89: Genial Geneva: Not So Bad

Cathedral Saint-Pierre, Geneva, Switzerland. A Romanesque-Gothic structure dating back to 1150 A.D., which took 150 years to build. A church has stood here since the 4th Century and before it, a Roman temple. There is an archaeological dig and crypts beneath it. The church went from Catholic to Protestant in 1536, when it was stripped of its icons and other adornments that Protestants view as a form of idol worship, but that Catholics look upon as markers of the faith and examples from the lives of early saints. See notation below.

Daniella, one of our favorite Swiss friends, crinkled up her nose at learning we spent a day in Geneva.

“Why ever would you go there?” she asked, staring at me for signs of mental instability.

“It’s a ‘world city,'” I said. “It has the U.N., the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, it’s the seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

“Yes, but whyyyyyy would you go there?” she repeated.

Why indeed.

John Calvin's preaching chair.

But many do go to Geneva, possibly on mandatory business travel, and those people still want to know what to do once they’ve checked into their hotel room. One suggestion would be to get on a train to visit Gruyeres or Montreux, in other words, to get out of town as fast as possible, but it is not necessary.

Geneva does have many charming niches, high-end shopping, and as noted, the “seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

This is a literal statement. John Calvin (1509 to 1564), arguably the most influential thinker and theologian in the Reformation, and also a humanist lawyer – yes, a lawyer – preferred to give his sermons sitting down, which leads to suspicions that his sermons might have been a tad too long. On investigation, however, we discovered the chair in which he sat was/is a straight-backed wooden thing with no cushioning whatsoever. I could probably deliver a seven-minute sermon in it, tops.

Ooooo, dredging equipment. This photo shows that this blog values engineers and those inclined toward technology.

Tourists with an engineering bent can enjoy the dredging equipment currently parked in at the mouth of the Rhone – which is surprisingly shallow for a waterway feeding off massive Lake Geneva.

The city has many parks which will be beautiful once the trees are in leaf (in Geneva’s defense, we did get there at the turn of Spring when greening-up was just starting). One-quarter of Geneva is parkland – that’s something to think about.

Bastions Park has a charming open-air cafe for lounging away a sunny day, large chess boards enjoyed by many, and shady promenades, as well as the historic statues marking the city’s fulcrum point in world history – that is, statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I say “fathers,” but I’m sure there were “mothers,” too, but they didn’t make it into the statuary.

This accordion/violin/vocals duo from France gave Geneva's old-town a wonderful musical air. They were truly amazing. They would not give us their names, however, they said they were called "Children of the World." They also accused their countrymen, the French, as being unappreciative of the musical arts and so they came to Switzerland to perform where the people are more cultured. Take that, France, from your own cultural citizenry.

Nearby, is the city’s old town, along with Cathedral Saint-Pierre where Calvin preached, and to which many French reformers fled religious persecution in France. It’s all sweet and fluffy now when Catholics and Protestants jost about on theological points, but back then it was a matter of life and death where disagreements could end in rather nasty bloodshed, the intensity of which is best illustrated by the Catholic Church digging up the bones of 14th-Century Bible translator John Wycliffe 40 years after his death, just so they could burn what was left of him (some say his bones were just crushed and scattered). Suffice it to say, emotions ran high.*

Bastions Park, Geneva

It may seem to not matter so much to some, but these were the seeds of the freedom of expression and worship  that the Western World now prizes. It was when a bunch of Christians sought to weed from the then Catholic Church it’s powerful political core and return it to what nowadays would be called its grassroots origins, that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ who had never held any worldly position of power or even aspired to such.

So, historically, a visit to Geneva is a little like a visit to Leipzig, Germany which triggered the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. The cobblestone lanes are charming now, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the intensity of emotion and peril that the city streets once hosted.

Notation on blog accuracy: The dates given on historical events, such as when churches were built, protests staged, and so forth, are taken from the best source I can find. Often, however, we see different dates expressed in travel books, academic websites and reliable legitimate media sources, as well information given in the site’s brochures and signage. This is a conundrum. I list the dates that are agreed upon by the most reliable sources, leaning heavily toward the local sources who would have most familiarity with the subject. If it’s a draw as to which date is more reliable, I list the range of dates given.

Also of note: Ancient structures usually have multiple “additions,” and so this blog lists the earliest date for a still-in-existence portion of the structure. This probably explains part of the confusion over dating.

*Another note: To be fair on the question of the first English translation of the Bible, Catholic apologists point out that when the Bible was printed in Latin, it was not as exclusive as it seems, because Latin was the language of the educated classes. I am not a theologian or a church historian, so this is as far as I will go on this topic. Please post angry letters through this blog’s contact page. 


Blog Bits

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Christmas without the clutter

The Christmas Eve congregation at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church, Dec. 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, we walked up narrow cobblestone alleys to a church dating to the early Middle Ages, our minds anchored to the remembrance of all the generations that made this same trip on this same night through centuries past.

The church is set in the uneven footings of the Jura Mountains, an impressive Gothic building with high ornamented vaults, a massive pipe organ, polished stone floors and faded murals high on its clerestory walls.

It tests the nerves to sit through a service in a language we have yet to grasp, with customs to which we are clueless. Would the congregation do cartwheels? Sing a Las Vegas show-tune? Expect us to stand up and explain ourselves? Test our mettle by demanding we sing Handel’s Hallejulah chorus? Make a public confession of some sort?

The people were quiet – in a building fashioned from stone and stained glass, one expects to hear echo, but it was hard to pick up even a scratch. The service started precisely at 11 p.m. – we are, after all, in Switzerland, the land that guards time. The only decoration was an evergreen tree, adorned only with electric candles, a small wreathe on a flat-cut stone altar and a single burning candle.

A white-haired man in a black suit stepped slowly from the front of the church, not in an air of pomp or down the centre aisle, but in a subdued manner, off to the side, unfurling a beckoning solo from a woodwind instrument. The pipe organ chimed in and this went on until a small man in a black clerical robe with a white bow took the podium.

Mural on the clerestory walls at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church

He started reading, and although it was in German we recognized it as the Gospel narrative. He read of Mary’s visitation from the angel, Bethlehem with its paucity of hotels, Jesus’s birth in the grit of a Middle-Eastern stall. The reader paused  now and again, at which the pipe organ filled the church with sounds very much like a steady wind moving through a forest.

And so the service went, woven between a single human voice,  answered by the pipe organ’s choral timbres.

In the silent moments, there was not a sound to be heard, making us wonder about the difference between North American and Swiss Christians. North American churches are alive with noise, shuffle, chatter, even the more stoic ones. This is the first time I’ve sat in a church where there was literally not a sound, a cough, a swish of fabric or the scrape of shoe against the floor. It was as silent as though we were not there.

We sang four songs from the hymn book, beginning with A Mighty Fortress is Our God. As midnight approached, the minister came into the congregation with a candle with which he lit the candles that we had been given at the door. There was no music or reading, just the sound of people tilting their candles one to the other, so that the drops of light slowly spread back into the dark.

When all were lit, the churches lights were turned off altogether and we sang Silent Night.

The pipe organ sang one more piece and then without benediction or comment, the congregation rose and drifted outside, some still carrying their candles into the tranquil night, painting amber pools against the grey cobblestone.


Where are we?

We may be entering an electronic cone-of-silence over the next few days as we travel east by train to check out Viennese pastries and Bratislava’s …. well, whatever it is that makes Bratislava what it is. Auf wiedersehen.

Bratislava Old Town

Vienna: Because we haven't seen enough cathedrals, castles and cobblestone ....