The Road to Constantinople

This week our guest blogger is Judge Marina Corodemus, one of the Philoptochos pilgrims who went to Constantinople last week. As a first time visitor it was not just the sites that were truly awe-inspiring but the deeper thoughts they evoked.

     The road to Constantinople is lined with the souls of those who venerated Christ, preserving and protecting the faith through their devotion.  Their sacrifices are a living presence palpable for all Orthodox pilgrims to experience in today’s Constantinople.  Jesus’ presence is not confined to ancient testaments of devotion, as evidenced in the magnificent mosaic in Ayia Sophia church and the breathtaking frescoes in Chora.  Christ lives today in the Patriarchate, the Theological School at Halki and primary/secondary schools of modern Greek children living in Poli—reminders of a once flourishing Greek population.  Christ is the living being for pilgrims to experience and is ever-present.

    Istanbul is a city of contrasts.  It is a modern democratic secular society wrapped in the enigma of the Muslim faith.  Its youth rebels for true separation of religion and state and beckons for individual liberty in the face of governmental retaliation.  It is social chaos in an evolving, societal stream.  The cacophony of Taksim Square echoes to those who seek freedom. Yet Orthodoxy, a repressed religious minority, survives on the fringes. Battered but not beaten, censored but not suppressed. Liturgy continues to be celebrated, vespers are still chanted, and recitation of prayers continues to rise with requests to a living God.

The Philoptochos pilgrims in Taksim Square.

    In contrast to the transitory politics of modern day Turkey, Christ’s presence is constant and sustaining. Orthodoxy in Constantinople and its endurance among the faithful has been challenged by centuries of oppression, holocaust of the Hellenic Society, desecration of church, monasteries and, and humiliation of the clergy.  Despite all this, our faith persists.  Amidst the time-worn churches, transformed into mosques, transformed yet again into Turkish museums, the power of the biblical depictions of Christ, Panagia and the saints and their messages endure.

Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos at the Orthodox Theological School of Halki.
     Entry to the modern Patriarchate reveals a modest series of edifices, adequate but far from opulent.  Here, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew leads the worldwide Greek Orthodox Church within Muslim Turkey even as the blaring sounds from neighboring minarets announce a call to prayer. Absent are the vaulting ceilings of Ayia Sophia but silently, reverently one venerates the sacred relics of two renowned Archbishops of Constantinople who were solemnly restored to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, St. Gregory the Theologian (329–390) and St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407). 

Icon of the Marriage at Cana the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora.
     Being in the presence of His All Holiness, whether in liturgy or private audience, one is struck by calm solemnity of his voice, reaching into your heart for the peace and love of Christ.  His prayer is devotional, his words inspirational and his living example as the Head of the Church of Christ in Muslim Turkey is exemplary.  Prayer with His All Holiness is a true blessing.

    Certainly, “must sees”  while in Constantinople are the two “churches” of Chora and Ayia Sophia, the Patriarchate, and a day-trip – a 90 minute ferry ride-- to, Halki, the still-closed Theological School and alma mater of His All Holiness.  It is the emblem of religious repression of the Orthodox minority.  The goal of His All Holiness is to see the door of Halki open once more for the preparation of priests and to ensure future clergy and hierarchs for the great church of Christ.  The 90 minute ferry ride to Halki transports you past a skyline of Ayia Sophia and the Blue mosque onto the island where Halki stands at the top of the mountain. Halki today is under the care and leadership of the charismatic, progressive, Metropolitan Elipdophoros.

His Grace Bishop Sevastianos of Zela welcoming all to Halki.
    One of the several places to visit is the monastery of Ayia Triada.  The chapel and its surrounding garden is a beautiful oasis of spiritual tranquility in the midst of cosmopolitan Istanbul.  The neighborhood of Baloukli which leads up to Ayia Triada is a living crypt of abandoned houses and stores from the once thriving community. The emptiness of this once thriving Greek society reminds you of how much so many have sacrificed.

    Again, the face of Christ appears before us. This time we see Him in the faces of the young children attending the three schools of the Zographeion, Zappeion and Megali Tou Genous Scholi.  Here, children, descendants of Greeks, who thrived in Constantinople, are educated with the watchful guidance and love of His All Holiness.  

    What lesson do I take from this ancient land?  It is the lesson of sacrifice and endurance as put so succinctly by His All Holiness, “This [Constantinople] is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes; we await the joy of the resurrection."

-Judge Marina Corodemus, (Ret.)

The Philoptochos pilgrims in front of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki.