We no longer knew whether we were in Heaven or on earth.
—The representatives of Prince Vladmir of Kiev, upon seeing Hagia Sophia for the first time.
There were thirteen of us. We came from all over. We studied nursing, law, theology, medicine, linguistics, geology. As we stood in the tedious security line at JFK, our boarding passes insisted we were travelling to Istanbul. But our true destination was quite different.
The streets of Constantinople are paved with the rich history of our Orthodox Church. A few short hours after our flight landed, we found ourselves shivering before the gates of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and our chills were not merely from the rain. Just ahead of us loomed the large black doors of the closed Saint Peter’s Gate, sealed shut since martyred Patriarch Gregory V was hanged there on Easter Sunday in 1821. As we hurried through the side entryway that night, and every day thereafter, those sealed doors reminded us of the struggle that Christians still face every day in that city.
We saw evidence of this struggle throughout Constantinople in the days that followed. We visited several beautiful Byzantine churches which still bore the jarring marks of their conversion to mosques after the fall of Constantinople. We stood speechless beneath the dome of Hagia Sophia, and listened as tour groups passed by, chatting amongst themselves, “Isn’t it nice that the Ottomans even allowed Icons in their mosques?” We climbed deep beneath a Turkish rug store to pray in the hidden remains of an ancient Orthodox Church buried below the city, chanting Agni Parthene with tears in our eyes as megaphones blared the Muslim call to prayer above us in the streets. In the words of our trip’s spiritual leader Fr. Evagoras Constantinides, we came to Istanbul and left having seen Constantinople.
But we did not simply see a city clinging to the shadow of what Constantinople once was. The work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still extremely relevant to Orthodox Christians all over the world. We arrived at the conclusion of the 2014 Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Church, and we attended the concelebration on the Sunday of Orthodoxy at the Patriarchal Church of St. George, where we were present for the official reading of the Message of the Primates. To think, on the Sunday of Lent that celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy and the end of iconoclasm, we were present for this historic event with almost all the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church, chanting with them as they raised their icons in the procession.
We met with His All-Holiness on the Monday following this historic Synaxis, and he taught us about the centuries-old experience of the Mother Church, the Ecumenical Movement, and the significance of the Great and Holy Synod which will take place in 2016, as agreed during this Synaxis. At this Great Synod, all the Orthodox Primates will be present to discuss important theological questions in our Church. We all knew from Sunday School that the last Ecumenical Council took place in 787 A.D. It was amazing to learn that we were sitting in a room with the man who was convening the next one, over one thousand years later.
When we met with Metropolitan Elpidophoros at Halki Theological School, he told us
If you are self-confident in your knowledge of the faith, then you are ready to meet the other, whoever that may be. The only way to do that is to be educated.
We were educated beyond belief. In one week, we venerated relics of saints and patriarchs, visited holy springs, and learned about the Holy Myrrh and Chrism, the responsibilities of Archons, and the importance of mission work. We discussed marriage and family life in the Church, the role of technology and innovation, and the importance of women in our faith, even though we cannot be ordained. We saw the need for unity in the church, and the significance of the work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We broadened our understanding of Orthodoxy and the history behind it.
Most importantly, we realized that we all have a responsibility to preserve our Orthodox faith. We’ve all heard that “the youth is the future of the Church,” but we cannot placate ourselves with this notion of a distant future where we will become relevant. We are the now of the Church. As Archbishop Anastasios of Albania told us:
Now is the time for creativity, not repetition. We must think, pray, and act boldly.
This week, we learned that we cannot be passive in our walk with Christ. The Church is beautiful and historic, and it is our job to protect the Truth it stands for.
About the Author
Marina Horiates is from Dallas, TX and is a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Dallas with her family. She is a junior at Yale University, where she studies English Literature and pre-medical studies. After graduation, she plans to attend medical school and specialize in pediatric oncology.