Sunday, June 8, 2014

Behind the Big Blue Door

The heavy metal door was painted blue, scratched by age and unseen stories, with a round handle.  Next door to a rather ordinary market, it seemed a rather ordinary gateway to prayer, mystery and the oneness of God.   But I followed my host's instructions, found the door open as promised, and pushed my way through.  It was ten o'clock on a Saturday night; all around me, from every direction, a dozen muezzins were finishing their haunting calls to prayer.
Konya Elder


But the passage behind the door was dark, and I wondered if I'd missed something in those earlier instructions.  I worried about stumbling into someone's living room, crossing an unexpected boundary.  I felt my way along the dark wall.  Groping.  Hoping. 

I was so moved, so intrigued by the possibility of praying tonight, that I pushed on, looking for signs of life (or the sound of prayer).  No minarets here.  No crowds of people.  But unexpectedly, I stepped into a small vestibule and found it scattered with men's shoes.  And I saw through a drawn curtain flickering light and the shifting figures of a half dozen men.  The tekke!  The Sufis!  Deep in the night.  Late on a Saturday.  Somewhere behind the big blue door. 

What happened then, what happened over the next two hours, transcended most of the categories I have for interfaith prayer and boundary-crossing worship.  I'd never experienced (or thrown myself into) anything like it, anywhere, with any group of men.  At the same time, though, I recall those two hours with a deep and familiar sense of gratitude.  There was something--or some being--in the tekke that I did indeed recognize.  And that being is bigger, wiser, more compassionate (I am discovering) than I had ever imagined.  "Looking up gives light," said Rumi, hundreds of years ago, "although at first it makes you dizzy."  

The Sufis were kind in welcoming me, so I stepped quietly into the tekke and stood in the very back line.  There were maybe 25 men, standing, praying, bending, praying.  Some were very old.  Some were not.  The young man standing and praying by my side seemed to be in his late 20s or early 30s; and he generously beckoned for me to join in.  I'm pretty sure that not one of the 25 spoke any English.  It was an evening for language of a different kind: nonverbal, divine, spirit language.  I can only trust that they picked up on my appreciation, these Sufis: my gratitude, my heart, my awe.  (I think it had to show!)

During those first twenty minutes, in evening prayer, we prayed together: prostrating to God, practicing sujud and glorifying Allah/God.  While I'd prayed in American mosques before, there was frankly something different about this tekke, something different about these men, that I'll be working out for a long while to come.  I joined in, easily, naturally: standing and bowing, prostrating and kneeling to the touch the floor in humility and praise.  Our praying was so physical: fusing the body, spirit, soul, flesh; creating a shared community of musty sweat and reverence.  The chanted prayer was beautiful, of course, deeply mystical and evocative and even sweet.  I watched, I prayed, I listened, I prayed.  I gave thanks.

After evening prayers, the community circled round for zikr (the traditionally Sufi meditation).  I was introduced to the sheikh--who nodded and smiled as I thanked him for his welcome.  And I was invited (OK, urged, directed) to pull myself right up tight into the shoulder-to-shoulder formation.  Time to sing.   The circle calls.

It's foolish--though that won't stop me--to even try to describe these things.  There was drumming, led by the shop owner next door, who'd first invited me to zikr.  The drumming deepened in intensity and quickened in pace: and one or two sang verses of the Quran above the steady, building rhythm.  Then the 25 of us chanted: "All-ah!  All-ah!  All-ah!"  This chanting continued, and it continued, and it continued, and it continued.  I'm guessing that this part, just this one part ("All-ah!  All-ah!  All-ah!") continued for 20, 25 minutes.  It was ancient and mesmerizing, bewildering and moving.  From our knees, all of us, we chanted this one word, breathing it out and in, out and in, out and in.  

I looked up at one point, to see that the young man (who'd earlier welcomed me to his side during prayer) was now whirling, a dervish, in the circle's heart and center.  It was (words betray mystery) exquisite, glorious, ecstatic.  This wasn't the polished, practiced whirling of the auditorium across town.  This was a community in prayer, in worship, in praise, in turning.  And together, this community seemed to call the dervish forward, to propel him on his way, to sustain him for minutes on end.  Whirling and turning and praying, with his feet, with his soul, with his arms and heart.  One hand receiving.  One hand offering all this again.  Exquisite.  And beyond these simple words!

