Sausage in Poland, Turkey in Turkey, and Back in America

I’m happy to say that the Ramages are back in the USA and enjoying some needed R&R at grandma and grandpa’s house–a vacation from vacation, as it were. I’m looking forward to resume my theological posts on this blog, but in the meantime I’ll recap the last whirlwind week of our European expedition.

At the recommendation of my students, we flew Ryanair to Krakow and spent a few nights there. What a delight! This is a land of great food (especially its sausage), great saints (JPII, Faustina, Kolbe, Edith Stein, etc.), and important history (for me, especially that concerning JPII and the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland). This was one of the experiences we hadn’t planned on having, but it was made by possible by Providence as well as the great exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Polish zloty. I highly recommend traveling to this inexpensive land where most people are Catholic and are proud to say so. Poland has a fairly Western feel, but it gives you a different flavor from countries around the Mediterranean.

Flying back from Poland to Italy, we stayed a night in Bologna and paid homage to the founders of the first university in the world located there. From here we trained back to Florence, spent one last night out on the town, grabbed the rest of our bags from our villa, and flew out to Istanbul the next morning. We had been to Istanbul before the semester began, and now we were back for a couple more days to relax, revisit some favorite sites, find some new ones, and celebrate Thanksgiving. We did not get to eat Turkey for Thanksgiving this year; we just ate in Turkey. Yes, it was kind of weird eating atop of our hotel looking out at the Blue Mosque and eating kebabs, but it was good to do once. On this trip we also took the opportunity to cruise on the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe and see a couple beautiful Byzantine Christian churches–with the exclamation point being a Hagia Sophia adorned with a full rainbow overhead. Finally, we spent a morning negotiating some bargains with the intense merchants of the Grand Bazaar,. I look forward to making use of my new souvenirs from here, in particular playing chess on my new Crusaders and Ottomans set.

Well, there you have it: my last Europe post of the Fall 2012 semester. I hope to be blogging some Benedict XVI soon. Unfortunately, I just found out that the copy of Jesus Vol. 3 I ordered won’t arrive until Christmas or shortly thereafter, so we’ll see what happens..

More pictures from Greece and Turkey (several group shots)

I finally got pictures from my other camera loaded on the computer, so here are a few more pictures that tell a kind of photo story of our BC group’s travels.

Complete Greece & Turkey Itinerary

I actually have a few free minutes now, so I’ll recap the events of our Greece and Turkey pilgrimage class:

Day 1-2: Departure from USA

Day 2: Arrival in Athens and visit to the Byzantine Museum with artifacts covering the entire span of the Byzantine Roman Empire, including many ancient mosaics and icons.

Day 3: Left Hera Hotel at 8 am and got on our bus traveling to Corinth, whose church received two letters from St. Paul preserved in Scripture. We took a tour of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in the new part of Corinth, where our guide, Jen, and I explained to students the significance of the various icons in Eastern churches. We waled in the ruins of Corinth’s agora and set foot in the place where Paul preached to the Corinthians, and stopped to overlook the impressive Corinth canal. Upon returning to Athens, we took pictures of the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympics were held. In the afternoon we made the trek up Athens’ famous acropolis and visited the Erechtheion temple as well as the Parthenon, temple to the city’s patron goddess Athena. At the end of this long day we ended up at the incredible Acropolis Museum, which houses many of artifacts that once stood in the temple. We then went out for some gyros, in some ways the Greek equivalent to American fast food, but better in my opinion (unless you compare it to Chipotle).

Day 4: Began the day with a 1.5-mile uphill trek to Athens’ agora. My dad described this challenging hike as one of the most grueling physical feats he accomplished in his life. (My 60+ year old parents, who came along with our group on this trip, were very impressive for making these walks!). On the way to the agora, we walked by the well-preserved Odeon (music amphitheater) of Herodes Atticus. We then walked around the Temple of Hephaistos, the most well-preserved of Athen’s ancient temples. Making our way to the Stoa of Attalos, we walked by the site of the prison where Socrates was held before his execution–very cool to think we were standing in the place he stood awaiting his death sentence. Then we headed for Mars Hill or the Areopagus, where Paul preached as recorded in Acts 17. The altar to the “unknown god” which Paul alluded to in his speech is no longer present in the agora, but it stood here somewhere. I got to proclaim Paul speech atop this hill and give a catechesis on its relevance for the relationship of faith and reason. Very powerful getting to stand in the footsteps of Paul in this way. In the afternoon we returned for lunch and caught our bus to head for the port of Lavrion and board our cruise vessel.

