga which had thrown in a junkyard. Upon its retrieval, the image was brought to the Arzobispado (Archbishop's Palace) in Intramuros, just before it was left at the Philippine National Bank's vault for safekeeping.

After the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation in 1945, the image was brought back to Cavite, at the San Roque Church. By this time, the Ermita had been bombarded and destroyed in the course of WWII. Fr. Lerena remained as the guardian of the icon util his death in 1972
The icon is  crowned and ensconced in a silver frame, and clothed in a black and silver manto

It came to be known as Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga (Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga), or commonly referred to as Our Lady of Porta Vaga. She is the Patroness of the province of Cavite. The devotion to Our Lady by the Caveiteños is one of the oldest in the Philippines.

Several other titles have been given to her: Queen of Cavite (Reina de Cavite); Exalted Patroness of the Celestial Guardian and Protectress of the Province of Cavite and its Port (La Excelsa Patrona y la Celestial Guardiana y Protectora de la Provincia de Cavite y su Puerto). She also was the "Patroness of the Galleons," as the icon was used to bless the galleons during the trading days between Cavite and Acapulco, Mexico. Many miracles had been attributed to Our Lady, thus, she also was known as "The Virgin of Thousand Miracles."

It was on November 17, 1978, when the icon of Nuestra Señora de Soledad de la Porta Vaga thanks to the efforts of Msgr, Baraquel Monica - former parish priest of San Roque, and Bishop Felix Pérez of the Diocese of Imus - was canonically crowned by the Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines - Bruno Torpigliani, D.D., at a high mass that was held at the Binondo Church. This was the first Marian image crowned under the pontificate of St. John Paul II.

The icon that was much venerated was stolen on March 16, 1984. After several months, it was recovered stripped of ornamentation, on the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, 1984. To the credit of her devotees, the icon was restored and re-enshrined in the altar in a joyful celebration.

There are several accounts of miracles attributed to Our Lady of Port Vaga. Firstly, her miraculous arrival on the port in Cavite. Then, while she was enshrined at Ermita de Porta Vaga, there was a typhoon in 1856. A fire that was caused by lightning that struck the wooden altar leveled the chapel down to the ground. Among the ashes, was found undamaged, was Our Lady of Porta Vaga. 

Counted among her devotees were sailors. On one stormy night, on June 30, 1857, there was a Spanish Frigate - the Lucero - based in Cavite, that  ran aground along the coast of Albay. With the low tide and the absence of a strong breeze in the following days, the frigate remained stuck for more than three weeks, at which time, the provisions were running low. One of the crewmen took our Our Lady's picture and invited his fellow crewmen to pray for her intercession. 

On a full moon, one evening, la Virgen de la Soledad appeared before them. As the crewmen got down on their knees, the tide began to rise and a breeze came, enabling the frigate to float from its trapped position, enabling it to return to the port in Cavite. Back on land, the sailors went to the Ermita to give their thanks.

In 1882, a cholera epidemic had taken its toll on the Caviteño population. The epidemic was brought under control by mid-October after gun powder was burned on the streets, under the order of the Spanish military governor of Cavite - Don Juan Salcedo y Mantilla delos Rios. However, the governor himself got afflicted.

As the governor was about to take his nap, one afternoon, he heard a persistent knocking on the door. Previously, he had given order to not be disturbed. As he opened the door, and old woman dressed in black asked him to celebrated the forthcoming fiesta with much flare. Salcedo hurriedly agreed.

Right after the old lady left, the governor called his soldiers to reprimand them for letting the lady through. When the guards replied that they did not see any lady, Salcedo quickly realized that his visitor must have been the Blessed Mother. And instantly, he was cured.
Through the years, more miracles of physical healings, families reunited, or problems solved - through the intercession of Ntra. Señora de Soledad de la Porta Vaga - have been reported.

A replica of Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga is on a holy tour
 ... and she stopped-over to be venerated at the Sto. Niño de Paz Chapel, located at Greenbelt Park, Ayala Center, Makati City,   from August 27 to September 3, 2017.
 The story of the miraculous apparition of the icon in the vernacular - Tagalog
The prayer to Our Lady of Porta Vaga in Tagalog
A closer look at the icon, shows the Virgin Mary dressed in Black with white, mourning, kneeling as she contemplates the various objects used by her Son during the Passion - the crown of thorns and the nails. The icon is a painting on canvass - embellished with gold and silver,  and precious gems that were given by devotees in order to fulfill a vow,  beautifully, framed in carved wood. 
 An ornately embroidered velvet cape drapes behind the painting.

The icon is considered as the oldest existing painting of the Virgin Mary in the Philippines. On the reverse side, there is an inscription that reads - 
" A doze de Abril 1692 años Juan Oliba puso esta Stma, Ymagen Haqui." (on April 12, 1692, Juan Oliba placed this most holy image here.)

The original icon is unde the guardianship of the Confradia de la Virgen de la Soledad de la Porta Vaga. The confraternity was founded on November 17, 1998. They continue to bring bring her to us, to spread the devotion to Mary. 


