Hagia Sophia: “it is fortunate you are here now”

This past New Year’s Eve, I found myself stranded in Istanbul, Turkey. My final destination was Rome and Assisi, but an irresistibly cheap fare (that included what was supposed to be just a two-hour layover at Ataturk Airport) carried me hundreds of miles past the Apennine Peninsula to the threshold of Asia Minor, where a winter storm caused the cancellation of dozens of flights, including my connection.

Due to the weather, thousands of people were stranded at the airport. Islamic pilgrims making Hajj to Mecca assembled at gates for flights to Jeddah who appeared as stranded as I was (perhaps more so, given the limitations of their garb: flowing white linen robes and sandals, little protection from the inches of snow that continued accumulating outside).

Even the airline’s hotel desk in the main terminal was inaccessible. The line to the counter, five or six persons wide, trailed like an interminable serpent through the airport – slow and languid, like a reptile placed in the freezer. So I resolved to strike out on my own. I Kayaked my way to a reservation for the night at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott, and thanks to the hotel’s free shuttle service, easily made it there.

In place of the steeples and crosses across the skyline of any Western city, in Istanbul there are minarets and golden crescents. was the foreigner — not just in terms of language and color, but creed as well. Were I in Rome at that moment, I would have considered myself practically at home, compared to Istanbul.

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The snow continued to fall that night, and after dinner in the hotel restaurant, I returned to my room for sleep. I greeted the New Year in dormition. Sometime in the morning hours, the snowfall and clouds abandoned Turkish skies, giving way to a morning of crystal blue against fresh white.

I returned to the airport before breakfast, although my flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until the evening. I did so because I found out that the airline offered a free tour of Istanbul for delayed passengers, complete with tour guide, tour bus, breakfast and lunch. The tour would include a visit to Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom”.

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A wonder of the world, construction of this edifice began in 537 A.D., and was originally the patriarchal basilica of the Patriarch of Constantinople, making it almost a millennia more ancient than the current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was also the world’s largest cathedral until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

IMG_0768In 1453 the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople and took possession of the city. Sultan Mehmed II permitted his troops three days of unchecked terror over the city, including the Hagia Sophia. The seat of Byzantium, and the place where Holy Roman Emperors standing in the “center of the world” received their crowns, was pillaged and desecrated. Holy relics were secreted away from the Hagia Sophia lest they be desecrated also.

Christian refugees prayed the Liturgy of the Hours within the Hagia Sophia during the siege. The invading horde entered the basilica to find Christians — priests, women, children and the elderly — who had taken refuge there. Trapped within, women and girls were raped, and enslaved, violated or killed along with the rest.

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Soon thereafter the Sultan ordered that the Hagia Sophia be converted to a mosque. Minarets and other Islamic elements were added to the structure and interior.

Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum. Our tour guide, a Muslim, maintained that in the centuries of the Hagia Sophia being in Islamic possession, nothing was ever intentionally damaged or destroyed. This is simply and patently false.

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Apart from the fact that Sultan Mehmed II permitted his soldiers to pilfer the entire city, including Hagia Sophia, in the years that followed, mosque workers indulged in removing stones from the mosaics on the walls, and oftentimes sold them to visitors. You can clearly see that anywhere that a mosaic is within reach, the stones from the mosaic have been removed. Only the parts of the images outside ordinary reach remain intact. Upper images (including the ones revealed by fallen plaster) are almost entirely whole.

IMG_0808In addition, there is the extensive use of plaster throughout the vaulting on the upper walls and in the dome of the structure, which covers a host of Christian images. Some claim that these precious works were covered with plaster to protect them from further damage. But there was the secondary benefit of putting them out of sight and hiding the historical reality of the building.

IMG_0811The building is in a perpetual state of crumble, so that plaster frequently falls off surfaces revealing beautiful Christian artwork and imagery underneath, creating problems for the Turkish authorities who must decide whether to permit such works to remain in view, or be covered again.

