Update on Hagia Sophia

IMG_0750Earlier this year, I posted about my New Year’s Day visit to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  Shortly after my trip, the terrorist bombing of some German tourists at Sultanahmet Square occurred, which was especially alarming to me because I stood at the precise location of the explosion on my way to visit Hagia Sophia a few days before.

In that post about the visit, I wrote:

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.

So, since that visit I’ve noticed a number of news articles concerning the Hagia Sophia. It seems that the warning about re-converting the Hagia to a mosque has essentially proven true.

This article (as well as others elsewhere) states that an imam began leading prayers at Hagia Sophia during Ramadan, and the Turkish press agency Anadolu reports that “…the National Office of Religious Affairs and the Mufti of Fathi in Constantinople jointly decided to appoint a permanent Imam for the Hagia Sophia” and to perform on a “daily basis” the five daily calls to prayer there. The linked article “With the appointment of the Imam, the transformation into a mosque is actually accomplished, independently of an explicit decision.”

Pray for Turkey, and the Christians who remain there.


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.


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”.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Something “Different” for this Year’s Thanksgiving Turkey

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After 16 years of hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I’ve learned a few things about Roasting the Bird.

In prior years, long ago, my sister raised turkeys and I had a hand in the slaughtering for the holiday dinner. Then, in the earliest years of hosting at our house (or apartment), we traveled out to the Heartland on a pilgrimage to buy a fresh, free-range, organic, and exceedingly expensive turkey. Then we got tired of the drive but continued to buy fresh free-range from the grocer.

About 10 years ago I started to brine the Thanksgiving turkey, which I am convinced is the single most important element for roasting a bird that is flavorful and moist. If you haven’t tried brining your turkey — regardless of whether you intend to deep-fry, roast, or crock pot the thing (blech) — you’re doing it wrong. Heed the Quartermaster’s instructions for brining your bird and be amazed.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 12.31.50 PMThe beauty of brining is that it elevates a cheap frozen turkey, so much that spending more money on fresh almost seems a waste. Not only will the meat be flavorful throughout, it will be much more forgiving in roasting, so that dry turkey is still theoretically possible, but practically difficult to achieve.

Moreover, with brining you can entirely forgo the whole basting ridiculosity, which I’m convinced does nothing more than slow down even cooking and reduce efficiency with all the periodic opening of the oven and removing of the turkey. And you can forget about roasting bags (a mistake), covered roasting pans (no), or starting with the breast down and flipping mid-way through cooking (LOL).

This year, I’m intrigued by something new, which I intend to try: in place of butter or oil rubbed onto the skin of the bird, I’m trying it with….. mayonnaise.

On the one hand, mayonnaise for cooking seems slightly gross. Any time I’ve gotten a mouthful of hot mayonnaise I’ve been pretty disgusted. But it does have an interesting viscous texture and composition that leads me to believe it would cling to the bird longer during cooking rather than melting in the heat and running off quickly like butter, thereby retaining juiciness in the meat and crisping the skin nicely. So, we’ll try it, and I’ll report back.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Flavorful Turkey: There is Still Time

But there is not another moment to waste. Heed the Quartermaster’s instructions for brining your bird, get the turkey in the brine tonight, for significantly upgraded holiday nomnoms tomorrow.

FullSizeRenderThe beauty of brining a turkey is that while it takes a few minutes to prepare the brine, you can effectively omit: coating the turkey in butter or oil, seasoning with salt and pepper, basting during roasting, covering or flipping the bird while cooking (which is insane anyway). For our (brined) Thanksgiving turkey, I stuff the bird, roast at 325 (uncovered) until the stuffing and thigh reads 165F. Brining is the easiest way to achieve great turkey, with minimal effort.

Ideally, you would have begun brining 48-72 hours before Turkey Day, in order to permit the bird to “air dry” in the refrigerator for a full 24 hours before roasting. But if you brine and omit this step, it will still be far better than if you did nothing at all.

Other things you can do ahead: stuffing (mine’s already in the fridge), cranberry sauce (so easy, so much better than canned), anything containing Jell-O, sweet potatoes (all steps up to placement of the casserole in the oven to heat), peeling potatoes and placing in your boiling pot filled with salted water, the pies, etc.

Please note that *IF* you stuff your bird, which is safe so long as you reach a good internal temperature and handle the stuffing properly, you should be careful not to add too much salt to the stuffing, as some of the juices from the brined turkey (which are salty) will soak into the stuffing.

Today Mr. Karl and I engaged in some spirited debate concerning stuffing the bird versus having plenty of drippings for gravy. Apparently every person in his family requires at least a quart of gravy, because he was complaining that the stuffing absorbs all the drippings. This is not my experience at all, as we have always had an adequate volume of drippings even with a stuffed bird. But we don’t consume gravy with a drinking hose either. Meanwhile, the gaping open chasm of Mr. Karl’s turkey is pouring forth all the juices into the roasting pan. More resourceful people plug the hole to trap the flavor and juiciness.

Happy Thanksgiving!

February 9: Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich and the Miraculous Finding of Mary’s House

February 9 is the feast day for Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II. She was born in 1774 in Germany and died in 1824. After 9 years in a convent, she became bedridden and received numerous visions, private revelations, and the mystical gift of the stigmata. A poet known as Carlos Brentano wrote two books based upon his notes of her visions, the veracity of which have been called into question. In her cause for beatification, the books were considered secondary to the basis for her declaration as a blessed, which was her “personal piety.”

