Library of Celsus, Ephesus Turkey, pilgrimage site. Where Paul of Tarsus converted polytheists to Christianity.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus Turkey, pilgrimage site. Where Paul of Tarsus converted polytheists to Christianity.

You have before you a blog post of meditations on quotes about pilgrimage. The deepest book on meaningful travel I’ve ever found is Phil Cousineau’s “The Art of Pilgrimage:  The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred”.  Cousineau seems to have been influenced by Jung, Thoreau, Kant, and Ibn Al-Arabi, and so his intellectual breadth cuts across divisions and to my mind, cuts to the heart of ‘what is real’.

 I’ve been living in Turkey on my own pilgrimage and adventure for ten weeks now, with only seven more weeks to go. What did I really come here for?–is the question I’ve been contemplating. Have I gotten what I came for, or must I still seek? With only 7 weeks left, what do I still need to find? And if I don’t find it, what have I already discovered?

Discovery #1:   “That which you are looking for may be calling you to seek.”

 I ask of the quote above—Is it the ‘being called’ that gives travel its meaning?–or is it the ‘seeking’? Phil Cousineau writes of a man who went on a long journey to find enlightenment. Many years and many sufferings later the man, Statler, said:

 “Of one thing I am certain: The transformation I yearn for is incomplete. I do not know whether I am any closer to enlightenment— I do not really expect to achieve it— but I know that the attempt is worth the effort.”

 The key phrase for me in the passage above is: ‘I do not really expect {anymore} to achieve it.” I find this insightful: the expectation of ultimate achievement has died, and the focus has shifted to the quality of the effort. These ‘works of the human spirit’  are what seem to provide the traveler with richness, and the journey with meaning.  “You get what you put into it” is a cliche with truth-beneath-banality.

 Discovery #2: Subtraction and Suffering Clarify Essence

“A spiritual seeker spends a few days in a {Christian} monastery. As the monk shows him to his cell he says ‘I hope your stay is a blessed one. If you need anything, just let us know and we’ll teach you how to live without it.’”  Philip Yancey, “Prayer: What Difference Does It Make?”

In 2005 I traveled with my family to Chartres Cathedral in France, and was appreciating the architecture outlined against the sky, when I looked down and saw a group of  Christian devotees climbing up the long front flight of stone steps on their knees. Slowly, prayerfully, pausing to pray on each step, they climbed. What were they atoning for?, I thought. What divine sufferings were they identifying with? What…..love. What amazing love, to choose suffering for Oneness. I was deeply touched by their struggle and commitment.

“To be touched, we must, in turn, touch. When life has lost its meaning, a pilgrim will risk everything to get back in touch with life. This is why relics, such as a tooth of the Buddha, the dried blood of Christ…..are objects that must be touched as an integral part of the pilgrimage. This is what the risk is for, the confirmation that the mystery exists at all.” “Art of Pilgrimage”

Discovery #3: We Travel To Kill What is Dead Inside Us

“Thoreau suggests that the longing to travel may be the stirrings of remorse that we are not living up to our potential: ‘We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with our blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough…. We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion?’” “Art of Pilgrimage”

Often, you don’t know what you lack until you sense its absence. Living in Turkey for ten weeks has generated an existential resurrection, killing off stagnation, indecision, and paralysis. The flood is indeed now on in me, the gates are up, the wheels are whirling. I have a surging fierceness motivating me forward in life that I lacked before I came.

Discovery #4: What Is Not There, Is There

The desire for the deeply real at sacred sites around the world is what prompts intrepid souls to set out on long journeys.” “Art of Pilgrimage”

Here are some photos of evocative places I’ve ‘pilgrimaged’ to in Turkey recently. I have stood on the plain of Laodicea, one of the ‘seven churches of the apocalypse’ and looked for the spirit of ‘what is real’, and I looked and looked and I saw…..ruins. Dry, dusty, ruins. Broken bits of marble. Emptiness. There was no spirit of place, no spirit, there. The paradox and contradiction of this surprised me.











In Nicea (Iznik) I stood in the tiny St. Sophia church, home to the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicea, and was stunned: This is it? This tiny, nothing, church is where they decided the big issues? What? All 15 of them sat in this small area and talked it out?

Nave of St. Sophia church, Nicea Turkey, where a few folks sat and decided Christian theology for the rest of us.

Nave of St. Sophia church, Nicea Turkey, where a few folks sat and decided Christian theology for the rest of us.









Why am I so shocked at the ‘ruins’, at the ‘tiny nothingness’ of these sites? It’s not that I’m incapable of romanticizing a site, Lord knows. And my capacity for imaginative projection is well developed. But my experiences looking, looking, seeking, seeking, have turned in on themselves.  I have realized that sites only have the power to evoke,  to draw forth from a pool already contained within oneself—-hidden and inaccessible until that moment of encounter.  Sites alone do not have the power to offer something which is missing, to deposit something in the self which is absent.

