Mary in Ephesus

Posted by Censor Librorum on Oct 2, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

I have just started an audio CD course by The Teaching Company on “Great Civilizations of Asia Minor.” The lecturer is Professor Kenneth Harl, who I remembered from Michael Wood’s PBS series on Alexander the Great for his animated description of the battle of Issus.

One of Dr. Harl’s lectures, “Jews and Early Christians,” dwelt on the impact of the Jews on their Greek and pagan neighbors. Some of them, the “God-Fearers,” adopted many Jewish beliefs and practices, and were often the earliest converts to Christianity. Though reading, listening to these lectures, and I hope, eventually other study, I am enjoying my discovery of the tremendous impact the Jews and Greeks of Anatolia/Asia Minor had on the development of Christianity up until Constantine. Should Turkey–not Israel–be considered the cradle of Christianity?

Last month, I read a story in the NY Times about a Christian shrine in a Muslim land. The shrine is known as the “House of the Virgin Mary.” I was surprised, shocked actually, to learn that many people believe that in her final years Mary, the mother of Jesus, found a home in Anatolia near the ancient city of Ephesus. Many of the visitors to this humble stone hut are Muslims, who believe that Mary–or Meryem as she is known in the Koran–was a holy figure, a woman of remarkable virtue.

Whether or not this house was ever Mary’s house is a matter of debate, even controversy. It wasn’t until the 19th century that anyone in the Church had even an inkling that Mary spent her final years near Ephesus. The story originated in a dubious source: the feverish visions of a bedridden German nun named Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich. (The same nun whose accounts Mel Gibson faithfully followed in his movie, The Passion.)

As the story goes, during her illness, Clemens von Brentano, a poet, maintained a vigil by her bedside (a nun’s bedside!…Flaw #1 in the story!) and transcribed her visions, including the one where she described Mary’s house near Ephesus. When his notebooks were made public in the 1880s, a French abbott, Fr. Julien Gouyet, found Sr. Emmerich’s visions so compelling he traveled to Turkey to see if he could find the house. With the help of local villagers, he located a small stone house that fit von Brentano’s description.

The story vaguely reminds me of Heinrich Schliemann’s hunt for the city of Troy right around the same time. I guess the romantic streak in Germans finds its meaning in quests–for the Grail, Troy or Mary’s house. Catholics, given our predilection for relics and miracles, and belief without sure footing, are suckers for a sweet story like this one. Count me at the top of the list–it’s so wildly improbable that, of course, I believe. I want to believe.

One of these days I do plan to travel to Israel to follow in the footsteps of the apostles. Now, I want to go to Turkey as well, to Mary’s House. I try to imagine myself in the garden, soaking up the feeling of peacefulness and healing said to be there; swept into the House of Meryem with Muslims, Christians, curious tourists, the sick, the infertile, the suffering, and the people who just happened by at the same time. If our hearts feel at peace, then whether or not the story is true doesn’t matter. It is Mary’s House.

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