Olive trees heavy with fruit provide cool shade for pilgrims walking along the path to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s house.
Meryemana Evi, known as Mother Mary’s House, is on Mt. Koressos close to Ephesus, Turkey. The story of its discovery in the 19th century begins with a German Augustinian nun, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, (1774-1824) who had visions of Christ’s final days as well as visions of the Virgin Mary’s life. Emmerich, recognized as a mystic and marked with the stigmata, attracted the attention of Clemens Brentano, a German author. He spent years transcribing her story which recounted details about the house St. John built for Mary in Ephesus. He published the book in 1852.
Based on those descriptions, a French priest, Julien Gouyet discovered ruins near Ephesus that he believed to be this house. Ten years later, this discovery was given credence through the urging of Sr. Marie Mandat- Grancy (who eventually became the caretaker of the shrine). The ruins had been a pilgrimage site for descendants of the early Christians from nearby Ephesus, who referred to the area as the portal of the Virgin Mary. Today, the Catholic Church recognizes this site as a Holy Place and a renowned pilgrimage site.
My recent pilgrimage to Ephesus included a trek up Mt. Koressos to venerate the Blessed Mother at this special shrine. The hike was an opportunity for quiet contemplation. No one spoke in the exertion and heat of the midday sun. Every once in a while I would come across an ancient olive tree with a gnarled trunk that showed signs of aggressive pruning over the years. Finally, out of breath, I stopped to lean on one of these ancient trees. Had Mary stopped here to catch her breath some 2000 years ago? Had she leaned against this same tree before covering the last couple of hundred yards to her little house beside the road to Jerusalem?
I smiled to think she wouldn’t have been a young girl anymore. In fact, I’m probably the same age she was when she lived here. What a thought! I’d first turned to the Blessed Mother when I was a young mother, and here, in this steep trail winding through woods, I encounter her again in a similar season of my life. I dare to tug gently on an olive, overwhelmed by emotion at recognizing that this ancient tree is still giving fruit.
My thoughts are cut short – hundreds of pilgrims are at the site today. Although I’m on a private tour, the visit isn’t going to be intimate. I joined the line that was inching its way toward the front door. My guide pointed out the stones at the foundation and lower part of the house, explaining that the top is a reconstruction. I smiled to think that of course, the foundation would remain.
The main room and the smaller adjacent room are unremarkable. The space is cozy and I think that Mary wouldn’t have needed much. I expected to linger inside, but I barely had time to take in the few icons on the walls, and the statue of the Blessed Mother on a small altar. She’s posed in the classic posture of Our Lady of Grace, but her hands are missing. Our guide later explained the hands were broken in transport and never replaced. I asked why, and she responded with a shrug, “Perhaps we are instructed to be Mary’s hands.”
Outside, I turned around quietly to contemplate the house again before moving to the fountains to fill the little bottle I had purchased. I was pushed from behind, and a few people pushed past me to cut in line. I started to get annoyed but thought it must have been like that when the crowds wanted to get close to Jesus, perhaps not so much rude as anxious.
I could easily dismiss the brief experience as heavy on tourism and lite on pilgrimage but as I sat in the shade looking at the wall of petitions, I found the serenity I had expected inside the house. Here, thousands of pilgrims have left their prayers on scraps of paper, carefully rolled scrolls, and ribbons and other pieces of material that have been tied to the wall. The breeze ripples across the prayers and the wall looks alive. I can’t help putting my hand on this wall of hope and gratitude and caress it, adding my heart to so many hearts beating there.
I know there are skeptics and scholars whose work is to debunk this tradition. Maybe the Blessed Virgin lived here. Maybe she didn’t. It doesn’t change my belief in her son, Jesus Christ. My walk up to this tiny house gave me the opportunity to reflect on my vocation as wife and mother. In meditating about Mary, I can see an example of selfless love, and more than that, a model of living my faith.
But it was in that wall of sweet petitions that I experienced a part of our faith that touched my heart; we place all our hope in the Lord – how beautiful to have His mother as our mediator, a fountain of Grace, a gentle mother.
Copyright 2019 Maria Morera Johnson