Between Constantinople and Istanbul

Istanbul faces

This is the journal Nancy and I kept during a ten-day stay in Istanbul in 2003. Some of the photos taken in that period are here:

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

Are we in Istanbul? Or Constantinople? Winston Churchill had no doubt it was the latter. As he wrote in a memo to the Foreign Office on the 23rd of April 1945: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered in England to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has no particular significance, the local custom should be followed. However, Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…”

We will however tilt toward the whims of the foreigners living in those parts and opt for Istanbul.

We arrived at Ataturk Airport at about 3:00 and had to pay 10 euros for an entrance visa (while those with US passports are required to pay a whopping $100). Ali Gulkaynak, manager of the Artemis Hotel where we will be staying, was there to meet us. Ali is a friend of Beth Forest, Jim’s niece, who put us in touch with him and spoke of him in glowing terms. Ali drove us back to the hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Along the way we passed by many kilometers of ancient city wall erected in the age of Emperor Theodosius II (405-450). They withstood many sieges before a breach was made by Crusaders in 1202. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, though the city — stripped of every treasure — never recovered from its occupation by the Latins. Then in May 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror smashed though the walls and Byzantium, by then only a shadow of what it had been, gave up the ghost.

The Artemis Hotel proved to be a very attractive place, a modest size, slightly off the streets frequented by tourists. From the terrace on the top of the hotel we had an amazing view — the Blue Mosque with its six minarets above us, the blue Sea of Marmara below. Under the watchful eye of several mothers, children were playing in the street below. We unpacked and freshened up, then went for a walk with Ali.

Our route took us through the Hippodrome, on the north side of the Blue Mosque, where Ali explained the various monuments around which charioteers once raced. First (on the west end) was the column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, still called the Brazen Column, though the Crusaders stripped its bronze covering eight centuries ago. Next there was the Serpentine Column, made in 479 BC and originally placed in Delphi — one of many ancient monuments Constantine ordered brought to the new capital of the Roman Empire. Then, in the center of the Hippodrome, the most impressive monument of all, an Egyptian obelisk now 3500 years old, selected by Constantine to symbolize where the center of the world was now located. The base set up to hold the obelisk was carved on all sides with images of Constantine presiding at games in the Hippodrome. The stadium itself, said to have held up to 100,000 people, is long gone, though the roadway around the Hippodrome follows the route of the chariots. But many of the treasures that once were here have vanished. These include the famous four bronze horses now at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

It was here that the Nika Riot exploded in 532. Before it was over many of city’s buildings were destroyed, including a smaller Hagia Sophia, at the east end of the Hippodrome, and large parts of the Great Palace, where the Blue Mosque now stands. It was here that, when Justinian’s troops struck back at the rioters, 35,000 were killed.

We next walked into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, an enclosed square of calm and beauty with a fountain in its center. We noticed an old man with a white beard and kindly face, sitting on the steps to one side, knitting. He gave Jim permission to take his photos (Ali acting as translator). Smiling warmly he showed us some of what he had been knitting: a whole cloth bag full of hats and children’s booties. Ali bought a cap.

Then we walked out of the courtyard and there in front of us we saw Hagia Sophia for the first time, a red building made even redder by the setting sun. Breathtaking!

Ali, having to return to the hotel, pointed the way to a money changer on the main avenue — Divanyolou Caddesi — where we exchange euros for Turkish lira. One euro equaled more than 1,700,000 lira. At long last we are millionaires! Afterward we stopped at the small shop of a local art dealer and bought an Islamic miniature of Noah’s Ark ($30). Instead of a halo, a design of red flames surrounds Noah’s head. The background, icon-like, is of gold leaf.

We walked back to the hotel and went across the street to the Marmara Café, which Ali had briefly shown us before we had walked up to the Hippodrome. Exotic, ornately decorated water pipes lined the front window. There was the faint smell of sweet tobacco. It seemed at first to be an all-male hangout, but then we noticed women and children among the clientele. The back part of the café is a broad open porch with a sweeping view of the Sea of Marmara. We had tea while watching a procession of ships, some about to enter the Bosphorus, others exiting.

At about 7:00 our friend Shannon Robinson, just arrived from Albania, was brought over by Ali. She comes from Chicago but for the past five months has been principal of a newly opened primary school in Tirana founded by the Orthodox Church of Albania. She had tea with us, then we all went back to the hotel for a vegetarian supper. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the hotel the next day, then walked the short distance to her hostel, the Sinbad (its slogan: “world peace is inevitable”).

25 April, Good Friday

We had breakfast with Shannon, then walked back to the Hippodrome where we were hounded by postcard sellers and various venders, the first of many similar experiences. We walked through the Blue Mosque courtyard again and went on to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the world’s largest building for many centuries and still astonishing both inside and out. It is always a stunning experience to see for the first time something that you have only heard about, and perhaps seen pictures of. We had expected to see a great city edifice engulfed by even bigger modern structures, an anachronism and a mosque to boot, with little bits of the Christian past tucked away in corners. But what we saw was an almost pastoral setting, beautiful gardens and the surrounding waters, no other great buildings except the Blue Mosque, which does not conflict with it or overshadow it, and Hagia Sophia rising brick red and solid out of the earth. Only a little of the church’s mosaic iconography has survived but what remains is profoundly impressive. It is not tucked away in corners; you see it immediately as soon as you walk in. Nancy stood in the doorway and wept.

On the gallery on the west side we found the Pantocrator icon that is so often seen in books and postcards but which, even though so familiar, was surprising in its intensity and freshness. Christ’s eyes have the same authority as his spoken word.

After several hours in Hagia Sophia, we went for coffee to a nearby café with many colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, then took a taxi to the Church of the Savior in Chora (Chora meaning “in the fields”). The church originally stood outside the walls that Constantine erected but is just inside Theodosius’ walls. During the time of Crusader rule, it was the only church in Constantinople where Orthodox Christians were not under Roman domination, though in that period the church was in a badly decayed condition. After the Latin defeat Theodore Metochites, then Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire, used his wealth to subsidize the church’s restoration during what is known as the Byzantine Renaissance. This included not only repairing the building but commissioning mosaics and frescoes, many of which have survived even though the church had been made into a mosque after the Islamic Conquest. Today it is museum.

Chora’s amazing images remain among the most beautiful treasures of iconography to survive the fall of Byzantium. Perhaps the most stunning is the Anastasis icon filling the apse of a funeral chapel on the west side of the church: Christ effortlessly lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. In another section of the church there is a complex series of mosaics of events leading up to the birth of Mary and finally Christ’s Nativity. Chora alone is reason enough to come to Istanbul.

We had a good vegetarian lunch at a hotel restaurant — the Asitane — next to the church: our first glimpse of a Turkish cuisine of a level we never imagined existed going by our occasional visits to Turkish restaurants in Alkmaar. A place to return to after Pascha.

We took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent book market. The Grand Bazaar is similar to certain districts of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the experience of many offers to stop and have a cup of tea or coffee. Shannon bought a lacquer box for a friend in Tirana.

From the Bazaar we walked on to a city park close to the Hippodrome where a persistent and rather cunning shoeshine boy tried to get money out of us.

We sat for a while in the sun for awhile, then caught a taxi for the Good Friday service at the Orthodox Patriarchate at the Fener. The taxi driver had a great deal of difficulty finding the place, but — after stopping several times for local help — was at last successful. Entrance to the walled compound requires passing through a police guard and metal detector. Tiny though the Greek community is in modern Istanbul, there are still those who seek the expulsion of all Greeks. Bombs have been exploded here in recent years, while a patriarch was once executed by hanging at the compound gate. The church — St. George’s Cathedral — is surprisingly small, considering that it is the home church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The building dates from 1710: practically new by local standards.

When we arrived, shortly before the Good Friday service started, not many people were yet present but gradually the church filled up until finally there was an overflow in the courtyard. Most of the crowd seemed to be people who had come by bus from Greece. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided, assisted by six bishops. The icon of the body of Christ was a cloth over which was a canopy covered with white flowers. There was no real procession as we know it (such processions not being permitted in Turkey), but the patriarch and bishops carried the cloth down the aisle and into the courtyard, then back in again, and anyone standing near it tried to reach out and touch it.

We stayed at the church for about two hours, then went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner made up of vegetarian appetizers. By midnight, having taken a taxi to the square in front of Hagia Sophia, we were back at the hotel after walking Shannon to her hostel.

