Saint Michael’s pilgrimage cruise tracing the ministry of St. Paul leaves this week.  The group, led by the Rector, will visit sites where St. Paul preached in Rome, Athens and Corinth, and Malta.  You can follow the pilgrimage with highlights by the Rector below.

Wednesday, July 12

We’ve come to the end of our pilgrimage and I am so grateful to all of you who have followed along with us, and especially for your prayers along the way. Tracing the footsteps of Paul with new friends and old friends, especially those within our Saint Michael family, has been a true privilege, and I am already imagining what we will do together in the coming years. God willing, this is the first of many, many pilgrimage trips that help us deepen our discipleship. Today’s final post will focus on the amazing experience in and around St. Paul’s grotto in Malta.

As I wrote yesterday, Paul was shipwrecked on the small island of Malta around 60 CE. The bay in which Paul landed on the island is named St. Paul’s Bay and a small island, aptly named St. Paul’s Island, stands in the mouth of the bay. As the story goes, Paul and his shipmates swam ashore on the tiny inlet island, then swam to shore on the mainland of Malta itself. There is very little archaeological evidence for this landing, but current research argues that Paul and the others likely swam across the mouth of the bay, rather than from the little island, simply because of the other sites referenced in Acts.

We know that Paul spent at least a small amount of time on the shore before visiting the home of Publius. According to Acts, “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper… fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god (Acts 28:3-6).” Tradition holds that all of this happened under the shelter of a small cave near the bay that today is called St. Paul’s grotto.

St. Paul’s grotto is a subterranean space upon which a chapel, church, and museum are now built. We descended below the church to visit the site of the grotto, now a small chapel space with a statue of Paul. The grotto has been the site of worshipping communities for nearly 2,000 years, and the prayers that have been offered there were palpable. It was most certainly a holy space, a thin place.

Caves have been hewn out of the rock around St. Paul’s Grotto and used in many ways through the years. One of the most remarkable ways they have been used is as a catacomb for worshipping communities, including an “agape table” where families would celebrate and remember the loved ones they have lost. This agape table was a beautiful space around which families would eat together, and in essence party together, celebrating their life and love. In addition to the catacombs, more spaces were hewn out of the rock to provide shelter for families during WWII. What started as a sacred space to worship God, became, through the years, a shelter in the storm of the world.

As I reflect on this pilgrimage and all the remarkable places we saw, what comes back to me time after time is how precious our relationships are. The church has witnessed amazing change in the world these past 2,000 years, and as powerful as the church has been, what is at the core of everything we do as Christians is loving one another. The pilgrims who made this journey have certainly deepened the love for one another and I hope as you have read this, you are encouraged to deepen your relationships in your own church community. We are the church and we have been called to a sacred responsibility. May we all have the courage and faith to respond.

Tuesday, July 11

The final port on this journey in the footsteps of St. Paul took us to the small island nation of Malta. Located just south of Sicily, Malta has been an independent nation since 1964, when it gained independence from the United Kingdom in gratitude for their participation in WWII. Malta is one of the smallest and most densely populated nations with an odd confluence of Italian, Spanish, Arab, and English influences that make the unique island language of Maltese a mixup of them all. In addition to its unique language, the religious history of the island is rich, particularly because it is the place where St. Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome around 60 CE.

The story of Paul’s shipwreck can be found in Acts 28. After the shipwreck, Paul and others on the ship (likely more than 100) swam to shore. They learned that the island’s name was Malta and the Maltese people were especially hospitable. After surviving a snake bite, Paul was revered by the people, who quickly took him to meet Publius, the Roman chief of the island. Paul learned that Publius’ father was very ill and he laid hands on him and healed him.

After this miraculous healing, other sick people on the island came to Paul and all of them were cured. Although Paul only spent about three months on the island, his influence was profound. The church of Malta maintains that the Maltese colony was the first Gentile colony in the world to convert to Christianity, beginning with Publius and his family. Paul is still revered here and considered the spiritual founder of the Christian movement in Malta.

We began our visit to Malta in the old capital of Mdina. The Mdina Gate is the old, fortified entrance to the city center and from the moment we crossed, we saw the influence of St. Paul on the island. Over the arch of the gate is a bas-relief figure of St. Paul (center), flanked by St. Publius and St. Agnes on either side, traditional protectors of Mdina.

