On Being with Krista Tippett

Fr. Alberto Ambrosio + Metropolitan Elpidophoros Lambriniadis

Spiritual Boundaries in Modern Turkey

Last Updated

August 2, 2012

The second show from our recent trip to Istanbul. We meet a Dominican friar whose Christianity is inspired by the mystical tradition of Islam. And, an Eastern Orthodox bishop is creating what he calls a “dialogue of life” as a religious minority in this crucible of the ancient church.

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Image of Metropolitan Elpidophoros Lambriniadis

Metropolitan Elpidophoros Lambriniadis Lambriniadis is the Metropolitan of Bursa in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Image of Fr. Alberto Ambrosio

Fr. Alberto Ambrosio Ambrosio is a Dominican friar and scholar of Sufism.


August 2, 2012

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Today, from Istanbul, we experience some of the great spiritual tensions and possibilities of our world: the “art” of religious otherness; and the “dialogue of life.” We meet a bishop of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which still has its base in this Muslim nation. First, we speak with a Roman Catholic Dominican monk who lives in Istanbul. The Dominicans began as an order of preachers and fighters of heresy. As part of this tradition, Alberto Ambrosio is living a Christianity inspired by his study of Islam. He calls this a wonderful paradox — a life-giving contradiction.

DR. ALBERTO AMBROSIO: I love this contradiction. I’m closer to the idea of human communion, human meeting. I mean, I know that I’m a Catholic and I’m still very close to this philosophy and theology, but at the same time, I can be open mind to see what God creates.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

Istanbul, of course, is the former Constantinople, named after the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. The story of one of the city’s great monuments, the Hagia Sophia, offers a kind of microcosm of the story of Christianity here. This architecturally astonishing structure is the second-largest church in the world, and one of the most ancient. It was first the Byzantine center of Christianity and later a mosque of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it’s a museum of the Turkish Republic.

It was at the suggestion of several Muslims that I visited Alberto Fabio Ambrosio at his monastery. He has lived in this city since he was in his 20s. He is an emerging teacher about Islam within Roman Catholicism. And he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the whirling dervishes — whom the poet Rumi inspired in this land in the 13th century.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to actually start out by asking you to tell us where we are — tell us about this building and this location.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, we are in a historical part of Istanbul. We are really in the Genoese part of the city. The Dominicans here spent something like four centuries in Istanbul, in this place. But the Dominicans brothers were here even before in another church that was changed into a mosque in 1475.


DR. AMBROSIO: : So they left there.


DR. AMBROSIO: : And they came here.

MS. TIPPETT: We drove by a tower — you said, the Italian tower that was 600 years old?

DR. AMBROSIO: : Yeah, because of the Genoese — the Genoese …

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So that came then?

DR. AMBROSIO: … constructed this Galata Tower.

MS. TIPPETT: Very beautiful.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, wonderful.


DR. AMBROSIO: It’s a wonderful place. I mean it’s, uh …


DR. AMBROSIO: I mean, I love to live here. I love to travel also, but when I come back here I’m very happy, because we feel the history. We feel, uh, we feel this part of history — Byzantine history. We feel also in our own place — we feel also the Ottoman history. In fact, this place was made in the Ottoman time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: And this building was made in the Republic time. So we can live the history everyday — every moment of our daily life.

MS. TIPPETT: I was just saying as you tell me this story when we — just as we came into this neighborhood, um, it has an Italian feel.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean even the cafés.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: Somehow there’s that the tower and, uh, the little corner. It’s very kind of intimate and busy.


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: In a way I feel at home.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I’d like to hear just a little bit about you. Did you grow up in Italy?

DR. AMBROSIO: In, uh, in Italy. I grew up in Italy.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and tell me about how it was that you came to become a Dominican friar.