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

27 April – Pascha

We went out for breakfast with Shannon to break the Lenten fast. Shannon, having eaten almost nothing since yesterday afternoon, longed for something resembling an American breakfast, but also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We searched and searched, asking several people where we could find an American breakfast. One man responded, “But this is Turkey!” Finally we had omelettes at an open-air café called the Dervish near the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we set off for the Suleymaniye Mosque, widely regarded as Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque. It’s a vast structure that crowns a hill adjacent to Istanbul University just to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar. Along with an associated hospital, school and hospice for travelers, the mosque was built in the 1550s by the famous architect Sinan.

While walking there Jim asked directions of an older man who volunteered to show us the way. We learned he is a Kurdish rug merchant whose home is near the Iraqi border, We stopped for tea at a small street café adjacent to the mosque, inviting the man, Salih Cefin, to sit with us. He accepted, only insisted on paying for the tea, telling us that when he comes to our country we can pay for his tea. After saying goodbye, we entered the mosque, a place as quiet as it is huge. Hundreds of lights are suspended not far above head level giving the impression of a border of light between our ordinary world and the divine presence — something not unlike the iconostasis, except the border here is overhead and horizontal. Like so many mosques in Istanbul, this one clearly drew its architectural inspiration from Hagia Sophia.

Finally we walked around the grounds, then sat in the sun for a while — our first warm day in Istanbul — eating bananas and strawberries that Shannon had just bought from a nearby shop.

Then we headed downhill toward the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. On the way Shannon stopped to buy some kebab skewers and paused to see a smaller mosque next to the Spice (or Egyptian) Market while we waited for her in the courtyard of the New Mosque facing the Galata Bridge. The square before the mosque was packed with locals and flocks of birds. Not a tourist group in sight! In fact this part of town is a continuous street market, a micro economy in high gear. Shannon came back and we walked across the bridge, watching the people fishing as we made our way towards the Galata Tower, a massive medieval structure put up in 1348 when the Genoese had this patch of the city — their reward for helping end the Latin occupation. The most direct way to the tower requires climbing a long, steep set of stairs.

This is the city’s Beyoglu district whose main street is the Istiklal Caddesi, where there are many fine bookshops. In one of them Jim found a particular guide book — the Istanbul volume in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide series — he’d been looking for all over the city. We then hailed a taxi and took it to a large modern shopping mall, Akmerkez, near Margo and David’s apartment, a landmark easier for taxi drivers to find than the actual address we were going to. (Ali notes that one need have nothing more than a driving license to drive a taxi in Turkey; no special knowledge of the streets is required. Neither do any drivers we have come upon possess a street atlas.)

The only obvious difference between this shopping mall and similar malls in America is that everyone entering this cavernous building has to be checked as if he were at an airport. The mall has security guards and metal detectors at every entrance. Once admitted we found ourselves in a cathedral of consumer products that’s much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen in the Netherlands. We headed for a supermarket on the third level, as Shannon hoped to find a few things that were unavailable in Tirana, and then called David on Jim’s mobile, who talked us from the mall to their nearby apartment complex.

We found it no easy task getting past the apartment complex’s security guard, a young uniformed woman. Finally Jim called David, who came down to rescue us. Margo and David’s apartment was beautifully decorated for Easter, with an egg tree, carefully laid table and a handsome book of Chora photos that had been opened to the Anastasis icon. There was an older American-Greek couple there, as well as Paul Gikas from the Patriarchate (also American) and his Turkish girlfriend, a beautiful young woman on her way to becoming Orthodox. Diedrich was very happy with all the company and attention.

The meal was exceptional — lamb, spare ribs, chicken, salad, delicious cake. The Turkish wine was excellent. The entire meal was wonderful and the company around the table even better. It was hard to leave, but finally we took a taxi back home and crashed into bed, since our previous night’s sleep had been brief.

28 April, Bright Monday

We agreed with Shannon to do separate things today as this was her last day and she had to find gifts for various people, both relatives and colleagues. We had breakfast, then walked to the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The Archeology Museum was closed but a sarcophagus (early Byzantine?) near the entrance caught our eye with its simple, very sober bas relief of a married couple and their two children. Back in the Topkapi park, we walked over to the executioner’s fountain where swords and hands were washed after beheadings — our joke is that the occasional rude tourist is still dispatched here from time to time. Then we paused to shop in a government-run craft store to buy a few small gifts: a black alabaster cat for Anne, a small copper coffee pot for Cait, a meerschaum pipe for Jim, a leather bag for Nancy. We then went to the café that caught our eye two days earlier, the Cafer Aga Courtyard, in the 16th century a Moslem school, now a school of traditional crafts with an inexpensive restaurant in the center. Our waiter is learning to make marbled paper; he is also a kick-boxer who aspires to Hollywood.

In the afternoon, accepting an invitation from Ali, we drove with him to Eyup, a section of the city on the Golden Horn just beyond the Theodosian walls. After lunch at a beautiful traditional restaurant in which we seem to be the only non-Turks — an inspiring meal — we walked the short distance to the Eyup Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world as one of the principal collaborators of Mohammad is buried there: Eyup Ensari, who took part in the first Moslem siege of Constantinople in the 7th century. When the city finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror eight centuries later, one of Mehmet’s first actions was find the place where Eyup Ensari was buried and build a mosque and tomb. Most of the people we saw were either locals or pilgrims. There was an intense sense of devotion in the vicinity of the mosque. Both inside and out we were hit by a powerful sense of sacred space. The Dutch and French tour groups that arrived while we were there tended to underscore the inappropriateness of purely secular interest in such an environment. While people nearby were at prayer, the guides were pointing out details in the mosque’s decoration. But soon the two groups were back in their buses and the disruption was over.

We left, deeply moved, and made our way home.

We met Shannon for our last dinner together in Istanbul. We had promised Ozgur that we would have a meal in his restaurant (”If you eat here, you will not be sorry”), and so went to Time Out for a simple meal. Ozgur spent a lot of time with us, talking. He is both shy and eager to talk, an unusual combination. As we left, he asked Jim if we would come back before we left as he wanted to talk to us about something important.
29 April, Bright Tuesday

We had breakfast with Shannon at the Artemis Hotel, then helped get her on the tram to the airport. After seeing her on her way, we stopped at a bookshop and bought Strolling in Istanbul, a thick guide with few pictures but an immense amount of detail, and a well-illustrated Turkish cookbook, as Nancy has taken to Turkish cooking and wants to bring something of Istanbul back to our table in Alkmaar.

Back at the hotel, Ali introduced us to Gabi, his wife, whom he met in Hungary when he had a business there. All four of us drove up the Bosphorus on its European side, stopping at a massive castle built in 1452 by Mahmet II — Rumeli Hisan, also known as the Fortress of Europe — in preparation for the attack on and conquest of Constantinople the following year. Those final months before the city fell its citizens must all have felt like condemned prisoners around whose necks a rope was being slowly tightened. The weakened city fell on the 29th of May after a 54-day siege. Ottoman cannons had carved a huge hole in Theodosius’ walls.

After scaling some of the fortress walls, we drove up to the Bosphorus Bridge and crossed over to the Asian side, driving south with the goal of a late lunch at the Maiden Tower restaurant, a former Istanbul lighthouse which can only be reached by ferry. We then took a much larger ferry that accommodated cars across the Bosphorus to the south shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

That evening we had a light supper at the café near the southwestern edge of the Hippodrome after a young man belonging to the owner’s family came out and gave us his pitch. We went in and had kebabs. Afterward our host sat with us, ordering coffee and baklava as his treat, and told us about what a special restaurant this is. He pointed to a monument by the restaurant entrance that was erected in remembrance of victims of terrorism. His brother was among those who were killed. His father is a political journalist. Everyone working at the restaurant is a member of the family. Our host had studied architecture but now wants to be more politically involved. His family borrowed money from all over to buy the restaurant.

30 April, Bright Wednesday

We found a fruit and vegetable street market had been set up along the White Moustache Street. On each stand the display of vegetables was a work of art. Then we went to the Museum of Archeology, an amazing collection of ancient pieces beautifully lit and exhibited. The sarcophagi from Sidon were especially amazing, so perfectly preserved, and the large Byzantine collection was also extremely good.

