Surrounded by greenery and generous shade, Helen Dingle closed her eyes to listen to the sound of water from the Zygaktis river cascading under her feet, the sound of the narrow stream magnified around the rocks where Fr Peter was setting up Mass on a simple stone table. Here in Philippi, Helen sat with her journal, putting into words the overwhelming feeling in her heart: “I’m at peace at last.”
In the stunning garden oasis where St Paul baptised the first Christians of Europe almost two thousand years ago, Helen was overcome with a profound appreciation for the gospel he fearlessly preached. The gospel that was the source of her new-found peace. “I realised what an amazing person Paul was,” she says. “He made his journey on foot, and all with the zeal of bringing the message to the known world at the time.”
Following his footsteps through Greece, Turkey and Macedonia gave Helen a rich insight to the New Testament, which came as a surprise.
It just brought scripture alive to me. I’m not a holy roller by any means but I could sit there and really, really appreciate the scriptures, more than I’d ever done in my life.
Among these are St Paul’s letters, which Helen explored first through the ruins in Corinth. Standing in the what is left of the Rostrum where he first preached the gospel, and under the monolithic columns in the Temple of Apollo, she began to understand the trials and triumphs that came with being Christian in his time. “We learnt a lot about the history of Corinth; it was a shipping place and I could see why Paul chose very strong words his letters,” she says, chuckling. “Every time you’re at Mass and you hear the the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, or the Thessalonians, or the Corinthians, you sort of sit up and take notice and understand what the people were like at the time and why the message was put to them in the way it was.”
In Ephesus, Helen walked through what was once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, soaking in colossal ruins that reveal some of the city’s former splendour; the Magnesian Gate; the marble-paved Street of the Kouretes; the thermal baths of Scholastica; Trajan’s Fountain, and the Great Theatre.
We sat amongst the ruins, on the stones, and Father put the cloth and pieces for Mass over a bit of rock. We just sat under a tree and prayed. That was a standout.
Through Mykonos, Crete, and Santorini, Helen followed St Paul’s journey by boat. On the volcanic island of Patmos, Helen crossed vine-lined alleys to the Monastery of Apocalypse. After absorbing the manuscripts, medieval textiles and century-old vestments in the museum, and praying briefly in the humble, single-windowed Chapel of St Anne, Helen entered the cave where St John received the visions that would later become the Book of Revelation. “It’s just so unique. It just doesn’t leave you, you flash back and have lovely images that you remember. It’s ongoing, it’s like the gift that keeps on giving,” Helen says.
Back on the mainland, the pilgrim group travelled through Delphi to the Meteora. There, six (of an original 24) Byzantine monasteries sit atop phenomenal, sky-high, natural boulders. “Monks built them 600 years ago,” Helen explains. “They had to take all the building materials up these perpendicular rock faces using rope pulleys.” At the top, the group reflected on the sacrifices the early early Christians made to worship God and preserve the faith.
“These are really deep experiences and so enriching,” Helen says. “It’s hard to put into words. It’s something you can’t get from any other place. You can sit in a church and you can go to a conference or be in a prayer group, but here you are walking in the same grounds as these early Christians did. It’s educational and fun, and we met some beautiful people. I loved it. Absolutely loved every single bit of it.”
As for the peace she found at the Zygaktis river, Helen carries this with her and is reminded it of it each time she hears the gospels and the letters from St Paul. “Before the trip I would have heard them time and time again, but never had I listened really carefully. Now I’m familiar with them. It’s like talking to an old friend, because you’ve been there, you’ve visited those places.”