Only a few minutes walk from the Mdina Gate brought us to a small square and the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul. Built on the site of Publius’ palace, the church is a tribute to the story of St. Paul on the island. Behind the altar are beautiful paintings by Mattia Preti, including The Conversion of St. Paul and, above that painting is a fresco of The Shipwreck of St. Paul. To the right of the altar and above the pulpit is another beautiful image of St. Paul. I’m glad I don’t have to preach with one of the greatest preachers ever looking over my shoulder!

Following our tour of Mdina, we went back to the capital city of Valletta. In the center of Valletta is the Co-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Built by the Knights of Malta to be their primary church, it is dedicated to the patron saint of the Order, yet much of St. Paul influences the décor inside. Each of the nations who helped support the Knights have a chapel inside the church, and one of the principal chapels (France) is dedicated to St. Paul. In addition to the lavish interior of the Co-Cathedral, the oratory off the main nave is home to two of the greatest works of baroque art, Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome Writing.

This is the first of two articles about Malta. Tomorrow, I will take a closer look at our visit to St. Paul’s Bay, where Paul came ashore, and to St. Paul’s grotto, where he recovered from the snake bite and began preaching to the Maltese people. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 10

Our pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul was originally going to include Ephesus in Turkey, but with the current instability there, the State Department recommended tours not travel there right now. Unfortunately, we never made it to this ancient city. However, I want to take you there on a digital tour because it was such an important part of Paul’s missionary efforts.

It’s easy for us to forget that the early church was an urban movement. We often think of Jesus as out in the wilderness, away from the city center, teaching the disciples and anyone who wished to listen. That pastoral sensibility was decidedly different for the early followers of Jesus. The Jesus movement, particularly with Paul, grew and thrived in cities, and Ephesus was second to none.

Of all the cities in the Roman Empire, no city was more important to the first century church than Ephesus. Jerusalem may have been where the movement began, and Rome grew more important in the second century, but in the first century, in the time of St. Paul and the apostles, Ephesus was the crossroads of the empire and the heart of Christian growth.

Ephesus was an important port city on the coast of Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). As with other major cities of the time (Athens, Corinth, etc.), Paul would have had the opportunity to speak to and convert large numbers of people in public settings. In Ephesus, Paul would have very likely spoken in the Odeon theater where leaders often gave lectures or near the Celsus Library (both pictured here). We know that Paul visited Ephesus first  on his way back from Corinth, then returned multiple times because he believed “a side door for effective work” had opened for him there (1 Cor. 16:8). It is important to note that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written in Ephesus.

In addition to the significant amount of time Paul spent in Ephesus, other early Christian leaders also focused on this burgeoning Christian center, including John and Timothy. In addition, and according to Ephesus legend, Mary the mother of Jesus spent her final years in Ephesus with John (though there is very little evidence to support this story).

All this is to say that Paul did a great amount of work in a city that was highly focused on the worship of Artemis, among other gods, and that work became integral to the growth of the church throughout the empire. Ephesus remains one of the most important sites for the first century church and I certainly hope to get there someday. Perhaps next time you can join me!

Sunday, July 9

Part of our pilgrimage tour includes sites not specific to St. Paul himself, but sites that bear witness to the rich history of Christianity in the Mediterranean region, begun and supported by Paul. If you’ve ever traveled in Europe or the Middle East (among others), you know that some of the most beautiful architecture, art, and history can be learned by visiting churches. Today, I thought I’d show you a few that we found along the way.

Mykonos is a small island in Greece with a lot of history. With an ancient religious site just off the main island, Mykonos and Ancient Delos are excellent examples of how the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds were primed to receive Paul’s message of Christ. The Orthodox (Greek) Church is not surprisingly the most popular and well-attended church in Greece. The Orthodox Church officially dates its founding in 49 CE by St. Paul himself when he first visited Greece. Today, some estimates conclude that more than 90% of Greek citizens are members of the Orthodox Church.