We had tea in the museum’s tea garden, then walked to the crafts center near Hagia Sophia where our kick-boxer waiter, Josh, served us and gave us a piece of marbled paper he had made himself.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Ministry of Culture shop and bought a silver spoon as a baptismal present for Alexander Bakker, Jim’s latest god-son. His baptism will be this Sunday. From there we headed for the Museum of Mosaics just behind the Blue Mosque where the Great Palace had stood in the Byzantine era. Along the way we stopped to admire a large pilaf platter, beautifully painted. The shop owner came out and offered to sell it for 37 euros, too good a price to refuse. We took it, and the man wrapped it up in bubble wrap for us.

Then we walked to the Museum of Mosaics and admired the beautifully preserved mosaics that had graced the imperial palace. It was thanks to Harry and Lyn Isbell that we had put this on the “must see” list. Harry had written: “It’s amazing what can happen when good taste meets up with unlimited money. Though the mosaics are huge, as would befit an Imperator Deluxe, the museum and its capacity are quite small because one views them from a narrow catwalk built over and around the edges.”

We next walked to the nearby Time Out restaurant for talk with Ozgur over tea — he wanted to discuss his struggle with depression — and then walked back through the street market, where Jim bought prayer beads made of green stone (just over one euro). We went back to the hotel, then spent some time at the Marmara Café where we had apple tea, tried a water pipe (very cool and mild, with an apple flavor), and wrote postcards.

The day ended with dinner at Ali and Gabi’s home. The main dish was some delicious and spicy Hungarian goulash that Gabi had cooked herself. Ali’s business partner was there as well, and a young woman who is a friend of theirs and also works in the hotel business.

1 May, Bright Thursday

Jim’s day started with a long taxi drive to a post office building that handles packages — he had to pick up copies of his Albania book that had been sent by the World Council of Churches. Fortunately one of the hotel staff came with him to help or Jim would still be waiting at one of the many windows to obtain yet another stamp on yet another form. If this is a typical experience of Turkish bureaucracy, one feels immense compassion for the Turkish people. Apart from the time in the taxi, it took about an hour to receive the box of books. There was a 10-million lira payment to be made (about six euros), and the taxi fare coming and going was 20-million. All for eight copies of a book that we had hoped to have waiting for us at the hotel on arrival in Istanbul so that Shannon could take them back to Albania. Now the books will fly back with us to Holland. Mailing anything more substantial than a letter from Istanbul is out of the question.

We walked to the Spice Market where we purchased of Iranian saffron, sweet paprika, cardamon, sumak, dried apple (for making apple tea), and a pound of Turkish delight, then walked across the Galata Bridge, this time on the lower level, where which is filled with shops and fish restaurants. Rather than climb the hill on the other side we took the Tünel (one of Europe’s earliest subways), then took the tram to Taksim Square (full of police because of May Day demonstrations in the area). From there we walked back more or less the same route but with numerous detours, among them a nice visit to the Armenian Church — Holy Trinity — where we were given a warm welcome by a church official complete with tea. We had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Cicik Pasaji; stopped in at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop where we bought a Turkish-language Amsterdam guide book for Ali and Gabi (to make more real our invitation to them to come stay with us sometime in the future) and a copy of Hamlet for Ozgur. We had a first-rate cappuccino at the Pera Palas Hotel (built in 1892 to receive passengers of the Orient Express) but had no encounter with Agatha Chrystie or Graham Greene. It was at the Pera Palas in 1926 that Chrystie started writing Murder on the Orient Express.

We then went down hill on foot from the Galata Tower, walking back across the bridge but this time on the lower southern side, pausing occasionally to watch the many ferries and smaller boats and also admire the many fish restaurants.

Having been at the Pera Palas, we stopped briefly at the train station which is the departure point for the Orient Express, lately revived, Ali tells us. Then another walk through the Topkapi grounds followed by a brief pause at the Time Out Restaurant to give Ozgur his Hamlet. We had a cup of tea with Ali and Gabi on the Artemis roof, giving them both the Amsterdam guide book and Jim’s Albania book, then went out to supper with Ali and Gabi at the Asitane restaurant next to the Chora Church — at last they were our guests…

2 May, Bright Friday

We woke early and taxied to the ferry in time to catch the 9:15 ferry for passage to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The weather was sunny and cool, but it promised to be perfect weather for a day outdoors. We passed the three smaller islands and after about an hour and fifteen minutes got off at the largest — Buyukada — once a place of semi-imprisonment in Byzantine times for princes and princesses who had fallen out of the emperor’s good will. More recently Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, lived for five years in one of the island’s finest mansions — from Bolshevik terrorism to luxurious exile! There are at least two monasteries on the island.

We bought a map of the island at a shop on the quay as well as a cloth hat for Jim and stopped for cappuccino (not nearly Pera Palas quality). We decided to go to St. George’s Monastery in the south end of the island, going part of the way by horse-drawn carriage and walking the rest of the way. There are no cars permitted on the island, except for service vehicles like ambulances and police cars and a few small delivery trucks. The main road is filled with these horse-drawn carriages, quite colorful and fun. As we drove along we were passed by a carriage carrying four young people, the elderly driver tearing down the road and urging his horses on at a gallop. The kids in the carriage seemed delighted, but it was way too fast for such a road and such a vehicle. (A few hundred meters further we came upon an accident — the galloping carriage had lost a wheel, both horses were lying on their sides, the four kids were walking around dazed, and the driver had a gash on his cheek and looked very disoriented. Our driver stopped and helped get the horses up and pull the wrecked carriage out of the road. An ambulance soon arrived to take the driver away.)

St George monastery from the air

We passed many beautiful old wooden houses, some nicely restored, some showing signs of great wealth, some urgently in need of restoration. The island is covered with beautiful trees and seems almost Caribbean.

We finally arrived at the beginning of the road up to the monastery. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this is a long uphill climb on a cobblestone path. We started up and noticed that all along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches of bushes lining the pathway, and lots of thread running along the path. It reminded Jim of the prayer flags in Tibet. We saw this all the way up the mountain. We also came across a chain of marching caterpillars trying to cross the path, one after the other front to back, as if they were physically connected. Quite amazing.

The view was wonderful, and there were several places along the way where you could sit and rest. Finally we reached the top, but unfortunately the church was locked. We discovered a back corner of the monastery where many people had lit candles. When we arrived, some older Turkish women were there clearly at prayer, hands together, palms up — one of those instances where Muslims worship at Christian shrines. On one side of the monastery a large family gathering was underway around a long table. Behind the monastery we found a small café where we shared a bottle of beer and sat in the shade, admiring the scenery and resting. Then we walked to the place where the candles were — many were lit — and lit two ourselves, praying. Then we walked back down the hill and took another carriage back to the village.

image of St George on the side of the monastery

A member of the staff at the Artemis Hotel had told us to look for the Milano restaurant for lunch, and we found it — one of the several restaurants all lined up along the water’s edge running south from the boat dock. Sitting right on the waterside, we had an exceptional lunch of grilled bluefish. Then we walked around the village a bit, making our way to the boat landing, found an ice cream stand whose homemade product was astonishingly good, bought return tickets and took the 3:35 boat back to the city. It was 5:20 by the time we got back, and we walked to the hotel to rest.

At 8:00 Ali called us to let us know that he and Gabi were taking us to “Istanbul’s best restaurant.” We took a taxi to a kebab shop in Sultanahmet just a little way down the street from one of the city’s oldest mosques, where we were met by Ali’s partner, Metin Sidirtmac. To enter, you had to walk down a couple of steps. It was a single small room with a grill built into the wall. There was a counter and a table where the cooks — father and son — were preparing kebabs. Two round knee-high tables for provided for customers. We sat on little reed-seated stools. There were photos on the wall from the town where Ali grew up — Gaziantep — which was where the owner also came from. Jim told Ali if we had to find this place, looking only for Istanbul’s best restaurant, he would have walked past it several times without imagining this was it.

The cook was making kebabs on a charcoal oven in the wall. Ali told us he trims all the fat off the meat so it’s very lean, and took us outside to show us where the fatty scraps had been left for the street cats. The cook makes kebabs from lamb chunks and a kind of sausage meat, nicely spiced. In a few minutes he brought our meal to the table — a huge tray with long oval sheets of bread on the bottom, covered by the two kinds of kebabs plus grilled eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers. You tear off a piece of bread, arrange all these things inside, roll it up and eat it. Because you’re sitting so low, it’s easy to sort of hunker over your meal without too much mess. We drank ayran (the standard Turkish drink of yogurt, water and salt), which was perfect with the spicy food. There was also water at the table. The forks were plastic — there’s no place to wash dishes. The owner and his son were busy making more vegetables and kebab and a wonderful salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions with sumak sprinkled over them. He made this on a big thick chopping block that had been used so much it had a well in the center. His knife was a big cleaver. The atmosphere in the place was great.