DR. AMBROSIO: I was a normal Italian Catholic. I mean, I was, um, I used to go to the Mass with my mom every Sunday morning and more or less that’s all. I mean, I tried to pray morning and evening prayers. But at 18 years old, I felt the love of God. I mean, I can say more and more and more, but the point is that I felt something that for me is the love of God, and the only answer I could give to this feeling is — was to offer my life to this love of God, uh, that I felt as, uh, really powerfully. That’s why at 18 years old, behind this feeling, I decided to give life as Jesuit or Dominican. And the day after, I went to a bookshop and every — everything in my life starts with a book. And I went to this bookshop and I could read the medieval texts of the biography of Saint Dominic and I said, “OK, let’s go with the Dominicans.”


DR. AMBROSIO: So and 20 years after, I’m still Dominican brother. And so I think that this feeling, that is not just a feeling of course, uh, this vocation. I call it a vocation is still living in me.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: With of course, different periods as in a life.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. OK. So — so then, yeah, so somewhere in there you became interested in Sufism and Islam and the mystical tradition of Islam.


MS. TIPPETT: And in the whirling dervishes in particular.

DR. AMBROSIO: Of course.

MS. TIPPETT: How did that capture your attention as Dominican?

DR. AMBROSIO: Uh, as a Dominican my — with my vocation, I started also to read Christian and of course Catholic mystics. I read a lot during my formation as a Dominican. I read and I’m still reading Christians, mystics, as Teresa of Ávila, a little bit less, uh, John …

MS. TIPPETT: John of the Cross.

DR. AMBROSIO: … of the Cross and Julian of Norwich and so on. And then when we traveled in Jerusalem — we did a kind of pilgrimage in Jerusalem and it was in ’97, and I was more or less finishing my formation as Dominican, and I was trying to imagine my future as Dominican. At the time, I didn’t want to go on, even in studying. And I was not confused, but I was wondering how it would be my life after. And then in Jerusalem, I discovered Islam. I discovered the Arabic language. And I discovered more the Muslim believer than the Christian or the Jewish. And I was very surprised by the simplicity of Muslim believers praying outside the mosques and inside. And, I mean, in a way I was in love with these people and I was not interested at all in the Christian sides. I mean I was not — I mean, when I think even now of this pilgrimage, I think of the believers — the Muslim believers there. And then I came back to Italy and I asked my superior to go to Turkey. And he said, “Yes, why not?” And here I am, I mean, after 15 years I’m still here.

MS. TIPPETT: And so did your real study of Sufi and whirling dervishes happened here then?

DR. AMBROSIO: Even at the beginning of my Turkish studies, I took always the options to study Sufi orders history or Sufi, Sufis at the beginning, because of my interest in Christian mysticism also.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.


MS. TIPPETT: And of course then you were at this center of Islamic mysticism.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course. And I’m shocked because sometimes Christian or Muslims say to me but you are more a dervish or a Sufi than some — something else. In a way I’m very happy, in another way I’m — I wondering am I a good priest or a good Dominican.

MS. TIPPETT: You also in coming here brought yourself to a crucible of Christianity.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, where St. Paul was from …


MS. TIPPETT: These resonant names from the Bible, Ephesus and — did you know that or did you discover that?

DR. AMBROSIO: I discovered that maybe at the time it was more for studying Islam.


DR. AMBROSIO: And then — even now, I mean, I know that it is the country of Saint Paul and the very first church [in] history, but I’m more interested in living things, living people, and living — I mean, I more interested in doing eventually I’m more — closer to the living Christian community …


DR. AMBROSIO: … here than a history that in a way is finished. I mean I know that there are some pilgrimage here to the symbolic places, but in a way it’s just stones for me.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: And I’m more interested in living beliefs here as Christian or as a Muslim.

MS. TIPPETT: So — so let’s talk about what that’s like for you, this life you have of, um, you know, being immersed in the meditative tradition of Christianity and really living also this meditative tradition of Islam. I mean, maybe one place to start is when you said at 18 you experienced love, the love of God, and this then took over your life. What do you get from both of these traditions about that thing that we call love?