Turkey’s last century saw the formation of a secular government, efforts at Western-style democracy, and alliance with the United States. But that is slowly changing. Islamist political movements are growing in power. The hijab – once banned from schools and other public places like government buildings – is in resurgence.

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Before entering the main floor of the Hagia Sophia, our tour guide briefly introduced its history to us, and I’ll never forget the way he did so: he told us that we were “very fortunate to be here today, when Hagia Sophia is still a museum. Turkey is changing,” he said, “and soon Hagia Sophia will be a mosque again. So it is fortunate you are here now, before that happens.” This fellow, with his black leather biker jacket and designed jeans, did not strike me as especially religious. Yet, he spoke with a sort of certainty that filled me with dread.

IMG_0831Despite how resolute he was, I might have dismissed what he said, except that there are prominent leaders in Turkey who apparently share the same view. The conversion of Hagia Sophia is a movement that’s been growing for at least ten years. Most recently, in 2015 the Mufti of Ankara, apparently in retaliation for the acknowledgment by Pope Francis of the Armenian Genocide, stated that he believes the conversion into a mosque will be accelerated.

Once I made it inside, I cast my eyes upward to take in the magnificent main dome, surrounded by four six-winged angels. And then I moved to the second floor gallery in search of the best-preserved mosaics.

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I wanted, more than anything else, to see the famed Deësis mosaic: Christ on Judgment Day, flanked on his right by Our Lady, and St. John the Baptist on his left. All that remains of this treasure (after years of stones peeled off by miscreants) is the upper half of Jesus and St. John, and the head and shoulder of the Blessed Virgin.

I stood there, beholding the soft blue eyes and still vibrant lavender of Mary’s raiment, Jesus’ hand raised mid-action, His gaze suffused with Divine countenance, and – possibly best of all – John’s wild flowing locks blown in the wind of the Holy Spirit, and his noble head inclined toward God and Man.

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I choked up. I felt gratitude, to receive such a moment of blessing. I felt anger, indignant at the vandals who picked over such sacredness and the interlopers who besmirched it. I felt sadness at the manifested disunity and conflict of this fallen world, the usurpation of just dignity.

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But more than all else, I felt joy. The Hagia Sophia is a place that once contained Our Lord’s own Real Presence. Yet, today we can not now be seen visibly praying there. It is against the law. Yet, I was praying. I was in communion, and living proof that Christ is, was, and ever will be Sovereign of all. Come what may, whether here, or anywhere.

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Dr. Scott Hahn and “The Fourth Cup”

I’m taking an on-line course on catechesis and the following caught my attention (from Dr. Scott Hahn’s Book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises):

Jesus instituted the Eucharist during the course of a Passover meal. This memorial celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. At the first Passover, every firstborn son in Egypt perished except those in Israelite families where a lamb was slain and eaten as a sacrificial meal.

Then Moses led Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, where they became God’s family, the “chosen people,” through what is known as the Old Covenant.

The one time Jesus used the word “covenant” was at the Last Supper. There the firstborn Son and Lamb of God fulfilled the Old Covenant Passover in Himself, as a sacrifice for our sins. On that occasion Jesus announced the establishment of the New Covenant (see Mt. 26:27-28).

The cup of wine that Jesus changed into His blood was the “cup of blessing” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16). This was the third cup of wine that was served during the Passover liturgy. There was still a fourth cup remaining, the “cup of consummation.”

Yet, instead of proceeding with the fourth cup, Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives (Mk. 14:26). This was a significant omission, and one that Jesus seemed to notice when He said in the preceding verse: “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mk. 14:25).

It seems that Jesus intended not to drink the cup that His disciples expected Him to drink.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus three times prayed that “this cup” would be taken away. Later, as Jesus was being led to His execution, He was offered wine and did not take it (Mk. 15:23).

Finally, we read: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’ A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn. 19:28-30).

