Tuesday, February 15, 2011


            Tomorrow my journey to the Eastern Empire is concluded.  I need to come back, I can already see that.  It is odd to think that this place, rather different culturally from America (though McDonalds et. al. are doing their best to homogenize), was once no more different from Rome than Chicago is from New York.  Ancient Romans would have been immediately at home here...their language was spoken at the Court, in the markets, and among the omni-present military; the architecture was the same, even if the building materials, and I think too the approach to wall construction, were different.  I have no idea if the food would have been as different as it is now (I gotta say, Turkey wins) and perhaps, like now, wines would have a regional flavor, but it was recognizably Roman.  Of course, this is what the Emperor-builders intended.  Hmm maybe McDonald's is the new Rome?

            Yesterday, hitch hiking up a mountain outside of Selcuk, I fell in with a French backpacker who insisted that, while his area (southern France) is very much like Turkey, somehow the greens are different.  He couldn't express how, either in English or French, and I wondered if it wasn't some other tint that he was sensing...the exoticism of rural Cappadocia, the exquisite moaning prayers from the minarets, the Hellenistic walls below field level that still bear the ruts of wagons that rolled through the gates 7000 years ago.  I think he was seeing the shadows of past so very close at hand rather than some different hue of green in the distant orchards.

            Ephesus is not, as it turns out, the second best preserved Roman city.  It is the first.  It isn't just the theatre, the odium, the fountains, the forum, or even the fantastic facade of the so-called Library of Celsus, all of which attract Asian cameras as flames do moths.  There is a site within the site (indeed, requiring a 2nd admission fee) all covered with an ingenious roof that protects the archaeological digs into the section of the city that housed the great and wealthy of Ephesus.  And they were greatly wealthy.  The frescos, the mosaics, the room-after-room-after room.  Private baths, running water, great court yards and at least one basilica inside a house, meant for the patron to receive his clients exactly as would an emperor.  I spent an hour there just shaking my head in awe.

            There is more to the city that that too.  We know that St. Paul was here.  He preached here, though as in Thessaloniki, perhaps forbidden to do so in the Agora/Forum.  Or maybe he preferred the synagogue.  I saw no evidence of one, but there must certainly have been a Diaspora colony here.  In any case, he was so successful that the local crafts guild urged the city fathers--those men who lived like kings in their palaces--to expel him.  Ephesus was the center for the cult of a fertility goddess who became fused to the Greek Aphrodite and the guild made the idols intended for pilgrims to take home with them (you can still buy them, by the way).  It seems that Paul's preaching was hitting home and the statue venders were losing revenue.  Is faith inherently the enemy of commerce?  Or must commerce be ordered so as not to offend faith?  What if the image was of the Blessed Mother?

            Marcia Colish has written of Ambrose's attitude toward the commercial class--or at least the wealthy class--by cobbling together strands of his thought from sermons he'd given on the great Patriarchs.  My own reading about his attitude toward the military echoes her conclusion: the profession is not inherently anti-Christian, but it must be reformulated in light of the Christian virtues and, while also remaining true to the great Cardinal Virtues of the ancients, it must eschew any taint of idolatry or superstition.  I think this means that doing business must be done within the context of morality and kept in proper perspective by faith.  The very nice man who runs a tea shop in Seljuk warned against "hurafe" which I take to mean religiously rooted superstition.  He lost his faith at the age of 12 when his mother insist that he eat the sand from around the tomb of a famous and long-dead holy man.  She would regularly visit his grave, even before visiting those of her own parents.  If the weather was bad, she chose his grave to theirs.  Many, very many years ago, during a period of intense discernment, I found a little calligraphic note stuck to my dorm room wall, written by a dear friend.  She had written: "Perspective, Dear, perspective." 

            The French packer and I hiked down the mountain and cross-country, me steering us toward the cave of the 7 sleepers.  These were Roman soldiers who, upon professing their Christian faith to the Emperor, were walled up inside a cave to die a slow, Peruvian miner death.  A few hundred years later, when Christianity had been recognized by Constantine and mandated by Theodosius, the cave was opened up, and (you see this coming, don't you?) the 7 martyrs stepped out into the daylight.  When they died for real they were buried here.  Others, of course, wanted to be buried nearby.  There are lots of tombs around the holy cave, arcosolea and free standing...all looted long ago.  There is a rather poor looking farm between the caves and the road, with heaps of trash strewn about and it doesn't even merit Asian cameras: the big busses from Mary's House careen right by the turn off headed straight for Ephesus, but it is a genuine site....the ground is littered with mosaic tesserae as well.

