The most frequent comment made by those who have come on the Early Christian World Pilgrimage to Turkey over the past six years is that it was a "life-changing experience."
|Recently discovered fourth-century fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla in the "Grotto of Paul" in Ephesus. (Thecla is barely visible on the left; her mother, Theokleia, objecting to Paul's preaaching, is on the right.)|
How did they find it life changing? For most it was a journey of understanding. The kind of understanding that pulls together impressions and information from a variety of experiences, and generates a new perspective. The kind of understanding that comes from building new and lasting friendships with people from different backgrounds. A new perspective on life and living -- in many dimensions.
For a Catholic, or a Christian of any tradition, it's a journey into our past, into our heritage. We come in contact with the great people who have lived and believed before us by exploring the remnants of the places where they lived and the event of their lives and our history unfolded. Well-known places like Ephesus, Tarsus, Antioch, Cappadocia, and Constantinople / Istanbul. Not-so-well-known places like Nicaea, Pergamon, Sardis, Hierapolis, Aphrodisias, and Galatia. Even a place like Çatal Höyük, excavations of a 9,000-year-old neolithic village, have special meaning for us, as you will discover.
We also drink deeply of the heritage of the Christian East, virtually unknown and almost totally unappreciated by Western Christians, including most Catholics. This heritage is still embodied in the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as the many Eastern Rite churches that are in union with Rome. In learning their past, we are discovering ours as well.
It has been said that one cannot understand another until one understands oneself. Aydın Eroğlu, our Pilgrimage tour guide, himself a devout Muslim, frequently laments that most Muslims "do not know the Qur'an"; and this faulty understanding leads them to pick and choose verses out of context to justify their own interests. This really speaks to me because most Christians, including Catholics, do not know the depth and breadth of our own faith and tradition well enough to really understand ourselves in order to relate realistically to those who may disagree or come from a different tradition.
Understanding where we come from, our history and our heritage, is necessary for self-understanding now. We can't know ourselves in a vacuum that excludes the foundations laid in the past upon which our present is built. As necessary as this self-understanding is to understand the other, it is but half the picture.
The other, very necessary component of understanding the other is to actually put oneself in the place of the other, to experience, at least in some way, reality as the other experiences it. Stereotypes are superficial images that are created by looking selectively at only certain parts of the picture. This is why I insist that exposure to the history and present-day faith and practice of Islam, in all its diversity, is an integral part of this Catholic Pilgrimage. To be truly Catholic, we need the whole picture.
I am often asked the question, why Turkey? First of all, if you want to go to the Holy Land, or Rome, or other pilgrimage shrines, there are many good opportunities readily available. However, it's almost impossible to find anyone doing what I am doing the way I am doing it. The Early Christian World Pilgrimage is unique in its scope and purpose. Others, especially Evangelical Protestant groups, concentrate on "the Footsteps of St. Paul" or "the Seven Churches of Revelation" as if that's all the Christianity Turkey had to offer. The formative history of the entire Christian faith focused on this land, now called Turkey, but historically known as Anatolia or Asia Minor. We drink deeply from the deep waters of this heritage. I firmly believe Turkey can claim the title, "the Other Holy Land."
Admittedly, the length (20 days) and the time of year (always right after Easter) present obstacles for many people. For some, it may be simply impossible. For many others, however, I think the obstacles and inconvenience can be overcome by prioritizing and planning. I often emphasize that this is not a vacation or a tour. It is a Pilgrimage: a journey to a far place whose goal is to touch the Sacred, and to return to one's ordinary life changed and renewed. Yes, a Pilgrimage requires some degree of sacrifice.
Why so long? We simply cannot do justice to it in less time. I've experimented with variations on details of the itinerary -- trimming here and adding there. What we have now covers the basics.
Why after Easter? It's a very problematic time, especially for teachers and religious educators. Yet it's the only time to go. The weather is wonderful; the countryside is glorious; and, best of all, we are not fighting hordes of tourists. Tulips, the national flower of Turkey, are in full bloom. Any other time would significantly degrade the experience. Historically, Easter is Pilgrimage Time -- it's the time Chaucer's Pilgrims were making their way to Canterbury.
I really want to make this Pilgrimage possible for Catholic School teachers. I realize it's a very difficult time for them and their schools. There are special incentives for Catholic School teachers and their schools to help make this experience not only possible, even though it means being away for ten school days, but a real benefit for their students and families as well.
A word about age and health. If your health is reasonably good and if you can get around reasonably well without great difficulty, there is no reason why you shouldn't come. Special dietary needs can usually be accommodated. There is a lot of walking, sometimes on rough ground and hilly terrain, and a lot of standing, especially in museums. A rule of thumb: if you can walk around your neighborhood at a moderate pace for a half hour without too much discomfort, you should not have any problems keeping up on the Pilgrimage. We have had several spry octogenarians in the past, some of whom came more than once.
A Pilgrimage always involves sacrifice. I can name nearly 100 people -- those who have made this journey with me over the past five years -- who will with one voice affirm without hesitation that this Pilgrimage is worth the sacrifice. See and hear some of them on the "Testimonies" page.