Visiting the Virgin Mary in Ephesus

When I became an Episcopalian two decades ago, one of my great pleasures was being able to be open about my love for the Virgin Mary.

Growing up in another denomination, I’d been taught that while she could be trotted out at Christmas, hanging around with her the rest of the year was idolatrous. I found myself attracted to her nevertheless. I secretly wanted one of those plaster statues of her in my garden. I taught myself the Hail Mary. I gravitated to Virgin Mary shrines on my travels. And when I became an Episcopalian, I delighted in the Anglican via media that says it’s fine to hang around with Mary all year long.

The House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus

Of the places around the world where I’ve been fortunate to encounter her, the place that touched my heart the most is a secluded spot near Ephesus in Turkey. Up a winding mountain road above the famous Greco-Roman ruins there stands a simple stone building known as the House of the Virgin Mary. According to tradition, it was here that Mary lived her final years after being brought to Ephesus by the apostle John.

Is the story true? The best response I can give is author Phyllis Tickle’s tale about being approached by a young man after she had made a reference in a speech to many people’s problems in believing in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. “Of course I believe in the Virgin Birth,” he told her. “Why wouldn’t I? The whole thing’s so beautiful, it has to be true, whether it happened or not.”

The deeper truth of the House of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus is the peace that permeates it. The tiny house is surrounded by aromatic pine trees and serenaded by birds. It’s a place that makes you want to be still and silent, which to me is always the surest sign I’m on holy ground.

In contrast to the ornate Marian shrines at places like Lourdes, there’s not much here. Inside the house, a statue of Mary sits atop an altar, with two flickering candles on either side. In the space before the altar are two places to kneel and pray. That’s all.

Because I visited in winter when there are few tourists in the area, I was able to have as much time as I wanted in the house. As I knelt, I could imagine Mary there. After all she had seen and suffered in her life, I wanted to believe that she had ended her earthly days in a peaceful sanctuary like this, even if it wasn’t this exact place. I hoped that the birds had serenaded her as she pondered in her heart all that she had witnessed.

But the part that I found most wonderful was this: when I exited the house, I saw a small Muslim shrine to Mary. I recalled that my guide in Istanbul had told me that Mary is mentioned more often in the Koran than in the New Testament. “We honor her as Maryam, the mother of the prophet Jesus,” he had explained.

As I watched, I saw a group of women in headdresses and robes approach this shrine. I wondered what prayers they were saying as they paused there with closed eyes. I guessed that our prayers were likely similar, and that Mary made no distinction between which ones were prayed by a Christian and which by a Muslim.

I don’t mean to minimize the theological differences between Islam and Christianity or the tangled political web that at times divides the two religions. But in that lovely, serene place, those differences seemed non-existent.

As a mother myself, I know how families too often become broken and estranged, and I believe that this fracturing profoundly grieves the One who made us all, whether it happens in individual families or in the larger human family. But think of the healing that can happen when we return home to our mother’s house. All is forgiven, she says. There is room for everyone, even though it seems like the house is small. Be still and at peace. And just listen to how beautifully those birds are singing.

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