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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
newshour:

Villagers in Zhengyangguan, in China’s eastern Anhui province, raise two children dressed as a deities onto poles. The “floating ballet” is an annual ritual once celebrated in many other villages but is now on the decline with fewer children now participating.
(Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
newshour:

Villagers in Zhengyangguan, in China’s eastern Anhui province, raise two children dressed as a deities onto poles. The “floating ballet” is an annual ritual once celebrated in many other villages but is now on the decline with fewer children now participating.
(Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

newshour:

Villagers in Zhengyangguan, in China’s eastern Anhui province, raise two children dressed as a deities onto poles. The “floating ballet” is an annual ritual once celebrated in many other villages but is now on the decline with fewer children now participating.

(Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Maundy Thursday Provides a Lesson in Humility

by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Maundy Thursday in HyerabadA Christian worshipper at the St. Alphonsus Church in Hyderabad during a Maundy Thursday service. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

The Thursday of Holy Week (the week before Easter) has special meaning for Christians. Often referred to as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum which means "command or instruction"), it is not a “holy day of obligation” for Roman Catholics but often includes a church service commemorating the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was crucified.

One version of the Last SupperThe Last Supper (1574-1575) depicted by Italian painter Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto. (Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The events recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 22, verses 19-20 — in which Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciplines — are said to be the liturgical basis for practicing communion. Many churches offer the Eucharist at a special mass on this day.

Pope Benedict XVIPope Benedict XVI holds the Eucharist in celebration of the Chrismal Mass of Maundy Thursday in St.Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Some Roman Catholic priests will perform a rite of foot-washing to commemorate and reflect on Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his twelve disciples. The Gospel of John (13: 1-7) describes this act as a service to others despite your social position, a willingness to be closer to your neighbor. Though normally the task of a servant, Jesus performs this task as the host, despite the protest of his disciples. In doing so he invites them into an intimate fellowship with him, and modeling the behavior he wishes to teach to all humanity:

"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."

Foot washingPhoto by Catholic Church (England and Wales)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Washing of feetReverend Thumma Bala (right), an Indian Catholic bishop of the Archdioecese of Hyderabad, washes the feet of a parishioner during Maundy Thursday service. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Washing of the feetDeacon Buruk Kidane (right) has his feet and hands washed by Reverend Gebrekiros at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matt McClain/Getty Images)

Washing of feetCardinal Roger Mahony washes the feet of 12 people, following the example of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 apostles, during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In England, a Royal Maundy Service is held on Holy Thursday. During the service, the king or queen gives Maundy money to his or her subjects — one coin for each man and woman equal of the royal’s years of birth.

Queen Elizabeth II Gives Maundy MoneyQueen Elizabeth II (right) distributes the Maundy money to 86 men and 86 women during the Royal Maundy Service at York Minster in York, northern England on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Arthur Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)

In Jerusalem, processions of all sorts take place in the Old City on Holy Thursday.

Kawases Lead Holy Thursday Procession in the Old CityKawases in traditional Ottoman outfits lead a procession of Roman Catholic clergymen along Jerusalem’s Old City streets during Holy Thursday on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Roman Catholic Clergy During a Holy Thursday Procession in the Old CityRoman Catholic clergymen walk along Jerusalem’ Old City streets during a Holy Thursday procession on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Holy Thursday Mass at the Church of the Holy SepulchreRoman Catholic clergymen hold candles as they circle the Anointing Stone during the Holy Thursday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on April 5, 2012 ahead of Easter celebrations. Christians traditionally believe the church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Muslim Gatekeeper Locks the Door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy ThursdayRaed Nuseibeh, the Muslim doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, closes the door after the Catholic Holy Thursday Easter procession. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

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Photos of self-inflicted piercings and flagellation are striking to see, but I do find myself tensing up once in a while. Thanks, quelowat:

PIERCING FOR PENANCE: An Indian Tamil Hindu devotee with a steel rod pierced through his cheeks took part in a religious procession for Lord Murugan in New Delhi Thursday. Tamil Hindus seeking penance and blessings of the Lord Murugan, son of Lord Shiva, pierce their bodies and carry pots of milk on their heads. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Photos of self-inflicted piercings and flagellation are striking to see, but I do find myself tensing up once in a while. Thanks, quelowat:

PIERCING FOR PENANCE: An Indian Tamil Hindu devotee with a steel rod pierced through his cheeks took part in a religious procession for Lord Murugan in New Delhi Thursday. Tamil Hindus seeking penance and blessings of the Lord Murugan, son of Lord Shiva, pierce their bodies and carry pots of milk on their heads. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Photos of self-inflicted piercings and flagellation are striking to see, but I do find myself tensing up once in a while. Thanks, quelowat:

PIERCING FOR PENANCE: An Indian Tamil Hindu devotee with a steel rod pierced through his cheeks took part in a religious procession for Lord Murugan in New Delhi Thursday. Tamil Hindus seeking penance and blessings of the Lord Murugan, son of Lord Shiva, pierce their bodies and carry pots of milk on their heads. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Photos of self-inflicted piercings and flagellation are striking to see, but I do find myself tensing up once in a while. Thanks, quelowat:

PIERCING FOR PENANCE: An Indian Tamil Hindu devotee with a steel rod pierced through his cheeks took part in a religious procession for Lord Murugan in New Delhi Thursday. Tamil Hindus seeking penance and blessings of the Lord Murugan, son of Lord Shiva, pierce their bodies and carry pots of milk on their heads. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Do Nothing for Lent and Be Grateful

by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor

Contemplating"Contemplation" (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?

Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.

If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?

To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.


Amy Ruth SchachtAmy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.

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Living in a Material World: Lent and Our Bodies

by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor

Lent for EveryonePhoto by John (mtsofan)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sA 2.0

Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return.
~Gen. 3:19

The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent — the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent has called Christians to through the centuries.

Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from — even as it continues to endorse — the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”

Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or — forgive the pun — onto solid ground. When we Christians receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future — to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. We could even say: "remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!"

The season of Lent also reveals how relentlessly incarnational is the faith we confess. When Jesus sojourns for 40 days in the wilderness, it is physical hunger (“he was famished”) that the gospel writers make special note of — except in Mark’s version, this year’s lectionary gospel, which is characteristically spare with the particulars. Fasting from food and its physiological consequences are part of Jesus’ quest for wisdom, understanding, and clarity of purpose.

There is an essential unity among body, soul, and the material world. Jesus is not “freed” of his body — nor of his bodily needs and desires — for the sake of his soul. And his soul is not disengaged from the material realm. As Berry notes about scriptural religion generally: “The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.”

In our own time, a relentlessly incarnational Christianity invites reflection on a host of ways that body, spirit, and world interact — ways in which our whole lives and our whole selves are either enriched or impoverished by situations of our own making or circumstances beyond our control. What does it mean, for example, to observe a Lenten fast in the context of social and economic realities like starvation among the poor, increasing food insecurity among the middle class, and growing obesity rates for all of us? How has the formative rhythm of feasting and fasting been obscured, overridden, undone by a culture of excess in which increasingly every meal is a mindless, hastily consumed feast, lacking in both nutrition and conviviality?

Or this: When late in Lent we regard the body of Jesus on the cross, can we see him as he is?

You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.

Can we share in poet Mary Karr’s unflinching gaze of a human body abandoned and broken? Can the “sack of flesh” disabuse us of our tendencies to sanitize the scene, fetishize the cross, and spiritualize the meaning of this first-century revolutionary’s death at the hands of the imperial authorities? With theologian James Cone can we see the reciprocity between the crucified Christ and “the lynched black body” of America’s shameful past? A past, Cone reminds us, that is not so past: one-third of all young black men are in prison or somewhere in the “system.” Bodies, again, alas, abandoned and broken.

37/366: Ash Wednesday

The ashes we Christians will receive on Wednesday may not convey enough of our connection to soil and stars and our sisters and brothers, but they do have deep associations with sorrow and repentance. The charcoal smudge across the forehead is a public sign that says to all I meet: I have sins to confess, wrongs to right. The challenge is to take this penitence seriously but to “wear” it lightly. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” warns Jesus in the gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. The task of repentance grounds us in the work of serving our neighbors, not ourselves.

The materiality of the faith we confess is most evident in a simple meal shared with friends. Christ’s body — taken, blessed, broken, and shared — makes of his followers a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others, including the earth from which we came and to which we will return. In Lent, we journey with Jesus to the place where his own “sack of flesh” redeems a broken world, revealing God’s love for all of creation, and forever conjoining body and soul, matter and spirit, earth and heaven.

Inset photo by Mandy Jansen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)


Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication with the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Hindus Honor the Destroyer During Maha Shivratri

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Images of ShivaIn preparation for the Maha Shivratri festival, an Indian girl touches up these in-demand statuettes of Lord Shiva at a roadside stall on the outskirts of Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord Shiva, one of the Trimurti in the Hindu trinity, is recognized today during the festival of Maha Shivratri. At this time, Hindus offer special prayers and fast to worship Lord Shiva, the Lord of Destruction. Lord Shiva’s devotees consider him to be the destroyer of the world, ego, and attachments. At temples devoted to Shiva, the devout pray and burn incense as offerings during a night-long vigil.

