Parish of St Matthew the Apostle,
Douglas, Isle of Man
It is good to be back! After ten weeks in Venice, and as the summer heat was blazing down with all the humidity from the surrounding water, I was missing the Manx weather.
I dare to say that there may be some of you who may find that rather difficult to believe, but I did have moments when I thought how wonderful it would be to have some chilly weather, and some clouds to shelter us from the heat of the sun.
I first visited Venice as a student 45 years ago. It took me a day to get off the Island and then the next day I caught the boat train from Victoria Station, and across the Channel to the Continent. It was all quite an adventure for me, especially finding the night train with the couchettes that we had booked. There was no air conditioning, and the cabin had six berths. I soon realised that I had to be careful raising my head when getting out and down the ladder from my bed for the night. It was unrelentingly hard, and now when I look back on that journey, the whole cabin in its semi darkness reminded me of those old vaults where I sometimes had to see a coffin on its shelf. They were all passed out of this life, but the shelves where we were 'sleeping' showed much sign of life, with snoring, and coming and going, and trying to find the passport at the various frontiers.
On the evening of the third day, we arrived in Venice. If one arrives by train one sees the city as something magical rising up from out of the water. We left the station, and climbed down the steps to the water to the boats that were to carry us into the city. There was no need to look before crossing the road, as there were no roads to cross - just bridges.....
My work was to look after the English Church. It was an interesting community, many of whom flee the summer heat for the hills, rather like the English fled up to Simla when the Indian weather became unbearable. Indeed, I could find just a handful of the congregation in Church, and the majority of those in the pews would be visitors. It was fascinating speaking to them after the service, as they came from all over the world. I had so many interesting conversations meeting all those visitors. They seemed to enjoy the English Church, which was interesting, as it was rather English, if you understand what I mean. As the heat rose, we had one or two fainting which added a bit of collateral interest.
I probably walked about Venice for two or three hours each day,and went into so many places, especially the Churches, where I was always welcome as a priest. I had a visiting card, and that seemed to be an easy passport to favour, and also to be seen as a special guest rather than just another tourist.
It was very moving listening to the Coptic Priest speaking about the terrible time that they are suffering from some of their Moslem neighbours. He spoke about it, and said that they were now a ' Martyr's Church,' I also had a fascinating visit to the Island of St Lazarus where there has been an Armenian Monastery since 1700. They were driven out of Constantinople, and eventually came to Venice. There, the Pope recognised their Church, and it became a place where the Armenian Christians saw their culture flowering, and lived without persecution.
I had half an hour conversation with their Superior. It was hard work for me as he only seemed to speak French, so I had to pin back my ears and concentrate the whole time. He spoke of his Grandmother and what happened to his family during the terrible massacre of the Christian Armenians by the Turks in the Great War. It was a few years ago that I stood above the ruins of the Armenian City of Van. They stand by the Lake Van, and it is one of the most beautiful settings to see, and yet has witnessed some of the most horrid massacres of Christians. There is one building standing, and that is a mosque; no other buildings.
The Armenian Superior of the monastery is well into his nineties, and much loved by his people. I found him to be someone whose faith is just a natural part of his being, and all those around him love him so much that they try to protect him from himself. I was sitting on my own in the Chapel,when he must had been told that I was there, as quietly he appeared at my side, and gave me half an hour of his time. I was then taken by the Door Keeper to see where Lord Byron worked on his epic poem 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.' We sat by the water's edge, and he told me of his flight from Aleppo in an ambulance with his wounded sister out from Syria into the Lebanon. He was very determined to say that the media is quite incorrect in its judgement on the President of Syria. He believed him to be a good man, and much maligned.
I left thinking of how the Armenians have suffered, and yet their faith is so secure - they are survivors. The River Tigris changed its course at one point because the mass of murdered Armenians in the Genocide during the Great War. The old Superior as a child lived with the survivors, and heard their stories. Today it is the Copts in Egypt, and the President of Turkey has begun to attack the Syriac Christian Church. So many Christians have fled the Holy Land, and I wonder if the West understands what all of this means for us? Do we really care what sort of people we are, and do we as Christians speak out prophetically to our sleepy world, so full of technology, but does its heart still speak to its mind? There is much to think about, and many for whom we should stand alongside to be counted in God's Love.
With my best wishes, to you all,