DR. AMBROSIO: I was till last summer or till last October was really thinking about the love of God in Islam and in Sufism. Even the pope talked a little bit, in this really famous talk in German, that Islam is in a way violence. That means for me in another point of view something is violence means that it is not love. So I kept in my mind this idea, and I brought — I had to give a course in Rome about the love of God in Christian mysticism and Sufism. And no students, so the course was up. I mean, no student, no …

MS. TIPPETT: No one enrolled?

DR. AMBROSIO: But I brought an article; I discovered some wonderful text on love and the love of God. And in a way, we can share even the idea of love God as considered by Catholic charity, because Rumi and Ankaravi, the author, say that the love of God, the love is boundless. And boundless means also without no limit — without interest — and this is also charity.

MS. TIPPETT: So overflowing it spreads itself.

DR. AMBROSIO: And I think that in this concept we can meet even Muslim and Christian.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, because there’s this connection between love and civic life even, love and knowledge, love and service, which is what you are saying, yeah.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course. Actually, the question is how I perceive the love of God.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: For me, the love of God is God himself and …

MS. TIPPETT: So really the — the emphasis is on “is.” That is, God is love.

DR. AMBROSIO: The one who is revealed to the woman and to the man in the world. God love also to show himself and to hid …

MS. TIPPETT: … to hide?

DR. AMBROSIO: … to hide himself.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in Istanbul, with Father Alberto Ambrosio. He’s spent most of his adult life in this place, which had a large Christian population even into the early 20th century, though most of those Christians were Armenian or Greek Orthodox, also referred to as Eastern Orthodox. As a Dominican friar, Alberto Ambrosio is part of Latin — or Western — Christianity. And he’s a scholar of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam with its spiritual homeland in Turkey.

MS. TIPPETT: What else do you discover, um, at this boundary you live at — this spiritual boundary between Islam and Christianity? I mean are there things you learn about Christianity because of your proximity to Islam or vice versa?

DR. AMBROSIO: Both, at least both. I mean, I found a lot of things. I learned another world, in a way another world, another universe, spiritual and human, that I can’t judge. I cannot judge. It’s different this universe. Eventually, under that there is a very close human behavior to mine.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: Islam faith is another God in a way.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: And I like also to think a God as the oneness — the absolute oneness, but I realize that as human beings we can also be different and faith can, models, another character the man and woman, different from my, um, experience.

MS. TIPPETT: So I sense that you — you know, you want — you want to resist saying it’s all the same in a way out of reverence for both traditions. Is that right?


MS. TIPPETT: And I — I really understand that. I really appreciate that. So you’re saying at one in the same time, you experience the oneness of God and you still want to hold Allah and God as different in someway.

DR. AMBROSIO: Right. Of course.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and those aren’t in contradiction.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, in a way, yeah. That’s why the contradiction makes me, uh, to be really alive, but at the same time it’s a little bit, um, I mean — I’m tired. It’s, uh, makes me tired.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s exhausting.

DR. AMBROSIO: Exhausting, yeah.


DR. AMBROSIO: But at the same time is kind of virus. Some — one of my professors of Theology told me that interreligious dialogue, intercultural, um, experience is like a virus and when you took this virus you can’t, uh, be without this virus. It’s living virus …

MS. TIPPETT: I also think there’s a paradox in really profound interreligious encounter.


MS. TIPPETT: People are as deep or more deeply planted in their own tradition and can be just appreciative and reverent towards the other in a way that’s — that they couldn’t have imagined before.


MS. TIPPETT: And you are really living in that place, which sounds like a contradiction between identity and reverence but it’s not.

DR. AMBROSIO: Right. Yeah, but — right. And that’s why my worst suffering is the fact that some other brothers or some other Catholics couldn’t understand this living contradiction. This contradiction that makes me really alive, and it’s wonderful paradox.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I also think though — I think that the West in the last 50 years created that contradiction. That you had to be tolerant and that that mean muting a strong identity. Or you had a strong identity and you weren’t tolerant. And I think actually you are 40 years old. I mean, I think, the next — the new generations are finding ways to combine those things.


