The well-being of a neuron depends on its ability to communicate with other neurons. Studies have shown that electrical and chemical stimulation from both a neuron’s inputs and its targets support vital cellular processes. Neurons unable to connect effectively with other neurons atrophy. Useless, an abandoned neuron will die.
– Lisa Genova, Still Alice
Just as heat displaces cold, light eliminates darkness. We will not overcome suffering just by making prayers or engaging in thoughtless meditation, but by understanding reality.
The third noble truth, cessation, refers to the elimination of suffering and the way to it is the path of the fourth noble truth.
The ultimate method to overcome ignorance is wisdom understanding reality.
– Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
Situated on Temple Hill just below the Oakland Mormon Temple in San Francisco’s East Bay is a church that is famous both for its architecture and for the major cultural event it has hosted on its grounds each spring after Mother’s Day for more than four decades – a dazzling, welcoming, life-affirming celebration of Greek heritage that is the largest of its kind in the United States.
Like Oakland’s Temple Sinai, which was profiled earlier as part of The Contemplative Traveler’s Thursday Temple Tour series, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension had its first stirrings in San Francisco via a Benevolent Society formed to serve immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. That first year of 1867, the society’s founding fathers filled not just the stomachs of their fellow immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Greece, and Russia but their souls – by organizing local worship services with the help of Orthodox chaplains on ships resting at anchor nearby in the San Francisco Bay.
By 1872, the San Francisco-based Russian imperial patronage founded the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity as part of a large Russian diocese composed of churches and cathedrals stretching to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity then opened its doors in 1905.
As California’s immigrant population continued to grow, an increasing number of Greek community members left the urban confines of the City of San Francisco to find better jobs and more affordable housing across San Francisco’s East Bay region. Initially, most were willing to return to San Francisco for Sunday worship services, taking the ferry time and again, but after a few years, the grind of commuting after a long work week simply became too much, motivating these East Bay Greeks to partner with their Lebanese and Syrian Christian neighbors to find a more workable solution. Together, they rented a hall in Oakland for joint worship, recruited an Orthodox priest from San Francisco and, by 1914, began offering services to their respective communities.
They also launched a new benevolent society to raise funds to support their fledgling religious East Bay Greek community and ultimately expanded their philanthropic efforts to improve educational opportunities for local children and their parents and also to help lift their neighbors from differing faiths out of poverty.
Officially recognized by the State of California in 1917, the Hellenic Community of Oakland and Vicinity saw its hard work come to fruition four years later with the launch of the first Greek Orthodox Church in the East Bay. Dedicated to the Koimisis and located in downtown Oakland, this new church complex included classrooms, a community center and worship space.
Membership climbed steadily and, by the late 1950s, the congregation’s leadership realized that more space would be needed yet again. So, they sold the old church and land, purchased new land in the Oakland Hills, and rapidly completed work on their new home.
Still modern in its appearance today, the church was dedicated to the Analypsis (Ascension of Our Savior), and opened its doors and the doors of its educational center on December 11, 1960. The first Greek festival kicked off in the early 1970s, welcoming and embracing more and more non-Greek participants each successive year, and in 1976, a community center was added to the church complex, followed by a Parking Pavilion and a Koimisis Chapel, which was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 2007.
Granted official status as a cathedral in February 1992, this center of spirituality now houses the largest Orthodox icon of Jesus in the Americas – its parish the largest of any Greek Orthodox community across the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the many ministry and public service outreach projects are the cathedral’s Meal Ministry program to homeless individuals in Berkeley and Oakland, the Ascension Senior Center, the Greek Folk Dance program and Greek Evening School, which offer classes in Greek language and Hellenic culture, the Philoptochos Society, which improves “the quality of life for those in need, in a way that maintains the dignity, self-determination and independence of the client,” and a GOYA (Greek Orthodox Youth of the Ascension) group that inspires middle and high school students to engage in philanthropic volunteerism.
Parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension will achieve another milestone as they join with their Bay Area neighbors and friends in marking the Greek community’s 100th anniversary on November 30, 2017. A special series of events in the Fall of 2017 is slated to kick the centennial celebration into high gear. If even only half as fun as the annual Greek festival, October 6-8 is sure to be a memorable weekend.
If You Go
“If my art played no part in my family’s life, their lives and their achievements greatly influenced my art.
You know, I was greatly excited as I stood beside my grandfather’s seat in the synagogue.
Poor wretch, how I twisted and turned before I got there! Facing the window, my prayer book in my hands, I gazed at leisure on the sights of the quarter, on the Sabbath.
Beneath the drone of prayers, the sky seemed bluer to me. The houses float in space. And each passer-by stands out clearly.
Behind my back, they are beginning the prayer and my grandfather is asked to intone it before the altar. He prays, he sings, he repeats himself melodiously and begins again. It is as though an oil mill were turning in my heart! Or as though a new honey, recently gathered, were trickling down inside me.”
– Marc Chagall, My Life
“I’ve since come to believe that the world is populated by multitudes of women sitting at windows, inseparable from their surroundings. I myself spent many hours at a window on the Zattere, waiting for my father’s return, waiting for my life to appear like one of those great ships that came to harbor, broad sails filled with the wind of providence. I didn’t know then that during those fugitive hours beneath the influence of the damp moon, I was already plotting my future in pursuit of the past. I’d grown transparent as the glass through which I peered, dangerously invisible even to myself. It was then I knew I must set my life in motion or I would disappear.”
– Regina O’Melveny, The Book of Madness and Cures
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him. And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying:
– Matthew 5:1-12 (King James Version)
“We are called to bear one another’s burdens – to bind each other’s wounds and to meet each other’s needs,” said the Rev. Dr. Anne Swanson during a recent February morning at the First Presbyterian Church of San Leandro in California. Her sermon that day, “Recognizing Blessedness,” was infused not just with the poignant “need Beatitudes,” a portion of the Bible which starkly conveys the painful vulnerability experienced daily by men, women and children worldwide, but the compelling “help Beatitudes” – the teachings of Matthew which remind us that we each have it within us to make our communities and world kinder and more just.
Rev. Dr. Swanson and her flock are members of a reformed branch of the Protestant tradition. Their church, which was organized in 1866, opened its sanctuary in 1926 and still towers over one of the main thoroughfares in the city of San Leandro. It is governed by 12 elders and 24 deacons, who were elected to their terms of service by their fellow congregants and are responsible for preparing the elements for communion, delivering flowers and providing to services and special events.
A youth center and educational wing were added in 1953 and 1955, respectively. Today, attendees benefit from a robust array of fellowship activities from breakfast clubs to a Young at Heart group for senior citizens and monthly prayer shawl gathering. As part of its music ministry, the church offers Chancel and Children’s Choir programs and a summer camp for handbell enthusiasts.
But it is the individual and collective social justice activities of members which deliver the greatest insight into the soul of First Presbyterian’s congregation. Whether housing visiting university students who volunteer with Habitat for Humanity projects, or fighting domestic violence and sex trafficking through their support of Building Futures and San Francisco Safe House, helping terminally ill children and their families find comfort at the George Mark Children’s House, or easing suffering on a global scale through their support of Compassion International, Heifer International and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, First Presbyterian congregants banish darkness with warmth and compassion.
“Ye are the light of the world,” wrote Matthew. “And it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” Indeed.
If You Go:
First Presbyterian Church of San Leandro
180 Estudillo Avenue
San Leandro, California
Almost everyone who has ever gone through it will tell you that the loss of a loved one can be hard on the body and the mind. Scientists have said for years, in fact, that it can be hazardous to one’s health.
