If someone told me that someday I’d walk on the same floors as the Virgin Mother, in her home, I might have chuckled in disbelief. Despite a half century of church attendance and over a decade of Catholic school education, I’d never heard of Mary’s residence in Turkey. That slice of history never found its way to me.
When I visited Lourdes, France, I was aware of its history. That magnificent shrine moved me. At first glance, I experienced a jaw dropping moment. In fact, when I entered those sacred grounds I felt my body shudder and shake.
Initially, Mary’s home near Ephesus, Turkey felt different. It failed to overload my senses. Lourdes supplied a real life human drama, highlighted by its weave of paths, blanketed by candlelight rosary parades, and a tear-induced march of the infirmed. Walking along the Pilgrim’s pavement at Lourdes, I felt like a passenger, out-of-control, engaged in a spiritual roller coaster ride. Excitement splashed the soul. The shrine, its spirited pilgrim souls, and the moment directed me.
My emotions at Mary’s Ephesian home subtly surprised me. That mystical shrine tantalized my senses in a spiritual slow motion. The magic trickled sluggishly, yet began intensifying immediately after my sighting a statue of the mother of Jesus. It appeared no taller than a dining room chair. The icon stood just a few yards from the entrance to that simple, stone house. As I stood, admiring that statue, I reflected upon the evolution of my Ephesian Biblical pilgrimage.
This spiritual adventure began on the high seas. As I braced myself on the deck chair of my bobbing and swaying cruise ship, I searched the travel photographs in hand, determined to find something life changing in my tour book. I flipped thru colorful pages describing itineraries of the ports we’d visit along the restless Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. The ship’s brochure offered a wide assortment of port excursions. One listing, in particular, roused my interest. The cruise staff posted an excursion to Kusadasi, Turkey. They plugged a pilgrimage to Virgin Mary’s home. That house, tidily tucked away in a place called Nightingale Mountain, lay walking distance from Ephesus. To my surprise, a tour of the ruins of that once architecturally resplendent ancient world city of Ephesus appeared on our itinerary too.
Ephesus developed into a major trade center in ancient times. Some scholars contend that Mark Antony and Cleopatra visited the city together. It housed a population comparable to the city of Boise, Idaho, flaunted a prominent library, famed architecture, and a theatre capable of hosting over 20,000 people. It is believed that St. Paul preached and spread Jesus’ word at that outdoor theatre.
The more I read about Ephesus, the more compelling my passion to visit. The mystery, magnificence, and story of Ephesus made me awestruck. I also found it hard to believe that the Virgin Mary actually ate, slept, walked and prayed within those tired, unadorned walls of a humble stone house just outside the city. The Apostle John accompanied Mary as they sailed to Ephesus to spread the Gospel. They settled there. Many biblical scholars believe that John actually wrote his gospels in that city. Paul the Apostle is thought to have spent three years there and to have scripted four of his letters there.
Driven by these exciting readings, my wife and I bolted out of our cabin, and circled the whiny ship’s elevator. We saw huddled and tight lipped passengers with nearly identical rolling eyes, belly to belly in queue. We jogged past a small mob and clattered down the ship’s stairway. We dashed toward the appropriate desk to secure places on the historic excursion. We claimed first place on the sign-in line for land tours. In retrospect, all that angst, and all that perspiration proved worthwhile because of the spiritual dividends.
Surely, religious scholars have written more sophisticated accounts about this sacrosanct residence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Surely, talented and gifted painters and photographers captured the essence of her home more accurately. I don’t think, however, that any of these experts could prove that they were more moved by this unique church than we were. My wife Adele and I felt like we’d strolled on the stage of a living Biblical drama from the moment we tiptoed onto the grounds of Mary’s home.
In fact, when I first approached this storied house from the parking lot, it appeared so ordinary and small that I squinted just to catch a glimpse of the building. When I finally moved closer, I marveled that history’s most well known and all-time spiritual queen chose to live so humbly.
Reminiscent of Lourdes, France the final apron leading to the blessed site bustled with cranky sounding vendors peddling religious wares. Significantly fewer souvenir stands, however, stood on this Turkish turf. While Lourdes hosted a wide bodied flea market of religious vendors, the approach to Mary’s house was littered with only a few pedestrian religious stands. Only a handful of carnival barker types staffed these posts. Many of those businesses seemed as makeshift as beach tents on American Fourth of July.
Beyond these souvenir stands, the businesses gave way to reverence, prayer, and even the long shadow of awe. As Adele and I tottered toward the doors of Mary’s stone house, a sign warned us not to take photographs inside the building. When I finally entered, I smoldered with emotion. I touched my face. It felt hot. I squirted water on my head and face, hoping to camouflage my emerging tomato face. I failed to repress the excitement of my standing in the very spot where Mary, mother of Jesus, lived out her life after her son’s crucifixion.
Whenever possible, I tried to make my study of history hands-on. When in an historic place, I imagined history’s superstars standing in the very place I occupied. Standing in a prominent place in Rome’s Coliseum, I imagined Julius Caesar standing in the same spot in which I stood. While by the seaside in Syracuse, Sicily, I reflected on the great mathematician Archimedes adjusting his mirrors to the sun, and destroying the Roman fleet from that exact location. Now, my greatest dream evolved. I was about to occupy an actual spot where Mary lived.