In Santorini, another Greek island to the south of the mainland, Christianity arrived in the 4th century around the time that Emperor Constantine legalized it throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Santorini was nothing more than a port. But when development began in earnest in the 12th century, the first buildings commissioned were churches. Today, there are just over 15,000 people living on the small island of Santorini, but there are more than 1,000 churches and chapels. Christianity has become a highly personal experience and construction of worship spaces is one of the ways in which families can express their passion.

Today, I visited the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox Cathedral of Candlemas of the Lord, and the Church of Panagia Platsani. I even found some beautiful icons of St. Paul and St. Michael! The churches were beautiful examples of how worship has grown and been supported throughout the centuries in these remote communities because of the evangelism of St. Paul.

There are many places outside the Greco-Roman world in which Paul did important and influential ministry. However, due to many unstable geopolitical problems that are out of our control, we aren’t able to visit many of them. Tomorrow, I will take a special look at some of those cities, specifically ones you know because of their biblical letters, even though they were not on this pilgrimage (perhaps one day soon!).

  

Saturday, July 8

Of all the evangelical moments recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, none is perhaps as bold and as transformative as the one recorded in Chapter 17 when Paul was in Athens. In the first century, Athens was a historically significant city. Although its fame and capital had declined since the height of the Greek Empire, Athens was still a center of learning and culture. It was in that environment, one of the most established and important cities in the Roman Empire, that Paul entered with his evangelical zeal.

In Acts 17, it is written that Paul was greatly distressed at the idolatry in Athens. Rather than be discouraged by the idolatry, Paul saw the desire of the people to seek after God. Up to that point, the focus of most Christian evangelism was directed at Jewish people because Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. With Paul, that all changed. Non-Jews, in fact Gentiles with great religious passion apart from the Abrahamic tradition, were invited into the Jesus movement.

Paul preached the story of Jesus, the promise of being in full relationship with God, to the Greeks at a meeting at the Areopagus of the high court of Athens. The Areopagus (literally the rock of Ares, or in Latin, Mars Hill) is a rocky outcropping below the Athens acropolis. His sermon is the fullest and most complete of Paul’s sermons recorded in the Bible and one that marked a turning point in his career.

In addition to this being a turning point for Paul’s mission work, it shows us how the early followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of Jesus for those who didn’t know him. Imagine someone offered you an incredible dessert unlike anything you had ever tasted. You may not have any idea what the flavor is, you just know that you love it – it’s an amazing experience. But when someone asks you to describe the taste, it’s hard to put it into words. You know it’s great, but you struggle to describe it to someone else. That’s the most difficult issue in the first century.

Most of us (if not all of us) grew up within a Christian context. Imagining a point in time when people knew Jesus was amazing but they didn’t have the capacity to explain him is hard. Even though we may know better, we default to thinking that Jesus told everyone what to think and they just followed. But in reality, Jesus taught ideas, not theology. Church leaders, such as Paul, took Jesus’s teachings and expanded the theology.

Theology put legs onto the ideas Jesus taught, and that’s where we humans get in trouble. Paul was an incredible person who did extraordinary work to spread the Gospel of Christ, but he was not Christ. On this trip, we are tracing the footsteps of a person who did his best in order to be inspired to accept our own humanity, and yet with confidence to do our best. I hope you continue to feel inspired through our journey and I invite you to pray with us, as we did in Corinth and Athens, that we have the courage to walk with Christ into a world that is not always welcoming of our message. When we walk together, no matter what we face, we are never alone.

Friday, July 7

I have been waiting for this excursion since the beginning of our trip – today, we visited Corinth. Ancient Corinth was a major trade center in both the Greek and Roman empires. As one of the oldest cities in Greece, archaeological evidence shows that Corinth has been the site of human settlements for at least 9,000 years. Located at the crossroads between northern and southern Greece, Corinth was the ideal setting for Paul to preach the gospel, and visiting the excavated ruins of Ancient Corinth did not disappoint.

Ancient Corinth was a Greek city for centuries, but was mostly demolished by the Romans in 146 BCE (before the common era). Years later, in 44 BCE, the Romans realized that the geography of Corinth was incredibly valuable and so they rebuilt the city with Roman features, including a forum, a major commercial center. The forum in Corinth is the largest ever discovered, even larger than the forum in Rome itself. There is no doubt that Corinth was an incredibly important, wealthy city when Paul arrived in the middle of the first century CE.

