Travel is an interesting creature. It is always changing. There are always surprises around every corner. Travel can humble even the hardest of hearts and uplift the lowest of spirits. Sometimes when we travel, we don’t always know why a particular adventure has drawn us to it. In fact, it can sometimes seem like we discover the reason why we are on a trip while it unfolds. I happened to find myself in just this situation while taking a classic Mediterranean cruise. Little did I know, I had just stumbled on a hidden pilgrimage.
Istanbul To Athens
My mother and I were off on a great, relaxing cruise that would highlight the Eastern Mediterranean. We were excited about the itinerary that would take us to quite a few ancient sites. We arrived in Istanbul and would make our way through Turkey and Greece aboard a Regent Cruise ship. It was all very fancy and growing up with Greek connections made it that much more exciting. With ports like Philippi and Ephesus, there was no doubt that I would be calling on my Catholic roots to help me make sense of it all. For the record, I consider myself a cultural Catholic. I don’t always go to church but I’m very tuned in to the culture and traditions of my faith. In other words, I’m not a nun but can hang with the sisters.
In the Mediterranean, St. Paul seems to pop up everywhere. As one of the most travelled apostles, it’s no surprise. He spent a tremendous amount of time spreading the word of Jesus all along the coast line. Paul, Peter, and James all move around the Med and leave their mark in plenty of locales. I had heard these stories my whole life but, as a traveler, there is no substitution for actually putting your feet in the same spot that biblical history occurred. In fact, each port of call seemed to bring more and more connection to the very core of my faith. Let me share some of them.
Our tour bus wound around and snaked up the side of the mountain that towered over the ancient ruins of Ephesus in the Summer heat. We were headed for the top where the House of The Blessed Mother sits. I was not looking forward to being an inch closer to the sun but, Mary holds a special place for me. We walked a few yards from the bus into a grove of trees and the temperature in the shade was welcome.
There, in front of us, was Mary’s modest home where she lived after Jesus ascended. Here, in the care of John as Jesus had asked, she lived out her years. It was a magical place and it seemed as if a peace like no other fell over the small grove on the top of the mountain. Just then, a little kitty came to greet us as if to say, “yes, you understand, this is a little paradise!”
Down in the valley, the ruins of the ancient city stand tall and proud as it to say, “see how well we did?” The library of Celsius was a masterpiece and we meander our way toward the amphitheater. Here, Paul was supposed to speak to the locals about all he had learned from Jesus. But the vendors who sold little statues of Artemis, did not want to lose any business. They put up quite the fuss about this so called speaker of the word and Paul changed tactics and wrote a letter instead. That letter. A letter from Paul to the Ephesians. As I stood in the place that this letter was read to eventual boos from the crowd, I couldn’t help being overwhelmed.
The port of Kevala in Northern Greece is the jumping off point for Philippi- as in, “a letter from Paul to the Philippians”. Here, one of the most important moments of Christianity that you never heard of occurred. Paul, moving north from Turkey, met a woman named Lydia. She was a well to do merchant who sold purple material. Paul told her about his time with Jesus and Lydia became quite the believer. Here, in a cool stream by her house, Lydia became the first European to be baptized.
As we pulled up to the tiny but stunning baptistry that sits adjacent to the very stream that Paul and Lydia shared that sacrament, we again felt that feeling of peace and contentment. In the 106 degree heat, we pulled off our shoes and sat on the banks. Our feet in the cool stream, was sat remembering the quiet moment when Paul helped Lydia find her Christianity. Magical.
Acropolis and St. Paul
Our last port was Piraeus. Homebase for anyone wanting to explore Athens. And at the top of the list for most is the Acropolis. The hill that holds the proud Parthenon is a mecca for so many. However, in addition to climbing up to the top, there is another stop for pilgrims: a rock. This three story rock was where the judges of ancient Athenian culture passed down rulings. It was here that Paul faced his critics and defended the resurrection of Christ.
We arrived early the day after we disembarked to get a head start on the heat and crowds. After enjoying the splendor of the Parthenon and the Carytids of ancient times, we made our way downstream against the morning rush and climbed the metal staircase that led to the top of the Areopagus. Here, Paul made it clear that he was on Team Jesus. He spoke eloquently to the judges who didn’t quite buy the whole thing but at least didn’t order his death! Not much is on the top of the rock but a sign to tell you a quick history and the feeling that you are stepping onto literal history. Just wow!
Our cruise was over and I walked away with an amazing experience that history found in books is all around us in real life when you are willing to look. While my path had me stepping into the stories of Christianity, there are plenty of moments regardless of the faith or interest you may have. More importantly, a traveler’s first experience with these kinds of magical moments allows future travel to have those magical memories too! As I continued to travel after this cruise, I found myself adding experiences to my pilgrimage. I’ve included some of them here.
By far, one of the most iconic pilgrimages for anyone in the Christian world is the Vatican. As Paul traveled, Peter on the other hand, went to Rome to face the Emperor and all of his might. He, along with others, was eventually crucified on Vatican Hill. Years later, Constantine legalized Christianity and Vatican Hill became the epicenter of the Catholic world. While the cathedral is amazing and the museums are world class, it is the religious significance of the Vatican that gives you the goosebumps.
Jesus said to Peter ” You are Peter, you are my rock and upon this rock I will build my church”. So powerful. It only holds true that underneath those words in latin painted by the incomparable Michelangelo, lies the bones of the very St. Peter Jesus spoke to. You can visit his crypt beneath the church by arranging to be part of a tour of just a dozen people per visit. By planning and booking months in advance through the Office of the Scavi, you can have that incredible moment to see Peter, the Rock. After, climb the dome to see those letters from the great artistic master up close for the full experience.
Auschwitz and St. Maximillian Kolbe
In another corner of Europe is a fascinating story of courage and sacrifice. While the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is most notorious for the final solution: the rounding up and killing of anyone who wasn’t Hitler’s ideal. While the Jewish population was the primary population that was targeted, quite a few other groups found themselves as part of the Auschwitz population. Among them was Father Max.
The humble priest wore the same rags as the others, and witnessed all of the horrors of the camp. His story is singled out because he begged to change places with a man who had a wife and children. The man was set to be starved to death in basement of cell block 11. He died from this sacrifice and the man, years later, attended his canonization at the Vatican. a miracle indeed.
The cell is still there and many who pay their respects at Auschwitz stumble upon his story rather than go to just see the shrine in the basement. A true hidden pilgrimage!
Look For The Moments That Speak To You.
Travel is such a fickle thing. One moment it tires you and yet another exhilarates you beyond your expectations. Travel excites, informs and brings peace. I am thankful for it everyday: even when I have no idea that I’m experiencing something life changing. It happens to us all the time. Don’t believe me? Check out the amazing David Suchet (most famous for his portrayal of Christie’s Poirot) on his journey to unexpected pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages can happen to anyone. It may seem like they only stand out to a select few but, with an open mindset, every corner of the world offers a pilgrimage of sorts. Regardless of your faith (or for that matter non-faith) a spiritual adventure could be the next amazing experience in your passport!