Posted November 09, 2009:
Encounter with the Saints in Turkey

by Bonnie Staib.

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1). Recently I met this cloud of witnesses in a deep and powerful way.

Last May, in the Year of St. Paul, Mary Kay Rowland and I were able to fulfil a dream: to go to Turkey and follow in the footsteps of St. Paul.

With great anticipation we looked forward to meeting him more fully on our journey, but Paul, apostle extraordinaire, had much more in store for us than that.

Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles—he who evangelized our ancestors—introduced us to many more early Church saints than we could have imagined. Some we could name; many others we simply met in silence and awe.

First Paul. I met him in Antioch, where he preached to those gathered in the grotto church, to the Jews in the synagogues, and to the Greeks on the streets. There in the city where the followers of Christ were first called Christians, and again in Ephesus, we were impressed by how multi-cultural and large were the cities in which Paul lived.

Then I discovered him more deeply as we travelled the diverse and rugged Turkish landscape. We travelled much of his route by midi-bus and by plane, and our days were long and demanding. Paul, on the other hand, walked it! And it is estimated that he walked more than 10,000 miles, the bulk of it in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey!

The scripture reading, I consider the sufferings of the present to be as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us (Rom 8:18) took on more meaning for me as I realized how physically demanding those journeys must have been. I pray that passage now with much more impact on my own life.

Paul goes on in Romans 8: For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Paul passionately preached this certainty throughout Asia Minor, and the early Church which he helped found flourished. I saw the fruit of his passion.

As we traveled north from the Mediterranean, we met one of the first women hermits and martyrs of our faith: Thecla, a young woman whom tradition tells us came from a wealthy family.

She heard Paul preach and begged to follow him. Then though he discouraged her from doing so, she cut her hair, dressed as a boy, and became a disciple.

We entered her simple cave: a few tunnels and a central room where there is now an altar with an icon of her. The cave oozed of the holy—the holiness of her life and of her followers and of those who have come for centuries and continue to come on pilgrimage.

We tasted in that cave what we would discover more and more on our own pilgrimage: the holy, the cloud of witnesses, the saints of the early Church.

An hour later we were up a mountain, nearing the pass. There we stopped at the extensive ruins of a fifth century Byzantine monastery—Alahan Monastery. We saw the baptistry, the sleeping areas, the church, the necropolis (with sarcophagi where the dead were buried in cross-etched stone).

This place, too was holy—steeped in the holiness of our ancestors in the faith who lived and prayed here, interceding for their time. We too, prayed there, for our time.

That evening we entered another world: Cappadocia. To us, it first resembled the American Southwest—the area near the Grand Canyon and in southern Utah. Indeed the wind-eroded hills and "fairy chimneys" were somewhat similar but more extensive.

Here too we discovered the holy. More than a thousand cave churches dot the hills and valleys—caves where Christians hid and continued to live their faith during the persecutions. Later too they worshiped there, using icons during the time of the Iconoclastic Heresy, when holy images were being destroyed.

In these cave churches amazing icon frescos remain on the walls, as do earlier ochre-painted crosses and Christian symbols. We prayed in these churches where centuries before us our ancestors, who suffered and died for their faith, had also prayed.

Elsewhere, underground villages whose tunnels were so wide-spread that 20-30,000 Christians were able to hide and live in them for months, also touched our hearts and united us to the Body of Christ in awesome ways.

At Nicea we stood on the remains of the council chambers where our Nicene Creed was first proclaimed, and we prayed the Creed together.

In the extensive ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus we remembered that it was here that the ecumenical council of 431 declared Our Lady the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

In modern day Izmir we visited St. Polycarp’s beautiful church and heard the words to the Church of Smyrna found in Revelations 2: I know of your tribulation and your poverty. Have no fear of the sufferings to come. Remain faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.

There we prayed for modern-day Christians suffering for their faith and for all of us that we may persevere in gospel choices.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzan, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. John Chrystostom—the Church Fathers whose writings we read often in the Liturgy of the Hours: this was their land as well as the land of so many lesser known saints and martyrs. We were immersed in a land made holy by their lives.

Our pilgrimage in Turkey, which is called "the second Holy Land," took us on a journey into the heart of the Body of Christ. Encountering these holy saints who formed our faith gave me courage and perseverance to run the race now set before me.

The men and women of Antioch, of the Alahan Monastery of Mut, of the Caves of Cappadocia—men and women whose names I do not know—lived and suffered for their faith that I may live mine. Others after me will also be able to live their faith better because I choose to follow Jesus Christ today and tomorrow and the next day.

Yes, this November I will celebrate the mystery of the Body of Christ with a new conviction. I encountered the holy in Turkey and I am deeply changed.


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