I momentarily froze as these thoughts raced around my mind. Goose pimples occupied my limbs. I inhaled the glorious authenticity of the live Gospel surrounding me for as long as possible. I sensed that I possessed a VIP pass to tour the inner core of the Gospel itself. I expected the security nun on duty that day to drag me from the building, as I froze mid-floor, my mouth agape like a circus clown, and my uncooperative legs locked in place like an athlete with severed hamstrings. The good sister left me alone.
On the day I visited, it seemed clear that the Turkish authorities graciously placed the security detail in the hands of Christian nuns. As alluded to before, the sister on duty never challenged me to move. I absorbed as many inspirational moments as possible while praying in that most unique setting. I realized that the multitude of travel shows airing on satellite television were capable of providing the most comprehensive videos, and art historians could clearly detail all that was worth seeing, but I’d actually stood, and prayed in this sacred abode of religious history. I paused, inhaled deeply, and savored that experience. It seemed matchless.
Words fail to thoroughly explain the spiritual rush of a believer kneeling at Mary’s altar. My mind wandered. More than ever, I sensed the actual footsteps of the Virgin Mary all around. I realized that the echoes of her voice once wafted throughout this stone home wrapped around me. This historic residence, now converted to a church, seemed smaller than my two car garage.
Once out the back door, I draped my head in disappointment. I thought my tour ended at that exit door. Peeking into the outside courtyard, I observed a dozen of my tour mates moving like sleep walkers. Some had their eyes glued to the heavens. Others walked in erratic circles. Few spoke. Suddenly, everything appeared to brighter. Clouds retreated. The dull skies lit up like new fluorescent lights. My imagination raced overtime.
I pictured Paul chatting about Galatians. I visualized John’s gestures as he explained one of his gospels. Mary, of course, contributed to the discussion. Wandering in the pages of Christian history made me aware that I wasn’t well prepared for this personal epiphany, as if a formula existed to prepare us for life’s moments of wonder.
I continued taking baby steps away from that exit door. Water splashed. Whispers spread about those salty waters. I heard the muffled words of a nearby tourist, he hoarsely whispered, “That’s the ‘Water of Mary.’ It’s as a curative to those drinking it.” From the corner of my eye, I saw a small stockpile of abandoned crutches. I’d nearly stumbled on them. I walked in another direction.
Stragglers from our tour group entered that walled area. Several tourists wrapped oversized washcloths over their heads. Some wiped their eyes with tissues, while others accessed sweaty sleeves. Some dropped to their knees, limply, as if shot by an unseen pellet. Some dipped hands in the font, then shook them off like a dog his bathwater. Some blessed themselves. Some of the certifiably dazed washed, rewashed, and over washed their hands. Others guzzled this special water like a thirsty jogger after his completing the New York Marathon.
The block and mortar wall froze me in my tracks. A series of grates resembling an oversized tic tac toe game board clutched the courtyard wall. I never saw instructions, yet visitors instinctually knew what to do once they met the wall, face to face. The muscular wall stretched out with an endless patch quilt of tissue paper posted on it. There was enough tissue type paper there to dry a nursery school full of allergic noses. People posted paper tissue prayer requests inside the metal squares on the block wall outside of Mary’s shrine. I faced a “wall of prayers.”
Stray fingers scratched into the wall. A few rubbed their hands across and along metal grates, perhaps in an attempt to capture the magical graces of thousands of accumulated prayers. Lips quivered and mumbled inaudible prayers. Dreamy eyed pilgrims walked away, looking back from time to time. Adele and I fell into place and posted our individual requests. I yanked my pre-packed bottle of tea and shared it with my spouse. The two of us stood silently in mediation. I wiped interloping moisture from the sidelines of my eyes. We strolled out.
We left those sacred grounds and trekked toward our bus. On the way, I chatted with a man donning a sport jacket and a bow tie. Curiously, the steam of our summer day seemed to elude the man. The humid summer moisture declined to occupy his face.
After my moving visit to Mary’s house, I immediately sensed additional layers of spirituality spreading across my lifelong beliefs. Excited, and hoping to propagate the word about this unique shrine, I sought out and continued my conversation with the nattily attired pilgrim. As we climbed into the same bus, I suggested that our Christian churches do more toward promoting visits Mary’s home in Ephesus. I expressed optimism that perhaps Pope Benedict’s visit would generate more interest in this glorious site. The man told me that he was not a Christian. He politely excused himself.
Once all of the passengers all took seats, I noticed the bow tie man seated across the aisle to my left. He turned, made eye contact and spoke. I raised my brows when he mentioned the American baseball movie, Field of Dreams. He said, “Once people become aware of this spiritual sanctuary, they will come. Modern day Wise Men will visit and find their way here from all over the planet.” Finally, the man said, “After all, didn’t we somehow hear its call and come here? Mary belongs to all of us.”
F. Anthony D’Alessandro