Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Travel Journal (14)---In Search of St. Arsenios
In early 2006, I was blessed to read St. Arsenios the Cappadocian by Elder Paisios. At that time in my life, my spiritual father thought it would be of benefit to me. Of course, he was absolutely correct. I read it eagerly, but before returning his copy, I managed to spill food on it. So, I bought my priest a new copy and kept the old.
St. Arsenios is a saint of the modern era. He was born in 1840 and died in 1924. His home was in the village of Farasa (now Camlica), deep in the Taurus Mountains. Technically, this Christian village was on the very outer fringes of Cappadocia, but still under the oversight of the Bishop of Caeseria (now Kayseri). Educated in Smyrna, Fr. Arsenios returned to labor in his native Farasa. Outside of perhaps 5 trips to the Holy Land, he remained in Farasa and resisted all attempts by others to elevate him to any higher position.
In the Taurus Mountains
The Taurus Mountains
St. Arsenios was a great teacher and performed many miracles. My favorite story is of the Turkish Muslim woman who secretly converted and was baptized. He gave her the name, Eleftheria ("Freedom" in Greek). Publicizing her action would have meant certain death from her family and neighbors. For a while she communed as she could with the Christians in secret. But the lady soon fell ill and was near death. She sent word to Fr. Arsenios that she wished to receive Holy Communion before she died. He could not go to her as her priest without betraying her secret. So he carved a plug out of an apple, inserted some of the Holy Communion inside, plugged it back up and sent it by her god-mother. Eleftheria intuitively understood what was happening and joyously received the apple. Elder Paisios (himself baptized by Fr. Arsenios) also continues the story to tell just how this woman came to be buried in the Christian cemetery.
Fr. Arsenios guided his flock to Greece in 1924 during the transfer of populations between Greece and Turkey, but he prophesied that he would live only 40 days upon arrival in their new home. He died as he said, and was first buried on Corfu. Later, his relics were transferred to the Church of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian near Thessalonica.
The story of St. Arsenios has stayed with me, and I determined to try, if possible, to visit his old village. Farasa is remote, and not on the way to anywhere particularly. Turan was intrigued with my desire to go there, but as he was familiar with the village--and I've yet to find one he wasn't familiar with--he planned a leg of our trip to pass through the village and then on to the Kapugbasi Waterfall. He was interested to learn more of St. Arsenios, and very surprised that there was a book written about this son of Farasa. So I was able to tell him what little I knew, and I also promised I would give him my book on St. Arsenios. Turan and I have had a number of conversations about Orthodoxy. Last year, in southeastern Turkey, we visited the Syrian Orthodox monasteries. This apparently made quite an impression on him as he informed me that he had written a recent thesis on the Suriani Christians for one of his university classes.
Farasa lies 14 km. off the main road, but it seems much further. The gravel road hugs the ridges along a barren, rocky gorge. Frankly, I couldn't imagine anyone actually living back here. Yet the gorge gradually widened, and a wide, grassy, undulating hillside, spilling from the mountain peak down to the river, unfolded before us. The village of Farasa nestled on a bluff above the river.
A View of Farasa--Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas on left
Farasa was as yet untouched by Turkey's new economy. I didn't see a single vehicle in the village, and the streets--such as they were--were hardly wide enough to accommodate our little Mitsubishi SUV. Nevertheless, we were able to drive right up to the front door of the St. Arsenios' former Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas. The building is now hemmed-in by houses, stables and pens for livestock. A plaque on the outside wall indicated that it had been a mosque since 1927. The building was not impressive from the outside--just a large stone barn of a building with a new metal roof. Inside, however, was a different manner. Though thoroughly whitewashed, the interior lines reveal that it must have been quite beautiful once, particularly for such an out-of-the-way village as Farasa.
The former Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas at Farasa, from above
I had intended to scoop up some soil from in front of the church to bring back with me. In looking around the site, I completely forgot to do so, and of course, now never will. We walked around to the back of the mosque, and saw remains of some sort of structure once attached to the church. We observed where someone had once marked something on one on foundation blocks at the back of church. It looked as though the letters had been roughly carved into the stone and then colored by either paint or some sort of marker. The writing was in Greek, so it meant nothing to me at the time. I took a picture and then we loaded up to leave Farasa.