Ali asked them to play a particular CD of a famous Turkish poet and singer — also from Gaziantep — who had recently died. One of the songs he was singing was a song demanding that America leave Turkey alone. The guys at the next table smiled at us, and we just smiled back, fully agreeing that the world has had more than enough empires.

After a huge meal we walked back to the hotel, passing Constantine’s Column on the way, 35 meters high, standing next to a tram stop. In the fourth century it was the pedestal — at the time even higher — of a large bronze statue of Constantine but this is long gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby and drank some wine, then Ali suggested we go up on the roof terrace. His partner brought a bottle of Hungarian wine — Black Bull — he had hidden away for a special event and we sat around a table under the stars, watching dozens of birds circle around the lights of the Blue Mosque, drinking wine and telling stories, until about 11:30. Our last night in Istanbul. Perfect.

3 May, Bright Saturday

After packing there was time to visit the Blue Mosque — we had walked past it time and again but never entered — followed by a final cup of tea at the Marmara Café. Then off in Ali’s car to the airport…

* * *

addendum re St George Monastery

http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/04/muslims-who-venerate-saint-george.html

April 12, 2011

Muslims Who Venerate Saint George

by William Gourlay / Eureka Street

On an island known to the Greeks as Prinkipo, Ayshe Özakcam spends six months of the year attending a small stall beside a steep cobbled path. She sells home-grown plums, and apples, which she peels and quarters deftly with a sharp knife, to pilgrims passing en route to the Orthodox Church of Ayios Giorgios (St George) on the summit of the island.

What is intriguing about this is not that Ayshe ekes out a living by selling apples, or that she sits all day in the full glare of the Mediterranean sun, but that she is a Muslim, that the island is off the coast of Istanbul, the great Turkish metropolis, and that the majority of visitors to the Orthodox church are in fact Ayshe’s fellow Turks.

Ayshe sees nothing remarkable in this. She doesn’t appear to dwell on the faith or motivations of those puffing past her up the hill. When I ask her who the most common visitors are here she can’t answer definitively. ‘Greek, Turks,’ she shrugs. ‘Everybody!’

On the day of my visit, in late summer, she may not be far wrong. On the island (called Büyükada by the Turks), I encounter well-healed Istanbul locals, Turkish matriarchs in headscarves and dour gabardines, a black-garbed Greek widow, and a gaggle of Iranian tourists who offer around pistachios.

But the busiest day of the year is St George’s Day, April 23, when Turks come by the thousands, taking advantage of the fact that the date coincides with a national public holiday, Independence Day. Crowding onto ferries in Istanbul, they arrive on Büyükada early in the morning, Muslim pilgrims en route to a Greek Orthodox church to ask favours of St George.

‘The path to the monastery is packed with bodies,’ recalls long-term Turkish resident and journalist Pat Yale of her visit on St George’s Day last year. A festive air reigns. At the base of the hill pilgrims buy charms and trinkets designated for whatever they may be praying for: health, love, marriage, children. ‘People unspool cotton along the lower slopes,’ says Pat, ‘and some hand out cubes of sugar.’

These are Muslim customs; cotton threads in white, red or green signify wishes for peace, love or money; the sharing of sugar and sweets is characteristic of Turkish hospitality and communal gaiety.

At the top of the hill pilgrims bustle forward to be allowed into the church in small groups where, with hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, they pass slowly before Greek icons and place handwritten entreaties to St George in a wish box. Outside again they form an orderly queue to be blessed by an Orthodox priest and then proceed on their way.

But aren’t the Greeks and Turks mortal enemies? Isn’t their mutual antagonism prima facie evidence of the ‘clash of civilisations’, the incompatibility of Muslim and Christian cultures? On the face of this, perhaps not. No one is sure when the Muslim practice of venerating St George began, but it is well documented.

In the early 1900s, Edith Durham encountered Albanian Sufis who observed St George’s feast day. In his much-lauded travelogue, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple tells of Palestinian Muslims crowding into a musty Church of St George near Jerusalem. These are just a few of countless instances of Muslim-Christian symbiosis throughout the Balkans and the Levant.

After enjoying one of Ayshe’s tart apples, I continue up the path towards the church, enjoying sweeping views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian and European shores of Istanbul. Along the route, remnant cotton threads linger on the trunks of scrubby oak and pine trees, and votive rags flutter from the branches of wild olives.

The church itself is not of architectural note, but it too offers panoramic views. Nearby the Turks have, perhaps inevitably, built a teahouse and restaurant. The site seems quintessentially Mediterranean to me, combining the Greek genius for building places of worship in remote locales with the Turkish predilection for tea and other such sedate pleasures in picturesque landscapes.

A Turkish teahouse abutting a Greek church, and Muslim pilgrims receiving blessing from Orthodox priests strike me as powerful evidence that civilisations do not inevitably clash, that where faiths meet the result need not be a tussle whereby one must cancel the other out. Through long interaction and mutual respect, cultures can fuse and meld, adopting and adapting from each other.

St George, the ‘warrior saint’, may be puzzled by all of this. Known for smiting the dragon he offered inspiration to belligerent Crusaders, but for countless years on Büyükada he has brought members of different faiths together. On April 23rd, as at many times during the year, their prayers in different languages will again intermingle and rise heavenwards.

* * *

Right Where I’m Standing

Nancy Forest (phot by Jim Forest)by Nancy Forest-Flier

I grew up in New Jersey in a family that was deeply rooted in the Reformed Church, a small main-stream Protestant denomination with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1950s,most of the members of our church were still children and grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. We went to church twice on Sunday, we all attended Sunday School and my parents were teachers, we rushed off to church again on Wednesday night after supper for “Family Night”which included catechism and choir practice, I was president of my Youth Fellowship and my parents were both youth group leaders. Our church was our spiritual and social center.

But for me, church was more than habit or social matrix or ethnic identity. It was a rich, Biblical, prayer-filled atmosphere which encouraged the asking of important questions. Like other churches, our church communicated its theology by means of certain phrases which contained essential truths and were easily taught and learned. Among them were “Ask Jesus to come into your heart,” “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” “We preach Christ crucified,” and “Christ died once and for all.” I found these phrases provocative, and I tried to learn what they meant. What does it mean, Jesus coming into your heart? What is a personal savior, and why “personal”? Was there another kind of savior besides “personal”? What does it mean, God loves you? What does “Jesus died for your sins” mean? What does it mean to be forgiven? Who am I and what am I supposed to do when I grow up? Who is God, anyway? And what does it mean that Jesus was his son? What does it mean to be saved? Saved from what?

I took these points of theology quite seriously, but I was puzzled by what they meant. If the church was throwing around words like “heaven,” “hell,” and “eternity,” then these questions were of vital importance, I reasoned. There must be good, understandable answers.

Of all the questions about religion that began to plague me as an adolescent, the one I remember that really had me stumped occurred during Sunday School, when our teacher, who was also the student minister, asked us, “Why do we go to church every Sunday?” To praise God? someone suggested. But you can do that anywhere, said the student minister. To be with other Christians? You don’t have to go to church on Sunday to do that, he said. To get re-charged, like a battery, I proposed. He just laughed. It seemed that every answer we offered was inadequate, and I really don’t remember coming up with any good one.

I continued to go to church each week, but there seemed less and less reason to be there. We were assured that no matter what we did, we would be saved by faith, not by “works.” We were made to feel especially nervous about signs of Phariseeism, of doing things in the hope that the action would somehow effect our salvation. In a Reformation backlash against Catholicism that was still burning after 400 years, we were taught that true religion occurred in your “heart” as opposed to your body. The things the body did — hand and body gestures, reciting written prayers, handling beads, eating bread and wine — were meaningless and even dangerous. There was a clear division made for us between body and soul, and the body and the soul could not participate together in worship. It was either one or the other, and God’s way was in the heart and the head.

So for me the Sunday church service came to be little more than a chance to hear a more-or-less instructive sermon. It was Bible study with some hymns and prayers. Fortunately, our minister was a charismatic, brilliant man, and we did learn a great deal about the Bible. But his successor, who stepped in when I was in high school, just couldn’t match his predecessor’s skill as a preacher. I couldn’t bear to listen to his sermons, which seemed to me silly at best, self-righteous and laden with anti-Catholic prejudice at worst. There didn’t seem to be much reason to go to church when the sermons were poor because the sermon was the center of the service. And there was a certain amount of irony in that discovery, because we had been taught that as Protestants we could confess our sins directly to God, unlike the Catholics who, we were taught, could only reach God through a priest. I realized that in a Protestant worship service, where the sermon is central, if the minister is unintelligent or mean-spirited it poisons everything in the service: the prayers, the singing, and certainly the sermon. At least Catholics had their Mass and their Eucharist, which remained the same regardless of the temperament of the priest.

