How my visit to two Muslim mosques flavors the way I read one gospel story.
Three years ago, my wife and I made a visit to Istanbul. I had long been a student of Byzantine history but had never visited the empire’s old capital. I wanted to visit the sites I had read about, like Hagia Sophia and the remnants of the Hippodrome.
While we were there, we also visited many of the notable Ottoman buildings in the city. One afternoon, we visited the Blue Mosque, which is built on the site of the old Byzantine imperial palace. It is one of the most renowned Ottoman mosques in the city, famous for its gorgeous blue tiles. It attracts hordes of tourists.
The afternoon we visited, we had to stand in line a long time before we could enter. Once we did we had an opportunity to view the tiled dome and the stained glass and the majestic open space designed to accommodate large prayer crowds. But we did so along with those hordes of other tourists.
As a result, the air inside roared with all the loud noise of the many tourists ooh-ing and ah-ing at the building and of the tour guides trying to shepherd straying members of their tour groups. All those voices created a headache-inducing din. In addition, we jostled with the crowds, knocking against other people’s shoulders as we tried to maneuver our way through the space.
I couldn’t wait to get out. I found the environment one of the least prayer-inducing spaces I had ever been in.
Two days later, we visited the Süleymaniye Mosque, the masterpiece of the Ottoman architect Sinan. The mosque crowns the top of Istanbul’s Third Hill. It gazes down majestically at the Golden Horn waterway at the hill’s base.
When we entered, only a few stray tourists were visiting, along with a few devout Muslims using the mosque for their personal prayers. It too has a magnificent dome that, like a great umbrella, shelters the prayer floor.
The atmosphere, however, was quiet and serene. The few people talking were doing so quietly, almost in whispers. I sat down on the carpet, assuming my normal stance for meditative prayer and tried to soak in the silence. Here was an environment that truly invited me to meditate and pray. I thought that if I lived in Istanbul, this would be a place I would want to visit often to sit in contemplative silence.
Both mosques are places of prayer, but how utterly different they were in their spiritual atmosphere.
Making Connections with a Bible Story
I find myself recalling these two experiences now whenever I read the story in Mark’s gospel (Mark 11:15-19) about Jesus cleansing the temple of its merchants and live stock. He enters the temple to find its outer courtyard all a bustle with the sounds of bleating sheep and mooing cattle and the aggressive voices of the moneychangers as they cut deals with visiting pilgrims. I can also imagine there were also plenty of tourists strolling around gawking at the magnificent structure, the greatest of King Herod’s many grandiose building projects.
I wonder if the scene was like that I experienced at the Blue Mosque. The temple’s outer court was the court open to visiting Gentiles. In the midst of all this racket of sound, how could any Gentile have prayed in peace?
Outrage over this noisy busyness and strident commercialism seems to have driven Jesus to overturn the moneychangers’ tables, to disrupt the animal pens, and to block transit by the porters hauling merchandise back and forth.
Yes, all that commerce was necessary to supply the sacrifices and support the temple’s administration. But it all smothered what Jesus seems to have regarded as the temple’s deeper purpose. He reveals his attitude by quoting two phrases lifted from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mark 11:17)
I like to think that Jesus would have approved of the environment I encountered in the Süleimaniye Mosque. It invited people to pray. He expected the Jerusalem temple to be a similar environment. He was sadly disappointed.
And how he might be disappointed at what he would encounter in many churches today. There are many things we need to do to keep up the programs and ministries churches sponsor. These require many noisy negotiations. And unless we are Quakers, our worship will involve a lot of sound–music and preaching and friends greeting one another. I don’t question any of that. Nor, I suspect, would Jesus.
But do we also create in our churches spaces where people can rest in silence, to meditate, to pray, or just to be with the Lord? Do our church buildings and their many activities serve to induce prayer? Then are we nothing more than St. Paul’s noisy gongs and clanging cymbals?