Although Paul traveled to Athens first, he left Athens for the city of Corinth to continue preaching about Jesus. We know that Paul stayed in Corinth for over a year, longer than in almost any other city. I had always wondered what kept Paul in Corinth so much longer than other cities, and today our guide told us about the Isthmian Games. Held the second and forth years of each Olympiad, the Isthmian Games were Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece and would have brought tens of thousands of people to Corinth for extended periods of time. This major, bi-annual event would have given Paul an excellent opportunity to meet people from around the Greek region, and likely from around the whole Roman Empire.

We know that Paul made good friends in Corinth, such as Aquila and Priscilla, who likely supported him for a long period of time. And if you’ve read Acts recently, you know that Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers, who probably had a good livelihood producing and selling tents to all the visitors who came to Corinth every two years for the Games.

All of this made our visit to the excavated ruins of Ancient Corinth that much more amazing. We were able to walk through the forum and stand in areas that would have been meat markets and clothing markets, and even in places where Paul would have likely preached about Jesus, such as the Jewish synagogue. The evidence of the synagogue shows that there would have been an active, albeit a small, Jewish community in the first century. There are also pieces of art, such as the statue of a shepherd, that would have been used in the story telling about Christ.

And as if visiting such an amazing historical city wasn’t good enough, the Saint Michael pilgrims, joined by others, celebrated the Holy Eucharist on site. There, in the shadow of the Corinthian acropolis, where Paul preached to Jews and Gentiles about Jesus, where he struggled to connect the gospel to everyday life, and where those who heard the message responded with vigor and with disdain, we glorified God in worship.

Walking in the footsteps of Paul has been a privilege, but today’s visit to Corinth has been the highlight. So much of what Paul did, and indeed what we do, seems so small and insignificant. Yet today we remembered that no effort to spread love and to spread the Good News is ever insignificant. As Paul told the Corinthians themselves, everything we do will be to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

 

Thursday, July 6

As we travel to Greece, we have had lots of time to spend together. Each day, we have heard lectures about the life of Paul from New Testament professor, Dr. David de Silva. In addition to those lectures, the Saint Michael crew has gathered to discuss how Paul’s life and ministry can enlighten and inspire our own discipleship. With each session together, our personal relationships deepen and our Christian community is strengthened.

Fellowship is a word that is common in many churches and one that I hear at Saint Michael quite often. Following the way of Christ is not something anyone should do on their own, which is why Paul and countless others have planted and raised up church communities. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20).” If done with intentionality and the Spirit, relationships we form in our church communities provide us with more than what we find in the world. Those relationships become holy friendships.

Holy friendships are ones that transcend the normal niceties of being social. There are so many relationships we build that help support our identities, people who reinforce the things we like about ourselves or the people we think we are. We all have friends who are fun to be around or ones we want to emulate. But holy friends are more than that. Holy friends take our spiritual health, our very own walk with Christ, very seriously.

A former professor of mine once wrote that holy friends “challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”* That is a significant role to play, a significant relationship to develop, and the kind of friend I hope each one of us can have on our own journey.

This pilgrimage has offered some of our Saint Michael brothers and sisters the opportunity to have fun together (there has been lots of laughter) and to experience incredible holy sites of the ancient church. But below the surface and behind all the fun, we have been developing friendships that will sustain us well beyond this journey. As we travel together, as we share this pilgrimage, we are becoming holy friends to one another, and for that I am deeply grateful. I hope you, too, are in search of holy friends in your own life and when you find those friends, you cherish them.

Holy friends are not always going to make you feel good, but they are going to nudge you in sacred ways. May you always be blessed with someone who will challenge you, affirm you, and help you along The Way.

*L. Gregory Jones, “Discovering faith through holy friendships.” Online: https://www.faithandleadership.com/l-gregory-jones-discovering-hope-through-holy-friendships

Wednesday, July 5

Yesterday’s post focused on the world in which Paul lived. Today, I want to look specifically on Paul’s experience and impact on the church in Rome and the future of Christianity. Paul found himself in Rome at the end of his life because he was able to employ his Roman citizenship to receive a Roman trial. That means that when he was arrested for treasonous acts, rather than simply being tried and executed somewhere in the Empire, he was able to request a transfer to and trial in Rome.