Porta vaga.jpg
Original Bejeweld Painting of Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga

During the First Saturday Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the original icon in Cavite is exposed for veneration. It starts with the recitation of the rosary and the novena prayer at 11:00 in the morning, and a Misa de la Reina follows. The confraternity meets, thereafter, to discuss plans to continue spreading the devotion to Our lady of Porta Vaga. Her feast day is celebrated on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of November.

Thanks to her visit at the Greenbelt Chapel, I got the chance to meet her. I am renewed in believing that Our Lady really cares about us as she continues to appear in other parts of the world, to this day.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Rue de Bac, Paris, France

The story of the miraculous medal dates back to 1830. One night, while Catherine Labouré was fast asleep in the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity on rue du Bac, her guardian angel woke her up and invited her to go to the chapel as the Blessed Virgin was asking for her. She was led through the sanctuary.

140 Rue du Bac 75007 Paris
This is the date that Our Lady first came to a chapel in a convent, on rue de Bac in Paris, on the eve of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. This marker is found behind the main altar.

Main altar at the chapel
Our Lady came, dressed in an off- white dress with a blue mantle and a white veil covering her head, draping down her shoulders. She sat down next to Catherine and began to speak to her. 

This is the side altar in honor of St. Vincent de Paul, to the right of the main altar. To the left of this side chapel is the glass coffin of St. Catherine Labouré.
 The chair which Our lady had sat on

Our Lady presented Catherine several images of what was to happen in France, a prediction of things to come - sad times, bad times - the affliction and tribulations that were to befall France in the near future and 40 years after. The Blessed Lady made an invitation for all to come to the foot of the cross to ask for graces. 

Catherine was told about a mission that was going to be entrusted to her, along with the warning that there would be trials that she would endure, but not to be afraid and to have faith and confidence in the Lord. From July to December, she was privileged to have three occasions to converse with our Lady.

Once, while at prayer, she had a vision of the heart of St. Vincent the Paul for 3 days, in different colors. The colors were symbolic: white - for peace, red - the color of fire, black - the color for misfortune that was going to befall France.

On Trinity Sunday, Catherine had a vision of Christ as the crucified King. Catherine claimed, too, that she saw the Lord in the Holy Eucharist at all times, except when she had doubts.

On November 27, 1830, our Lady appeared to Catherine again while the sisters were at prayer time in the chapel, at 5:30, on a Saturday before the first Sunday of  Advent. It was, then, that her mission was spelled out to her: to make and distribute the medals of the Immaculate Conception - the Miraculous Medal.
In another vision that Catherine had, Our Lady was standing on a globe with one foot stepping on the head of a serpent, garbed in a white dress, with a veil flowing down, and holding a golden ball she was offering to God, as her eyes looked up to heaven. Her fingers were with bejeweled rings, sparkling with rays of light on the globe, beneath her. Without speaking a word, Catherine understood that the golden ball represented the world, especially, France and each person;...
with her hands now pointing down - the brilliant rays were for the graces that were being given to those who asked; and the jewels with no rays were the graces that had not been given as they had not been asked for. 

Soon, an oval frame formed around her, and letters in gold were formed with the words of the invocation "O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. " This became the front side of the medal design. 

Then, the vision revolved to show the back side of the medal: a cross with a bar at its feet, with the letter "M" intertwined, and beneath the letter were the hearts of Jesus ad Mary. Catherine heard the voice instructing her to have the medals struck. There is a promise that  whoever wears it around his neck, confidently, would receive divine graces. From the symbolism of the different elements in the medal's design, we can see the whole history of salvation, from Genesis to the Apocalypse.

Catherine endured so much hardship to get these medals made. She kept everything to herself for the most part, and was only talking about it with her spiritual director, Fr. John Marie Aladel, for 2 years. He asked her to write her account of her visions three times. By the grace of God, when Fr. Aladel  presented it to Archbishop Hyacinth de Quinlen of Paris - who had questioned him in detail about Catherine's vision and her mission - he approved the medals to be struck and distributed. 

Many miraculous cures and conversions were and continue to be attributed to the Miraculous Medal. In 1832, at the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in Paris, where 20,000 had already perished, Fr. Aladel asked for the distribution of the first 2000 medals. Many cures and conversions were reported. 

A canonical inquiry was began in 1836. At the conclusion of the inquiry, it was pronounced that the Miraculous Medal was of supernatural origin.
Catherine died 40 years after, on December 31, 1876. She was beatified in 1933. When her body was exhumed, they found it to be incorrupt. On July 27, 1947, Catherine was canonized a saint. St. Catherine lies in state to the right of the main altar, on the floor level. By the time of her death, more than  a billion medals had been struck and distributed.

