May 2014

Struggling with the “genuine vs fake” religious debate

After struggling with various aspects of Marian theology over the years, along with a number of dubious claims around apparitions and healings, I found myself to be a somewhat reluctant starter for the visit to Meryemana, writes Monica Dutton.

BY Monica Dutton

Even as we made our way up into the steep, winding hillsides overlooking Ephesus, I was not convinced.

I had been excited by the prospect of the day three Turkey itinerary which promised “an unforgettable experience of exploring the antique city of Ephesus by wandering along its 2,000 year-old marble streets”. It sounded fascinating and was much anticipated. A visit to “Meryemana” (The Virgin Mary’s House) on the way, however, had failed to capture my attention.

After struggling with various aspects of Marian theology over the years, along with a number of dubious claims around apparitions and healings, I found myself to be a somewhat reluctant starter for the visit to Meryemana. My hesitation was confirmed as soon as we walked through the entrance and passed a multitude of shops and stalls selling a gaudy array of tacky trinkets and souvenirs.

A hand-painted sign nailed to a tree beside a canopied stall announcing the sale of “Genuine Fake Watches” seemed to say it all. Unbidden, the “genuine versus fake” religious debate rose to the surface of my consciousness. As we followed an excited group of day-trippers on a shore excursion from a cruise ship, I was very aware that on this occasion I was most definitely a tourist and not a pilgrim.

The fact that the discovery of Meryemana, hidden away in the hillsides of western Turkey, had been inspired by the visions of a bedridden German nun in the early 1800s, did little to allay my scepticism. I pulled my ‘doubting Thomas’ hat down even more tightly around my head as I followed the eager crowd along the pathway to the house.

Local tradition holds that when the persecutions broke out in Jerusalem, Mary went with the apostle John to Ephesus. There he provided a home for her and took care of all her needs, just as Jesus had instructed at the crucifixion. There is general agreement among scholars and historians that John did go to Ephesus. As they were committed to each other as mother and son, logic suggests that Mary would have accompanied him.

Meryemana is situated in a small clearing and not easily visible, even from the entrance to the site. I was expecting to view some ancient ruins; however, the dwelling has been rebuilt and now houses a small chapel which has been visited by four popes. While the Church has not adopted an official position on the authenticity of the house, it is indeed a place of pilgrimage and worship for many people.

Our visit afforded a stunning blue-sky day and after viewing the house, I took a moment to step away from the crowds and wander through a nearby stand of fragrant pine trees. It was easy to imagine Mary in this place. As I closed my eyes and sensed the warmth of the sun on my face, I simultaneously felt and heard the rush of wind in the trees above. I took a deep breath and it was then, that I felt a profound sense of peace.

There was a sudden realisation that it didn’t matter whether or not this was Mary’s house. Rather than getting caught up with the ongoing inner “genuine versus fake” argument, I decided to move from the head to the heart, and simply take in the serenity of Meryemana one last time… and found that I loved the idea of it all.

I loved the idea that after the horrific events in Jerusalem, Mary was brought to a place of seclusion and safety. I loved the idea that as a woman alone in her society and culture, Mary was cherished and revered in her later life. I loved the idea that Mary’s “yes” to God was a lifetime commitment, and I especially loved the idea that Mary spent her final years in simplicity, solitude and quiet contemplation.

I felt very connected to Mary in that moment.

Belief takes many forms and encompasses a diversity of ideologies. For many people, finding the holy grail, the true cross or the final resting places of particular saints is of paramount importance. Verifying the authenticity of such relics and sites, however, has always been met with controversy – with the devoted believers on one side and the staunch sceptics on the other.

For me though, the significance of such places is more about the meaning and the message they can hold for us, and the sense of spiritual awareness and connectedness they can engender. I am still not convinced about the authenticity of Meryemana – but that is not important. I have received a much greater gift; I have breathed in and embraced the essence of Mary’s spirit.

I smiled quietly to myself as I made my way back down along the pathway to the exit, and threw my ‘doubting Thomas’ hat to the wind as I passed the cheerful vendor doing a roaring trade in genuine fake watches.

Monica Dutton

Monica Dutton has a background in education and has been working with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan for more than 20 years. She currently holds the position of Spirituality and Mission Animation Leader for the Congregation.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.