As a Roman citizen, Paul was able to be “under arrest” with dignity, meaning that he was under house arrest. He lived in a home he rented, and although he wasn’t able to travel around, he was able to teach and write from his home. Paul was a true evangelist, not a priest or bishop of the church, such as people considered Peter to be. Paul’s remained an evangelist and preacher to the end. He was tried and executed in Rome between 64-68 CE (common era).

One of the major churches in Rome, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, was built as a monument to Paul. Until recently, this church was believed to be simply named for Paul, yet in 2002, a sarcophagus was found during some construction. On the top of the sarcophagus was written “Paul apostle martyr.” The Vatican did tests on the sarcophagus and in 2009, declared that the body inside was carbon dated to the late first and early second century, timing that makes it very possible (even likely) that the tomb belongs to Paul.

After Paul’s death, his influence continued. For the next few hundred years, churches Paul founded or supported continued to struggle to follow Jesus under the anti-Christian pressure of Rome. That continued until Emperor Constantine wrote the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, legalizing different religions, including Christianity, in the Empire. From that moment onward, the value of Christianity grew, quickly becoming the principle Roman religion.

Today, one can witness the impact of the confluence between Rome and the church, on display most clearly at the Vatican. We were able to tour the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, witnessing the growth of the church in the Empire. And we even had the privilege of celebrating the Holy Eucharist together in St. Peter’s Square (the picture here is of many in our extended group following our communion service, a most beautiful experience!). The impact of Paul provided the opportunity to unite Christ followers quickly, enabling the church to flourish. Yet I wonder what legacy that has left for us today?

On a pilgrimage, we hold in tension a desire to walk in the footsteps of those who came before us, as well as inviting the experience to inspire us as we walk our own journey with Christ in the future. The early church existed outside earthly political and economic power. Yet since the 4th century, Christianity has been intimately intertwined with the greatest wealth and power on the planet. We inherit that identity as American Christians, as people who live out our faith with near-complete security and comfort. Following Christ as we do looks radically different than Paul (and other early leaders).

Perhaps the most important issue with which we should wrestle is how we can use the opportunities we have as some of the most affluent people in the world to sacrificially spread the Gospel of Christ? This is not a small question, but one that can challenge us, stretch us, and bring us closer to the perfect love that Christ gives to us and asks us to give to others.

Tuesday, July 4

Our journey in the footsteps of St. Paul truly began today as we spent a very long day in Rome, the eternal city. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you know that one day is not near enough time to see the amazing history of the city, so this is the first of two posts on Rome. Even though we traveled the city quickly, it was enough to get a taste of the first century world in which Paul lived. To put that world into context, we began with a historic look at the Roman Empire in and around the first century, beginning with the area around the Roman Forum.

The forum was the downtown of Ancient Rome. It was where all the action was: the place to see and be seen, to shop, and to rub elbows with the rich and powerful. It was also the place where the citizens gathered for political propaganda, including the incredible Palatine Palace and the Coliseum. Atop palatine hill, the center most hill in Rome, and overlooking the forum, sat the palace of the emperor. Built by Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, the palace became the seat of power and intimidation (imagine having to walk up hill to a massive stone palace, and in the middle sat the emperor). From this hill, the emperor would have been to look down on the forum and make a dramatic entrance into the Coliseum.

The Coliseum was especially important to our visit because of its history of political propaganda in Rome. The site of violent entertainment, the Coliseum played host to triumphal celebrations. Whenever Rome conquered a new area, they would celebrate their victory with days of sport in which animals and people were killed for fun. This was also a very likely site of Christian martyrdom. Even today, the Coliseum is a place where Christians remember the gruesome death of some of the church’s early faithful. Each year on Good Friday, the Pope comes to the Coliseum to lead the stations of the cross, beginning from the place of the emperor’s box, the seat of earthly judgment. Today, that spot has a large cross to remember to martyrs, as well as a #1 on the ground to mark the first station of Jesus’s passion.

The forum is also the location of the Mamertine Prison, where tradition holds that St. Peter (and St. Paul) were imprisoned in Rome before their own martyrdom. There, in the center of Roman culture, sat the two greatest saints of the early church, held in place because of their witness to the good news of Christ. Their faithfulness inspired early Christians to begin meeting at the site and, in later years, the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (St. Joseph of the Carpenters) was built above the prison.