 And so, finally, here is the Steenhuisen contribution to the aphorism-bank on pilgrimage:

 “Honey, if you don’t bring it with you , it won’t be there.”

Looking for that which is really real.

Looking for that which is really real.


Though controversial, I love Edward Said, Palestinian professor who wrote Orientalism in1978. I get his thesis completely: that Westerners do not understand Easterners because they gaze with an ‘orientalist’ gaze, meaning, upon people they believe to be culturally beneath them, and with an exoticized fascination which wishes not to honestly encounter an ‘other’ but to consume that other, and perhaps, as in colonialist history, to enslave.


I am, at times, an ‘orientalist’. I, too, wish to consume Middle Eastern exoticism, isn’t that what draws us to travel, to encounter the exotic? For example, while researching a potential trip to Morocco, inside my head I heard this dialogue:


Self 1: Look at all those Western hotels in Marrakech, if you think I’m staying at the “Marrakech Holiday Inn”…….


Self 2: Camels! Berbers! Kasbah! Fountains in dark courtyards! Drifting sands at sunset!


Self 1: So do I want to be a “capitalist exporter of westernization” and stay at the Holiday Inn,  or become an orientalist consumer of exoticism and stay in a local ‘riad’?


Self 2: Sigh. It’s not easy being enlightened.


But then, how else are Westerners to gaze upon the East? Aren’t we always ‘western’? A researcher on culture has called the orientalist gaze “the west looking at the east as if the west knows more about the east than they know about themselves.” Superior, condescending, don’t we all know how that ‘look’ feels? and don’t we all hate it? So why do we do it?


Currently, there is a rage on in the Middle East for Orientalist art. Opinions differ among wealthy buyers if orientalism was a way of merely painting culture, or of patronizing it. Personally, I love romantic orientalist art, I think romanticization contains a dimension of respect and deep affection.


What do you think?—–Here are two of my favorite pieces of orientalist art, both about daily life at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul in the 18th century. Piece number one is by Jean-Leon Gerome: “Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard”


Something about the coloring of this I just love, the pigeons flying into the light, the black eunuch, the women in their situ. Shadow/light, resting/flying, contrast/balance.


Piece number 2 is of men at the sultan’s court: “Reception at the Court of Sultan Selim III (1761-1807)

Reception at the Court of Selim III Topkapi Palace

All those white turbans! the pagentry! I have indeed stood where they are standing, in 2013 in a long line to see the…….sultan’s palace and harem area, beside me were other subjects awaiting an audience with the palace, from Russia, Germany, Belaruse, Bulgaria, Turkmenistan, etc.   Different age, different attire, same desire for contact with greatness.


So how do I avoid being ‘orientalist’ toward the east? I don’t know if it resolves the conflict between east and west at times, but for now I pledge to be open toward another culture, have a desire to engage, create a mutuality of dialogue and interests, have honest human-to-human contact, and humor—-


Humor because the commodification of cultures works both ways, I am viewed with an “occidentalist gaze”. Westerner consumerism is exploitable. I know this because I hear it, sounds like this from the hawkers screeching after me in the bazaar “Hey Lady!! Good deal!!! Discount for blonds!!!”


Sultan's Seal on Gate of Felicity Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Sultan’s Seal on Gate of Felicity Topkapi Palace Istanbul

I admit to a passion for the Ottomans. Exploring the sultan’s palace in Topkapi, Istanbul a few weeks ago, I envisioned myself living in the lap of luxury, reclining on cushions being served figs and dates by eunuchs and only awaiting the birth of the son which would elevate my status to favored wife of the sultan. Beating in the breast of every stout-hearted feminist there is a harem woman, isn’t there? Okay maybe it’s just me.

When I visited Istanbul in 2006, I fell in love with the symbol above, the ‘tugra’ or ‘sultan’s seal’. It is a glorious celebration of Islamic calligraphy, that art-form which developed in a culture where painting or drawing the human visage was forbidden, in order to avoid idolatry. If you look at the tugra closely, it resembles backwards ‘sssss’. Perhaps it’s the curves, the grace, the, ah, Gold. In 2006, I headed to the gold bazaar near the Grand Bazaar and bargained for a pendant of the tugra, which I wear frequently.

The tugra is positioned on the front of Turkish royal palaces like the one pictured below on the front gate of Dolmabache palace.