According to a 2009 WebMD report, “Divorce and the death of a spouse frequently have long-term negative consequences for health, even in people who remarry.” De-partnered adults have a 20 percent higher risk for cancer, diabetes and heart disease and a 23 percent greater likelihood of problems walking or climbing stairs. While those rates decline after remarriage, they respectively remain 12 and 19 percent higher than in the non-divorced/non-widowed.
Often, this is because stressed-out individuals skimp on self-care – failing to exercise or eat properly and avoiding doctors’ visits.
So, what can be done if you’ve “consciously uncoupled” via divorce? Create a “new journey plan” using these tips:
1. Engage in Constructive Self-Care.
Whether you fly solo for a trip to the beach or schedule a weekend getaway with your best gal pal, take time to rejuvenate. Celebrate your resilience and cleanse yourself of the stress you’ve endured by treating yourself to a well-deserved, but affordable massage at a hotel or spa.
2. Put Your Money House in Order.
Determine exactly how much money you have. Then, once those pesky brain cobwebs have been cleared away, take a finance class to learn what you need to do to nurture that nest egg.
3. Get “Back in the Saddle Again” Socially.
Channel your inner Georgia O’Keeffe via art class, learn Latin dancing, or join a book club or bowling league. From New Jersey Yoga for People Dealing with Divorce to Chicago’s 21st Century Salon for Single Boomerettes, there are literally hundreds of groups that can help you regain your confident, blissful stride.
Just be sure whatever programs you choose are priced to fit your post-divorce budget and offered by trustworthy service providers.
4. Set and Maintain Clear Boundaries with Your Ex.
If you decide to remain friends, define the new parameters of your relationship before resuming interaction post-divorce; then adhere to those restrictions.
Because, while spending Valentine’s Day with him or opting for a “friends with benefits” hook-up may seem like a good idea when you’re lonesome, it only causes confusion for him – and frustration for you when his pressure to continue those visits derails your plan to find a more compatible new love.
5. Preserve Your Alone Time for as Long as Possible.
Discomfort with loneliness is normal post-divorce, but if it drives you into remarrying too quickly, you’ll waste the precious opportunity you’ve been given to regain your sense of self.
Hope for new love, but learn to love the mindfulness kindled by solitude!
Image Sources: All images used for this article, EXCEPT BULLSEYE, are in the public domain: 1.) Massage class, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; 2.) Jell-O advertisement, American Cookery, 1914; 3.) A Riding Amazon, Wassily Kandinsky, 1917, National Art Museum of Azerbaijan; 4.) City sign, Old Appleton, Missouri; 5.) No Valentine’s Day.
Original train platforms where hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children disembarked from cattle cars before being herded to gas chambers. Ovens and other machinery of murder. The bracelets of children.
Historians affiliated with Yad Vashem have been making major breakthroughs in Holocaust research for decades – findings which should be of great interest to contemplative travelers with an interest in World War II, Jewish or Polish history and genealogical research.
One of the most startling discoveries came to light recently when an archaeologist spotted a pendant on the “Pathway to Heaven” – the trail trod by Jewish men, women and children en route to the gas chambers at Sobibór, the Nazi extermination camp near Wlodawa, Poland. Researchers believe this pendant, engraved with Hebrew letter “ה” (for God’s name), the words “Mazel Tov”, and three Stars of David, was owned by Karoline Cohn, a teenager from Frankfurt, Germany.
Also found during excavations were a glass-covered, metal locket inscribed with the “Shema” prayer and adorned with an image of Moses cradling the Ten Commandments, a Star of David necklace, a stone pendant, a ring, and woman’s watch.
Why Are the Sobibór Discoveries So Important?
“These recent findings from the excavations at Sobibór constitute an important contribution to the documentation and commemoration of the Holocaust, and help us to better understand what happened at Sobibór, both in terms of the camp’s function and also from the point of view of the victims,” explains Professor Havi Dreifuss, who heads Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland.
Built in Poland’s Lublin district, the Sobibór death camp was named after a neighboring village, began its operations in March 1942 as part of Aktion Reinhard (the Holocaust’s deadliest period) and became one of the most horrifically efficient facilities used by Nazis to exterminate Jews.
