THE 6TH TRUE LIFE IN GOD ECUMENICAL PILGRIMAGE TO TURKEY AND GREECE 2007
Fr. Twistleton is Mission & Renewal Adviser for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in the UK Reports
From 19-29 May 12 coaches carrying 500 pilgrims travelled across Turkey to ancient Christian sites and across to Patmos in Greece on a spiritual pilgrimage. They came predominantly from Christian churches led by 50 bishops and priests of 18 denominations accompanied by Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim believers and clergy.
This was the 6th True Life in God ecumenical pilgrimage inspired by Vassula Ryden’s Divine Messages calling for spiritual renewal among Christians and the recovery of Christian unity in the service of the peace and reconciliation Jesus yearns to bring to his world.
The participants from 56 countries celebrated a new instinct present now in most of the churches. This instinct is for full communion and fellowship between Christian churches. Speakers on the pilgrimage testified to a prophetic movement of prayer across the world that is lowering barriers between denominations. The bishops, priests and pastors influenced by the messages spoke of how Christian leaders have been building trust and collaboration across the churches and how this has brought blessing to their local communities across the world. They attested the messages as ringing true to the faith of the church through the ages whilst calling for a renewed confidence and deeper humility among church members, especially leaders.
UNDER THE PATRONAGE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Pilgrims gathered in hotels at Kayseri, the Turkish name for old Caesarea, home of St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379) the great teacher of the Holy Spirit. This seemed appropriate to the liturgical season between Ascension and Pentecost. It was the start of a great invocation of the Holy Spirit lasting nine days where we devoted ourselves to prayer with Mary the mother of Jesus (Acts 1v14).
Cappadocia is the homeland not only of St. Basil but of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nyssa. These so-called Cappadocian Fathers were the great minds and spirits God used to overcome the fourth century heresy of Arianism which denied Christ’s divinity. In Kayseri 500 Christians from 56 countries and 18 Christian denominations gathered around one altar to hear a call to sacrificial love from Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi. The unity expressed across denominations in the daily Mass was a prophetic sign. True Life in God opens up a vision of unity and transformation that beckons us beyond the church of our day.
12 coaches set off for a tour of Cappadocia with its extraordinary rock formations and underground towns. The sandstone is easily carved by man or the elements. Christians fleeing persecution in the early centuries came to find refuge here.
At Kayseri Vassula read a famous speech by former Patriarch Athenagoras which assured us that the flame of the Spirit can consume divisions. With this assurance we were reminded of a message from Jesus how much longer will the world be divided and my church riven? Have you not heard the lamentation of the saints? Many of my church’s dignitaries think more highly of the opinion of men which is loathsome in my sight.
Our second day started in the hotel with an Orthodox Liturgy and an awesome sense of the Lord’s presence. This worship was originally scheduled to be in one of the few churches operating in this part of Turkey but this was forbidden out of security concerns.
Our journeying around Cappadocia continued to Sinassos and the underground churches of Giorene. There we sang Christian songs, where we were permitted by our secular guides, to honour the memory of those gone before us knowing that the glory they share in Christ is for us and that without us they will not be made perfect (Hebrews 11v40b).
On the coaches and in the evening we heard testimonies to the work of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. Each day we prayed the Rosary. I recall several people being deeply moved by the Sorrowful Mysteries as used from the True Life in God prayer book. The vivid descriptions in the messages from Jesus detailing his passion strike the heart.
TURKEY THE BRIDGE BETWEEN ASIA AND EUROPE
The Anglican Eucharist on the third day was led by Bishop Riah, just retired from a costly posting in Jerusalem. This liturgy called us to reconciliation – to attend to God, build Christian community and to commend God’s love for the world. Walk the talk said the Bishop. This we attempted as Christians of different cultures, nations and denominations came close to each other.
The pilgrims journeyed 630 kilometres across Turkey, the largest east-west peninsula in the world bridging Asia and Europe. As we travelled we saw the famous caravanserai, the roadside inns where travellers in ancient days could rest and recover from their day's journey. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places Jesus said (John 14v2). Many resting places on the journey to the vision of God.
At one of our resting places on this journey, Iconium, we recalled the site of St. Paul and St. Barnabas’ first mission.At another there was a small mosque where I was able to enter and pray for Muslim-Christian relations. Our guide spoke of Islam as a religion of mercy. The deeper our sense of our need of mercy the closer believers grow to one another, even across religions. This was a theme of some of my conversations inspired by the messages.
THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF REVELATION
On the fourth day we began our tour of the seven churches of the book of Revelation. From our hotel in Pamukkale, ancient Hierapolis, we drove to the so-called sacred city white with calcium oxide to gather at the site of the martyrdom of St Philip the Apostle. Weeks before our pilgrimage three Protestant missionaries had been killed in Turkey. It was natural for us to reflect on that site on how much it can cost to convey the truth of Christ in any age.
Colossae and Laodicea are visible from the heights of Hierapolis, all referred to in the New Testament. We travelled to Laodicea and prayed there in the ruined church for the Holy Spirit to save us from being luke warm Christians (Revelation 3v15). This area abounds with springs, hot and cold, which gave vivid sense to the biblical reference. Many of us swam that evening in the calcium oxide rich waters of the hotel spa.
In the evening we saw pictures of some extraordinary phenomena in the Australian True Life in God meetings which Vassula interpreted as a call from the heart of Christ. He is the God of unity and not division. His Sacred Heart bleeds still for the separations in his body the church.
The youth Mass for Our Lady, Help of Christians on the fifth day included a rich sermon from Mgr. Fred Kriekenbeek of the Philippines on the unity in the Trinity which would communicate itself to all, starting with Mary, daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Spouse of the Spirit. This inspired the visit to the ruined church of Philadelphia, place of brotherly love. There are no criticisms of this church in Revelation but rather praise for the loving endurance of its members. The pillars still stand, a hint of the promise to Sardis believers that they will be made pillars in the temple of God (Revelation 3v12b).
In Sardis Vassula joined our coach. As we read John’s message from God to Sardis calling for spiritual awakening and vigilance it was natural to thank God that prophets continue in the church with their wake up call. Such a call was framed in the evening service of healing in which many people were touched at a deep level, moved in their heart to confession of sin, moved in many cases to the floor by encounter with the Holy Spirit. All of this ministry was presided over by Jesus in the mode of his presence in the Blessed Sacrament and devotion excited by the preaching of Fr. Teofilo Rodriguez Dias of Panama.
The singing in tongues and sacramental presence flowed into and out of one another, a marvel of the apostolic call of True Life in God which calls us to reintegrate the charismatic and institutional elements of the church so frequently set against each other by Satan in our day.
PROPHETIC WORDS IN EPHESUS
As the sixth day began we travelled the short distance from our hotels to Mary’s House in Ephesus. There we were welcomed by Fr. Tarcy Matthias OFM leader of an ever decreasing number of local Christians who preserve our holy places in Turkey. I carried a greeting to him from his friend, my own Bishop of Chichester. The Roman Catholic Mass was led by Cardinal Telesphoro Toppo of India using the golden chalice and paten presented and used by the Pope in 2006. Caught up in the spirit of joy and unity the Cardinal ended Mass by exclaiming: True Life in God is the future.
It was to be a day of prophetic words. In the afternoon around the traditional site of St John the Apostle’s burial we joined hands and sang after someone read from the messages of Christ’s desire that the main denominations of the church should, like iron bars, be bent and forged together by the burning love of the Holy Spirit. In a conversation Cardinal Toppo shared with me a vision for initial church union like that of the European Union. Each party would keep some sovereignty whilst submitting to the whole so gaining enrichment and empowerment. At St John’s Tomb I remembered his message of love as the clue to all that Christianity stands for, including Christian unity.
Prophecy continued in the evening as Vassula outlined the aspirations of so many laity in the church for intercommunion and how church leaders needed to hear what the Spirit is saying and to act upon it. We need one date of Easter and then one Eucharist. If the signs of the times are for unity how can some church authorities dismiss them? Is Christ the God of division or unity? This message concluded with reference to Ephesians 4v4-6 which speaks of one body and one Spirit?one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all
PENTECOST ON PATMOS
On our seventh day we set sail for Patmos. As we travelled we celebrated the Eucharist on our three boats, a pilgrim people nourished on pilgrimage, as Israel was of old, by heavenly food. On my own journey I was accompanied at this stage of my pilgrimage by a monk from Mount Athos who counselled me about the Jesus Prayer, that blessed instrument for inviting the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This was to be a legacy of my pilgrimage, a new openness to grace.
