Pilgrims to the Everlasting City

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews pointed beyond the earthly Jerusalem, which would be destroyed by the Romans, to the heavenly Jerusalem awaiting the redeemed. There is a tension latent within Christian culture: we must build an earthly city and way of life shaped by our faith while remaining detached as pilgrims seeking a city beyond our efforts.

I just returned from leading my first overseas pilgrimage, visiting France and Belgium. This tension was on full display as we saw many glories of Christian culture — Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance art, historic monasteries — and also the scars of destruction. The civilization constructed by medieval Christendom violently collapsed with the rise of the secular culture initiated by the French Revolution. We looked upon the remnants of beauty of this past age and gained inspiration for life back home.

More than any other, one city embodies the ebb and flow of Christian culture: Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. Founded by the ancient Greeks as Byzantion, refounded and renamed by Constantine as the center of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained the center of Byzantine culture until captured by the Turks in 1453. The fascinating story of the transformation of this Greek port to the greatest Christian city in history, to the modern city of Istanbul, has been traced by the historian Thomas Madden in Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Penguin, 2017).

The city’s prominence derived from its strategic location on the Bosporus, the narrow waterway separating Europe and Asia. The strait became a center for trade, but also warfare, finding itself in the center of the clash between Greeks and Persians, as well as Rome’s later dominance of the region. Constantine chose this site as the key crossroad of his newly reunited empire, requisitioning art from across the ancient world for his monumental building projects to expand his beautiful new capital: “The main streets of Constantinople were designed to be centers of civil life. All were flanked with long rows of monumental columns, roofs to keep out the sun and rain…. Constantine and his successors lavishly decorated these routes with statues, fountains, and bright tapestries” (67).

The city grew in splendor in the Middle Ages, continuing as the capital as Roman Empire in the East (typically dubbed Byzantine) and growing to become the largest city in the Western world. It became a symbol of the everlasting city with its golden-domed churches, dazzling iconography, numerous monasteries, and abundance of relics, but also a reminder of our transience. Hagia Sophia, the gem of the city, towered over every other church in height and beauty, as one of the true wonders of the world. Nonetheless, Islamic armies began a relentless conquest of Byzantine lands in the early seventh century, leaving Constantinople at the head of a shrinking empire. Crusaders didn’t help, when, embroiled in dynastic rivalry and financial troubles, they sacked the city in 1204, burning much of it and stripping its moveable goods, including its rich collection of relics (such as the Shroud of Turin).

Despite efforts by the last Byzantine emperors to reunite the Eastern and Western churches to bolster military support, Constantinople became a city state surrounded by the new power of the East, the Turks. After many failed attempts, the Turks conquered the city in 1453. The conquest marked “the end of something that had seemed eternal” (243). Hagia Sophia became a mosque, most ancient structures were lost, and the city became the seat of a distinct oriental culture. The Turks remained the dominant power in Europe until Western European nations developed new military and scientific prowess. This unexpected reversal in power culminated in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The newly formed Turkish state expelled Christians from its territories (and initiated genocide against the Armenians) and renamed the city Istanbul. It has since modernized and grown to become the largest city in Europe.

Reading the book on pilgrimage gave me an interesting perspective on the transitory nature of even our greatest accomplishments. We seek to express our faith through the beauty of art and architecture, though so many of the greatest accomplishments of our culture have now become landmarks of a lost Christian world in the secular West. The amazing history of Constantinople may provide the most potent example of how a Christian city can serve as an image of the heavenly one, but also of how all our efforts fall short of permanence and perfection.

COMING UP: Finding light, building culture, venerating the saints

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“Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ . . . having no hope and without God in the world; Once you were in darkness, but now you are light” (Ephesians 2:12; 5:8). The first Christians experienced profound light and liberation in Christ, freed from the darkness of vengeful gods and fate, and drawn into a community of love, affirming the dignity of all people as created by a good and loving God. These early Christians rose from a small and persecuted minority to the leading force of the Roman Empire. When that same Empire collapsed in the West, the slow and painful work of rebuilding occurred around groups of monks, tilling the soil, copying texts and educating new leaders.

Nonetheless, the self-described Enlightenment looked back on what modern philosophers and historians called the Dark Ages, which they thought had abandoned the rationality and nobility of the ancient world. Catherine Nixey’s recent book, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (HMH, 2018), traces this alleged loss of light, accusing Christians of destroying priceless works of art (i.e., idols and temples), shutting down centers of philosophical thought, and eventually outlawing pagan worship altogether. Nixey presents her readers with what she sees as ammunition to support a modern narrative of Christian intolerance and hostility to freedom.

In response to her claims, peppered as they are with exaggeration and sarcasm, we can point out that these alleged destroyers were pagan converts who turned their back on the hopeless spiritual darkness of a world without salvation. Further, these same Christians carried whatever genuine nobility they found into the new Christian culture they created. For example, although she dwells on the fact that Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, pillaged the temple of Serapis, she fails to note that he supported the instruction of the pagan teacher Hypatia. Despite episodes of violence toward idolatry, it would be more accurate to say that the Christian world grew directly out of the classical world, with a biblical vision both purifying and integrating elements of the culture of antiquity.

Eamon Duffy, a British Catholic historian, offers a different take on the rise of Christian culture, examining the ways in which Christianity expressed ideas and developed new forms of beauty. His new book, Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity (Bloomsbury, 2018), traces the materiality of Christianity from the early Church to the onset of the Reformation. “Christianity is a material religion,” Duffy argues, believing in the Incarnation of God and the resurrection of the body, and Christians “venerate the relics of the holy dead, they bless material stuff — water, salt, oil, wax, medals, holy pictures, palm branches” (137). Duffy traces the sacramental expression of history through the Church’s popularization of the book over scrolls, the invention of the musical staff to spread Gregorian chant, and the breathtaking art honoring Our Lord and the saints — all means of transmitting light to others.

Duffy actually opens his book by taking on Edward Gibbon, whose monumental and anti-Christian work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was frequently cited by Nixey, responding to Gibbon’s assertion that Christianity had demeaned classical purity with its barbaric devotion to the dead bodies of saints. Rather, the great importance given to the veneration of the saints in the Middle Ages — relics, healings, pilgrimages, images — expresses the incarnational principle of Christianity. God embraces our humanity through his coming into the flesh and continues to touch us through the sacraments and the transformation of human life through grace.

As we approach All Saints and All Souls Days — on Nov. 1 and 2 respectively — we can strengthen our bonds to the deceased members of the Church. The Church invites us to invoke the aid of the saints and, in turn, help our deceased family and friends undergoing cleansing in purgatory. Duffy reminds us that the greater communion of the Church extends “the network of friendship and obligation which constituted the community of the living” (252). The bonds between living and dead continue. The saints are our patrons who guide us through our life pilgrimage and we should remember “the bond of charity and the obligation of care for friends and kin even beyond the grave” (253). The communion of saints demonstrates that the rich community of Catholicism endures even when all falls into darkness. The light of faith guides us in building up a more human culture now and enables us to enter the light that never fades.