Day 5: Spent about 20 hours sailing to Istanbul, arriving in the early afternoon. The time flew by because we were exploring the ship, getting served royally by its staff, and sleeping. The cruise was the only way to hit all the spots we wanted to visit, and it was so great to do our traveling why we were sleeping. The afternoon entry into the port of Istanbul was spectacular. This is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. You enter the Bosphorous Strait, and you have Asia on one side and Europe on the other. You get to see the great Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque as you approach. The ship did some 360-degree turns in the water just to give us all a view of this impressive city. For the evening, we got hooked up with a private bus which brought us to St. George, the head church of Orthodoxy and see of the Patriarch of Constantinople now that Hagia Sophia is no longer a church. We then went to the Grand Bazaar, sipped some Turkish coffee, and let ourselves get lost in its countless avenues of vendors. Afterwards our bus dropped us off at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for evening mass and a private talk with the priest, Fr. Julius. The night concluded with a stroll down Istiklal Street, a major nightlife hub in the city, and a long walk downhill towards the port for a snack and long-awaited sleep.

Day 6: Our day tour of Istanbul began when we disembarked the ship and met our guide who brought us through the old city to the Hippodrome, the ancient arena where races were held in Constantinople. In this place still stand obelisks brought to the city by the Romans as a show of their power and conquest of Egypt. On either side of this piazza stand the Blue Mosque, one of the top mosques in all of Islam, and Hagia Sophia, once the grandest church in Christendom. We took a fairly quick walk through the mosque because, like most mosques, it is fairly barren, seeing as Muslims do not allow images to be displayed within them. Instead, you find calligraphy and beautiful mosaics. The exterior is much more impressive, with its several minarets which dominate the city landscape. Just across the street stands Hagia Sophia. We took a prolonged walk and tour through its two levels, admired the remaining mosaics, and lamented the loss of the vast majority of them which were covered up (for the reason given above) when it became a mosque in 1453. It remains one of the grandest buildings in the world. I particularly love its exterior. Even the minarets added to the outside by Muslims look great. I think they even enhance the place. Starving, we ate lunch across the street at the famous Pudding Shop. President Clinton ate here, as did countless hippies who met here in the 60s and 70s on their way to India. After lunch everybody went to the palace of the Sultans, Topkapi Palace. Very impressive site, the highlights of which (for me) are Hagia Irene Church, site of the First Council of Constantinople, and a room housing alleged relics brought from Jerusalem after the Muslim conquests of the Holy Land. They claim to have 1) Moses’ staff 2) David’s sword 3) Joseph the patriarch’s turban 4) John the Baptist’s head and arm 5) Muhammad’s beard, and more. Whether any of these is authentic is another question, but if any of them are I think it is awesome. I give some credence to David’s sword and John’s arm because they were taken from Jerusalem, where you’d most likely find the items preserved if they indeed were.

After this tour everyone was tired out, but a few of us went on to tour the underground Cistern Basilica before getting on the ship. This is an amazing site, and I was thankful some students volunteered to watch our kids while we went in. It is all dark and lit only a little bit in a haunting and mysterious sort of way. It is one of many cisterns in the city which used to be completely filled with water. They drained this one and made it into a museum because of its impressiveness. For centuries the Ottomans somehow had forgotten these things existed. The pillars in Hagia Sophia seemed to sweat and citizens of the city seemed to have magic springs in their yards, but it turned out this was all due to condensation from the cisterns underneath. After nearly collapsing, we got ourselves back to the boat and set sail for Izmir, Turkey.