MS. TIPPETT: And you, maybe, really represent that, living here in Turkey, which is a place historically and in the present that lives with that paradox.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, right. Yeah, I think so. In a way you are completely right. In a way I maybe the real product of Western mentality that lives this paradox — this contradiction, but at the same time, I mean, I love this contradiction. I’m closer to the ideal of human communion — human meeting …


DR. AMBROSIO: … than this identity. I mean, I know that I’m a Catholic, and I want to be a real Catholic, and even with my background in Philosophy and Theology. I studied a lot of Thomas of Aquinas.


DR. AMBROSIO: That is the doubter of Catholic Church. And I’m still very close to this philosophy and theology. But at the same time, I can be open mind to see what God creates and created and still creates in the world in terms of religions, faith, and human beings.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: I mean, is an old theology because God is the creator, he can also create different religions.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm, OK. Right.

DR. AMBROSIO: I mean, I’m still wondering and questioning myself.


DR. AMBROSIO: You are kind of touching on this without naming it. Um, the other boundary that you live at here is that the Christians — the tradition that is prominent but also centered here is the Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, right, at least for — in historical terms.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Right, in historic — but still the ecumenical patriarch is based here.

DR. AMBROSIO: Is here, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: This is, for Greeks, still Constantinople and …

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: … and the Patriarch Bartholomew part of his title is Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome.

DR. AMBROSIO: Right. Yeah, right. I’m very proud, because when I met him — every time I met him, uh, he talks to me in Turkish.


DR. AMBROSIO: So, I’m very proud of this, because, of course, he knows Italian and English and French, and we could talk in another Western languages. And probably, he is happy that I can talk in Turkish because it’s not very common between priests — Catholic priests — and I tell everyone that he talks to me in Turkish.

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about why that matters — why that’s important.

DR. AMBROSIO: Because, um, he feels — probably he feels, I mean, it’s my interpretation, maybe it’s not right, but he feels that I’m here and I want to be here. I want to be a part of this country, as an old part of this country, as Greek Orthodox is a really old part of this country. He wants to see me as the same perspective to be here not just a foreigner.

MS. TIPPETT: Of even — even predating the Ottoman, right?

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, probably. Yeah, because we were, you know, the Dominicans history here is very long.

MS. TIPPETT: Christians were here, yes.

DR. AMBROSIO: But they didn’t talk Turkish. It’s a very recent story that even Catholic priests can talk in Turkish. They didn’t learn Turkish for centuries, for centuries.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. And there were so many reasons that the Eastern and Western Church or the Orthodox and the Latin Churches diverged, but one of them was also that Roman Catholic theology was happening in Latin and Orthodox theology was happening Greek. I mean even the language …

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course, yeah, right.

MS. TIPPETT: So the fact that you can speak in Turkish now is interesting, it’s interesting.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, you’re right.


DR. AMBROSIO: In a way, I’m very reconciliated with the history. I mean, history is a part of revelation of God. I mean, history before being history was reality, was living life, because I love life — living life — I would say. I think the history of — as a living life at a time.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And this is your time.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah. So I can understand that time and this time, because of idea of life, not as history — dead history. It’s not dead history. It was life at the time, not history.

MS. TIPPETT:: And you as an Italian from the center of Latin Christianity, you’ve seen the other — the other side of it. Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: Also — also yeah, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: Watch my conversation with Alberto Ambrosio at his monastery in Istanbul at onbeing.org. There you can also listen to this show again and find more images, sounds, and voices from our time in Istanbul. There are photos of Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia and of the Blue Mosque that an Ottoman emperor modeled on its beauty. And there’s a late-summer-night music lesson with a Sufi musician and ethnomusicologist.

