We cross the Bosphorus Strait via a steamer ferry that has been running nonstop for decades, so we can wander through my old neighborhood. Europe to Asia. Two continents split a city that knows more splits than I can count. On the hill above, the newest and biggest mosque is rivaled in height by the neighboring TV/Radio tower, the perfect symbol of Türkiye’s two competing religions. It’s her Centennial and I’ve been watching her duality unfold for more than a quarter century.
My old “neighborhood” is ancient Chalcedon, site of the 4th Ecumenical Council held in 451 AD, convened by Empress Pulcheria and attended by over 500 bishops, to settle once and for all the two distinct natures of God the Father and God the Son. Nothing remains from the 5th century, but the fish market and roasting chestnuts make you wonder. We walk the cobblestone streets, and this time my memories are more inclusive; not just the assault or that crazy hospital or the stress of driving, but also the lovely view from that terrace and the ice cream shop on the corner and playing in the kiddie pool on that roof.
In a country defined by the division of two, I’m learning to add.
I may be here to lead a group of women, but there is always something specific for me in the return: a new theme, another layer, a shift in perspective. Türkiye has always been the place in which God gets my attention, and this year the theme has to do with embracing the both/and, the complex humanity of the lost women we’re discovering. Because in truth, I’ve been lost too.
I grew up in this divided place: became a mom, learned to mentor, celebrated our 10th anniversary. And also? Traveled well-worn paths of a bifurcated soul. Learned to distance myself from my weakness rather than welcome her home, draw her close, and tend to her well.
In the past few years, I’ve found other women who left their fingerprints on the history of this place and I have mined all the ways to celebrate them, to augment their impact. Only lately have I realized my propensity to do to these women what the church did when it made them saints. In their deification, we dismiss their humanity. In praising their sanctity, virginity, miracles, or martyrdom, we other them. They cannot be like us with gold halos and stories of resurrection.
This time, I’m telling a more well-rounded story.
I’ll let Empress Pulcheria guide me. What sort of woman takes a vow of virginity and turns the palace into a virtual monastery? Who not only presumes entry behind the Haghia Sophia’s altar (reserved for the bishop and holy emperor alone!), but convenes and presides over an ecumenical council? Who finally agrees to marry an old Roman soldier to bring stability to the throne with a clear understanding that she will remain a virgin?
Oh, she liked the crown and it’s questionable how much she used sanctity and chastity as her primary tools of controlling it. She may have deeply loved Christ. She also loved power.
In my study of addition, I’m learning to embrace both as true. And when I allow them both to be true of Pulcheria, and Theodora, and Macrina, and Priscilla, they both get to be true of me, too. The both/and. The complexity of being human, not a saint.
It’s amazing how much these ancient women teach me about myself—how much they’re healing me, mending the shattered bits that first landed me in this country. Strength and determination, faith and hope led me. Dashed dreams and chaos and daily trauma nearly tore me in two. I leaned into the one, to survive. But every trip back returns more of me to myself.
I welcome her like a younger friend. I receive the mend on another tear I forgot was there. A new theme. A newly discovered woman from the past. A different guide who has more for me to discover. I come a little more home to myself knowing now there will be more to come, next time.
Beth Bruno lives in Colorado where she and her husband get to create life-giving experiences and opportunities for aha moments around God and story. As owners of ReStory Counseling, they do this alongside a team of story-informed coaches and counselors. After living in Turkey for almost a decade, she designed and leads the boutique Lost Women of Turkey Pilgrimage for women each year. With the last of her three kids close to flying the nest, you may soon find her living in one of the cave homes of Cappadocia.