A second dervish picked up, as the first settled back to his knees, to his place in the wider circle of men.  The chanting picked up in intensity, kind of a "fierce happiness" (a phrase I picked up once from Rabbi Susan Schnur).  Across the circle, one of our number was gyrating wildly, tossing his head from side to side, sweating freely.  Two or three where reaching out their hands and then swinging them back to strike the heart.  Over and over and over again!  The old among us were equally animated and at home, in all the prayer and energy and divine grace.

The "All-ah!  All-ah!" turned to a "Hu!  Hu!  Hu!  Hu!"  Still, the ecstatic spirit moved among us; still, I dared to join in, enjoyed the joining and the praying and the sound.  Recalling those hours now (a day later), it's easy to analyze, to compare, to sum up.  But in the moment there was none of this: just the moment, the holy moment, the circle of men.  "My friend," said Rumi, "the Sufi is the friend of the present moment.  To say 'tomorrow' is not our way." 

I find myself thinking today about the One: about the Oneness of God and the community of souls and the ecstatic turning of difference toward communion.  When it was all over (but is it ever?), two or three men emerged from the tekke's kitchen with large white plates, heaping plates of huge watermelon chunks.  Forks were passed around; I was given at least three.  An older man to my right insisted that I eat: by pushing his fingers into his mouth repeatedly, energetically.  Eat, eat, eat!

I'll never take watermelon for granted, ever again.  It was, quite obviously, a kind of Sufi supper, a communion of the mercy-filled.

This is a passage I've quoted before, probably several times; but it's so right, so thoughtful, that I can't resist.  It's James Carroll speaking to the 'oneness' of God: the powerful, provocative 'oneness' that (at its best) is such a holy, healing, reconciling presence in the world.  This is Carroll, writing, in his book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem:
The word 'monotheism' wasn't coined until the 17th century.  Christians affirm the credo, Jews the Shema, Muslims the Shahada--all declaring that there is one God.  But what does "one" mean?  In a scientific age, it is taken as a number.  God is thought of as a solitary entity, standing apart from all others, and therefore, it is thought, against all others.  If this is the meaning of monotheism, then yes, such belief is inherently a source of conflict, not peace.  Contemporary Jews, Muslims and Christians may themselves have been influenced by univocal Enlightenment thinking, but in fact their traditions affirm the oneness of God not scientifically or philosophically, but religiously, which is another matter altogether.  Thus Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish sage, rejected the idea that God's 'oneness' is a category of quantity.  In that sense, he wrote, "the term 'one' is just as inapplicable to God as the term 'many.'"  Instead of a unit, the 'oneness' of God affirms a unity.  Oneness in this sense means not the being who stands apart, radically different and superior, but the being who is present as the reconciliation of all oppositions.   That God is one means, as Isaiah saw, that the God of this people is the God of all people.  Monotheism in this sense is not the source of conflict, but the source of conflict resolution.  

When all that watermelon was gone, we said our word-less goodbyes and I followed Yusef, the store owner, out the front door.  As I turned to thank him one last time, I slipped from the curb to the city street and turned my gimpy right ankle for something like the fourth time this week.  I caved to the ground in pain, and Yusef grabbed my arm tenderly.  So how do you walk home after a night of ecstasy like that?  You don't.  You limp.  You hobble.  You hop.

I'm reminded that we've always known that.  After all, Jacob wrestles with the angel, with God, with Being--and he emerges from all that holy wrestling with a bruised hip, a noticeable limp, a brokenness that turns toward courage and compassion.  This, I think, is what "Israel" means: the one who struggles with God.  And it's what we are to be, dancers and lovers, activists and servants and signs of grace.  We struggle, we limp, we turn with God. 

That's all for now, but I'll think long and hard and thankfully of those two hours in the hidden tekke.  And I'll carry those 25 brothers in my spinning, turning, whirling, beating heart.  Forever.