[sound bite of music]

Coming up, Alberto Ambrosio on the “art” of living with the religious other; also, an encounter on a Turkish island with an Orthodox bishop, on what he calls his “dialogue of life” in this Muslim country.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in Istanbul, exploring spiritual boundaries on some of the greatest tensions and possibilities of the modern world. The majority-Muslim nation we know as Turkey was the birthplace of the Christian apostle Paul, the land where the Council of Nicea was held. The Dominican friar Alberto Ambrosio has been telling us about what he learns in his life here. He is steeped in the contemplative tradition of both Christianity and in Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, which the poet Rumi inspired in this land in the 13th century.

MS. TIPPETT: So in America, and I think, to some extent in Western Europe, 9/11 was this watershed, right? We live in the post-9/11 world.

DR. AMBROSIO: I began to have, um, a fear of flights, because of …

MS. TIPPETT: Of flying? I mean, is that true for you too? Because Turkey is a different center, right? I mean it’s both European and …

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: So is that, aside from fear of flying, I mean, is that a milestone for you psychologically even in terms of how you see religion in the world?

DR. AMBROSIO: Thank God, that I began this adventure of discovering another religion, another country, another tradition before 9/11. I mean, I started in ’96. So my decision to be more involved, engaged with studying Islam and to be in Turkey began before 9/11. For the moment, the best experience I have is when I talk about Sufi, for example, to an audience — a Western and Christian audience — and then questions start to come up. I encourage people to read together — and dream to read together texts of different traditions. But it’s still a kind of dream because I have to find the people who want really to do that. But in a way, I’m trying to prepare people to do that.

MS. TIPPETT: And are you talking about Scripture or other texts, mystical texts?

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, right.

MS. TIPPETT: Other texts.


MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah, because I think sometimes people start with The Qur’an and the Bible and that’s not the place to start.

DR. AMBROSIO: No, no. I’m afraid …

MS. TIPPETT: It’s seems obvious that it’s not. It’s actually the worst place to start.

DR. AMBROSIO: I’m very happy because I have to — and I want to write a book of introduction to Islam for a Christian audience, but very simple using poetry and so on. And is a Catholic publisher that asked me to do this. And I brought also a book — the first Italian book on whirling dervishes.

MS. TIPPETT: The whirling dervishes, yeah.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, it was the first one. Even if a lot of Italians come and to Turkey and see the whirling dervishes dance, and they don’t know, they go back and they don’t still know anything about Sema. And apparently, this book is very well received by — even by the Church. I was very, I mean, a little bit proud, because the Cardinal Ravasi, who is the minister of culture, did a very good book review in one of the most important newspapers in Italy about the book. And he loves also Rumi’s poetry. That is very interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: And so why is it that these fundamental texts of our theologies and traditions are not the place to start and that poetry and mystical texts are the place to start. Why is that?

DR. AMBROSIO: I have a lot of answers about this, because the texts are like, I don’t know, like idols.

MS. TIPPETT: Are the Bible and the Qur’an.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, in the way, uh, I can’t — I can’t go very close to them, because it’s very dangerous. And poetry — mystical poetry are very closer to us, more close than …

MS. TIPPETT: They’re hospitable to outsiders also in a way.

DR. AMBROSIO: There is something — it is like saint for Catholic. A saint that’s — I can understand why this devotion to the saints in Catholicism, because they are — the saints are human beings and closer than even Christ or God himself. So we need a simple experiences and especially Rumi poetry is very — the images used by Rumi are very simple — very — our experience people …

MS. TIPPETT: Accessible?

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, accessible. People need this. And mostly now, in these days, we need simple way to find God and his love, and the experience of God.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: Simple ways.

MS. TIPPETT: So I think even 20 years ago, I remember I was involved with a Benedict — with some Benedictines who do ecunemism, which is one of their things.

DR. AMBROSIO: Wonderful.

MS. TIPPETT: And there was a big discussion about including this to interreligious dialogue and the thing is, whether it was true or not 20 years ago, it felt like a choice, right? Whether any tradition wanted to be interreligiously active. And in 2012, it doesn’t, right? The world is interreligious. It’s interconnected. And then you’ve been living this for a long time. And of course in a place like Turkey, I mean, you know?


