Taking Inspiration from some Places Associated with St. Paul

St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus was more dramatic than that experienced by any other of the Apostles.  Most of us have had a more modest calling from the Lord to spread the gospel but Paul is an example to us all of how to energetically do this.   To follow in Paul’s footsteps is to follow Jesus more closely and we can be inspired by visiting some of the places where Paul taught and quite literally walking in his footsteps.

 

Perge

Perge is now a striking ruined town in modern day Turkey but when Paul arrived with his companions (Acts 13.13) it would have been a thriving city.  In fact it was the capital of a region known as Pamphylia.  When Paul and his companions first arrived, it was in order to pass through to other places to preach the Gospel, but he did return in order to preach to the people of Perge (Acts 14.25).   About a thousand years before Christ, a large number of Greeks had settled in Pamphylia; thus Perge became a centre for Greek learning.  The mathematician, Apollonius who was a pupil of Archimedes, lived there and wrote a series of books on his subject.

 

By the time Paul arrived, Perge was under Roman rule and his two visits seem too brief for him to have established a church as was his custom.  However, the seeds of The Way would have been sown in his short time preaching and no doubt Paul’s words did not fall completely on deaf ears.  My visit to Perge caused me to reflect on Paul’s time there.  The main street is fairly wide with what can only be described as a long stone water trough running down the centre, reminiscent of a raised grass verge which we may see today running down the centre of a dual carriageway.  The water would have flowed down from the fountain at the top of the street to provide some cooling relief in the hot Mediterranean climate.  As Paul would have walked down this street, we followed in his footsteps walking down one side treading those ancient stones, imagining the scene and then just to make sure, we crossed over at the fountain and walked back on the other side!  If Paul had baptised anyone in Perge, it is not hard to imagine him using the ‘living water’ in the middle of the street. 

 

Ephesus

Ephesus is another town with strong Pauline connections.  This used to be a thriving Mediterranean port but today it is about three miles inland due to the silting up of the Cayster River.  Paul spent three years converting not only the inhabitants but also those in the surrounding district.  The ruins here are much more extensive than those of Perge.  From a secular point of view they are extremely interesting and the local guides make the ancient history come alive.  The fact that there is only one solitary pillar left of the great temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, is rather poignant to a Christian as paganism eventually came to an end.   Situated just outside the city, this temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and reminds us of the pagan practices of the time.  Paul had a great task ahead of him, preaching the word of God and trying to persuade the people to give up their worship of false gods.  Probably today is not much different only nowadays, the false gods are materialism, drugs, sex and violence!

 

Paul had some arrangement which allowed him the use of the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19.10).  If only Luke had told us more when writing Acts!  We can only guess the circumstances.  Perhaps he rented a room there or perhaps Tyrannus was no longer around.  Paul used this place every day for teaching and discussions.  We know that Paul had some success with his preaching and the Christian community grew. 

 Christian symbol in the pavement outside a shop in Ephesus
Symbol on shop doorway
The remains of a shop consist of a ruined wall and a doorstep with a Christian symbol.   It was quite thrilling to pass over the threshold, knowing we were in exactly the same place as those early Christians whose basic beliefs where the same as ours today.  Some of Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist is contained in his first letter to the Corinthians which he wrote while in Ephesus. He warns against the worship of false gods saying that when we drink from the chalice we share in the blood of Christ and when we break the bread, we share in the body of Christ (1Corinthians 10.16)  He also lays down some very firm guidelines for behaviour at the Celebration.  Somehow, he had received news of unruly conduct.  People were bringing food for themselves and having their fill without sharing with those less well off.  Paul reminds them of the events of the Last Supper and how when they gather they are proclaiming the Lord’s death.  This is the beginnings of Eucharistic doctrine which would be developed as time progressed.