St. Paul was not the one who founded the church in Rome, and he wrote one of the deepest theological works of the early church, the Book of Romans, before he ever visited the church there. However, during the two years he spent in Rome under house arrest before his death, Paul continued to preach to the first Christians. Paul, to the end, used his life to spread and uphold the Body of Christ, and his life continues to serve as an example for us. Gaining a high-level understanding of Roman life in the first century will help us tomorrow when we consider the ways in which Paul (and others) built up the church there.

Monday, July 3

Today featured a fast-paced tour of Florence and Pisa. It is almost certain that Paul never visited Florence (it was not a major city at the time Paul was living). Although we don’t have any evidence that Paul ever visited Pisa, it was an important Roman port and so it would not be out of the question to imagine that he may have been in Pisa at some point. Both cities remain active centers of Christian life in Italy, with many remarkable churches.

Our first stop in Florence was the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower), most commonly called the Duomo (duomo is a term for an Italian cathedral church). One of the largest churches in the world, with the largest brick dome in the world, the Duomo was begun in 1296 and took 140 years to complete. Across from the front of the Duomo is the Baptistry of St. John, a separate structure where Christian converts were baptized before being allowed to attend worship services in the church.

The other church of note we visited is the Basilica di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross), near the Arno River. This sacred space is the burial site of some of Florence’s most significant citizens, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. Slightly older than the Duomo, legend has it that Santa Croce was founded by St. Francis himself and remains the largest Franciscan church in the world. And besides, the gelato in the square outside of Santa Croce was amazing!

After a whirlwind in Florence, we headed to Pisa. In the center of the city is the Piazza dei Miracoli (Miracle Square), which is the site of Il Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary). This beautiful structure, along with its giant baptistry, is by far the largest sacred structure in Pisa. Yet Miracle Square is miraculous for one reason: that the leaning tower hasn’t fallen over! Designed to be the freestanding bell tower of the cathedral, this tower began to lean during construction due to the sandy quality of the ground.

A major port since the beginning of the Roman Republic, Pisa once functioned like modern-day Venice, with small canals that allowed shipments to travel from the Mediterranean up the Arno river to other cities farther from the coast. That history was lost at some point after the fall of Rome, and when the Pisa cathedral, baptistry, and tower were constructed the sandy subsurface of the ground, left from the silt of the canals, could not support the weight. Although all the structures in Miracle Square tilt, none are as pronounced (and as obvious) as that leaning tower.

These incredible structures reminded us all of how important Christianity has been in Italy for centuries. The church inspired some of the greatest works of art and greatest architectural achievements in Western history, and some of the best were on display today. As we prepare for Rome tomorrow, our first big day of tracing Paul’s footsteps, it is humbling to remember that we are the caretakers of a tradition that was here before us and will be here after we are gone. The connection we have to Christians through time will continue to inspire us in the coming days, as I hope they inspire you!

Sunday, July 2

Our second day of the Paul pilgrimage brought a change of plans. Due to weather, we docked in the town of Toulon, France and only had a few hours to make plans (which meant I hung out with my friend Google until 2am trying to figure out what to do!). This also meant that we were on our own.

Even though our group split up, I wanted to make sure I visited some of the sites that would appeal to Saint Michaelites.

Although I was completely unfamiliar with Toulon, I quickly learned that it is a major French naval port with a long history, including a beautiful cathedral and fantastic street market. We began our walking by visiting the incredible street market along Cours Lafayette. This market reminded me of our own Farmer’s Market, focusing only on food items – and it was incredible! I made sure to eat some cheese and olives and will be sure to tell our own Farmer’s Market volunteers all about it.

Just one block from the market stood the Cathédral Notre-Dame-de-la-Seds, one of the oldest churches in the region. Dating from the 5th century, the church has been one of the largest buildings in the city and stood as a beacon of faith since the construction of the current structure began in 1096. Beautiful chapels to saints of the church flanked each side of the cathedral, but it was the altar that drew my attention. The marble altarpiece was created in 1681 and is in the classic Roman Baroque style. God the Father is depicted looking down upon the altar and is surrounded by angels reminiscent of Bernini, with the tabernacle itself framed by two larger thurifer angels. I have since learned that this is considered one of the finest Baroque art pieces in Provence.

