During the summer of 2003 I lived in Vienna, doing an intensive German course, spending eight hours a day, five days a week studying that noble language. Subsequently, I can now say I studied German but can't really speak it now in a phenomenal accent. On weekends, since I wasn't really linguistically up to snuff enough to help out in an Austrian church, I went to Budapest and worked as a tour guide for an Italian tour company run by the brother of an Italian girl in my class. Keeping an Italian tour group together and on schedule is a bit like herding cats, but, beside this, another difficulty I discovered was a general apathy towards anything that is not Italian. I don't say this to be harsh because perhaps it's understandable; I mean, if you come from the country that is home to the majority of the western world's classic art treasures and which was also the epicentre of the civilised world for centuries, I suppose the bar is set rather high.
So it was that so many of the Italians I showed around the city that I consider the most beautiful in the world were underwhelmed. Yes, it was lovely there, they'd say, but have you been to Florence? Siena? Lucca? Or scores of other cities towns and villages, each with something uniquely beautiful? And goulash is OK, but it's not exactly bucatini amatriciana, is it? No, in general, my tours really only perked up when we finished at the central market, where they felt that at least the sausages, cheeses, and pastries on offer were a close second to their Italian counterparts.
That whole summer, it only happened once that members of a tour group seemed overly impressed. We were at the Hungarian Parliament, an iconic Gothic revival building on the banks of the Danube that is the largest building in the country. But it wasn't the grand building (Saint Peter's in Rome is far larger) or the exquisite marble (probably came from Italy anyway) or the historical significance (it was only finished in 1904) that made an impression. No, we were standing under the cupola and in front of us was displayed the Szent Korona, the Holy Crown of Hungary, with an honour guard standing at attention nearby. I explained that the crown was used by Saint Astrik to crown King Stephen in 996, and was reportedly given to the pope by the Archangel Gabriel. “Boh, we've got one of his feathers in my parish church,” replied an unimpressed Calabrese. I mentioned that it is only one of two Byzantine crowns in existence, and that more than fifty kings of Hungary had been crowned with it. “Saint Helena, who lived in Rome, found Jesus' crown,” said a Roman whilst all nodded in agreement. I talked about how it is unique in Europe, in that everywhere else a sovereign wears a crown as a symbol of his or her authority, but that in Hungary the crown itself has a personhood and is superior to the person who wears it, giving the person his or her power. “Why aren't there more jewels?” replied a Sicilian, seemingly uninterested in my weighty ontological discourse.
But just then a rather elderly gentleman entered the scene. Laying his walking stick on the ground he – with some difficulty – managed to kneel in front of the Holy Crown. He seemed overcome with emotion, was obviously having a profound moment. My Italians were uncharacteristically silent as this man continued to say words over and over again as if in a mantra.
Another small group had come upon the scene and I saw a tour guide whom I had encountered at the parliament building before. I shuffled up to him and asked what the man was saying.
He smiled. “We call him Saint Astrik. He's saying 'God touched an angel. An angel touched the Holy Crown. The Holy Crown touched Blessed Charles. Blessed Charles touched me. God has touched me.'” He went on to explain – which I then quietly translated to my tour group – that Astrik was 93 years old, and as a six year-old boy had seen the last King of Hungary, Blessed Charles of Austria, outside of Saint Matias Church, and that the good king bestowed his blessing upon him. “He believes that the crown was carried by an angel,” Tamas said, kind of verbally rolling his eyes, “and so he thinks he has some connection to God.”
I translated this for my Italians. They were quiet, reverent even, forming a kind of semi-circle around this old man who had had a connection to an angel. They had finally been impressed by something. Or, more accurately, by someone. I lightly placed my hand on Astrik's shoulder before ushering the group away as we had other things to see. But I got the impression they would have been more than happy just to stay there.
Later, at a restaurant where most of the tour group ordered pasta and then complained about it, I passed out the questionnaires that each individual had to fill out. Under “suggestions for what we could do to improve the tour,” where after previous tours such things as “more time shopping” and “more Italian food” were written, many had now written, “more time at the Parliament building.” I later told my boss about it, calling it the Astrik effect.
“It's silly,” he said.
And maybe it was, this talk of angels and crowns and blessed kings. But Astrik didn't think it was silly. And those of us who encountered him didn't think it was silly. You see, I think it's not always easy to feel a connection to God. Difficulty in prayer, sickness, misunderstanding with our brothers and sisters, stress of daily life: all these things can so accumulate that we can feel alone at times. Maybe some would even say that in the midst of a world filled with one horror after another, even trying to call up a divine connection is silly. And I understand that, have to admit that I even feel that myself on occasion.
But then I think of Astrik, the man indirectly touched by an angel; I think of good people I've known and continue to know who stick with it – stick with God. And God sticks with them. God sticks with us. And if it's sometimes difficult to see that – to hear that – in my own story, I take comfort in my connection with people whose stories make this divine connection less difficult to see, to hear. Thank God for them. Thank God for the saints – those who have gone before us, those who are walking amongst us now, and those who are yet to come.
And, of course, thank God for Astrik, because God touched an angel and an angel touched the Holy Crown and the Holy Crown touched the Blessed Charles and the Blessed Charles touched Astrik and I touched Astrik, so God has touched me.
As he continues to do for us all.