But I had been raised in an atmosphere so thoroughly anti-Catholic and opposed to any sort of ritual (the phrase was always “empty ritual,” as though there were no other kind) that leaving the Reformed Church to become Catholic was something that didn’t even occur to me. I just lost interest.

It wasn’t that the Reformed Church was unable to justify itself adequately to me. I felt no anger toward the church, no deep disappointment. I think that if that had been the case I simply would have given up going to church, period. It was that the Reformed Church, God bless it, had made me aware of the Important Questions in life and instilled in me a deep hunger to answer those questions. That the Reformed Church’s own answers did not satisfy me didn’t matter all that much. I was grateful to have been set on a spiritual journey, grateful to have been taught how to pray, happy to have memorized so many Bible verses, and the books of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I figured I had been well-prepared, and I was ready to move on.

Then I had a vision. In retrospect I call it a vision because I truly believe that God sent it to me for a reason; that it was some supernatural interference intended to add something to my thought pool. It happened on a warm, beautiful spring afternoon. I was coming home from high school, the last lone student on the school bus. I stepped off the bus at my stop, a street corner in an altogether ordinary suburban New Jersey setting, and as the bus pulled away I felt something strange. It was as though I could feel the world as a globe, and I could feel it turning around. I sensed that I was a figure on that globe. I stood still and felt the steady movement of the world, around and around. It was as though I were at the uppermost point, a sort of pole, and the world was turning around on the axis on which I stood. It was such a real feeling that I had to steady myself to keep from falling over. Then I slowly turned around on my axis and gazed at what was visible from where I stood: the four houses on the four corners of the crossroad, the tall pine trees in all the front yards, the mailboxes. And I realized that there was nobody in the whole world who could see what I was seeing from my great height: not even famous people, not even the President or the Beatles, not even terribly rich people. It wasn’t that my view was so special, but I suddenly knew that it was entirely unique.

I remember going home and telling my mother, “Mom, I just felt like I was my own North Pole!” I could understand the vision no further than that at the time. But it has remained a fountain of understanding for me. The older I grew the more it revealed to me about myself, about other people, about God. I can say that this vision is the most important thing that happened to me in my life, and I am certain that it was a gift from God who could see that I needed something very big very fast.

In time I might have dismissed the vision as simply odd and adolescent, but I began reading about other people who have had the same experience. It’s been like finding out that other people have dreams about missing final exams, when you thought you were the only one. Not all these people were led into the Orthodox Church because of it, however.

I stayed in the Reformed Church and even went to a Reformed Church college, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. I must say that Hope is an excellent school; I say that even now. It isn’t like some church-related colleges that are related in name only, with no apparent religious connection affecting campus life. Neither is it a protective, xenophobic place where professors are all required to be members of the school’s denomination and students must sign conduct pledges. Chapel attendance at Hope was mandatory, and we had to take courses in Old and New Testament and a Senior Bible elective. But college life was exciting, vibrant and full. The first Catholic intellectual I ever met was my Chaucer professor at Hope. As she explained what Chaucer’s England must have been like, and what the English language was like which he spoke, we learned what the world must have been like before the Reformation.

I remember one anecdote she left with us: the word free, which to us today means the liberty to do whatever we please within limits without anybody telling us what to do, did not have that meaning hundreds of years ago. Free, she said, once meant “dear to the chief.” That is, it was a way of describing a feudal relationship. You were either free or you were a serf. You performed your duties either because there was a special bond of affection between you and your lord, or because you had economic ties with your lord which necessitated that you perform certain functions. The first relationship, that of the free man, involved commitment and love; the second was strictly survival. The ancient meaning of freedom implied dependence, commitment, and love; it never happened in isolation. [Endnote: Later in graduate school I did a language exercise on the word free . After studying it in the Oxford English Dictionary I discovered that the ancient and original Indo-European word which gave birth to free must have meant love or beloved. From this source, all sorts of cousin-words were born which still exist in different languages: words for love, beloved, dear, and friend. The English word friend is a sister-word of free.]

This was a powerful bit of news for me. It challenged two basic truths of Calvinism: that our salvation is a matter of predestination and not free will, and that we are saved on an individual basis. “The truth shall make you free,” I had learned. Freedom was an aspect of the Kingdom of God. But whereas I had understood this freedom to apply to myself alone as a saved person, this new idea of freedom implied that others were involved, that there was some kind of loving dynamism that took place in salvation.

This would have been simply an interesting academic exercise for me if it hadn’t been for that polar vision on the bus stop years before. I had been carrying the vision around with me since high school and it was still full of mystery. I was somehow convinced that that vision held an enormous truth, and I was determined to discover what it was. In the years after the vision happened, every time I considered it the unavoidable facts struck me: each one of us is ultimately alone, no matter who he is; and each person’s view of things is utterly unique. The challenge of free was that it seemed to fly in the face of facts: we are not ultimately alone. What could it mean?

When I thought about the vision at night, while lying by myself in the dark, it showed me its darkest, most frightening revelations: no matter how many friends we are able to gather around us, we are each going to die alone, we each must pass out of life entirely alone. And another: that each one of us has a unique view of the world and no two views are alike. It simply isn’t possible for two people to have entirely similar and compatible understandings of anything. This kind of thinking was dismal and depressing, but it was real, I felt, and it was true. I began to see that everything that entered my consciousness through my senses was unique and colored by who I was, where I had been, and what kinds of events, both planned and accidental, happened around me. I remember saying to myself, “I’m not learning history, I’m learning Nancy’s history; I’m not learning mathematics, I’m learning Nancy’s mathematics.”It would have led me to give up learning altogether if I wasn’t certain that every student — every person — who ever lived hadn’t existed in the same predicament. The possibility of real human contact seemed so bleak, so utterly preposterous.

Then I was introduced to another literary figure with a bit more information, the American poet Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens was a contemporary of Robert Frost, Carl Sandberg and William Carlos Williams. I remember a particular afternoon sitting in the library with a friend. I had chosen Stevens’s poetry as a term-paper topic, even though I knew almost nothing about his work. I opened my copy of his Collected Poems and began to read.

The first poem I read was the first in the book, “Earthy Anecdote.” It was short and simple, describing a scene of a cat around whom a herd of bucks were forced to run. The poem described the bucks “clattering, / . . . . . . . / in a swift, circular line / To the right, / Because of the firecat.” It was an odd, simple poem, and somehow it reminded me of my polar vision: the cat sitting still and everything else being forced to revolve around it “in a swift circular line.” I kept thumbing through the book and came to “Anecdote of the Jar.”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

When I read that poem I sat up in my chair. This man knew what my vision was all about! The lone individual (here a jar) with the random universe around it. But to Stevens, although the individual is indeed unique and alone (“Like nothing else in Tennessee”), because it just sits there within its circular vision and can take in everything around it, everything around it is “no longer wild”; everything begins to make sense.

By this time I was making not-very-quiet exclamations in the library and my friend was threatening to leave. In the following weeks I read many more of Stevens’s poems. For a term-paper I decided to write about Stevens’s long poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”That was more than twenty years ago, and I’ve forgotten whatever analysis I chose to pursue at the time. But I still recall that Stevens knew the polar vision, and he wrote about it. Stevens understood that each person is alone, each is unique and quite incapable of having more than a fragmented grasp of the world. But to each poor person, that jumbled mass of accidental things and events going on around him has a beauty, an organized, stunning beauty. There seems to be a sort of dynamic going on between the person standing there on his Pole and the world around him. He describes the Man with his Guitar:

He held the world upon his nose
And this-a-way he gave a fling.

His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi–
And that-a-way he twirled the thing.
Sombre as fir-trees, liquid cats
Moved in the grass without a sound.
They did not know the grass went round.

Now the opposition between my insulated, isolated polar experience and the exciting truth about free with its give-and-take began to weaken a bit. We may be utterly alone, but we are inconstant intercourse with the world around us; we make sense of it; we call it “beauty.”

The theology in all this was not clear to me then. It’s still only hazy to me now. But what is clear is that my spiritual journey, which had started with a few questions in Sunday School, had taken me to Wallace Stevens’s door.