At the end of Corinthians, there is an interesting note about Aquila and his wife Priscilla (Prisca) who at that time were living in Ephesus.  Paul adds at the end of his letter that they send ‘their best wishes to the Lord, together with the church that meets in their house.’   This reminds us that in the early Christian world, believers met in ordinary houses, in the absence of church buildings as we know them and that the church is the people.  It is worth noting that we should try to create a homely friendly atmosphere in our own churches and try to mirror the warm welcome that Aquila and Priscilla would have extended to the community.  This couple had lived in Rome but being Jewish, had been expelled by Claudius.  Paul met them in Corinth where he lodged with them.  Aquila like Paul was a tent maker.  Imagine the chat around the supper table about the quality of leather, thread and needles!

 

 The Roman Amphitheatre in Ephesus
Amphitheatre at Ephesus

The amphitheatre in Ephesus can still be seen today.  This was the scene of some nasty demonstrations, perhaps resembling a picket line outside a modern factory as ‘most of them did not even know why they had gathered together.’  (Acts 18.32)  The silversmiths of Ephesus had just about had enough of Paul’s teaching about the one true God.  The more Christians he won over to this new fangled religion, the less trade they had.  Demetrius and his companions fashioned tokens to the goddess Artemis which were then sold to those going to the shrine to worship, where they would be offered to the goddess.  Now their livelihoods were in danger and Demetrius decided to do something about the situation and a lively rabble had gathered to complain.  Paul was intent on going down to the amphitheatre to argue his case but he was advised by his followers not to go anywhere near those irate tradesmen.    Soon after this, Paul said goodbye to his followers and left Ephesus but by this time, the church had been organised and he knew that he could rely on the likes of Aquila and Priscilla to continue his work.

 

It is thought that the Epistle to the Ephesians was not specifically addressed to the Ephesians but may have been a circular letter written while Paul was in prison.  This could have been sent to any of the early churches as there is nothing in it which applies just to Ephesus.  However, whichever community received this letter, it would have given them some solid teaching on redemption for both Jews and Gentiles who should be joined into one Church (1.3 – 2.22), how conversion involves our striving for spiritual and moral improvement (3.14-21; 4.1-6, 9), the duties of spouses (5.22-23)  and attitudes of  children to parents and vice versa (6.1-4).  Paul was keen for us to be prepared to defend our Christian faith when he says ‘Put on the whole armour of God so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics.” (6.10)  In the passage following, he mentions belt, shoes, breastplate, shield, helmet and sword to be used ‘to quench the burning arrows of the Evil One.’  He urges us to ‘keep praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion.’ (6.18).  Of course, Paul himself is a perfect example of how to hold onto our own faith in adversity and how to use every opportunity to spread the gospel even if it means suffering for it.

 

 Mary's House in the hills outside Ephesus
Mary's House outside Ephesus (now restored)

Another interesting feature connected with Ephesus is what is believed by some to be the house of the Virgin Mary.  It is possible that after the Ascension, St. John brought the Virgin Mary to live in Ephesus.  This of course is under debate but just outside Ephesus, there is a house where Mary is thought to have lived.  In 1812, a German nun, Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich had a revelation in which she was given a description of the house, the dimensions and its location.  Many years later some very sceptical clergy from France, decided to check it out in the hope of disproving the whole affair.  They climbed up the hilly area outside Ephesus and were amazed to find the ruins of a building fitting the description and location perfectly.  Oral tradition in the area has always held that this was the place where Mary ended her days on earth.  It is difficult to prove that Mary actually lived in the house, but if it was not her, then some prominent early Christian did. 

 Pool in the garden of Mary's House
Pool in the garden of Mary's House
Just a stone’s throw from the house is what can only be described as a baptismal pool.  Archaeologists interpret this as such, so we can assume that there would have been gatherings on the occasion of a baptism.  Pope John Paul II visited Mary’s House when visiting Ephesus and it is most certainly worth a visit.

