Something opens our wings. Something makes boredom and hurt disappear. Someone fills the cup in front of us. We taste only sacredness. Rumi
Absolute attention is prayer. Simone Weil
Each morning before dawn, it woke me up as it wafted in through our open window. A few of the five mornings, it was a distant sound mingling with my not-quite-awake dreams, and other mornings it was crisp and clear and it soaked in deeply. I loved it when it was crisp and clear, this haunting and inviting song. In a language completely foreign and strangely familiar, it transported me to a place inside myself that was big and ancient and mysterious. It was the Call to Prayer — waking up the devout, calling them to their local mosques, calling them into their day, calling my husband Cam and I deeper into this week-long adventure we call our Mystery Trip.
Five times a day, somewhere in this sprawling city where east meets west, where Europe is bridged with Asia, where ancient mingles with modern, some person from the depths of his or her being sings out this full-bodied wholehearted call that is piped through speakers fastened to the mosques’ minarets, and the song he or she sings reaches us all, travelers and locals alike, and we are invited, in those moments, to slow down, to pause, to pray. And this past week, as Cam and I adventured into the thirteenth year of taking turns surprising each other with a mystery trip anywhere in the world — this year, his turn to surprise me — it happened, this call through the airwaves, as we traipsed down the narrow cobbled streets and moseyed through the bazaars and ate our grilled-fish dinners in this grand city of Istanbul, Turkey.
One day, it happened as we stood in line in the plaza waiting to enter the Hagia Sophia, a structure built in 532 A.D. that was once a mosque and before that a church and retains and embraces it all, the elements of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the Christian mosaics, the grand mandalas of the Muslims. As Cam and I and the crowd of people moved forward toward the outdoor ticket office, there it was again, the song rising up above the blooming trees, this time with two voices singing back and forth, singing to each other, to all of us, to the blooming trees, to the air, to Allah, and it lifted us up and carried us inside this gigantic and inspiring building. And it was a prayer for me, being inside the Hagia Sophia, walking on marble floors that have been traipsed upon for millennium, touching the carefully laid-out cut-stone walls, gazing up at the mosaic-designed dome that seemed to reach all the way to the heavens. It was a prayer for me to be present in this Christian/Muslim sanctuary that was now a museum for all of us; it was a prayer for me to be smiling among all these smiling people in this magnificent place.
And it was a prayer for me later that evening to be present in a ceremony of the whirling dervishes. I have loved the poems of the mystic Rumi since I was a young women, have read them as meditations, have shared them in yoga classes as quotes during the pauses between poses, have copied them into cards and sent them to friends and family. And I knew that Rumi had lived in the 13th century somewhere in what is now the Middle East, but not until this trip, when, on Day One, I noticed the posters promoting the whirling dervishes did I realize that it was in Turkey that Rumi had grown up and had prayed and had spun himself ’round and ’round whirling his poems into the wind for us to catch hundreds and hundreds of years later. He was the original whirling dervish, and now his followers are still whirling themselves into enlightenment in a ceremony called the Sema. And on this particular night, Cam and I attended such a ceremony, a deliberate and intimate ceremony performed by five men and accompanied by live music. We sat in the front row of a small circular theater close enough to feel the breeze produced from their long white skirts as these men twirled and spun around the stage, their heads cocked to the right and topped with tall hats, their eyes closed, their faces so peaceful that it was mesmerizing. I was mesmerized. I was. It wasn’t just a performance, something put on to impress us. It was genuine. And prayerful. And Cam and I left the theater that evening, holding hands and feeling buoyant.
And we brought this buoyancy to dinner later that evening. And isn’t that a prayer too? Isn’t it a prayer to sit across from your beloved and feast on fresh-baked breads dipped into a plate of herb-infused olive oil, to bite into a salad of local greens and find the surprise of pomegranates bursting in your mouth, to photograph your filleted-and-grilled-sea bass sitting on a bed of sautéed spinach and drizzled with some sort of exotic sauce because you want to remember how beautiful it is forever. Isn’t it all a prayer?!? The figs stuffed with roasted walnuts, the apricots dotted with tiny almonds, the honey-sweetened desert that is rich and grainy and has been a staple since the time of the sultans. Isn’t it a prayer to loosen your grip and release your smile, to feel happy and light and at one with your world?!?