Incense offeringAs part of their prayers, Indian Hindu devotees offer incense sticks before an idol of Lord Shiva at the Shivala temple in Bangalore, India. (photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

The Shiva Lingam

Shiva is often represented symbolically with a Shiva Lingam (photos below), an ancient phallic figure that is incorporated into the ritual of bathing as part of the Maha Shivratri celebrations. Subhamoy Das offers this helpful description:

The phallus symbol representing Shiva is called the lingam. It is usually made of granite, soapstone, quartz, marble or metal, and has a “yoni” or vagina as its base representing the union of organs. Devotees circumambulate the lingam and worship it throughout the night. It is bathed every three hours with the 5 sacred offerings of a cow, called the “panchagavya” — milk, sour milk, urine, butter, and dung. Then the five foods of immortality — milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, and sugar — are placed before the lingam. Datura fruit and flower, though poisonous, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered to him.

For married blissNepalese Hindu women offer prayers to Shiva on the banks of the Shali River on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Hundreds of married and unmarried women in the Himalayan nation fast for the month leading up to Maha Shivratri with hopes of a prosperous life and conjugal happiness. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

ShivlingA Hindu priest scatters rose petals on the Shivling at the Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa village on Mahashivratri. The Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa, a replica of that in Nepal, is thronged by Nepalese Hindus across Gujarat state. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Shivling idolIndian Hindu devotees pray over the Shivling or idol of Lord Shiva at the Shivala Temple in Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

ShivlinganIndian Hindu devotees perform rituals in front of a 12-foot tall Maha Shivlingam at the Bramha Kumaris Shanti Sarovar in Hyderabad. (photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

The next morning followers break their fast after the nightlong worship with a family feast.

Hindu holy manA sadhu (Hindu holy man) returns after offering prayers to Lord Shiva in Kathmandu. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

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Desecrated Bodies, Dashed Hopes

by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor

Splashing water onto tombShia mourners splash water onto a tomb during a traditional burial ritual in Bahrain. (phoot: Al Jazeera English)

When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.

What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.

It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.

In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.

When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.

The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.

American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.


Arezou RezvaniArezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.

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The Three Christmases of the Holy Land

by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor

Iraqi Christian Girls Sing in AmmanIraqi Christian girls attend Christmas Mass at Chaldean Catholic Church in Amman, Jordan on December 25, 2011. (photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.

In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.

For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.

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Making Room for Both Traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah

by Meg Smith, guest contributor

2nd night of HanukkahAlthough I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.

My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.

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Oh, this sentiment is so lovely. Yes, we here at On Being are romantics… Thanks for this, guardian:

Rituals around the world
Here’s a selection of runner up photos for Guardian Travel’s competition. Click through the gallery to see which one judge Natalie Mayer picked to win a £200 Point101 voucher.
In this picture: Melanie Barrow, runner-up: This photo was taken at N Seoul Tower which overlooks the South Korean capital. It is said that if two partners lock their love together along the towers fence line, and throw away the key, it will seal their love forever.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Oh, this sentiment is so lovely. Yes, we here at On Being are romantics… Thanks for this, guardian:

Rituals around the world
Here’s a selection of runner up photos for Guardian Travel’s competition. Click through the gallery to see which one judge Natalie Mayer picked to win a £200 Point101 voucher.
In this picture: Melanie Barrow, runner-up: This photo was taken at N Seoul Tower which overlooks the South Korean capital. It is said that if two partners lock their love together along the towers fence line, and throw away the key, it will seal their love forever.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Oh, this sentiment is so lovely. Yes, we here at On Being are romantics… Thanks for this, guardian:

Rituals around the world

Here’s a selection of runner up photos for Guardian Travel’s competition. Click through the gallery to see which one judge Natalie Mayer picked to win a £200 Point101 voucher.

In this picture: Melanie Barrow, runner-up: This photo was taken at N Seoul Tower which overlooks the South Korean capital. It is said that if two partners lock their love together along the towers fence line, and throw away the key, it will seal their love forever.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time

by Krista Tippett, host

Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.

Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.

For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.

Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:

"I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”

This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.

Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.

About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)

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So, what does this story have to do with modern-day Iran and Iranians? Everything. For the vast majority of Iranians who identify as Shi’a and even for many who don’t, the story of Karbala lies at the heart of all struggles against oppression and tyranny — personal and political.
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Melody Moezzi writes this smart, informative piece about the relevance of the one-thousand-year old story behind Ashura and modern-day politics in The Washington Post.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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