“The individual soul touches upon the world soul like a well reaches for the water table. That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing.” –from The Life of Pi
When Casey and I arrived in Istanbul, we walked straight into the crowds. “You must go eat now, or wait until well after sundown,” someone had explained when we arrived to the youth hostel late that afternoon. “There will be people surrounding this place come nightfall, and you won’t be able to find a table anywhere.” We had less than an hour until Istanbul would break the Ramadan fast.
After only a few steps out the door, I reached for the strap of Casey’s messenger bag to avoid losing my companion in the swarm of colorful headscarves, families on picnic blankets, shouting vendors, sizzling kebabs, and roasted chestnuts. Between the giant Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, one of the most important churches in Christian history, thousands of Muslims had already assembled. Our rushed dinner purchase was an ear of boiled corn, which we passed back and forth while searching for an available plot of grass to sit on. We were still on the lookout when it happened: the Arabic drone rang out from the Mosque’s minaret speakers, hushing the masses.
The sudden quieting of the people startled me. I had never witnessed the turning of clamor to calmness or hunger to satisfaction in a single dramatic moment—and on such as massive scale—until that chant rang out and families reached for their bread baskets. This moment of Muslim ritual stunned us, a Catholic woman and a Protestant man. It was as if Sacredness knocked the wind of out us, halting us right where we were. We plopped down on a park bench and just watched them, the large group eating their first reverent meal of the day.
My friend and I had eagerly anticipated our trip to Turkey, yet there were a number of notable details that failed to sink in before our plane hit the landing strip. It was September 11th and we were Americans flying into a country bordering Iraq, Iran, and Georgia. We, two Christians, would be sleeping next to the biggest mosque in Turkey—a country where 98% of its citizens identify as Muslim—during the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. I knew these factors would inevitably inform our experience of the country.
I also knew that this kind of foreign travel would teach me something about myself. All my travel-addicted friends assured me of it. I had no idea the lessons would come so quickly, however. On our first night in Turkey, after the fasting crowds filled their bellies and turned to Ramadan’s late night games and gatherings, I learned something about being Catholic.
We met up with Ahmed, an American-educated Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia, just a few hours after dinner. He was sleeping in the room next to us at the hostel, and extended a generous invitation to grab tea after his final trip to the mosque for evening prayer. Ahmed was a frequent visitor to Istanbul, so he suggested he show us around and explain the nightly festivities to us.
A student of religion in college, I knew a little more than the basics of Islam yet longed to connect old lessons with the living tradition surrounding us. I eagerly dispensed questions to our new friend while we weaved in and out of the Muslim booksellers and Turkish food stands around the neighborhood: “How is this Arabic word pronounced?” and “Is that teaching from the Quran or hadith?” and “How does Muslim practice vary between Turkey and other places you’ve been?”
Religion remained our main topic as we sat down for tea an hour later, but the conversation shifted. “I first considered Islam for myself when I was away from my parents at college in the States,” Ahmed explained. “I wanted to think about religion rationally, setting aside my own youthful desires to live an easy life. Once I did this, I concluded that the Prophet was not crazy. That he was not a liar. His message was true—my heart and my mind told me this.” Ahmed began to share his personal faith with us—like what gets him out of bed in the morning to pray when he is exhausted and why he spends his free time reading books by Muslim teachers and leaders. For almost an hour, he spoke of God with intimacy and affection.
“What about you, Casey?” asked Ahmed. “When did Christianity become your own?” My friend of many years told Ahmed of his faith, admirable and strong. We listened as he spoke of everything from his evangelical upbringing and his young struggle to possess religious conviction without a judgmental outlook on those with less commitment to religion, and the way that young adulthood has brought him new views on what it means to be a dedicated Christian.
“I don’t know, really. It’s hard to explain—” Casey surrendered after sharing the account of his spiritual development and current commitments. I know, I thought in the pensive silence that followed, It is so hard to explain. The seconds that followed were like the giant holy moment Casey and I witnessed earlier that evening. How amazing to be sharing faith together, a Muslim, a Catholic, and a Protestant. Old friends and new ones.
Ahmed broke the quiet of our reverent pause. “Yes, it is hard to explain” he said with a smirk. “But I like the look in your eyes, Casey. It is deep.”
Despite our differences—despite our views on Jesus and Mohammed and scripture and any number of doctrines and beliefs—I knew at this moment that Ahmed recognized in Casey the same genuine striving for God that we had recognized in him. It was the same striving we had reverently witnessed at the sunset Ramadan feast. We were in a foreign land amid a foreign religion, yet we recognized to same spiritual longing in the most familiar struggles of our own lives.
On my first night in Istanbul, I learned that Catholicism is an expression of a deeper human yearning that extends far beyond our sanctuary walls. In our increasingly globalized world, where we can no longer overlook the reality of others’ fervent, sincere religiosities, I want to learn to acknowledge the unique beliefs and qualities of my Catholic faith without undermining the compelling search for God that exists in many ways other than my own.
For more about my travels check out my temporary travel blog.