We are on our way to the House of the Virgin Mary. The bus jolts up a steep hill; across the plain below stretch the ruins of the classical city of Ephesus, writhing with tourists. At ten a.m. the sun is high and fierce and there are few trees for shade. I am skeptical about any shrine, icon or acts of intercession, as the religious part of my youth was spent in a Congregational church. This denomination espouses the austere side of Protestantism where one’s relationship to God is direct, personal, without the softer Catholic practices of confession and praying for intercession to saints and apostles.
On arrival our tour guide tells us we have only half an hour. I photograph the house; it is square, stone, flat topped and Legend says that St Peter, who brought Mary here after the Crucifixion to escape persecution, built this house. Yet it is not falling apart and has a tidy garden and swept paths. I also take photos of the many candles burning outside in two open-fronted glass cases that line the footpath. Large signs proclaim no photos are to be taken inside. Next to it is a platform full of kneeling people, with a white cassocked priest raising his arms above them.
Discussion during the previous evening’s dinner informed me that this house was built over a shrine to the Greek Goddess Artemis, and that it was venerated as a place of curative power for millennia before that. The Goddess’s marble temple is far below but it is here where natural springs rose.
The house is small inside; I enter a vestibule that leads to a larger room with a statue of the Virgin at the front. I pick up my allotted couple of candles, drop a donation in the box and sit on one of only three chairs in the whole room. People enter this room slowly; none of them want to take the only chair left, so they stand for a while, then leave.
My head feels heavy and I reach up to rub my face; it is wet. Unexpectedly I am crying and crying, praying for my daughter who died eleven years ago. In the chair to my left is a veiled woman reading a religious text that she cradles in her hands. To my right is a stone wall, and I press my hand against it, hoping to absorb its healing power. I close my eyes; I cannot bear to look at the statue of the Virgin. I hear serene music and the stones against my palm are cool and rough. Shame pours from me in bright empty bubbles that I feel floating in front of me. My child was sick and distressed and I failed to keep her alive. I open my eyes; everything hurts. I close them and open them again. I stare at my other hand that fists and releases aimlessly on my lap. I turn and focus on the veiled woman but when she raises her head, I look away. I failed. I struggle to stifle my sniffs and sobs. ‘Please look after her,’ I pray repeatedly. ‘Let her be happy and at peace.’
After a time my tears stop and I leave through the side door and take my thin white candles out to the glass cases. Someone has removed all the candles except for two burning at each end. I light a candle and steady it in the sand for Jessie. To whom should I dedicate the other candle? It is no good: I have to give both for her. My tears are falling once more.
As I place and light the second candle a soft voice beside me asks, ‘Are you alright?’ I turn to see a young woman with hair so dark it richly contrasts with the fine white cotton scarf that covers it. She is slim and petite with large dark eyes.
‘Do you need a hug?’
I am unable to answer, yet we find our arms tightly wrapped around each other. This is a very long embrace; her head rests light as a butterfly against my shoulder as she says over and over, ‘It’s alright, it’s alright.’
I want to thank her and begin to say the Turkish words, tesekkur ederim, but stop myself midway; there are so many nationalities here that she may easily not be Turkish at all. Almost at random, I ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’
‘I am a Muslim, but the Virgin Mary is important to us too.’
I nod. Travel broadens, they say. I try, and fail, to blink back my tears, but at least I am able to speak. ‘Where are you from?’
‘My husband and I,’ she gestures towards a young man standing just a little way behind her, to my right, ‘are from Pakistan, but now we live in Toronto.’ She smiles, warm and wide.
‘I am from Australia but originally from Connecticut.’ I tell her this because Connecticut is close to Toronto, even though they are in different countries. She continues to smile at me as I say, ‘I didn’t expect this to happen.’
‘I was the same yesterday in Istanbul. At Topkapi Palace I was so close to the Prophet’s cloak I could almost touch it. I was over… (she pauses, searching for the English word), overcome with tears because I knew that this would never happen again.’
‘Thank you,’ I say. I try to communicate how deeply I appreciate her compassion through my eyes and the pressure of my hand in hers. For the millionth time I reflect on how such things are all we have to reach out to another.
She turns back to her husband. He seems relieved. I walk down a terrace to the springs recessed in solid rock. A man is wading barefoot in the water that overflows onto the cement pad in front of them. I wash my face in the adjacent restroom and wander back to find the tour bus. My feet are unsteady as I climb up the steps and sit down heavily in my seat. I wonder if anything will change; if I will change, if shame can disappear. I only know that love and kindness are real.
published 25 June 2014