I needed to return to church. Somehow the connection between existential questions and church had been firmly planted in me. I needed to be in a fertile place where these deepest question about the most basic human condition were at home, were ordinary table-talk. And because my vision had been such a physical one, I was desperate for a way of worshipping that was physical as well as intellectual. I wanted liturgy.

In the timid way in which many American Protestants make their move to a more liturgical kind of worship, I became an Episcopalian in my last year of college. The young priest at the local church was eager to help. In the Episcopal Church everything seemed optional, which was a good way for me to take up with liturgy for the first time. You could genuflect or not, cross yourself or not; the degree of “high church” that you adopted was up to you.

It was the form of the liturgy that attracted me. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. It appealed to my sense of English history, the way Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare did. It was stately English. And the words of the prayers could in no way be twisted or blunted by the state of mind of the priest.

My polar vision had taught me that one peculiarity of the human condition was the unique and fragmented viewpoint of each individual, no matter how intelligent. Somehow, having the words of worship all written down in a Book of Prayer elevated the worship, took it out of the hands of insufficient people, gave it a universality that was more trustworthy because it was not one single viewpoint. The Prayer Book, of course, was written by people, but there was something long-lasting and proven about it.

I did not become a deeply committed Episcopalian. I graduated from college and attended graduate school for one semester. Then I ran out of money, and I went home to New Jersey and hastily got myself married to a very young man who did not understand my spiritual struggle and seemed to have no interest in the Big Questions that kept me awake at night. I was suddenly drifting, my future hopes up for grabs.

I took a secretarial job at a religious peace organization nearby, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There I met a couple of people whose conversation soon revealed to me that the Big Questions were not just midnight snacks for neurotics. Tom Cornell and Jim Forest were the only Catholics on the staff of the mostly-Protestant FOR. They had been active all their adult lives in the social justice wing of Catholicism. Both of them had worked at the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Both were close friends with people, some of them priests, whose outspoken avowal of nonviolence and readiness to go to prison had made the headlines during the Vietnam War.

Jim Forest told me about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and friend of his who had died in1968. Merton had been a convert to Catholicism. After entering the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky he continued a life of writing. The body of his work, including journals, essays, and poems, is enormous. At Jim’s suggestion I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and it excited me. It wasn’t the string of pious platitudes I had come to expect from “Christian” autobiographies (most of the writing I had been exposed to in this genre was the evangelical Protestant variety, usually involving the sudden and miraculous conversion of a mafia thug or a Skid Row prostitute). Merton had been a bright, modern, cosmopolitan intellectual who had been hounded by the Big Questions until he had no choice but to pay very close attention to them.

I read more of Merton’s writings. What fascinated me were his explanations (in many forms — essays and poems) of one’s true identity, of who a person really is deep inside, in the center. My pondering over the polar vision kept me thinking about this very problem. If I stand on some kind of pole, with longitudinal lines emanating from me and encircling the globe, then those lines must start at some very central point within me. That which is not-me is everything outside that minute central point: my body, my clothing, my surroundings. I must have discovered the existence of my own soul. I must have realized that even when I die, when the not-me is lifeless and gone, that brilliant, living center of light will keep on living.

But what was it? Was it just some little essential version of me? I remembered turning around and around, seeing the suburban homes and the pine trees. Was everything in my life simply there by accident, for me to pick and choose from, or to swallow as gracefully as I could? Was every idea that I grabbed for to explain all this random stuff just that — a convenient idea? Was God no more than a convenient idea? And Jesus? And the whole body of Christian dogma? Could I just shrug if it bored me and turn back to my pure, solitary self?

I began to see myself as a kind of onion with layer upon layer of tissue enclosing not very much at the center. I read in Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they a real destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), pp. 34-34.]

Merton wrote that at one’s very center is God himself, who “utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself.” This was a great awakening for me. In all my years as a church-going Christian, I had never thought of God as something literally “within” me. Now, with this realization, the still-unanswered questions from my childhood, the polar vision on the bus stop, and the puzzle of freedom all seemed to come together. We are not alone. We are never alone; we cannot be. And “God” is not something “out there,” something we first affirm and believe in, the product of our thought. The first act is God’s within us. God “utters us.” We are couched, cradled within his mercy.

To be free is to assent to God who is the deepest, truest, most central part of us. It is, as my Chaucer professor had told us, to be “dear to the chief,” to be loved by God and in turn freely to give one’s devotion to God. I kept thinking of the bus stop, of what it felt like to stand there and feel so central and alone. The North Pole. All lines of longitude emanating from your feet, crossing each other at one single point at your very center. And at that single point, at your very center, is where God, deep inside you, evokes life in you, generates an endless spring of love and mercy for you.

Finally I knew that what had happened to me on that bus stop was a vision indeed: it Was God’s way of showing me what it felt like to be free, to be loved and touched by grace. I knew that this experience was something I could hold up to every experience of worship I could have, that it would help guide me to a way of worshipping that was true.

I realized that most people, most of the time, don’t choose to stand at that center point. Although it’s hard to avoid being where you are physically, most people most of the time want to be elsewhere. Most people imagine that life would be better and they would be happier if only they were out there somewhere, not at the top of the world, not on this lonely North Pole. If only they were wealthier, healthier, better-looking, married to someone else, someone else’s child, living somewhere else, better-educated, more confident, more graceful, more self-assertive; if only it were yesterday, or tomorrow, or in a few years when the children are grown; if only there were a different government, or a different president, or a different social system. Then life would be wonderful; it would be Paradise; it would be “Heaven.”

For me, as a teenager and young adult, the temptations were certainly there. I had struggled with severe acne for many years. I tended to be lonely and painfully shy. My parents were classic non-communicators, unable to talk to me about problems or pain. If only, I thought. If only I were prettier. If only I were more self-confident. If only my parents were more open to me and more helpful. If only I had been born years earlier so that I wasn’t one of the Baby Boomers who were glutting the graduate schools and deflating the value of graduate degrees. The blinding truth of that bus stop experience was all the more startling because of the desperation with which I longed to be different. But, the polar vision had taught me, the Kingdom of God is here right now, within you. To wish to be elsewhere is sin; it is slavery to a false hope. There is no freedom in it.

This heady stuff came at me all at once. I tried to share it with my husband, but he didn’t seem interested and couldn’t quite understand what the big deal was all about. Realizing that Merton had been a Catholic, I began attending a local Catholic church and started an instruction class with the church’s priest. The priest was not a terribly bright teacher, and he had many of his facts wrong (especially those about Protestantism), but I was so convinced of the truth of Catholicism that I was willing to dismiss his mistakes. I was received into the Catholic Church in 1979.

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what I can see now, is that I was looking for the right way to worship. I was looking for Orthodoxy, which literally means the right way to give praise. But I didn’t know anything about Orthodoxy at the time. I had never met an Orthodox Christian, knew absolutely nothing about the Orthodox Church. I had heard of Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, but I figured these were exotic and oriental forms of Christianity that could only be appreciated by Greeks and Russians. In truth, I never gave Orthodoxy a thought.

But now I can see a fairly direct line between the polar vision on the bus stop and my entry into the Catholic church. God had arrested my attention in a startling, physical way. I wanted to meet God again in the same way, in a physical way, standing so that the things around me were organized around me, not tempting me with other flashy false centers that seemed like another, better reality. When I took Communion in the Catholic church, it was an affirmation of God’s life within me. Yes, the church said, God is really deep inside you. In his extraordinary mercy and humility and love, God takes up residence inside.

And this is how I began to learn about the Mother of God. Mary is nothing more than an historical figure in Calvinist teaching, and I was always deeply suspicious of the Catholic regard for Mary when I was a child. Yet the Mary I came to love became real to me when I realized that we are all God-bearers, but deeply, mortally flawed. Mary bore God in a profound, physical way and with perfect obedience.

I attended the local Catholic church faithfully although I found the worship a bit cloying. I went to receive Communion. This was the single link with the polar vision that I held fast to each Sunday. I tried to ignore the music, which I found distracting. It seemed like an unsuccessful attempt to be modern, relevant, to get people’s attention. The songs the choir sang from “Godspell,” and the other contemporary religious music, were jarring to me. The hymns that the jolly deacon encouraged everybody to sing were silly and embarrassing.