The “it” that was now finished or consummated was the Passover that Jesus had begun—but interrupted—in the Upper Room. Its completion was marked by Jesus’ drinking the sour wine, the fourth cup.

In other words, what was finished was Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Covenant Passover as He transformed it into the New Covenant Passover. Here we see how the Passover, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Eucharist are all intimately related (see generally, Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1362-72).

Now we too are called to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, which unites us with Christ and with one another in the worldwide (“catholic”) family of God.

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Eros Grossly Misunderstood

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 5.51.35 PMIn perusing Facebook, today I noticed a discussion concerning “The Erotic Powers of the Holy Spiritby Elizabeth Duffy at Patheos Catholic.

Everyone thinks they already understand the quest for transcendence, including sexual transcendence. While contraceptives may well impede it, transcendence shouldn’t be a primary aim in itself, and certainly not a point for evangelizing.

What we Catholics preach with our vans filled with kids is that more than even transcendent sex, the family is the center of the Catholic universe, and Mom and Dad don’t presume to say anything other than “Yes” when God sees fit to expand the universe. It may be potentially exciting, in some weird, crazy “I-love-our-family-and-I-love-you-and-I-would-welcome-another-you-and-me-to-this-world!”-way, but that is merely a by-product of the meaning behind it.

According to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus caritas est, the word eros appears only twice in the Old Testament, and not at all in the New Testament, for the writers of which there is a “…tendency to avoid the word eros,” which “clearly” points to “something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love…” Through the Enlightenment this led to the charge that Christianity had “…poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice.”

Benedict states that “purification and growth in maturity” do not “reject” or “poison” eros, but rather “heal it and restore its true grandeur.” He states that this is first due to the fact that “Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved.”

The Christian faith “…has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to new nobility. True, eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

To the extent that Benedict indicates that eros and agape (“ascending love and descending love”) “…can never be completely separated,” he states that the more the two, “…in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.” To become, as the Lord tells us, “a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38)… one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).”

Likewise, any comparisons of “Communion with the Holy Spirit” as sexual in nature, and the “meditative art” of the “feminine climax” as “acted upon externally… by the Holy Spirit” do not properly reflect the “ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” that is described by Pope Benedict with regard to our understanding of eros.

Here we find an attempt to divinize sexual pleasure, and — more troubling still — to impute such notions upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, along with the suggestion that the Holy Spirit employed upon her “erotic powers… to inseminate and co-create“. Unfortunately, Ms. Duffy does not stop there, and invokes her own marital relationship, penetrated with what one friend termed “weird, new age sex magic concepts.”

At his General Audience of November 14, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II, as part of his series of audiences commonly known as the “Theology of the Body”, stated that the “meaning of man’s original unity, through masculinity and femininity, is expressed as an overcoming of the frontier of solitude.” Man’s solitude, JPII teaches us, is also presented as “the discovery of an adequate relationship ‘to’ the person, and therefore as an opening and expectation of a ‘communion of persons.'”

JPII suggests that if we wish to draw from the concept of “‘image of God’, we can then deduce that man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning… Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.”

Thus, JPII states that the “original meaning of unity” will “possess” an “…ethical dimension, as is confirmed by Christ’s answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 19… [and] a sacramental dimension, a strictly theological one, as is proved by St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians… And this is so because that unity which is realized through the body indicates, right from the beginning, not only the ‘body,’ but also the ‘incarnate’ communion of persons.

Through the sacrament of marriage God lends further order to the natural appetites of men, and delivers grace to truly live out the vocation. Marital ceptive sex is pleasurable and possesses a spiritual quality. However, the “feel-good” of sex (for humans, beyond pure biological function and encompassimg emotional and spiritual elements) does not merit the suggestion that husbands “must be Christ in the flesh” for their wives when it comes to the “spiritual drama in the marriage bed.”

I’m not looking for that sort of mystical union, but thanks anyway.