MS. TIPPETT: It’s always been a reality, but, um, it’s very frightening for a lot of people. It is new. It’s new for human beings to be living with this kind of proximity to religious others in some places, in some places.

DR. AMBROSIO: Right, right.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, in the States — the United States, much more religiously diverse than it was 30 or 40 years ago for all kinds of reasons.


MS. TIPPETT: So what do you think, you know, from this vantage point you have, you know, what would you say about — you know, where you have concerns, but most important like what are your sources of hope as you see this world unfolding where more and more people are going to be living the way you do, very close to another tradition? Also committed to their own.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, right. But they don’t want, I mean, they don’t want to live this?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s going to happen. So — so what have you learned that might be useful.

DR. AMBROSIO: It’s a fact but …

MS. TIPPETT: It can be frightening.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah, I think that it’s an art, it’s an art to live this diversity. And we cannot hide that there are also some dangers. And how to escape by the dangers is to learn the art living with a diversities — living within this context. And when I say the art to live with, I think that, for example, sometimes even I like this virus of interfaith and so on.

MS. TIPPETT: Interreligious, yeah, yeah.

DR. AMBROSIO: I need to have a break and to look at myself, to look at my God, my faith. There is a time for talking, for conversation, and there’s for dialogue, and there is a time for silence, for meditating what I lived before …

MS. TIPPETT: Going back inward.

DR. AMBROSIO: Yeah. So I think the real answer to this, um, fear that is a real fear is to learn the art how to live together with diverse — religious diversity.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AMBROSIO: I’m learning too, I mean, I’m trying to learn it.

MS. TIPPETT: Father Alberto Ambrosio resides at the San Pietro di Galata monastery in Istanbul, where we spoke.

I’m Krista Tippett with On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today in Istanbul, exploring spiritual boundaries of the modern world.

This is the sound of a Sunday morning liturgy in the chapel of the Halki Monastery, on the tiny island of Heybeliada. Our trip to Turkey came about because of an invitation to an environmental conference of His All Holiness Bartholomew I. He’s the ecumenical patriarch of 300 million Christians worldwide — including the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. And this is his monastery.

It’s a beautiful, tranquil setting — but the many communities on this land have known suffering: Christians recall the massacre of Orthodox priests by Catholic crusaders; and the death of over a million Armenians in what some the call first genocide of the 20th century. More recently, there was oppression under a secular Turkish state; the main theological school of the ecumenical patriarch has been closed for 40 years. But the Orthodox Christians are also experiencing new freedoms under the current government of Turkey, which, with an Islamic prime minister, is more open to religious expression of all kinds. And after that three-hour service in the Halki Monastery, my producer Trent Gilliss talked to me about an impromptu meeting he had with a modern leader of this ancient tradition.

MS. TIPPETT: I think one of the most interesting things for us was learning about these layers and layers of history.


MS. TIPPETT: Especially if you’re just looking at the history of Christianity. There’s a heaviness to it, don’t you think? I mean, all those things we learned about even standing in Hagia Sophia, the main church in Istanbul, the things that happened there among Christians.

MR. GILLISS: Yeah. For me, it was a rich mix of history where I expected to be kind of burdened with some of that history. In other ways, I realized like there’s a lot of hope yet. And that’s what I — I actually took that when we were sailing out from the mainland of Istanbul to the island, seeing this gleaming monastery up there.

MS. TIPPETT: So tell me how you happened to meet Metropolitan Elpidophoros.

MR. GILLISS: We had just finished taping photographs, visuals, audio of a three-hour liturgy service, and we were going to try to condense that and make it an explainer.

MS. TIPPETT: An explainer in kind of orthodox liturgy 101.

MR. GILLISS: An explainer of what happens with this mass, yes, with this service and kind of just walk people through it because it’s so rich with iconography, changes of garb, the way the presiding celebrant comes out and greets the others. It’s this little chapel, Chapel of the Holy Trinity, and it’s a beautiful little place and it has some significant artistry there. We were coming out and we were going to arrange to speak to a seminarian, somebody who was new that could kind of walk us through it. He said the abbot might be offended if we didn’t invite him to participate. We said, well, sure, of course, that makes complete sense. You know, we’d love to speak to the abbot if he’s take 15 minutes.