Since today was basically a free day without any scheduled touring, I was able to do more people watching than usual (people watching is one of my favorite pastimes!). As I watched the French natives, I considered our own pilgrimage and what will certainly be some remarkable days ahead. I am struck by the importance of our relationship to one another and how relationships seemed to be on full display everywhere I looked today.

Europe has a very intimate social culture, very unlike America. People touch each other more, stand closer to one another, and seem to just sit together without a care in the world. Their relationships define their behavior, and not the other way around. As an American, I find that this bugs me when I’m in a hurry (no one is ever in a hurry here), but I’m also a bit jealous of a culture that supports deep, authentic relationships. As we continue this pilgrimage, think about how your own relationships strengthen your Christian journey, or perhaps how new relationships might do so. We are all on our own pilgrimage every day, and today might be a day in which you choose to make an important shift in your own discipleship.

Saturday, July 1

Our adventure began in Barcelona, one of the largest cities in Europe, and one that has a rich Christian history. Christianity came to Spain during the reign of the Roman Empire, but did not become a major force until 587 CE* when the Visigoth king, Raccared, converted to Catholicism. He led an effort to unify Spain under the Catholic Church, and the influence of Catholicism remains to this day (approximately 70% of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholic).

Our first sacred site was the Sagrada Familia (the Basilica of the Holy Family), a church famous for its incredible modern architecture. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, the church’s construction began in 1882 and is not planned to be finished until 2026. The church tells the story of Christ, with the exterior of the church rooted in three major façades: the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory (which is currently under construction).

Gaudí loved the flow of nature, so the church is meant to look like a living being. Each curve is unique and each design feature meant to elicit a dramatic response. He was intentional about designing a space that would be flooded with light. His use of colorful stained glass throughout the basilica evokes a joy unlike any other major European church I have ever seen.

Our second sacred site was the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia (also know as the Barcelona Cathedral). Initially part of the defensive wall of the city, this gothic cathedral was begun in the 13th century and completed in 1448. The cathedral is dedicated to Eulalia, one of the patron saints of Barcelona, who is remembered as a 13-year-old virgin who refused to renounce her Christian faith and was martyred during the reign of the Roman Empire. Her story goes like this: after refusing to deny Christ, the Roman authorities stripped her in the public square and a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered her nudity. The enraged Romans put her into a barrel with knives stuck into it and rolled it down a street, then she was crucified in the center square before being decapitated. She is entombed in the crypt under the main altar. The cathedral also has side chapels that remember great saints of the church, including one for St. Paul, who has inspired this pilgrimage.

I never cease to be amazed by the stories of faithfulness that ground so much of the churches in Europe. We are incredibly blessed to be able to follow our own faith journey without extreme threat of harm. But sometimes I wonder what our faith would be like if we made such a choice in the pressure of circumstances in the past? Perhaps we are facing such inhospitable circumstances in the future. Trips like this, having the opportunity to deepen relationships with my brothers and sisters, refresh my own faith. Please continue to pray for us as we travel, as I will be praying for you on your own journey!

*Note: I have chosen to use the modern terms BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era), rather than the traditional BC and AD, respectively.

Friday, June 30

As you read this, the Saint Michael pilgrims will be preparing to begin our trip, sailing to different ports around the Mediterranean Sea following the footsteps of Paul. Yesterday, we looked at Paul’s early life. Today, we will look at his conversion and the beginning of his incredible ministry.

After the execution of Stephen, Saul (Paul’s Hebrew name) continued trying to stop the spread of Christian disciples. Saul set out from Jerusalem to Damascus (one of the major cities in Syria) to arrest Jesus’ followers, when a light from heaven flashed all around him and he fell to the ground. “[Saul] heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting (Acts 9:4-5).’ Saul was struck blind for three days and he would not eat or drink. Ananias, a disciple of Jesus living in Damascus, came to see Saul and prayed for him, then his sight was restored and he was baptized. From that moment onward, Saul became a faithful follower of Jesus.