220px-House_of_the_Virgin_MaryDuring the life of Bl. Anne, the city of Ephesus in Turkey had not yet been excavated. But she described the house of Our Lady and its location in The Life of the Virgin Mary, and her visions were used to discover the house, where the Blessed Mother lived until the Assumption, located on a hill near Ephesus, as described in the book Mary’s House:

In 1881, a French priest, the Abbé Julien Gouyet used Emmerich’s book to search for the house in Ephesus and found it based on the descriptions. He was not taken seriously at first, but sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey persisted until two other priests followed the same path and confirmed the finding.

The Holy See has taken no official position on the authenticity of the location yet, but in 1896 Pope Leo XIIIvisited it and in 1951 Pope Pius XII initially declared the house a Holy Place. Pope John XXIII later made the declaration permanent. Pope Paul VI in 1967, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 visited the house and treated it as a shrine.

Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, ora pro nobis.

The Ecstatic Virgin Anna Katharina Emmerich, 1885, by Gabriel von Max

The Ecstatic Virgin Anna Katharina Emmerich, 1885, by Gabriel von Max

Spiritual Dryness and Salt of the Earth: Let’s Talk Turkey

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13).

Some things are best when they’re dry. For example, your underarms. Diapers. The carpet. Since the invention of carpeting, no one has ever actually said, “Oooh, the carpet is really wet, hooray!” Nor does one ever glory in the dirty diaper or say, “Look at that guy’s armpit stains — bully for him!”

However, dryness in prayer or one’s spiritual life is generally to be avoided. While there are sometimes Providential reasons that God permits us to become spiritually dry, we are not usually meant to remain in this condition forever. When one is spiritually dry, the life in prayer is brittle, crumbly; there isn’t much substance, or fruitfulness at the moment.

Even if one earnestly seeks God, is engaged in devotional prayer and reading, and frequently receives the sacraments, it is still possible to wind up “walking in the desert” at times. In fact, each of us should expect this journey, and the reality of it is part of Catholic spiritual tradition. God (like a loving parent) is always fostering our own spiritual growth, which sometimes requires us to learn to live without “good feelings”. Sometimes the medicine itself is unpleasant, but nonetheless healthy.

God sometimes permits spiritual dryness, but I suspect that He — like all rational beings — cannot abide a dry turkey. A turkey should never be dry. Dry turkey is bad turkey. You can bet that if there is food in Heaven, there is no dry turkey. Conversely, dry (and flavorless) turkey is probably on every table in Hell. The answer to a dry turkey (or really, any dry flavorless meat) is essentially the same as the answer to spiritual dryness: salt. 

If we are spiritually dry, we may find it difficult to follow our Lord’s command to be “the salt of the earth.” It might be possible to attend mass or persevere in prayer, but it is frustrating to see others partaking in the full richness of the Holy Banquet or getting somewhere in their prayer life while personally everything feels immobilized.

Being the salt of the earth means that the life in Christ is supposed to have flavor. When we truly live the way that Jesus wants, we are able to savor what is good, wholesome and nourishing about creation. If we try to live outside Christ’s love or if we try to walk in the desert alone — without asking God to journey with us — all of the good things that may be present to us in our life are dry and ineffective at bringing us to the joy that we know is available.

We can banish spiritual dryness, and we can add flavor to our lives (and food), by adding salt. Salt locks in the goodness of a piece of meat. It creates a chemical gradient that literally traps moisture inside the cells it inhabits. This is why when you take in too much salt, you get bloated and retain water. All of that salt in your body is holding in extra fluid, keeping you from becoming dry! When you brine a turkey, the same thing happens, making it next to impossible to dry it out during cooking. 


Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving is coming up. If you’d like to exorcise dryness from your turkey this year, start the day before by making a brine:

1. Find a container big enough to hold the turkey in your refrigerator. A clean bucket will work. I have a food-grade tub with a plastic lid that I use.

2. Fill the vessel with a gallon of warm water. Dissolve at least a cup of salt and a half cup of white granulated sugar. You can add other flavors, herbs or spices (oranges, lemons, onions, garlic, apple cider, apple cider vinegar, black pepper, bay leaves, dry basil, dry oregano, dry thyme, red pepper flakes, etc.) if you like.

3. Add a gallon of cold water, or a mixture of cold water and ice.

4. Submerge the turkey (you can add a little extra water to get it completely submerged, if necessary) in the brine. Cover the vessel and refrigerate it overnight.

5. On Thanksgiving, prepare the turkey by removing it from the brine, drying it with paper towels, and roasting it the way you normally do.

This method will elevate the saddest, cheapest, lowest of the low of all frozen supermarket turkeys. You will find a turkey prepared this way almost impossible to distinguish from the finest, most expensive organic fresh free range turkeys.

Metaphorically, being salt gives spiritual and actual flavor to anything that we season. Jesus doesn’t say that He is the salt; He says that we are! We, the whole Body of Christ, through the Church, are meant to combat spiritual dryness by being “salt of the earth” to one another.

Our “salt” is the joy that we hold; it is the light that we are not meant to put under the bushel barrel. Salt is the great equalizer in our spiritual lives just as it is in cookery! Without the Christian community — without others in our life who season us and give life its flavor — we are not good for anything other than to be trampled underfoot.

So, be the salt to others, who you can support in their spiritual dryness. Ask God to send you someone salty in your times of spiritual dryness.

And, use some salt to brine your Thanksgiving turkey, so that no one needs to feel like they are walking in the desert at your holiday table!

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