Tag Archives: religion

Reflections on poverty and a multicultural visit


I’ve been very fortunate this week to visit Prague as part of a business trip. Business was concluded early so I’ve had a bit of time to kill while waiting for my flight home. I came here last year with Dee and we both fell in love with the place. It’s not been the same without her, not quite as good, but it’s an enchanting city all the same. 
I’ve walked up to the castle, around the various buildings there and then back into the Old Town via the Charles Bridge. The views from the castle were superb, as were the sights while there. I’m now sitting in one of the main squares sipping iced tea, watching the world go by, and a number of things have struck me about this visit.

There seem to be fewer people begging this year. They kneel, elbows and head on the ground, with cups or hats outstretched, and don’t make a sound. Most of the streets are cobbled and it can’t be comfortable. Whether this is to encourage them to feel shame, to punish them for begging, or to prevent too many people doing it, you can’t help but feel for these people. 

It’s impossible to know their story, but trying to imagine how bad things must be got them to force them to beg in such a way is enough to make you weep. I wonder if there are less of them around because the authorities are cracking down hard on begging, whether they’ve been moved out of the tourist areas, or whether there are genuinely fewer people that need to beg here. 

While at the castle, I took the opportunity to visit the cathedral there. It is simply stunning on the inside. Upon reflection, there were visitors from all over the world inside that Roman Catholic building, and I’d be willing to bet that there were more non-Catholics in there than Catholics. It was apparent that all inside were marvelling at what they saw, from stained glass windows to the towering ceiling, and many were taking advantage of being in such a sacred space to commune with their god or their thoughts.

Walking the streets of this lively and lovely city, walking round the castle, and sitting as I am now having tea, I’ve been stuck by the plethora of languages spoken, at the number of visitors and at the number of nationalities represented. I can hear at least five languages at the moment – and none of them are English! 

I’m sitting here wondering at how everyone seems to get along. I’ve not heard an angry voice while I’ve been in the city. Staff everywhere are unfailingly polite. Is it simply the good weather that means all these faiths and creeds are enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of Prague, or is there something else? Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world could learn how to do this too?

A matter of faith

Today held a number of firsts for me, and provided a lot of food for thought.  Dee and I were privileged in being able to attend a faith tour near where we live.  In one part of town, there is a church, a mosque and a gurdwara all within about 5 minutes walk of each other.  Faith tours are run for schools at least twice a week, and every so often they are run for interested parties like us.  I’d say there were more than 50 of us, with ages ranging from 6 or 7 up to 70s or 80s.  

Probably because of the proximity of these places of worship to each other, the vibe on the street between them was a lot more friendly than I’ve noticed elsewhere.  People even said hello as we walked past, which is very unusual in towns in the south of England, in my experience.  


First stop was the Anglican church, where the (female) priest talked through some of the differences, and highlighted the similarities, in the three faiths we were going to encounter today.  It was quite interactive in that two volunteers from the audience were allowed to put on vestments of the church, another volunteer held the incense bowl, another held the cross on a pole and yet another held a book of gospels.  They then walked around the church as would normally happen at the beginning of the service.  After tea and biscuits, we were encouraged to explore the church and, in the words of the priest, “nowhere was too sacred for us to be”.  

It felt like a unique opportunity to wander freely around the church, and to read stories from the past from the area where the church was built. For me, where most of my churchgoing experience was a) grudging and b) Scottish protestant, the robes, ceremonies, incense etc was almost exotic and certainly very strange.  


The second stop was the mosque, where we all removed our shoes and the women amongst us covered their heads. Unfortunately, the Imam was taken unwell last night so was unable to host us, but one of the volunteers from the mosque stepped in and gave a really interesting insight into the five pillars of Islam.  I must confess to being a little surprised that his talk was mostly done using PowerPoint slides and videos, with a screen set up in one corner of the mosque, and a projector built into the ceiling.  

There were a lot more questions for our host, as can perhaps be imagined – more on that later – than the priest had earlier. What was most evident perhaps was the commonality in roots and characters between Islam and Christianity.  Both stem from Adam, both feature Abraham, and Mary / Marion, to name but a few.  Even the divide between Sunni and Shia was shown to be minimal, with much more in common than there were differences.  


Finally, we visited the gurdwara, where one of the committee ensured we’d removed our shoes and covered our heads, before taking us to the main prayer room.  It felt like a real privilege to have the room to ourselves, to have time to look closely at the artefacts on display, especially as we heard that there will be a wedding in there tomorrow.  We then moved upstairs to another prayer room, where a member of the Sikh community was reading aloud from the holy book.  This is something that is repeated every week, and it takes 48 hours for the whole book to be read from start to finish.  Again, I found this a very moving experience, to be welcomed into such a holy place and to see and hear part of the reading.  There are no holy men in the gurdwara, it’s all run by and for the community, though there is a committee which works to implement the things the community wants and need.  

From there, the tour was over, and we were all invited to have lunch in the langar. Any visitors to any gurdwara globally will be offered this form of hospitality.  The kitchen is run by volunteers from the community, as a duty,  and all are welcome.  The food was simple but very tasty, and very enjoyable.

Again, there were a lot of questions, as in the mosque.  I don’t mean this next piece to sound judgmental so apologies in advance if it does.  Many of the questions asked in mosque and gurdwara seemed to be along the lines of “your religion doesn’t have the same things as mine, so mine must be better”, though not in so many words.  It was notable that it was the older people on the tour who were asking that sort of question, and they also seemed to be more judgmental.  I wonder if the same sort of questions would have been asked by Muslims or Sikhs of the Christian priest, but there were none (to my knowledge) in the group taking the tour.  

So, what did I learn from the experience?  Personally, I found the gurdwara a more restful and relaxing place – perhaps because there were no chairs / pews.  The mosque was also very interesting, and it was perhaps the most practical, least ostentatious venue.  The emphasis all three faiths place on charity was also interesting, though with three very different approaches.  That particular church does a lot in Swaziland; the mosque has strict rules on who can receive charity and also prefers that charity is passed from hand to hand rather than through charitable organisations; and the gurdwara seemed to focus on providing food for anyone who wants / need it. 

If you get the chance to do a similar tour, I’d suggest you take it.  It’s a very worthwhile and fascinating experience.

Spirits in the Material World

Apologies to The Police for using one of their song titles for this item, but it seemed apposite somehow.  Regular readers will know that 2015 has been a year of big changes for me, and one area which I’ve not really touched on is the spiritual one.  Before you pass the rest of this article by, I’m not going to get all religious on you, spouting off about some great being looking down on us and handing down lessons which may or may not have been true.  (And, by the way, if that’s what you choose to believe in, I’m cool with that.  Each to their own and all that, but it’s not for me.) Continue reading Spirits in the Material World