            That morning, at tea, I'd mentioned to the B&B owner my plans to hike up to the so-called House of Mary.  It is an 8 k. walk up a mountain.  A young Turkish couple across the table heard me use the term and, though knowing no English, and me not any better, invited me to ride up with them.  I refused, wanting the walk, but they insisted.  The trick was they had no back seat, so I sat in the back hatch.  About 3 k, just before the ascent, they asked if I minded if we picked up a gangly backpacker, I laughed and of course said of course.  The look in the guy's face when he opened that hatch and saw me already in residence was priceless.  We laughed again.

            The site was awful.  Though the American Christian group that maintains the place make a big deal out of not charging anything, the town of Seljuk which, no doubt, maintains the road (in so far as it is maintained) charge a whapping 10TL to get into the shopping mall sized parking lot.  There were lines of French and Asian tourists (low season, I suspect, means the non-American season) waiting to wind through the little stone chapel as if it were a line at a wake...except at a wake there is more time and reverence paid.  I tried to slip aside for a quick prayer for my family and the folks I'd just met, but it was hopeless.  I might as well have been praying in queue for a movie ticket.

            I walked out, losing the couple and the French guy.  I began the trek down the mountain and, from my vantage point, could easily see the Sea and make out how it had once come right to the tip of Ephesus.  The water seeping through the valley must have silted up like a dam and left a huge soggy meadow where there had once been a shallow inlet.  That was the death of Ephesus...choked off as if with throat cancer.

            After 3 k or so, a car stopped in a very dangerous cut back and the couple from the morning wanted me to get in.  I said no, I wanted to walk, but the guy made it very clear that it was too far and too dangerous; he even got out of his car so as to make the appropriate hand-arm gestures of a snaking road.  We bargained and I relented at least as far as the first entrance to Ephesus, mostly just to get him off that damn curve.  I opened the hatch and there was the Frenchman!  It was really funny.  When I got out a couple of curves further down he asked if he could tag along.  I'd been trying to practice French in my head while walking (it kept puddling into Italian, of course), and besides wanting to try it out on him, I did like the idea of a companion for a while. 

            During the walk, Yannick (an ancient Celtic name from Brittany, though he is from the Langdoc) was expounding his not completely French philosophy, which is mostly a worthy rant against materialism and T.V., but which concluded with his conception that what really makes one happy is not possessions or routine, but experiences and freedom.  This made me think about the sad old Italian lady I met on a train a few weeks ago who insisted that the purpose of sleeping was to forget the day and the only reason for getting up in the morning is that you'd forgotten yesterday.  She'd lived with an alcoholic husband and, in her own words "three children: one too many."  She had worked as a hotel maid her whole life.  She is o.k. with her son's 2nd wife, but the first one was perfectly fine.  She is exhibit A for the life that Yanni fears and shuns.  I finally suggested one addition to the quotient for happiness: relationships.  We two, after all, had spent the day meandering around together out of some unspoken need for companionship.  Yannick works in agriculture for 6 months of low salary back breaking work, then goes on the dole for 6 months of matching salary in order to stuff his tent into his bag and disappear.  This time he was headed for Syria.  It was a good day: I showed him the 7 sleepers and he introduced me to Turkish Delight.  I deliberately avoid sweets while traveling and I don't like to waste time eating as long as the sun is out and there is stuff to see, but he insisted...like a siren, like a pastry pimp.  This is near-eastern crack.  It is Turkey's version of gelato, and it is far more dangerous even than that.  I will never touch the stuff again.  Odysseus' men didn't consume lotus, they ate baklava. 

            Ambrose, upon becoming bishop, gave up whatever life style he may have had (though I suspect he had always been ascetical.  As far as we know, he was virgin).  He ate once a day, in the evening, and didn't drink, though like a polite vegetarian, he would take what was placed before him when a guest at someone's house.  He didn't, in other words, allow personal discipline to unnecessarily offend others.

            Relationships...Yannick was looking for the bazaar where, he insisted, the pastries are the best.  He asked for directions from a guy sitting at an outside cai shop.  He didn't speak English so he took us down the road yelling to everyone he knew: "Hey! Do you speak English?"  After a couple of blocks he found a guy who did.  This one left his tea to walk us 2 more blocks to what he considered to be the best pastry shop in town.  Only in a small town, I swear.  There are many different kinds of relationships.