DR. ELIPODOPHOROS LAMBRINIADIS: My name is Elpidophoros. I am the Metropolitan of Bursa. Bursa is city in the south coast of Marmaris, south from Istanbul.

MR. GILLISS: Yes, and why is that significant within the …

DR. LAMBRINIADIS: Well, every archbishop has his own diocese. It’s not that significant, but it’s my diocese. I don’t think it’s a significant diocese, but it’s my responsibility, my jurisdiction as bishop.

MR. GILLISS: And not only are you the bishop of the archdiocese of Bursa, but you’re also the abbot of this monastery?

DR. LAMBRINIADIS: Exactly, because in the year 1922, if you know from the history, that after the war between Greece and Turkey, there was an exchange of populations between the two countries. In the framework of this exchange of populations, all Greeks living outside Istanbul had to go to Greece and, vice versa, all Turks living in Greece had to come to Turkey. So we lost the vast majority of our flock in Asia Minor Pontus and all this historical Christians soil. After that year, 1922, we keep, of course, our dioceses. We elected bishops for these dioceses, but they have no faithful anymore. Things change. We have now Christians living there, but we have no organized communities because of that historic fact that happened like 90 years ago. But we have to be flexible and see the future in the new ways. These memories cannot be a burden for the future of our faith in this country.

MS. TIPPETT: So the Metropolitan has been in his office about 18 months, had been when we met him. I thought it was pretty interesting what he told you about how he had spent most of his energy those first 18 months.

MR. GILLISS: Right, in buying churches?


MR. GILLISS: It’s such basic fundamentals, you know. If there’s no place for his flock to go, then what’s the use? So he’s going back. And where we might go back and build something or go back a couple of hundred years, he’s going back to Byzantine churches and buying them and renovating them.

MS. TIPPETT: They’re just in the countryside.

MR. GILLISS: They’re just in the countryside in these little forgotten communities for some Christians. And now you have immigrants from Russia, from Bulgaria, coming back and they need a place to go. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s reinvesting in those communities.

MS. TIPPETT: So, again, to get into these layers of history, the ecumenical patriarch, and that word ecumenical means something quite distinct and quite spacious in that sense.

MR. GILLISS: Yeah. I mean, this ecumenical was like a mission statement.

DR. LAMBRINIADIS: It’s a living reality for us. We have the ecumenical patriarchy here. We are not the Greek patriarchy here. So having this cultural richness and background as ecumenical patriarchy, we have no difficulty to go forward with any new given historical situations that God allows to happen. Being member of a church doesn’t mean that there is a uniformity. There is no one norm of being orthodox or of being Muslim or of being Roman Catholic or whatever. Where is the human element that are, of course, always some distinctions, differences, different flavors, different tastes of understanding the faith, whatever this faith is. Is it the Muslim faith or is it the Christian faith or is this a denomination or the other denomination? For example, here in Turkey, we live our faith as a minority and this defines the way we live the faith in the way that we understand ourselves and the relation we have with God and the way we understand the church as institution or as a spiritual reality. When you’re a minority and you are a minority which was, up to really recent years, persecuted literally, you see things different. You do not feel an institution, but as a living community.

[soundbite of chanting]

What is the spirit of ecumenical patriarchy? The spirit is the openness, the openness to the other, whoever this other is. Is this other another Christian, another denomination? Is another religion, another nation, another culture? Whatever it is, we are open not in a synchronistic way, but open in a way of understanding the other and being able to live in peace with the other. But if you want to meet the other and have dialogue with the other, you must be confident and well-equipped with your culture, with your theology. If you are not well-equipped, then when you meet the other, you are confused. And when you are confused, you’re afraid. And when you’re afraid, you’re aggressive and you go back to conservatism. Conservatism is an excuse for the fact that you cannot meet the other because you don’t know your tradition well or because you are unsafe.