At this point I changed jobs, leaving the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where I had worked on the organization’s magazine staff as typesetter, to take a position in a small graphics and typesetting shop in a nearby town. Typesetting fascinated me, and I wanted to really learn the craft completely. The shop was owned by an Orthodox Jewish family. It was my first encounter with orthodoxy of any kind, and I must say that the extent of my appreciation of Orthodox Judaism had a great deal to do with my eventually becoming an Orthodox Christian. I had never met a family like this before: their religion touched and affected almost every aspect of their lives. Their fasting, their feasting, the mezuzahs fixed to the doorways throughout the shop, everything seemed to float on an undercurrent of faith, seemed to be rinsed and sweetened by faith. I made friends with the couple and they showed me their kosher kitchen, told me about Jewish holidays and beliefs. I began to yearn for that kind of faith: a serious faith that wasn’t timid about advancing into every corner of your life and laying claim to it. But I didn’t know of any sort of Christianity, except for some groups like the Amish, which did this.

So I continued to attend the Catholic church. About two years after I became a Catholic, my marriage fell apart. It died of an absence of care and respect, it died of immaturity and selfishness, of hopelessly divergent interests. There was one child from that marriage, Caitlan, a little girl then five years old. And i one of those crazy twists that life sometimes takes, in a story that a fiction-writer would never touch because it sounds so improbable, I ended up marrying my old friend Jim Forest who had first told me about Thomas Merton.

Jim was in Europe at the time, in the Netherlands, where he had been living for five years. We had been keeping up a friendly correspondence, writing about books we were reading and about our spiritual journeys. His own marriage had disintegrated. Finally at the end of 1981 we decided to marry. So on Easter Monday in 1982, Caitlan and I boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam and we moved to Jim’s house in Alkmaar, where we have been living ever since.

It was extraordinary living with someone with whom I could pray. It hardly seemed possible, after living for so many years in a spiritually empty marriage. I was eager to begin sharing my spiritual journey with Jim and I began attending church with him. This was the start of a valiant search for a church-home in Holland, during which time we learned a great deal about the state of Christianity in western Europe.

My polar vision was tucked neatly into my heart, still as warm and alive as the day it happened. It had grown up a bit; it was incubating and maturing. It had been enriched by Thomas Merton and Catholicism and my Orthodox Jewish friends. I still regarded it as the spiritual yardstick against which I could measure my attempts at worship.

At first, I accompanied Jim to the Catholic church he attended, Pius X. It was a modern building in a new section of Alkmaar, and it was filled every Sunday with young families. The church had two large children’s choirs, one for youngsters and one for teenagers. It had an active group of lay parishioners who worked hard to make each Mass interesting and relevant to current social problems. The songbook we sang from consisted of popular melodies with Dutch texts, most of them faintly religious with a strong slant toward active social concern. The things I had become familiar with in the American Catholic Church were absent there: the holy water fonts at the church entrance were dry, there were no kneelers and no kneeling, the Host was kept in an inconspicuous side chapel, there were no confessionals and no evidence of confession. And Mass was quite different, too. Every aspect of the service was meant to encourage active concern for the Third World, the poor, guest workers, the handicapped, minorities. It was an admirable effort, but for me it had little to do with real worship and communion. The unspoken basis for the church’s direction seemed to be a belief that in order for justice to be done in the world, it had to be specifically fostered during Mass; the dark side of this was an implicit fear that a purely “religious” Mass by its very nature neglected the need for justice.

We decided to switch parishes, so we began attending a church near our house right across the canal. We went faithfully to St. Joseph’s almost two years. It was a much more traditional place, with much of the Mass still in Latin and a less experimental approach to worship. But there were no young families in the congregation, no children. It seemed to be a gathering place for older Catholics whose obligation-minded practice of Mass-attendance had been formed well before the Second Vatican Council. No one ever spoke to us. After awhile we left to continue our search.

At St. Laurence Church, another nearby parish, the Masses were more of the same, so we decided to join the choir. At least, we thought, we might feel some sense of acceptance, feel some proximity to the”action,” if we were actually closer to the altar and singing the Mass. We were clearly the youngest people in the choir, and during the choir practice coffee break we listened to the older members talk nostalgically about the “old days” when the fasts were kept and people went to confession.

I hesitate to use our limited experience of church-searching to evaluate the state of Christianity in western Europe, but I’m not encouraged by anything else I’ve seen. Last Easter we listened to a program on the BBC is which it was revealed that some 60% of Britons responding to a poll didn’t know what event Easter was supposed to be celebrating. A friend of ours, Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who lived and taught in the United States for many years, returned to his home in the south of the Netherlands for a family visit and went to see an old priest there who was known as a great confessor years ago. Our friend asked the old priest to hear his confession. The old priest was deeply touched and said, “You know, no one has come to me for confession in seven years.” Another friend, who lives here and is active in Pax Christi, wanted to organize a staff retreat for contemplation, recollection, and spiritual renewal. The retreat was finally planned, but the rest of the staff insisted that it be organized around “relevant topics” such as hunger and oppression in the Third World or inclusive language in the liturgy. No one wanted to come together for prayer.

In the meantime, people are suffering from a kind of spiritual anemia which cannot be touched by broad programs for social development or progressive ideology. The state of the parish Catholic church was so deeply disturbing that we didn’t really know where to turn. Our older children (Jim had three children by his former marriage who all lived nearby) had soured on church entirely. Then something happened that signaled the beginning of a new life for us: Jim had a sabbatical coming up and we decided to spend it in Jerusalem. He was asked by the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, situated on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to teach a three-month course in peacemaking. We were able to go as a family, which meant both Caitlan, then eight years old, and our youngest child, Anne, who was less than two at the time.

It was in Jerusalem that I first encountered Orthodoxy. It was extraordinarily exotic to me at first, all those icons and incense and chanting, all those monks in black with their various kinds of headdress. I never made many inquiries into Orthodoxy while I was in Jerusalem. I just took in the outward impressions. We visited the monastery of Mar Saba in the Jordan valley where, I later learned, St. John of Damascus took refuge. I saw the hermits’ caves peppering the cliff sides in the wilderness. We were befriended by a leader from Jerusalem’s Armenian community and attended a liturgy in the beautiful, ancient Orthodox church of St. James. But I also visited many Catholic churches that were spiritually powerful places. One of my favorites was the Church of St. Anne.

At the end of our stay in Jerusalem we rented a car and drove around Galilee, visiting all the holy places around Lake Tiberias. One afternoon our route took us to Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration. We drove up the steep, narrow road to the church at the top of the mountain, parked, and went inside. Like so many of the churches built on the holy sites, this one was awesome in its dimensions and decoration. But one interesting aspect of this particular church caught my attention: a round circle laid in the stonework floor in the center of the church, with an X transecting it. I went up to this circle and stood in the center of the X, and suddenly it happened again: the polar vision, the unmistakable brush with pure reality. Only this time I found myself standing not on my New Jersey bus stop but on the Pole of Poles: the place where the Lord himself had been transfigured before his disciples.

Of course, the X had been laid in the floor to indicate the place of the Transfiguration. But when I stood there myself and the whole earth fell away from me on all sides, I was able to draw some unavoidable conclusions: that as Merton had said, the very center of the human individual is God, and that we are so confused and distracted by sin that we are almost never able to be there, where we should be, where we are truly ourselves, where God is. If that were possible, we would be transfigured, too. We would shine like the sun.

Shaken, I joined the rest of the family and we left the church.

I left Israel with little more interest in Orthodoxy than when we had arrived, but among the items we carried back to Holland with us was our first icon. Jim had spotted it in one of those little shops inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. It was quite small, a hand-painted icon of the Mother of God with the child Jesus in her arms, and it was almost hidden amidst all the other bits of antiquity, coffee urns, and jewelry displayed in the shop window. The owner, whose bottle of Jack Daniels was already open by 10:00 a.m. and whose interest in the real value of the things in his shop was minimal, said he’d sell it to us for $100. For us $100 was a considerable amount of money, so we let the icon sit in the shop while we went back to our apartment at the Institute to think it over. It was more than just a souvenir, but what it was and why it seemed to have attached itself to us was mysterious. Finally we decided to buy it. We brought it back and set it on our apartment book-shelf. A Melkite priest we had met at the Institute examined the icon and guessed it was several centuries old and had probably been brought to Jerusalem by a 19th-century Russian pilgrim.