 

Crete

The picturesque port of Chania (Hania) in Crete may have been where St. Paul first set foot on the island of Crete.  The fact that there are many monasteries and churches there, is testimony to the early conversions by Paul and his companion, Titus whom Paul consecrated as Bishop, leaving him to oversee the church. He was to appoint elders in every town who were to be men of good character who could be relied upon to teach accurate doctrine. (Titus 1.5-9)  There is something very peaceful about Crete, especially if one visits in the springtime when it is not too hot and flowers and fruit are in great abundance.  Monasteries in the Greek Orthodox Church are not those Gothic edifices as we may know them in our part of the world.  Some are occupied by men and some by women.  (There is no equivalent to the word ‘convent’ in the Greek language.) 

 Monks cells at Aghia Triada Monestery, Crete
Aghia Triada Cells, Crete. Monks cells at Holy Trinity Monastery, Crete
The church with its many icons and lamps is the centre of daily life and is usually situated across a courtyard from the row of cells where the religious live.  These resemble a terrace of tiny pink or white washed cottages.  The large orange and lemon trees overhang to provide shade from the scorching summer sun.  The spirit of Paul still lingers in these religious communities who are aware that the Christian faith has been practised continually for nearly 2000 years.

Athens

The modern capital of Greece bears no resemblance to the ancient city visited by Paul.  He came here to await the arrival of Silas and Timothy.  The usual guided tour of the ancient ruins, situated outside today’s noisy, bustling Athens, involves a gentle climb up to the ancient ruins known as the Acropolis.  The most famous building is the Parthenon with its tall columns which have inspired architects down to the present day.

 

Looking down from the Acropolis towards the Agora or market place, you can see a large outcrop of rock known as Mars Hill or Areopagus meaning Hill of Ares, Ares being the Greek equivalent of Mars, the god of war.  Paul was horrified at the extent of idol worship in the city.  It was in front of the Council who met on the Arepagus, that Paul made a speech in a philosophical style which the Athenians would have appreciated. Very cleverly, he identified the God we know with the ‘Unknown God’ inscribed on a shrine which Paul had seen in the city.  He explained that this was the God who had created the universe and that ‘he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands.’ (Acts 17.24)  He went on to talk about the Last Judgement and his sermon seemed to be continuing well until he mentioned the Resurrection and then his listeners laughed at him.  Perhaps Paul had said too much too soon!  However, some did stay with him as they wanted to find out more about the new faith and if the small cross carved into the top of one of the columns of the Parthenon is anything to go by, the seeds of Christianity must have been sown.

 

Malta

A recent visit to Malta clarified the facts for me about Paul’s shipwreck on this island.  The book of Acts tells us about his hostile reception in Jerusalem where the Jews accused him of teaching against the Jewish Law.  Again, Paul’s reference to the Resurrection caused trouble, this time between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the latter not believing in the resurrection of the body.  He appeared before the Roman Governor and was imprisoned at Caesarea for two years without a trial.  Eventually, Paul insisted that as he was a Roman citizen, he was entitled to a trial in Rome.

 

 St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta
St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta

It was on his voyage to Rome that Paul’s ship came to grief and he landed on Malta in 60 C.E.  He landed near the villa owned by Plubius, the chief of the island, where he stayed for three days regaining his strength.  Paul later cured Plubius’s father of a fever after which Plubius was converted to Christianity.  During the three months he spent on the island, he converted the inhabitants.  It is believed that the present Cathedral dedicated to St. Paul in the ancient town of Mdina, is the site of the church which was built on the original site of the villa belonging to Plubius.  As on Crete, the many churches on present day Malta are testimony to Paul’s preaching but on Malta, these belong to the Catholic Church.  After Paul had spent three months in Malta over the winter, the weather was fine enough for the voyage to Rome.

 

Rome

Paul was imprisoned in Rome for two years.   There is some speculation that he was freed and then went to Spain to preach the gospel, later returning to Rome where, according to tradition he was martyred during the persecution by Nero.  According to Tertullian, he was beheaded and Eusebius assures us that the date was C.E. 67.    He is thought to be buried on the site of what is now the basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.  A visit to this vast church where St. Paul’s huge statue dominates the building is a true reminder of the strength of character and determination of this great man who used every bit of energy to try to bring Jew and Gentile to belief in Jesus Christ as our divine Redeemer.  He is a true Apostle of the Lord.