After his conversion experience, Saul began preaching about Jesus, beginning in Damascus. He traveled back to Jerusalem and, although he had persecuted Christians, the apostles in Jerusalem, chiefly Peter, accepted that he had a true conversion experience and began working with him. Saul believed that he had received the gospel directly from Jesus, and so when he began to interpret how to be a disciple differently than those in Jerusalem, he decided to leave and preach elsewhere.

Upon leaving Jerusalem, Saul began preaching about Jesus to people who were not Jewish (called Gentiles). Not only did he begin using his Greek name, Paul, but he began to interpret Jesus’s teachings for people who did not understand Judaism. This is radically important for us, because most of us are inheritors of Paul’s missionary work. For most of us, we trace our family history back through generations of Christians.

Paul was the greatest evangelist to the Gentiles in the first century. His ability to read and write in multiple languages, including Greek, allowed him to preach and teach all over the Roman Empire in ways that most of the disciples in Jerusalem could not. As Paul traveled, he gathered Jews and Gentiles alike in order to form new religious groups (churches!). As those churches grew and matured, they naturally had questions about how best to follow Jesus. They would write to Paul and he would write back with guidance, and those letters are what make up many of the Epistles in the New Testament.

In the New Testament, 14 books are attributed to Paul (although scholars believe he is likely the author of only 7 of them). Each of the letters, such as 1 and 2 Corinthians, seek to help the early Christian churches figure out how to be Christian in the world. Although they are not the words of Christ, they can be very helpful to us today. As we continue our pilgrimage, we will be visiting four cities – Rome, Athens, Corinth, and Velletta (Malta) – where Paul himself visited. I encourage you to read Acts of the Apostles during these next two weeks and continue to journey with us here!

Thursday, June 29

Welcome to Saint Michael’s 2017 Pilgrimage Journeys of Paul! It is my hope that, through these regular posts, you will get a taste of our pilgrimage to many of the cities in which Paul established Christian communities, as well as cities that have a Christian tradition that dates back to the first centuries. In order to begin the journey, I think it best that we familiarize ourselves with St. Paul, the person. Knowing who he was will help us witness some of his extraordinary missionary work.

Last week, my two oldest kids, Brayden and Layna, read a biography of Paul (for kids) and Acts of the Apostles in preparation for the trip.  Their questions were very telling, including my favorite, “Why did Paul only travel around the Mediterranean? Is it because he only wanted to visit pretty places?” Paul looms very large in our Christian identity, but most of us don’t know much about him. The basic gist is this: Paul was a Jewish leader who persecuted Christians, but after he met Jesus, he became one of his fiercest disciples, starting countless Christian churches around the Roman Empire. Over the next two weeks, I hope you will get to know Paul in new ways, and that his mission work will inspire your own!

The Hebrew name Paul was known by before his conversion, is Saul. He was born in Tarsus, a powerful city in south-central Turkey, into a wealthy, Jewish family who were leaders of the Pharisees (a conservative Jewish sect). Because Tarsus was part of the Roman Empire, Saul was a Roman citizen.  Saul was very well educated, primarily educated in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, and perhaps even receiving lessons in Rome itself.

Saul’s education, particularly in matters of theology and law, made him a rising star among the Jewish elite in Jerusalem.  He was able to speak and write in multiple languages, particularly Hebrew and Koine (common) Greek. By young adulthood, Saul was participating in official Temple business.

A member of the Pharisees, Saul was a militant persecutor of the new-found sect of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was seen as a rogue rabbi whose teachings had caused the Jewish leadership to arrest him and call for his crucifixion. Saul likely saw Jesus’ crucifixion as completely justified, even a victory for orthodox Judaism.  And, he saw the disciples of Jesus as disloyal to their Hebrew religion.  Saul, writing after his conversion, claims to have believed Christianity a perversion, not a valid expression of Judaism.

This worldview led Paul to be supportive of and present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr and deacon of the Church (Acts 7:58). In his later writing, Paul claims that he “violently persecuted the church of God [Christianity] and was trying to destroy it (Gal 1:13-14).” Paul’s support of Stephen’s execution was the beginning of a new chapter of his life, one that he would have never expected.

In the next post, I will explore Paul’s conversion (he was not knocked off a horse as many believe) and how he became the most important missionary for Christ in the early church.