Christian Mother Mary Religion Travel

Mary’s Last Breath

The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini, 1475-76

Today, August 15th, Christians around the world are celebrating the Assumption of Mary based on the doctrine that God assumed her, body and soul, directly to Heaven after her earthly existence ended. This happened after the Dormition—or “falling asleep”—of Theotokos, the Mother of God, after she breathed her last.

I am no theologian, nor was today’s Feast Day part of my Protestant upbringing. However, after powerful visits to Ephesus in 2001 and the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem the following year, I became intrigued by this concept of the Assumption and wondered in which of the two cities Mary had died, as both lay claim to that sacred spot.

In Ephesus, a tour guide told me that Mary had spent her final days there on Nightingale Hill in the small stone house that is now a chapel and a popular pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims. While attending Christmas Eve service at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, I learned that the church had been built over the place from where Mary had left this world, located downstairs in the crypt. How to reconcile these two assertions?

Mary welcomes visitors to her former home on Nightingale Hill

The Ephesus claim is based on the Gospel of John in which Jesus, while dying on the Cross, entrusts his mother and his disciple, John, to one another’s care. It is believed they traveled together to and settled in Ephesus, where the Apostle later died in his 90s.

An aura of mystery surrounds the modest dwelling, which I might never have seen had it not been for Anne Catherine Emmerich, an 18th-century Augustinian nun and mystic, who was confined to a sickbed much of her adulthood. I’d read about her visions detailing the precise descriptions and location of Mary’s house in Ephesus, a place she’d never visited. These were recorded by the poet Clemens Brentano, who published them years later as The Life of the Blessed Virgin. The book became a guide for those explorers intent on finding the house where Mary had lived out her final years.

In 1891, two Lazarist priests set out to excavate the area around Nightingale Hill. When they grew thirsty and asked the locals for water, they were directed to the “monastery.” Next to a spring they found a small T-shaped stone building partially obscured by a grove of trees. It had three arches with rectangular stones and “overlooked the sea with its many islands,” exactly as Sister Emmerich had envisioned. Eventually, the house was converted into a chapel after a rigorous investigative and confirmation process by the Vatican the following year.

Mary’s former home, now a chapel

During my visit there on a blistery July afternoon, I entered the snug space and approached the altar, which was decorated with wildflowers and burning votive candles. A small statue of Mary in the archway watched over worshipers squeezed together in four rows of pews. Hand-woven Persian rugs graced the stone floor. With only a moment of privacy, I lit a candle, but was soon forced outside by a group of overzealous pilgrims.

I sought refuge from the sun under a fig tree and allowed the sweet scene of jasmine to caress the tip of my sunburnt nose. Lizards rustled in the overgrown bushes while pairs of yellow butterflies flitted by. Birds darted over the ravines, harmonizing ethereal melodies. The abundance of natural beauty lulled me into a blissful state; I closed my eyes and reveled in the serenity. I could imagine Mary dying peacefully in her sleep amid those surroundings.

One and a half years later, I participated in a three-week liturgical choral tour in Jerusalem, during which my singing mates and I often visited local churches during our free time. During a stop at the Dormition Abbey, we headed down the spiral staircase to the crypt. I was drawn to the commemorative wreaths swathed in red, white, and green on the altar of the Hungarian Chapel. As I struggled to make out the text, I felt a tap on my shoulder and jumped. An older man in a dark blue uniform apologized for startling me and informed me that the church would soon be closing.

Statue of Mary at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem

I started to leave to join my friends, who had gone upstairs, but as I walked toward the exit, the man followed close behind. He again touched my shoulder; this time my heart leapt into double time.

“Sorry to bother Madam,” he said, tipping his head forward. “I am only wondering if Madam would like a kiss from Mary.”

I looked around, unsure of what he meant. “Why yes, I guess so,” I said.

He guided me toward an enclosed circular area in the middle of the room, where a life-sized cherry wood-ivory statue of Mary reclined atop her “deathbed.” With jittery knees, I moved closer to Mary and then pressed my lips against hers.

An electrical spark shot down my throat, pulsating its way toward my fingertips and toes. Dizzy, I stood up slowly, one hand around my neck, the other clasping the railing. The intensity gave way to a flood of warmth that gushed toward my pores, infusing me with a deep sense of calm. The sensation was similar to what I had experienced at Mary’s house in Ephesus.

The Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

“Are you okay? the man asked.

“More than okay,” I told him.

And I was okay, only a little confused. After my experience at Ephesus, my instinct was that Mary had entered eternal sleep there. Now, after the indelible “kiss,” I wondered if it had been Jerusalem.

I joined my friends outside, and we headed back to our hotel. Before entering Zion Gate, a group of young Arabic women wearing hijabs approached. One wore a blue headscarf and floated toward me like a lovely mirage. She offered me a big smile, and after I smiled back, she came toward me and kissed me gently on the lips. Then, she and her friends giggled and left. I was stunned; it had happened so quickly and so soon after my “kiss” from Mary. My friends confirmed that the woman was indeed real.

Since these initial visits to Ephesus and Jerusalem, I have returned to both places. While my visits did not have the same emotional impact, I could still tap into the peacefulness of Mary’s home on Nightingale Hill, as well as marvel that a strange man had arranged for me to kiss her likeness at the Dormition Abbey.

As for where Mary breathed her last, there will most likely never be closure or certainty, at least in my lifetime. What matters is that she lived and became, in her words, the “handmaid of the Lord” and Theotokos. Today, on this important feast day, I’m remembering and grateful for these special encounters that have brought me closer to Mother Mary.

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