The other day I was talking with a friend about his week-long visit last year to Patmos. While there he of course visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1999 by UNESCO, it was established about 1,000 years ago, or about 1,000 years after John did his stint on the island and wrote the book of Revelation. As one tours the cave, some very specific matters are pointed out — this is where John slept, this is where he put his hand in an indentation in the cave wall to help him stand up, and this is where he dictated the book of Revelation.
Now it seems obvious that tourists may generally think one of two things about these specific details: “Wow!” or “Yeah, right.” I confess to being in the latter camp. Seriously, you come along 1,000 years after the fact, and you can say with certainty where John laid his head to sleep? However educated, it’s just a guess, right? But people seem to believe it. My friend described the ceiling of the cave as being blackened by 1,000 years of lit candles and incense, and this observation is where it begins to sink in. As he described the experience, he explains that it hit him — “So what? This place is soaked in 1,000 years of prayer.” He described a conversation with one of the monks when this hit him, and he realized, “This guy doesn’t care either!”
And they’re right. I figure, if you’re standing in a spot that’s clearly bathed in 1,000 years of prayer and remembrance, it’s not the time to quibble about geography or archeology. In Ephesus you can go to the chapel on the spot where Mary is said to have lived with John after Jesus’ crucifixion. In Bethlehem and Jerusalem you can visit the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and you can walk the Via Dolorosa and see all the Stations of the Cross. In fact, there’s almost no end to the number of holy sites and sacred destinations like this. I’d like to visit them all — or many of them, anyway.
And if you want to quibble about archeology or geography, you can… but you miss the point. These are not what makes such a place “holy”. Such a place is holy because this is the place where we remember.
This week is a time when we remember. This evening my wife and I will gather with friends and journeymates and share a meal. We will enjoy one another’s company, and I expect that as every year on this particular evening, we will make some sacred space to remember. The holiness of a place is often not found in what’s there — it’s in what you bring. What will you bring with you in your remembrance during the season this Easter weekend?
Great post, Bro M.
After travelling through Turkey and other ORthodox lands last fall, I realized that my own sense of history is very different than the eastern one. I think of death differently also. I used to think that the deathplaces of saints, and relics, were hogwash – but then I realized that these cultures value history far more deeply than I, and were more intimately involved in it. I trust their historical record more than my own, even if it’s not provable academically :-)
Sense of place is powerful, and the holiness of place is too. I walked those streets in Ephesus and was blown away that my feet were touching the same rocks that Mary, Paul (and most especially) John the Beloved walked. I stood and prayed at John’s burial place. John’s spirit is still present, and is amazing still.
I remember now more than ever that Christianity is a faith with its feet on solid ground, and dust between its toes.