As the Orthodox chants for Vespers of Pentecost Eve ascended our 500 pilgrims descended into the little church in the so-called Cave of Revelation to touch the cruciform crack in its roof where St John the Divine is said to have received his revelation from God on the island called Patmos?in the spirit on the Lord’s day (Revelation 1v9-10).
From the Cave we ascended to another Patmos church to participate in the memorable marriage of Mark Jordan to Vassula’s niece Maria. In the orthodox liturgy bride and groom process with crowns symbolising their Christian calling to build Christ’s kingdom as husband and wife. Later at the wedding reception Cardinal Toppo addressed Mark: You will not go to heaven without Maria and your children and the same to Maria. Vassula acted as the prophet she is by crowning the bishops and priests present at the reception with laurel crowns. You priests will not go to heaven without spiritual children the Cardinal concluded in a powerful affirmation.
Day eight was Pentecost Sunday. The sun rose over the sea before Paradise Hotel as many of us kept our morning devotions in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (Revelation 1v10a). Ukrainian Orthodox Mass was sung below Patmos Monastery. As on the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 the Gospel was heard in several languages. The phrase that leapt out at me was the traditional peace greeting of Jesus heard in Arabic from Bishop Riah: salaam aleikum.
This Feast day brought with it free time and space for conversation over lunch and the voyage home to Ephesus.
SENSING A DEEP TOUCH FROM THE LORD
Three Revelation churches in a day was the ambition for the ninth day starting with Smyrna (Izmir) and a beautiful Mass in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Fr. Teofolo preached ending with an invitation for the laity to pray an anointing in the Holy Spirit upon the clergy. Many priests felt a deep touch of the Lord in a place praised in scripture for the richness of its faith (Revelation 2v8-11). Izmir bears the scars of Turkey’s troubled history, the scorched earth policy adopted when Greece invaded almost a century ago. Our prayers were as ever for healing.
Second call of the day was to Pergamum’s Red Basilica where my coach sang Father we adore you in parts, echoing off the immense walls of the church warned of downfall on account of its tolerance of false teachers (Revelation 2v12-17). The third call to Thyatira had to be abandoned save for a spiritual visit through reading Acts 16v14 and Revelation 2v18-29. The open- heartedness of Lydia so contrasting with the self-serving of Jezebel brought a spiritual challenge: whose kingdom am I to serve as I return to the world? Is it ‘my will be done’ or ‘thy will be done’?
So we concluded our pilgrimage around the Seven Churches warned against apathy in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation. Praying in these ruins the 500 pilgrims were spurred to unselfish action to spread the good news of Jesus lest the Christian heritage crumble to dust again in their own lands. In our own coach the long journey home was cheered by testimonies. One point made that struck me forcefully was this: the receipe for holiness is to focus on the needs of others.
True Life in God - AN APOSTOLIC CALL
Vassula thinks tomorrow. Others think today was a summary word on True Life in God from the Hindu friend who accompanied us on pilgrimage. Certainly we felt we were living for ten days with Christian unity that anticipates God’s future. This unique gathering in places visited by the apostles John, Philip and Paul was a truly prophetic act. God binds us through word and sacrament into our churches but we cannot bind him as he seeks the visible reunion of the body of Christ. As Cardinal Toppo had declared in Ephesus True Life in God is the future.
The healing of world divisions is willed by God but it is frustrated by the brokenness of his chosen instrument the church of Jesus Christ. The call to recover unity in the faith of the apostles is costly but necessary. God seeks a new obedience among Christians that will bind their energies to serve a new world order since Christ is a God of unity and not division.
Over a privileged ten days we had been reminded not just of the apostolic call to personal renewal in the Holy Spirit but of God’s urgent demand that church leaders should agree a common date for Easter and work for the day when historical divisions about the Eucharist will be healed and all Christians will be welcome to share Holy Communion in every church.
Love is the key said Bishop Couto of Punjab as we prepared to fly home. Be courageous and fearless said Vassula as her own last word. The pilgrims flew home fortified by the corporate retreat which was a foretaste of good things to come for the church and for the world and which seemed to bring new energy from the Spirit for the work of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
Fr. John Twistleton