Friday, June 5, 2015


The last several days have been an exhausting rush. There has been neither time nor energy to report, and now there is too much to say. But our time of education and pilgrimage came to an end today. Tomorrow we head out for a few days on the water assimilating what we have experienced in sensory and information overload that was like drinking from a fire hydrant.

We have been mostly in Istanbul recently. We visited the famous Blue Mosque, where I felt like the secularists who did not truly get the Basilica of St. John outside Ephesus. I respect the spirit of the mosque and I love the poetry of Islamic mystics, but I knew I basically did not get it. That was a good experience for me because it helps me understand how secularists must experience us.

We visited the Hagia Sophia with our St. George’s College class; then visited the Hagia Irene on our own today. Legend has it that St. Andrew brought Christianity here in 38 CE.  In the early 4th Century, Constantine the Great built Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) and built or greatly expanded Holy Peace (Hagia Irene) along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the original St. Peter’s in Rome. Justinian came along in the 6th Century with a massive building campaign, which expanded the Hagia Sophia to its impressive dimensions, so that he could ride into church on a chariot and proclaim, “Solomon, I have outdone you.” Reverence was rather mixed with pride.

I am of two minds about all of this. On the one hand, the power and wealth of the Empire created some magnificent tributes to God. One legend goes that in the 10th Century the Tsar sent emissaries out into the world looking for a better religion for Russia.[i] When they arrived in Constantinople, they visited Hagia Sophia during the celebration of the Eucharist, which they said was so beautiful they could not tell whether they were on earth or in heaven.

On the other hand, these magnificent holy places signify a sometimes unholy alliance between Christianity and the state.  The separation of church and state is not meant to keep the church from challenging the state to serve justice but rather to keep the state from controlling the church to keep us quiet. The practice going back into the Hebrew Scriptures of having prophets to challenge kings is still good religion.

Hagia Sophia is awesome, but it is no longer a church. It became a mosque in the Middle Ages and has been a museum since the birth of the secular state in the 1920s. So it is a tribute to Christianity now. In fact there is very little Christianity left in Turkey.

But the Hagia Irene deserves her name. Though the building is used as a concert hall now and not as a church, the feeling of holiness is still palpable. I could of have stayed there for a long, long time. “Peace I leave with you. My own peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. “ John 14: 27.

Yesterday, we made a long trip with our new Australian friends from the St. George’s class to visit two not so explicitly religious places – Gallipoli and Troy – two Western invasions of Turkey, one that succeeded, one that failed.

After teaching The Iliad at Mercer in years past, I came to believe it is a poem written in protest of pride, greed, and wrath – the roots of war. Gallipoli made the same point.  I was moved at Gallipoli by the spirit of grief for both sides. In dedicating the shrine, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk famously said:

            Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are
            now lying in a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.
            There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets
            to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

            You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries,
            wipe your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are
            at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become
            our sons as well.

I am persuaded by Karen Armstrong’s exhaustively researched book, Fields Of Blood, that religions do not cause violence. The roots of violence are as Homer saw them – pride, greed, and wrath. Take away the religion that was the language of war in the 16th century and the same wars rage on using the language of political ideologies as they did in the 20th Century. But religions are all too prone to become the pep squad for the power structures of their society,  and so to become complicit in the aggression of their powerful and power-mongering patrons.

The lesson we can learn from Gallipoli and Troy is that pride, wrath, and greed do enormous harm that even secularists can see. It is all the more incumbent on us to work for the Kingdom in which love trumps power and peace swallows up violence in all its forms.

[i] The introduction of Christianity to Russia was older and probably happened in various ways here and there. It is also said that St. Andrew brought the gospel to Russia as well.

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