We brought the icon home with us and hung it over the mantle. Then we set a little oil lamp in front of it. Then we began praying together before it, using all sorts of prayers: Catholic prayers from our breviaries, Jewish prayers from a Jewish prayer-book we had picked up in Jerusalem. We set other icons around our Mother of God: a copy of the Rublev Holy Trinity, given to us by a friend as a wedding present. A tiny icon of Joachim and Anne embracing each other which we had bought from the Little Sisters of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. There were other things that we arranged on the mantle around the oil lamp: some acorns from the Oak of Mamre in Hebron, the old Dutch family Bible that my great-grandparents had brought with them when they emigrated from Holland to America. Our “icon corner” was taking shape, and we weren’t even Orthodox yet!

But it wasn’t long. Jim, who was working as the General Secretary of the International fellowship of Reconciliation, had developed a strong interest in the Russian Orthodox Church after having visited Moscow with religious and peace movement representatives. He began working on his first book about the Russian Church and was invited to visit the USSR and begin research. He made several trips to work on the book, and each time he brought home dozens of books and stories about Orthodox fasting and prayer, about the Liturgy, about the powerful spirituality he found in Russian churches.

In the summer of 1987 I was able to accompany Jim on a two-week trip to Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, and Brest. Finally, I was to attend a Russian Orthodox Liturgy myself. On the first Sunday we were in Moscow and, being careful to dress appropriately and cover my head, I walked with Jim up the steps of the church of Our Lady of Tikhvin. Beggars lined the outer steps, extending their hands, and parishioners carefully placed money in the outstretched palms. I felt as though I had been transplanted into a Dostoevsky novel.

We went inside. It was a small church, and there weren’t very many people there that day. An old nun dressed in black from head to foot was standing at the front of the church, attending the candles that were being placed before the icons. A young mother came in with her little girl and stood in front of us. When the little girl became restless from standing, the old nun offered her a little chair. But the child just clung to her mother’s legs and finally sat on the floor next to her. How wonderful, I thought, that children can just sit on the floor here.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around the woman behind me handed me a piece of paper. Jim told me to give it to the old nun, which I did, and she in turn gave it to a deacon. Later I learned that it had prayer requests written on it for the priest to read off during the Liturgy.

I don’t remember much about the Liturgy because I didn’t understand it at all and I had no groundings. But I do recall the spiritual atmosphere in that church, the intense, serious, profound power that wrapped itself around me. There were no silly religious songs or frivolous attempts to keep the parishioners interested. There seemed to be a basic difference between this kind of worship and all the rest I had ever known: the services in the west were like religious presentations in which the clergy, with or without a “worship committee,” would put together a service with songs and readings and sermons, hoping to keep the people’s attention. It was common to walk out of a church saying, “That was a great Mass!” It was almost like entertainment, like a show. All the action was done by certain actors: the priest or minister, the choir, the readers. You sat in your place and watched. But in that Orthodox church, I felt that every person had a role to play, parishioner and priest alike. There didn’t seem to be an attempt to keep people’s attention by trying to be “relevant” or “amusing.” Once you stepped into the church you were part of a great drama, you stood and acted out your part. You kissed icons, lit candles, bowed, prostrated yourself, crossed yourself. The act of worship suddenly became comprehensible to me. That old question from my Reformed Church Sunday School, “Why do we go to church?” was answered in the Orthodox Liturgy. Because this truly was an act of worship; it was everyone involved in a drama.

There were many visits to Orthodox churches during those two weeks. During one visit I remember going into a church at a time when a Liturgy was not occurring. We walked around the interior with the member of the church council as he told us about the icons and the history of the church. Then, finding myself in the center of the church, I happened to look directly over me and saw a great icon overhead: Christ in glory, painted within a vast circle. As I stood there, trying to understand this amazing place, I was reminded of the church on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Right in the center: Christ himself. And it all clicked: this place was made for worship. I turned slowly around, as I had turned around on that sunny afternoon on the New Jersey bus stop. But instead of pine trees and suburban houses, there were icons of the saints. Some of the saints I knew, many I didn’t, but they all stood there, solemnly facing me.

I knew nothing about icons then. I didn’t know what they meant, how they fit into the Orthodox theological framework; I didn’t know the history of iconography or the stories of certain great iconographers. I didn’t know how icons are “written,” or how the icon painter has to prepare himself. All I knew was that Christ was with me as I stood there at the top of the world, and all the saints stood around me. It was not the “slovenly wilderness” that Wallace Stevens had sensed with his lonely jar on the hill. It was a universe made beautiful not by the beholder but by God, whose love carried forth in the lives of the saints had been witnessed to for centuries in the life of the church. (I learned some time later that Wallace Stevens, about whom I knew very little, had become a Catholic on his deathbed.)

The action during the Orthodox liturgy was not dependent on the charism of the minister or the priest; it was the lively witness of all the saints, of each believer standing on his particular pole, of the priest and the deacons, of all the community in prayer together.

We returned home in the summer of 1987, both of us deeply affected by our time in the Russian churches. Then in January of 1988 Jim was invited to attend the opening celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia. It was to be held at the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicolas of Myra in Amsterdam. We both decided to go, wondering if the intense spiritual power of the churches of Russia could ever find a mirror in the spiritually impoverished west.

It was not a Liturgy, but there was music and prayers. We stood in the tiny chapel that served as the Russian Orthodox Church. It was crowded with parishioners and guests and representatives of all the Christian communities in the area. Afterward we went to the parish house for a social time, and much to our astonishment, members of the parish came up to us, greeted us, expressed interest in who we were, and invited us to return. It was the first time any Dutch church had been so kind and hospitable to us.

We decided to attend a Liturgy, which was quite an undertaking since we live about 25 miles from Amsterdam and we have no car. But the train system in Holland in superb, and we found that the trip by train and tram was quite simple.

We brought Anne with us. The older children had been so turned off by church that it was quite impossible to talk them into coming with along. (We still pray that some day they may be willing to join us.) To our astonishment and joy, the Liturgy was just as powerful and beautiful as we had found it in Russia. We decided to try to return every other week (we were still singing in the choir at our local Catholic church). But after one week back at the Catholic church, which seemed like thin soup compared to the rich feast of Orthodoxy, we realized we had to make a break. We left the Catholic church choir and began the weekly trek into Amsterdam, which we’ve been doing now for more than four years.

That was in January, 1988. On Palm Sunday Jim was received into the Orthodox Church. I needed a bit more time, but not much. I was received on Pentecost.

I am aware that it is a Protestant habit to evaluate one’s choices and experiences from a purely individual standpoint, and that I am in danger of evaluating my journey to Orthodoxy in a Protestant way. In other words, I can look at my journey as a slow working out of a unique experience which happened to me, with my “discovery” of Orthodoxy as the resolution of it all. There is the danger that I might use my own rather primitive experience to validate the Orthodox Church, to say “It feels right to me, so it must be true.”

I admit that at first this was true. The Orthodox Church felt right to me because I could lay my own experience over it and everything seemed to line up. I think the basic truth of my polar experience was that we can only see and judge everything from our own extremely limited situation, and therefore we run the risk of putting everything — even God and the church — together into the collection of things “out there” along with the pine trees and suburban houses. But somehow (and this is the mysterious part of it all) God used this experience to lead me into a new kind of understanding. Although I may stand at this dizzying height (and for me it was dizzying indeed), under the impression that everything is subject to my whim and judgment, it is God who is at the center. And I must struggle to unite myself with God who is the center of my self, and so to continue viewing the world around me.

There have been many words coming to me to describe my journey so far, but few to adequately express where I am now. I am learning to listen and to pray. I am learning what it means to worship (the old Sunday School question about the reason for going to church is no longer so obscure). I am praying for humility, for a penitential spirit, for the spirit of forgiveness. And I am overcome by the knowledge that God in his mercy has shown me his home at the center of the world.

from Toward the Authentic Church edited by Thomas Doulis (Light & Life Books, Minneapolis, MN)

Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw’s recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter issue of The Merton Seasonal.

Jim

* * *

Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: “Other people’s bad books get published,” he noted in his journal. “Why can’t my bad book get published?” Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton’s life who is unaware of Mark Shaw’s headline news? Soon after Merton’s death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton’s journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only “watered down” terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, “the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.” (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic “poster boy.” (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of “a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton’s abbot when he wrote the book], Merton’s literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton’s true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not ‘that bad’ a sinner.” (21)

Thus the book’s title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees “holiness” as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer “a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him.” (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw’s book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book’s last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case “the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani.” [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton’s life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin,” as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England,” Merton wrote, “into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a “slow and majestic progress of … myths and symbols.” It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton’s basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton’s renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, Merton’s finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton’s did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn’t make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial “M,” as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw’s book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.