MR. GILLISS: How is that being lived out or played out within the monastery itself? Is there dialogue going on or different types of …

DR. LAMBRINIADIS: As I told you, I’m appointed only 18 months now, and I am trying to first establish a church building to pray in, so it’s not my first priority now. I have first to build my community and then, of course, building the community, you can have dialogue. Of course, there is the dialogue of life. This is most important than the official theological or whatever dialogue we have among religions. What I mean by dialogue of life is the good relations that I have with my neighbors in the area of the church I already purchased, the good dialogue we have with the mayor of the city, with the governor, with the imams. The first thing I did when I bought the church was, of course, to make a door. Of course, it was open. There was no door in the church building. The first thing I did when I had the keys is to give one key to the mayor. The second key I gave to the neighbors. And the third key I gave to the previous owner of the church. So everybody feels safe, that I’m not a stranger who came in their village and just bought a building and closed it down and went away. This is a dialogue of life I am having in my diocese right now, but today we organize here again another dialogue that the patriarch organized called prominent journalists of the Turkish press. In one hour, there’s a meeting here. The patriarch will meet them. This is another sign, another example, of the dialogue of life we have with the people we share our country, our life, our everyday experience.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I find that phrase, the dialogue of life, so appealing and helpful, useful, and it also is very patient, though, right?

MR. GILLISS: Yeah, yeah. As I was listening to him talk about his plan and the work that he’s doing, it made me reflect on being an American and some of the trends that are happening right now. There’s all different types of slow food movements …

MS. TIPPETT: Slow parenting.

MR. GILLISS: Slow parenting. Everything needs to settle in and kind of reflect on things and not just the easiest thing, but what has been done over time. When I hear somebody like the Metropolitan say that, he’s looking back to what he’s inherited.

MS. TIPPETT: From that slow change.

MR. GILLISS: Yes, it’s slow change.

DR. LAMBRINIADIS: The understanding of time in the East, you have already seen, it’s totally different. This is why we can, for an example, give you an appointment at 5 and come at 6 with no hesitation and no problem because the understanding of time is different in the East. This is one example. The other is how we understand change. We understand changes that happen in depth rather than superficial changes. Changes in depth take longer, need more time. And we need more patience which these three elements are difficult for the Western civilization to understand. Whether this is good or bad, I cannot say, but this is reality which we can accept. We have to accept it to understand it. In the West, unique things happen quickly, now immediately. This is not the way things happen here. For example, this is not the way it happens in Turkey. The way that the present prime minister started changing Turkey from modernization and democratization, it was successful because it was not quick. It was in depth, well planned, step by step with patience and understanding. The things that we expect to happen for us, for our community, for the rights of the ecumenical patriarchy, will happen, but not that quickly. It will happen step by step. We’re planning with the perspective of eternity than with the perspective of the next election politically. This is the spectrum of understanding of time that we have as church.

MS. TIPPETT: Professor Dr. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis is the Metropolitan of Bursa and abbot of the Halki Monastery.

You can watch and listen again at onbeing.org — and also find more sights and sounds from our trip to Istanbul. Catch up with the other show we produced from there, my conversation with Mustafa Akyol on Turkey’s emerging model of Islam and democracy.

As always, you can “like” us on our Facebook page — that’s facebook.com/onbeing. And follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.

This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.

Thanks this week to Omid Safi, Father John Chryssavgis, and Paul Leblanc and the University of Southern New Hampshire, which co-sponsored the ecumenical patriarch’s conference on the environment.

And a special thanks also to Larry O’Shaughnessy and the O’Shaughnessy Foundation for making this trip possible.

Dave McGuire is senior producer. Trent Gilliss is senior editor.

And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: Next time: Rosanne Cash, the daughter of the country icon Johnny Cash, singer and writer, Twitter poet. She shares her thoughts on the source of creativity, the workings of love and grief, and fractals as a way of thinking about the divine. Please join us.

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