Day 7: Docked in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) at 1:30. This is where St. Polycarp, disciple of St John, was bishop. We still have a marvelous account of his martyrdom and correspondence between him and St. Ignatius of Antioch which I assigned to students in preparation for the trip. From Smyrna we took a bus to ancient Ephesus, probably the best preserved ancient site in the Mediterranean, which is quite a claim. The whole town had been buried due to earthquakes and other things, but it has been spectacularly excavated. Along the great main drag you can still enter the remains of the Celsus Library, the massive Amphitheater, and more. Our BC students sang the college’s fight song from the platform in the massive hall and sent the video to our institutions president for his enjoyment. As if this were not enough, we then drove to the nearby location of Mary’s House, discovered again only a little over 100 years ago through the efforts of the French nun and Servant of God, Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey. The story of how she discovered this place is fascinating, and you can read about it in this book. Her beatification cause is currently in the works, and I am blessed to serve on the theological commission which examines her writings to verify their correspondence with Catholic doctrine. The site thus had a unique meaning for me, but it did so for the whole group because this was the place Mary and John lived and quite possibly where she was assumed into Heaven. Popes have made pilgrimage and celebrated mass here, and we got to pray part of the rosary inside. Finally, our bus then took us to the Basilica of St. John, site of the apostle’s burial. It was largely destroyed by natural disasters but is being restored. You can walk along and imagine how grand it once was, and then they have a replica in glass to give you an excellent idea of its appearance. On your way to this place, you happen also to be walking nearby the site where the Council of Ephesus was held in 431 A.D., the council which proclaimed Mary as Mother of God or the theotokos in Greek.

Day 8: Started our morning bright and early at 6:30 as we tendered over to the small island of Patmos. We first visited the cave where John dictated the Book of Revelation to his disciple Prochoros. The icons in the cave and on the exterior of the building testify to this tradition. Inside some Orthodox monks were chanting the liturgy, which provided a solemn atmosphere to the brief visit in this tiny cave. Afterwards we made the hike up the island’s roads to the monastery and museum where monks continue to pray for St. John’s intercession in the very place he was exiled around 95 A.D.

In the afternoon we had to skip our scheduled visit to the island of Mykonos due to rough seas, and instead we docked in Syros, a small but beautiful island where we walked around its friendly streets, ate a light dinner, and bought an inexpensive icon.

Day 9: We were blessed to have a private mass with the island’s Catholic priest who is a Franciscan from the order that has custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans came to Rhodes at various times throughout their history to serve the needs of the island’s believers, and were present along with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, after the Crusades. These knights later moved to Malta and became the Knights of Malta. We took a tour of the Palace of the Grand Master of this order and walked down the famous Knights Street in the town. We spent the afternoon in the turquoise green waters of one of the island’s beaches, and we walked back to our ship along its beautiful harbor, passing through St. Paul’s gate, which is a fortified watchtower named after the Apostle who was shipwrecked there.

Day 10: Today we visited two islands in one day. First was the city of Heraklion in Crete. You can go visit the island’s famous Knossos Palace, cradle of the Minoan civilization which preceded classical Greek civilization. However, we bypassed this since it is under some renovation, and opted instead to walk around the town. We went into a handful of astounding churches, especially the Church of St. Minas, and were surprised to happen upon the Church of St. Titus who was bishop here after Paul commissioned him for the task. Our last stop before heading back to Athens was then Santorini, the archetype of Greek islands with its quaint whitewashed buildings and cobalt roofs. We paid to get transferred to the city of Oia on the island, walked around, took pictures, and sipped its famous (and tasty) vinsanto or “hole wine.” Tendering back to our cruise ship from the island was one of the most picturesque experiences of our lives. We were in a small boat in the middle of a body of water sitting above an active volcano which blew its top and created the shape of the island in 1628 B.C. From here as we got bashed around by some waves, we could see the sun sent and the moon rise at the same time. For me, the exquisite beauty of such a vista makes it no surprise that many think this sunken part of the island represents the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

Day 11: Sailed overnight from Santorini to Athens. We arrived early in the morning, disembarked our ship-home, and were transferred to the airport on our way to Rome. What a trip, and yet how much more we had in store for us!

In the Footsteps of the Apostles

It’s been over 2 weeks since I’ve been able to write a blog post, but not for lack of desire to do so. Today marks day 15 of the Benedictine College whirlwind Europe tour in which we are following the steps of the apostles and more. We’re actually in Rome right now and were just standing in St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday, but I want to work chronologically to share our group’s experiences with you. The first 10 days of the trip consisted in an amazing land and sea tour of Greece and Turkey. Among our group were people ranging from under one year old to over seventy, including six Benedictine College students, my immediate family of four, my parents, one student’s grandmother, and a few family members of another student. The map below traces our itinerary.