This sad success was largely attributable to SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, who began his reign of terror as camp commandant – a post he held until August of that same year when he was ordered to take over management of the Germans’ Treblinka death camp. Nicknamed “The White Death” for his whip and white uniform, Stangl not only oversaw Sobibór’s completion, but so refined the extermination techniques employed there that they were then implemented at other Nazi forced labor and death camps throughout the Nazi’s web of terror and depravity.
Under Stangl, Sobibór guards led roughly 100,000 Jewish men, women and children to their deaths. He then moved on to Treblinka, where he facilitated the murder of another 12,000 to 22,000 Jews per day, and was succeeded at Sobibór by Franz Reichleitner, whose own subordinates then ramped up their killing of several hundred thousand more until Sobibór’s closing following a prisoner uprising and escape on Oct. 14, 1943. Days later, after the camp’s surviving Jews were executed, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered that all traces of Sobibór be erased. The gas chambers were dismantled, the buildings destroyed, and trees were planted to camouflage the area.
But this dedicated team of archaeologists will not let the world forget.
At its peak of operations, Sobibór was a 1312-by-1969-foot rectangle, divided into administration, reception and extermination areas, and surrounded by a “barbed-wire fence, woven with tree branches” – a design “intended to hide from view what was inside,” according to Yad Vashem representatives. “Jews brought in by transport were taken directly to the reception area. The extermination area held: gas chambers, burial trenches, and housing for the Jewish prisoners who worked there. The gas chambers – built to look like shower rooms, could hold 160-180 people each, and were fueled by carbon monoxide gas.”
The vast majority of Jews brought to the camp were taken immediately to the “showers,” where the women and children were separated from the men. “The Nazis ordered the victims to remove their clothing and hand over their valuables…. They were beaten, screamed at, and warning shots were fired at them. About 450-550 Jews were forced into the chambers at a time. The gas chambers were sealed…. Poisonous gas was then piped in. Within 20-30 minutes, all those inside were dead.”
Members of the Sonderkommando – the roughly 1,000 Jewish men and women who were permitted to live because they had been deemed to be the strongest from each arriving train – then removed the gold teeth from each body and buried the dead. “The whole process, from arrival to burial, took only two or three hours. During that time, prisoners were forced to clean the railroad cars, after which the trains left and another 20 cars entered the camp.”
Cohn, the reported owner of the pendant, appears to have lost her life during Reichleitner’s tenure. According to archaeologists and historians at the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Joel Zissenwein, Director of Yad Vashem’s Deportations Database Project, the teenage Cohn was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk on Nov. 11, 1941; the pendant then reached Sobibór sometime between that time and Sept. 1943, when the camp received its last transports of victims – trains from the Jewish ghettos of Lida, Minsk and Vilna.
“While it is not known if Cohn survived the harsh conditions in the Minsk ghetto,” explains Zissenwein, “the pendant belonging to 14-year-old Karoline Cohn was taken, dropped [along the path to Sobibór’s gas chambers], and remained buried in the ground for over 70 years.”
And, of course, “It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget,” says Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yoram Haimi. “The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp.”
The find may also be important for another reason as well, say researchers. Cohn’s pendant “bears close resemblance to one owned by Anne Frank,” the teenage diary author who died in Nazi captivity following her discovery at her Amsterdam sanctuary. Researchers theorize that there may have been family ties between Frank and Cohn because both girls were born in Frankfurt and owned similar pendants. They are hoping relatives of either the Cohn or Frank families will contact them with information that can help them prove or disprove this theory.
More information about Karoline Cohn may be found in the Pages of Testimony completed for Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn by Sophie Kollmann in April 1978. Relatives of the Cohn family or Sophie Kollmann or any member of the public who can assist with details are urged to contact Yoram Haimi via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You’re Interested in Visiting Sobibór:
…. I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry*
* Excerpt from The Peace of Wild Things, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 1999. To read the full text of this poem and listen to Wendell Berry read his work, visit On Being for Krista Tippett’s 2011 NPR interview with the author.
