Friday, 13 July 2012

   On Saturday 11th June, St Barnabus’s Day, the weather was greyer and stickier. I spent some time on the internet, trying among other things to establish the whereabouts of Almaty’s Catholic cathedral, in order to be sure of attending Sunday Mass next morning. In the evening i took a bus in what seemed the right general direction, but alighting prematurely i ended up using my own two feet to reach a cinema that should have been near the cathedral according to my map. None of the typically western celluloid fare appealed to me however, so i merely stopped for a fruit juice in the cafe, and wondered if a young lady on the next table was aware of the meaning of the English expression on her T-shirt. Laundry was a factor in my subsequent decision to check in to a nearby modestly-priced hotel, where i watched a National Geographic documentary about alligators, and was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of ‘Top Gear’ dubbed into Russian.
   The next day, Pentecost Sunday, i reached the address which i thought was the cathedral, but turned out to be the diocesan office. Thankfully, a friendly ethnic Kazakh employee was there to put me straight, and suggested i come to Mass by car with him and the Bishop, who would arrive shortly. He also had interesting things to say about Almaty, a name which translates as ‘City of Apples’[1] in English. All domestic apples, apparently, trace their origins to this region, and from his youth my interlocutor remembered huge local varieties, whose dimensions have now been lost, due to cross-breeding with foreign varieties. He also very usefully outlined the historical background to Russia’s gradual immersion in Kazakh affairs in the 18th to 19th centuries. The Kazakh ‘Khanate’, which might in theory have united the various tribes, in practice was subject to internal disputes, creating conditions that hostile foreign forces, notably nomadic Jungar tribes with links to the Emperors of China, could exploit. Faced with this threat, by stages over a period of about 150 years the various ‘hordes’ of the Khanate sought protection from their northern neighbours (this being the lesser of two evils), until by 1871 the whole of what is now Kazakhstan had been absorbed by Imperial Russia. Partly for this reason, the enduring presence of a large minority of Russians, especially in the north of Kazakhstan, doesn’t particularly give rise to bad feeling, as it might do if their forebears had simply seized the territory by force.
   On the drive across town to the cathedral, the young Catalan Bishop Jose Luis Mumbiela Sierra said a prayer in Russian which has a special place in the spiritual life of that country;
   ‘Beneath thy mercy, we take refuge, O Virgin Theotokos: disdain not our supplications in our distress, but deliver us from perils, O only pure and blessed one.’[2]

Almaty - 'The Real Big Apple'
   I commended Spain on her then seeming dominance of practically all major sports, at which he cheerfully reminded me of Barcelona’s recent victory over Manchester Utd in the Champions’ League final. During his homily he hailed the reception, that Easter, of 60 Anglican clergy into full communion with Rome, the first cohort of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.[3] Popcorn figured among the things i had for lunch, then in the afternoon i spent more time perched in front of a computer terminal in an internet cafe, posting an entry to the blog called ‘The Real Big Apple’. After quite a long walk in the evening i found a good place to sleep alongside an apartment block, the foliage of a pleasant little garden obscuring me on one side.

[1] In soviet times it was called ‘Alma Ata’, approximately ‘Apple Father’, in which there is a link with the name ‘Ataturk’, which means ‘Father of the Turks’.
[2] A more common English version is: ‘We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.’ 3rd century – the oldest known prayer to Our Lady.
[3] “A canonical structure within the Roman Catholic Church enabling former Anglicans to maintain some degree of corporate identity and autonomy with regard to the bishops of the geographical dioceses of the Catholic Church and to preserve elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.” (Wikipedia)

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