Dolmabache Palace Sultan's Seal

Dolmabache Palace Sultan’s Seal, Istanbul

I had never visited Dolmabache before this current trip to Istanbul, and I could just imagine a visiting European royal’s boat approaching the palace from the Bosporus—-

Bosporus view of Dolmabache Palace from ferry

Bosporus view of Dolmabache Palace from ferry

docking at one of the filigreed gates—–

Four river gates welcomed esteemed visitors to the Sultan

Four river gates welcomed esteemed visitors to the Sultan

approaching up the sweeping stairs—

Two pairs of curving travertine staircases led to palace doorway

Two pairs of curving travertine staircases led to palace doorway

and then entering….what?…..Something about Dolmabache was…….empty. Of course it was filled with luxurious Ottoman furnishings, but it gave me an experience of what I’ve found missing in Turkish culture sometimes: soul.  Dolmabache’s  architect had tried to transport European understandings of monarchical display to this Middle Eastern environment. The Turkish spirit was missing, the Turkish soul. The architect designed a palace that European royals would recognize as impactful display, but which lacked the self-confidence of the Turkish people. “We’re trying hard to be like you”, the palace seemed to say to visiting Eu-royals. Why?

In my “State and the Veil” class yesterday, the class members created a meme, a cultural symbol expressing dense meaning. The meme was ‘geopolitical theatre’. We were discussing why Ataturk in 1923 was so interested in 1. eliminating the Islamic headscarf, and 2. altering the Turkish alphabet from its base on Arabic letters to Roman characters–why did he need to make those changes to ‘modernize’, why not just modernize technologically?, educationally? militarily? bureaucratically? We came up with this idea: Perhaps he wanted to display to his European audience (potential investors, future military raiders) similitude. In the biological world some animal species will camouflage themselves to look like the predator so they aren’t perceived as prey. Might Roman letters and ‘modern’ women cue likeness, and thus, safety?

It takes work to discern a national identity, and Turkey has been in positions where this work couldn’t come easily–post-World War 1, Russia on the right flank, Europe on it’s left–but as Erdogan ends his reign in 2015, perhaps another opportunity to reassess their identity can surface. In the meantime, I was just happy to experience the Turkish attempt at geopolitical camouflage on a gorgeous day at Dolmabache Palace. And about status-elevating mimicry and self-display, isn’t that why I bought my gold tugra to begin with?

J'ai arrive`!

J’ai arrive`!

Virgin Mary house

Our group approaching the Virgin Mary House


Votive offerings to Mary of Nazareth

Inserting a wish for a blessing into the 'wishing wall'

Inserting a wish for a blessing into the ‘wishing wall’

As part of the McGhee Center’s orientation tour, our Georgetown group visited the ‘Virgin Mary House’ in Ephesus (Kusadasi) Turkey. In preparation for the visit, I’d researched its history and significance to Christians, but visiting the site rearranged its significance for me.

Historical sources do indicate that Mary of Nazareth was associated with Jesus’s disciple John,and that John traveled to Ephesus, so it could be argued that Mary came with him. A vision by a German mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich, led Christians to this particular house site in Ephesus as Mary’s.

Statue of the Virgin Mary

Statue of the Virgin Mary

When I visited the site, I had a conundrum to confront: how to position myself in relation to Mary’s presence? I’m a Protestant, and my denomination downplays her divinity. To some Catholics, she is ‘the Mother of God’, to others, a co-redemptrix with Jesus of humanity. What was she to me?—Jesus’ mother? a figure of history and holiness? A fellow mom?

As I approached her house, I felt a presence there. This tiny stone house, set in an olive grove, was absolutely serene. Candles glowed inside, and a silent orthodox priest prayed quietly. Standing in the stone house, the walls were so so quiet.

The words that came to me about her as I stood silently and absorbed the space: Humble. Sweet. Serenity. Strength.

For Mary of Nazareth was a very real, historical woman, betrothed to a man, pregnant in surprising and disturbing ways. But she to me is not weak, submissive, passive, for her first speech was a radical political one: pull the rich down from their thrones sort of stuff.

Indeed, it was a strong and challenging Mary who triggered Jesus’ first miracle at Cana by countermanding him: she asked him to help when the wedding ran out of wine, and he said to her ‘its not my time’ and she ignored him and turned to the servants and said ‘do as he commands’ and Jesus turns the water into wine. She pushes him into self-expression, a display of his and her own personal power.

I have a Lutheran friend who has always said in tribute to Mary’s mothering, “How do you think Jesus got those good values and manners?,– his momma raised him right.”

Why don’t we focus more on her role not merely as womb-provider to God, but as a woman of quiet grounded strength who did the most powerful act on earth: mothered a man/God who transformed the world with his values?

What is it about us that makes us want to explore the world? Why are we willing to destabilize our comfort zones to grow and learn? These are the questions I pose to myself and my future students as I contemplate What The Heck I’m Doing To Myself by moving to Turkey to teach for four months.

Being offered a position in Georgetown’s McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya Turkey was  a career highlight. That was 6 months ago, and the syllabi I designed to get the position now need fleshing out to fulfill the position. Designing courses is a lot of work, more than I remembered: I am so aware that everything I point to as important forces students to ignore everything else. What power! The professor is a force in the class even before it meets. This is truly humbling. It makes me honor what I offer, be honest about what we’re not examining, and more wholistically open to ideas. Already: Stretching and deepening……….

Turkey Istanbul Blue Mosque sunset 2