In the third century, according to legend, seven young Christian men from Ephesus refused the Roman Emperor Decius’s command to sacrifice to idols. They had to flee the city and ended up hiding in a cave. Then, like the disciples in the garden, they fell asleep while praying. Having tracked the renegades down, Decius had the cave sealed.
More than three hundred years later, a local shepherd discovered the cave. Upon entering it, God awakened the youths, who thought they had slept for just a single night. One soon went into Ephesus to buy bread, but quickly discovered something significant had changed: Crosses now dotted the city. When he tried to pay for the bread with coins from the time of Decius, people in the marketplace took him to the bishop and then to the emperor. After recounting their tale, the boys again fell asleep, this time in death.
The Eighteenth Sura (chapter) of the Qur’an tells of a similar happening. Titled al-kahf, “The Cave,” it contains almost twenty verses about the Sleepers. While the outline of the story is the same, there are notable variations: no historical context is provided; the youths have a dog that serves as guardian outside the cave; and they are morally perfected in their sleep, after which God presents them as proof that the Hour (of judgment and resurrection) is determined by God alone. The passage reminds the reader that resurrection is intimately linked with abandonment to God’s will, that such submission perfects us, and that God determines the when and where of our sleeping and rising.
Each July, in a small village in northwest France, there is a joint Islamic-Christian pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Members of both faiths gather to ask for forgiveness and to seek peace. The pilgrimage was the inspired vision of Louis Massignon (1883–1962), French Catholic scholar of Islam and pioneer of Islamic-Christian understanding. Established in 1954 at the height of French-Algerian tensions, the initial pilgrimage to Vieux-Marché was not without risk to participants. Circumstances have changed, and today we face other dangers. But when I attended last July, I found that the call to fraternity and common prayer continues to endure in this humble setting.
The pilgrims gather at the Chapel of the Seven Saints to ask for pardon for failings and, through the intercession of the Seven, to pray for a “serene peace” between Christians and Muslims. The chapel, built in 1703, is about three miles outside the village. Inscribed above the main entrance is the feast day (July 22) of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection. Tradition says that she, like Mary the mother of Jesus and John the beloved disciple, died at Ephesus, the place of the Seven Sleepers. The chapel rests on an ancient Celtic dolmen, or portal tomb, and a medieval Breton hymn sung during the pilgrimage indicates that the place itself dates back to “when the world was created.” Devotion to the Sleepers can be traced to sixth-century France.
Last year’s festivities included a film about Islamic pilgrimage in Morocco and an exhibition of Christian and Islamic iconography and calligraphy. A conference on the nature of conversion included Christian, Muslim, and atheist speakers. It was followed by a shared “meal of Abraham,” consisting of chicken and couscous. Mass, celebrated in French, Breton, Latin, and Arabic, then took place in the chapel. The pilgrims next processed to the tantad, a great “fire of joy,” while singing a Breton hymn or gwerz. The first evening concluded with traditional Breton singing and dancing that went on late into the night.
The following morning, we reconvened in the chapel for Mass. The pardoner, or officiating priest, explained the liturgy to the Muslim guests. The celebration exuded a spirit of hospitality and fraternity. Then we formed another procession, this one to the stiffel, or spring. It is an ancient granite rock from which water flows at seven points. The gwerz recounts the many who have been healed of their illness or blindness by these waters. The fatiha, the opening Qur’anic prayer, and the account of the Seven from Sura 18 were then recited by the Muslim participants; and milk and dates, the traditional foods of paradise, were shared by all. The pilgrimage concluded with another wonderful meal and more music and dancing.
The gathering at Vieux-Marché is but one small piece of the larger engagement Massignon envisioned for the church and Islam, a chance for Christians and Muslims to walk together prayerfully and ask questions of one another. There were no more than twenty Muslims and a hundred or so Christians at last year’s gathering, but it was clear to me that this ongoing effort remains important: a small step in the larger pilgrimage Christians and Muslims must make together.