Of course, not every trip needs to be a pilgrimage.
I know, I know: given the title of this blog and the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve described over the last year and a half, you’d think the only worthwhile journeys I’ve ever made have involved intense planning, a degree of discomfort, and an even greater degree of “spirituality.”
But a few years ago, Mary Lee and I had a wonderful trip to Turkey. Our purpose was to visit friends and to escape a Maine winter that had extended, as it often does, into April. For a week, we were chauffeured around and fed royally by Lynne and Finlay, who, after teaching in Istanbul for ten years, had bought a home in Selcuk (as in “sell-chuck”) in the western part of the country. I hadn’t prepared for the trip and knew next to nothing about Turkey, except that the apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s heroes, spent a lot of time there.
I had no idea that the ancient city of Ephesus, where Paul lived for a while and for whom he wrote one of his Epistles, is part of Selcuk. Nor did I know that Selcuk is also the site of several other holy places: The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World; the Basilica of St. John, built on the tomb of John the Beloved Disciple and author (perhaps) of the Bible’s Book of Revelation; the Home of the Virgin Mary, where Jesus’s mother is thought by pilgrims to have spent her last days; and Isa Bey Mosque, which dates from the fourteenth century.
And perhaps because I didn’t come to Turkey as a pilgrim, or perhaps because the hordes of tourists—a lot of Asians, Germans, and Australians—reminded me of the tourists in Old Orchard and Bar Harbor in Maine, none of these places ever felt to me particularly holy.
What I did feel was a palpable sense of history. For centuries, Turkey has resided at the crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures. Part of Istanbul is in Europe and part of the city is in Asia. Turkey is where Noah’s ark is supposed to have come to ground after the flood. The Grand Fortress of Selcuk rests on the site of castles going back to before 5,000 BCE. Before becoming a republic in 1923, the country was, at various times, part of Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islamic empires.
And I’m not exaggerating when I say this history is palpable; visitors can see and touch it. Turkey’s historic civilizations are literally embedded in one another, stone next to stone, sometimes in strange ways—carved marble cornices in the middle of granite walls, for example.
This embedded history is clearly evident in Selcuk. You find very little left of the Temple of Artemis, once known throughout the ancient world for its mix of classic Greek and near Eastern design, because after its final destruction in 262 CE, its marble stones were used in construction of later buildings, including the Basilica of St. John. And when the Basilica became unusable after a fourteenth century earthquake, some of its stones, along with stones from the Temple of Artemis were used in building Isa Bey Mosque in 1375.
Even on vacation, however, you can never entirely escape your own history. Seeing, touching, the stones that make up Selcuk’s past, I couldn’t help but wonder if, just as Turkey’s civilizations were built using the remains from previous cultures, who I am today isn’t built of some of the destroyed remains of previous selves I’ve reassembled.
I thought of when, a year or so after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I’d read a review in the New Yorker by Terrence Rafferty of the movie, “Black Rain,” about the survivors of the destruction of Hiroshima in WWII, and how I’d identified with the way Rafferty described them:
They “…live in a perpetual state of suspension, a constant twilight. Their survival is too tenuous to give them much joy; it’s more like a wary, static persistence… They’re contaminated by uncertainty, and every gesture they make, every word they speak, is halting, self-conscious, tentative.”
I’m guessing that anyone reading this who’s lost a child understands what Rafferty is talking about. Your entire world—your past, your present, your future—is destroyed. All your old landmarks become rubble, and you have no point of reference, nothing to guide you. You wander lost and fearful.
But maybe one of the ways we grieving parents survive is by embedding parts of our old, destroyed selves into transformed ones, possibly becoming stronger in the process.
I was raised in the Christian tradition. If I could draw pictures of my early faith, they would resemble a child’s book of an idealized 1950’s small town, filled with quaint Andy Griffin meets Ozzie and Harriet characters. God was, like my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, a nice guy who winked and always seemed to be around, even when your parents were busy. As I grew older, I replaced those images with a Sierra Club calendar of majestic, forest-covered mountains glowing in a brilliant sunrise, filled with possibility. When I met Mary Lee, I added more images to include her, the two of us being guided along bucolic trails by a creative, loving Presence.
And then I learned that God was capable of creating not only purple mountains’ majesty but cancer cells. At first, God disappeared, then reappeared as the Great Saddist, inflicting pain on innocent children. Eventually, God became the Great Opponent, with whom I, like the Biblical Jacob, wrestled, until I finally surrendered to what I now think of as the Great Mystery of Grace.
Today, I realize that should I try to blueprint my faith, it would look a lot like some of the buildings Mary Lee and I saw in Turkey, with images of God as caretaker, God as creator, God as opponent, God as mystery, God as lover, embedded—along with sorrow and joy, doubt and faith, shame and compassion, grief and hope—into one edifice.
Sort of the way, come to think of it, a pilgrimage can sometimes become embedded in a vacation.