To learn more about the environmentalist-poet Wendell Berry, please read his Poetry Foundation biography, which also provides links to several of his other works.
The Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón – named in honor of Christopher Columbus, but known more commonly as the Colon Cemetery – has long been one of the world’s most significant cities of the dead, notable as much for the storied histories of its permanent residents as the architectural and artistic achievements created to celebrate their lives.
The byways offer a startling contrast of exquisite, carefully tended chapels and dazzling white mausoleums – and ruins composed of tombs now empty of their former inhabitants or still occupied but poorly maintained since being reluctantly forsaken decades ago by families who fled Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba to live abroad in exile.
Home to pianists, poets and the revered and reviled political figures of Cuba’s greatest struggles, the Colon Cemetery opened its first grave in Havana in 1876 and has, since that time, become the final resting place of more than one million.
Situated in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, this 140-acre necropolis was built above the abandoned Espada Cemetery, the city’s first true graveyard. (Prior to Espada’s opening in 1806, Havana’s dead were laid to rest in the crypts of local church catacombs. Planning for the Colon Cemetery began following a series of cholera epidemics throughout the early to mid-1800s, and intensified in 1868 when locals realized there would be a need for a larger space for their community’s dead when Cuba and other Caribbean nations were ravaged by both cholera and yellow fever.
Among the most famous interred here are José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera (1888-1942), one of the world’s greatest chess masters; first baseman and Cuban Baseball Hall of Famer Julián Castillo Calderón de la Barça (1880-1948); anti-communist and anti-corruption crusader Eduardo René Chibás Ribas (1907-1951); Cuban patriot Candelaria Figueredo (1852-1914); research pioneer Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1915), who identified the mosquito-yellow fever link; Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista (1902-1989), a national poet of Cuba; and photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez (1928-2001; also known as Alberto Korda), who immortalized Argentina revolutionary Che Guevara via his Guerrillero Heroico.
The first occupant of this Latin American city of the dead was its primary architect – Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. Like Père Lachaise, France’s legendary necropolis, Loira’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is a mini-city, traversable via its main boulevards (the Avenida Cristobal Colón, Obispo Espada and Obispo Fray Jacinto), as well as off-shooting side streets. In dividing his cemetery into quarters, Loira ensured that, even in death, the dead would remain stratified – interred in defined “neighborhoods” – pigeonholed by their respective economic circumstances, occupations, spiritual beliefs, and social classifications.
It is all too possible then, while walking away from the most beautiful avenues and their ostentatious memorials to encounter groupings of children, criminals, impoverished community members felled by disease, and Cubans who experienced religious or political persecution in their lifetimes.
The most mindful of travelers, however, are given ample opportunity, to also elevate their thoughts. Standing before The Three Theological Virtues, a massive Carrara marble sculpture depicting faith, hope and charity, the Gate of Peace, and the cemetery’s Central Chapel, which evokes Florence, Italy’s Il Duomo, one feels hope for the future of humanity.
And memorials to Cuba’s baseball and firefighter heroes remind us all that, despite whatever differences we may have as nations, we share a common love as individuals for much of what makes life worth living.
But it is the angels which top children’s graves, winged hourglasses, inverted torches, grief-stricken faces on stunningly beautiful sculptures, and other finely wrought touches that provide even more poignant moments – perhaps the most enlightening of all for those willing to linger a bit longer than most planned tour groups typically do.
For it is here, standing in the presence of those whose names have been preserved for eternity, that it is possible to reflect most deeply on the fragility of the human heart and the endurance of collective memory.
If You Go:
Embassy of Cuba in the U.S.A. (Tourist Visa applications and other consular services).
Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (travel registration and assistance service from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs).
Traveling to Cuba (travel requirements, tips and other resources from the U.S. Embassy in Cuba).