            The day before was Sunday and I'd realized that I was not going to find even an Orthodox church (though evangelical missionaries have set up shop in town: their post cards are in every shop I entered.  They are accepted uncritically: all Christians look alike to the Shia, or is it the Sunni?)  I meandered up past the 7th century mosque (just awful architecture: two barns side by side with a walled courtyard...the Blue Mosque is a long way off) to the ruined basilica of "Agia Jean" (St. John).  It had been enormous...at one time one of the largest churches in the world, built by Constantine and not unlike his basilica at St. Peter's in Rome.  The empty tomb of John is exactly where it should be: under the center of the central apse.  There had been a thriving monastic community here and they had running water, a treasury, and a whole campus around the Latin Cross church.  It is all gone but the ruins and it was enough.  Well, I do miss the Eucharist desperately, but it was still good.

            Relationships.  I think this might be a key to Ambrose.  He established intimate and genuine relationships with his people, the citizens of the city (including pagans and Jews) Emperors, soldiers, certainly his family and the priests who served the church.  He was intimate with other bishops (he named most of the ones within his ever expanding realm of influence...he really was the pope, of course) and he attracted women to the religious life as consecrated virgins and celibate widows.  He never backed down from Theodosius, for example, on issues that he considered central to the gospel or the autonomy of the Church, but he didn't combat Theodosius as an enemy, he sought to convince him of the rightness of his position.  That he won most often, even when he probably should not have, is a testament to his persuasive powers and convictions but also to the trust and respect he enjoyed.  This could have only come from his genuine care for them (oh, I suppose it could all have been based on fear and intimidation and "hurafe" too, but that stuff all leaves a strong odor behind it that is just plain missing.  I've never gotten a slightest whiff of that, despite the jaded interpolations of at least one Ambrose-hater).

            Ambrose could have sold carpets at the bizaar if he'd have felt as passionately about them as he did the Church.  But he didn't.  Nor did he cling to his Cursus Honorarius or his wealth.  He wasn't trying to sell anybody anything.  He just loved them and wanted them to have what he had.

            Carpet hawkers are the flies at the picnic that is Turkey.  The B&B owner is a particularly adept one.  As he spoke to me (for hours, over tea, in front of a fire-place--the only warm part of the whole building so a very effective trap) I caught glimpses of myself recruiting soccer players to St. Ambrose University.  Is he any worse than me?  I was wisely advised that "Bud, remember that a carpet is only worth what you are willing to pay."  Which, of course, puts it all on me, but that is correct.  And it is different from drawing young athletes to my college: I wanted them to have the experience I have had.  I wanted to help them to have those experiences.  I wanted to be with them as they discover their own potential and get themselves back on their feet when they fall.  I wanted to be there with them.  Fact is, I still do.  It was never really about the sport; it was and is only about the relationships.

            Back in Istanbul.  Apparently there was a driver waiting to pick me up from the airport, but I didn't see anyone, didn't know for sure there was to be someone, and anyway, didn't want or need one.  Public transportation into the Old City is dead easy.  When I arrived it was to see a very concerned staff...the driver was out there waiting for me and as far as anyone knew, I'd not been on the flight.  The owner had gone for dinner but told the clerk to send me down to the restaurant the minute I came in, so she could stop worrying about me.

            Last New Year's Eve, in Rome, I made each of the groups of students report with whom they were going and where, and I made each group wake me up to check in when they got back.  One group excitedly announced that 2 girls in their cohort had gotten surged onto a metro, which made for a distressing couple of hours till the self-selected and competent captain of the whole class finally checked in, reporting that all was well.  He'd stationed himself handily at local pub where he could see who was coming in, and was the last one home.

            Dinner with the hotel owner, her Aussie friend, and their Turkish go-to-guy, was about the best experience I'd had in Turkey.  The food was great (they are regulars, so the desert plates just kept coming: having had my brush with that particular Satan I managed to mostly abstain, save for an Ambrosianly--yep, I just did make that an adverb--polite dip of my spoon into this thing that looked like a warm custard and was made of pulverized, then melted, then baked sesame seeds: who thinks of such things?)  The company better, it being "real," meaning that no one was trying to sell me a carpet.  That's it, isn't it?  The difference between recruiting students and carpet selling is the difference between relationships and manipulation, the difference between faith and ideology, between wanting something for someone and wanting something from them.  There: it is the distinction that makes Christian commerce, if there could be such a thing.

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