The side chapel to the left of the main altar, in honor of St. Louise de Marilac

In 1619, St. Louise de Marilac - the founder of the Daughters of Charity - met Francis de Sales who gave her spiritual support. Her husband fell ill in 1623, and soon after, she took spiritual direction from St. Vincent de Paul . After the death of her husband, she actively joined other aristocratic women in St. Vincent's ministry - caring for the poor and neglected children. She proved to be a very astute worker and was sent on missions all over France, to establish her communities in orphanages and hospitals, and other institutions. She was asked by Vincent to visit and meet with the leaders of the  the Confraternities of Charity to encourage them to work in teamwork with the local parish priests. 
With four other young women to do the work with her,  she co-founded, along with St. Vincent de Paul's guidance,  the Daughters of Charity in 1633. At the time of her death, her congregation had over 40 houses in France and in Warsaw, Poland.
 A view of the organ loft on the back of the church, above the entrance doors and the different levels used for added seating capacity. Daily, pilgrims are constantly streaming in and out to sit before our Lady, the Lord at the tabernacle, and the saints, to meditate, pray, attend mass, and give thanks for miracles. 

The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal is one of the most visited Marian sites by pilgrims from all over the world. Located in the heart of Paris, it is very accessible by foot, by metro, by bus, or cab.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Roman Coliseum, Rome, Italy

Welcome to the Eternal City of Rome. It is called the eternal city because the Romans believed that Rome would go on forever, no matter what events unfolded in the world. Empires have come and gone, and indeed, Rome is still there and remains to be a major tourist destination in Western Europe. 

A visit to one, or several of her iconic landmarks, becomes a history lesson on her imperial past - life in ancient Rome.

She rose to become an imperialist and became the great European Empire, with most of continental Europe, Britain, and extending all the way to northern Africa, western Asia, and the Mediterranean islands. Among her legacies are the spread of the Latin-based languages - Italian, Romanian, French, Spanish and Portuguese; the western alphabet; the calendar; and the rise of Christianity. 

There is an expression that says "All roads lead to Rome." As she conquered the world, the road system of the Roman Empire led to Rome, which was located of the center. In common parlance, it now means that there are different ways to reach the same goal or achieve the same results.

Having gone through a prosperous age during the Renaissance and the Dark Ages, her decline came about by the 5th century A.D.

One of the most visited iconic landmarks in Rome is the Colosseum or Coliseum. It is known as the Flavian Amphitheater. It was built around A.D. 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian from the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans. In A.D. 80, it was opened by the emperor's son, Titus, with a schedule of a hundred days  spectacles a  year.

It was the largest coliseum in the Roman world, measuring 190 by 155 meters. It was built as a freestanding amphitheater made of stone and concrete. The exterior had three stories of arched-entrances that were supported by semi-circular columns.

The architectural design of the columns were borrowed from the Greeks, along with the use of the capital orders at the top of the columns. In Roman architecture, the use of the arch became a dominant feature, where the use of the columns became more decorative features - using half columns, instead, and turned into pilasters. 

There were a total of 80 entrances, through the arched columns in the three stories, supported by half columns as described above. On the bottom columns, the Doric style was used, followed by the Ionic on the second tier, and the most ornate - the Corinthian order was used on the third set of arches.

The colosseum was designed to have a capacity for more than 50,000 spectators. Seating for the spectators were arranged according to social standing. The slaves and the women were relegated to the upper bleachers. Senators and priests, vestal virgins, and priestess of Vesta sat around the arena floor. For the editor - the one who organized and paid for the games, who is usually the emperor, a special imperial box was prepared at center on the northern side of the stadium.

There were awnings that were rolled out from the top story to protect the spectators from the sun during showtime. 

But it is a history with a tumultuous past. The spectacles that took place there included gladiatorial combats, wild animal fights, and even mock naval engagements - these were the sources of entertainment for the Romans. 
These were the quarters below the arena floor. It was here that the gladiators lived or were imprisoned. Somewhere here, the wild animals were caged.

Imagine the crowd in a thunderous cheer for the winner of a gladiators' fight, or an uproarious clamor for the gladiator to fight while standing before a wild animal, roaring and ready to devour him, as he figures out how to save his life. The gladiators were men and women who were slaves, condemned criminals, or prisoners of war.

After four centuries, the colosseum fell into disuse. There were struggles that the Western Roman Empire faced and the appetite for these types of public entertainments changed by the 6th century A.D. 

Visitors get to see about one-third of the original colosseum that still stands today.

In time, the arena floor deteriorated and was damaged by lightning and earthquakes.
Broken Corinthian capitals that once rested on the tops of the columns now sit on the ground.
 Examples of the column designs, now on display.
A fallen column
Notice the missing stones on the top of the amphitheater

When it was abandoned, it became a source of materials - a stone quarry for other building projects, among which were the St. Peter and St. John Lateran cathedrals; the Palazzo Venezia, defense fortifications along the Tiber River.
 St. Peter Basilica at the Vatican
Basilica of St. John Lateran
A view of the Tiber River

During the  18th century, several popes sought the conservation of the arena as a sacred Christian site. Though it has not been documented, it is believed that some Christians suffered their martyrdom there. 

A stone slab with Roman inscription
Type of stone material used in the building of the colosseum
Before the 1834 excavation, the colosseum was used to celebrate Christian practices, like the Way of the Cross.
Renovated quarters, once under the arena floor.

By the 20th century, natural disasters, vandalism and neglect had destroyed almost two-thirds of the colosseum. Restoration efforts were began in the 1990s, and continues to this day.

As the saying goes "When in Rome, do as the Romans do!"


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