At the Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas, Farasa
We left Farasa behind and the valley closed up once more as we switch-backed up the mountains, going deeper and deeper into the Taurus Mountains. The dirt road gave way to a simple 2-track trail. After a long climb, we crossed over the peaks, and started to descend. We would occasionally drive through a camp of goat herders, living in tents, watching over their flocks with enormous mastiffs on guard, as their children played in the shade of the scattered pines. At one point, an avalanche had wiped out the road. Before I had time to think through the implications of exactly what we would do, our driver put the vehicle into 4-wheel drive and simply climbed over the pile of rubble. After many kilometers, we found ourselves following an ever-widening river valley, that contained more herders, and an occasional garden patch. Before nightfall, we reached the Kapugbasi Waterfalls. Other visitors had driven in from the opposite direction. A few kilometers on, we reached our pension, which consisted of a several tree-houses above the rushing Ulapindar River.
That night, we feasted on fresh trout by the riverside and talked of many things. Turan had a serious misunderstanding about the status of U. S. Muslims. I have noticed that the Turks, despite being advanced in so many ways, are still susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories. I think this is endemic to the Muslim world, though perhaps less so here in the Near East than elsewhere in the region. It seems that many recognize the Middle East's difficulty in adapting to a modern, fast-changing world. As the basic underpinning of their society--Islam--cannot be questioned, there must be some other rationale; hence, the conspiracy theories. Anyway, Turks find it hard to believe that Muslims move easily in American society. Unfortunately, most of my examples were of local Iranian-American businesspeople--hardly a selling point to Sunni Turks.
Turan up a tree; Ulapindar River
Turan also asked me why America so unquestioningly supported the Israelis and not the Palestinians. Turkey has strong economic and security ties to Israel. The bulk of Turan's clientele are Israeli tourists. And as Turks, they view Arabs with almost as much suspicion and distrust as Arabs do the Jews. But as Muslims, they are baffled by our foreign policy. I tried to convey to Turan that this same puzzlement extended to a large number of Americans, as well.
I weighed my words carefully--or the best I could--and told him I thought there were 3 main reasons that America was seemingly joined at the hip with Israel. First, I thought it was rooted in the Holocaust--understandable sympathy on our part and guilt on Europe's part. Second, since World War I, Jewish-Americans had played an influential role in the public affairs in this country. Their involvement in government, business and the media, to name just a few spheres, far outweigh their actual numbers. This in turn supports a powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. If you say such things these days, you are apt to be labelled an anti-Semite (as Measheimer and Walt in their now famous 2006 essay). Such accusations are no more than public relations postering and abject silliness. It is not anti-Semitic to make a simple, value-neutral, assessment of facts on the ground.
The third (and in my view, most important) reason was considerably more difficult to explain. Making sense of our fixation on premillenial dispensationalism is frustrating to me as an American. How can I possibly explain it to my Muslim friend? For there are as many variations of this heterodox viewpoint as there are television preachers. And even if this is held as a religious belief, why does it influence our relations in the Middle East? I found it embarrassing to try to explain the impact that a goofball like John Hagee can have on our foreign policy. I did make clear that such thinking was outside the mainstream of Christian thought. The Orthodox do not believe this. Catholics do not believe this. And until the mid 1800s, Protestants did not believe this. But Darbyism has definitely taken hold in this country, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on down. Most Americans, even those I would label "casually religious" ascribe to it. While most don't think about it that deeply, they at least have a vague belief that the 1948 establishment of Israel is somehow part of God's plan for the "end times," and that supporting Israel in all things is pleasing to God. A belief that the Jews are still the chosen people of God has replaced the ancient Pauline doctrine of the Church as "spiritual Israel." Amazingly, this understanding cuts across socio-economic lines--or at least so in my region--from our moneyed elites to Pentecostals in store-front missions. As we dig our hole deeper and deeper in the Middle East, we would do well to stop and ponder the manifold consequences such a theory has wrought. It baffles my Muslim friend. It baffles me.
Last night, as I was writing these lines, I remembered the writing on the back of the old church in Farasa. I had never looked up the Greek letters to see what was written. So, I pulled up a copy of my picture (below), and then pulled up a Greek alphabet and translation online. I wrote out the letters, on by one: Alpha, Gamma, Iota, Omicron and Sigma. I then wrote out the translation: A - G - I - O - S. A shiver of wonder went up my spine, for someone had written the word "Holy."