As the title of this post indicates, we have seen several key sites in the early Church over the past couple weeks. We began in Athens, where we were able to preach from the Acts of the Apostles on the very spot where Paul proclaimed Christ’s resurrection to the Gentiles (Acts 17). We immersed ourselves in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, site of ecumenical councils and for centuries the most exquisite church in the world. We prayed the rosary in the very house where Mary lived in Ephesus, and we stood inside the cave on Patmos where St. John wrote Revelation. We basked in the sun on a beach at Rhodes, near the very place where St. Paul was shipwrecked (a different kind of experience, granted!).

As if this was not enough, the trip was actually more than a pilgrimage. I was asked a great question by one traveler: “What would you say is the highlight or main point of the trip?” As I see it, this particular trip had not one but three focuses due to the uniqueness of the sites we encountered: First, it was a pilgrimage of faith in which we set ourselves in the very places some of the apostles lived and prayed for their intercession. We also arranged masses and talks from local priests who shared their insights into the Church in Greece and Turkey, the relationship of Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, and the life of Christians in their region today. Like other pilgrims, we had to battle elements such as the heat, seasickness, long days, small quarters, and–in the case of my family–tired and needy children. As with other pilgrimages, I think much fruit came about through these trials. I get so much joy from witnessing the wonder and edification of pilgrims in these places. Second, it was an academic experience that put us in touch with the roots of Greek culture, the Church, and Western civilization which was born through the fusing of the two. When we stood on Athens’ acropolis and in its agora, we were retracing the steps of those whom we have to thank for democracy and philosophy. In preparation for the trip, students read Greek myths in order to comprehend the significance of the temples and statues we saw, and they read the philosophy of Plato and Socrates to examine their critiques of these myths. They then read from the Acts of the Apostles to get a grasp of Paul’s journeys and preaching in addition to the Pauline epistles associated with the sites we visited (Ephesians, 1-2 Corinthians, Revelation). By this time they were probably tired of reading, but I had them next read some works of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna since we docked in nearby Smyrna (modern day Izmir). These men were “apostolic fathers,” meaning that their lives and writings show us what Christianity looked like in the generation following the apostles. Polycarp, for example, was a disciple of John, and if you read the epistles of Ignatius they sound a lot like Paul – as well as Catholicism today!

But the intellectual significance of these sites does not stop here. Students also read and heard about the ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and Ephesus. We owe our articulation of the Creed itself to the work of the Fathers at these councils. I was particularly moved when standing in the sites where the early Church labored and gave birth to the doctrines we still profess every day today. Finally, students read from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the principal liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy which has remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries upon centuries. This gave those who read from it the ability to better appreciate the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Christianity as well as their respective beauties. During the trip, my wife and I also took many opportunities to admire the iconography of the Greek churches and to unfold its meaning to the group. I also, of course, had to buy a couple inexpensive icons along the way. Third, the trip was just plain fun. It so happens that the only way you can really get to all the sites we visited with a group is to take a cruise. Thus we got to enjoy the thrills of group meetings on the deck overlooking the crystal blue Aegean sea, astoundingly beautiful arrivals into some of the greatest ports in the world, and having a glass of wine next to a pool (I hardly drank any, but the wine was actually much cheaper than the beer–can you believe it?). The cruise was also great because we traveled while we slept at night and would often arrive in port at our next destination at 6:30 in the morning ready for another full day. It was also a life-saver because we didn’t have to change hotels and carry around our 3-month supply of goods needed for a small family’s survival.

Oh, and did I mention that, since we took the cruise, we “had to” stop at a couple places for their beaches and vistas? Santorini, for example, is the quintessential Greek isle. When we were there we felt like we were in a postcard–because that’s where all the postcard pictures actually come from. When we tendered back through the center of the island which has been all water since the volcano blew its top a few thousand years ago, we could see the sun setting on one side and the moon rising on the other. We were sitting above a live volcano, one which once witnessed one of the greatest explosions of earth’s history whose ashes reached all the way to Greenland. I couldn’t help but think both, ” hope this experience will never end” and “Get us outta here before she blows again!” With that said, this post has gone on long enough and the reader who has come this far is probably likewise ready to move on from here. Over the coming days and weeks I will be posting a lot of pictures from this trip and from our experience in Italy.