Letter from the Road #24

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


The Believer’s Candle


Our pilgrimage to Syria left many traces on our hearts of realities deeper than headlines. In this letter I would like to describe three images that particularly touched me during the journey. These are images of people praying.

I have always been drawn to the company of people at prayer – Hindu or Buddhist, Christian or Jewish, it never mattered. I feel good in the atmosphere they make. Not people displaying themselves through ostentatious prayer, but sincere souls trying to make contact with God, whatever they understand that word to signify. I like to be near people who are trying to go to the edge of themselves, beyond sociability and posturing, to the place where a humble, vulnerable quality overcomes them in their self-surrender.

In the Prayer Line at the Ummayid Mosque
The columns of the old mosque soar up into vaulted spaces. The names of God are written in a music-like script high on the walls. Similar to the space of an immense cathedral without pews, the floor is covered with acres of carpets that absorb the sounds of people talking and the little children racing around. The Ummayid Mosque in Damascus is said to be the third most holy place in the Islamic world, having witnessed thirteen centuries of people coming and going, praying, talking, and meeting. There are small groups of women clustered around the columns. Blind men are sitting on special cushions reciting the Qu’ran. An imam from the countryside is lecturing his group of peasants who gaze up into the vaults. A Sufi is rocking back and forth, eyes closed, repeating his dhik’r, his remembrance of God.

I walk around slowly, soaking up the ages of intentions brought here. Equal to the sacred aura of the place is its relaxed, human quality. This is not a precise Zen temple where only certain moves are acceptable. This is not a Christian church or a Hindu shrine with an altar more important than other places. The egalitarian nature of the mosque floods the holy into every footstep you take. You feel welcome, simply. It is like the whole world, with men, women, children, babies, old people, living within its precincts. Even a bird flies through the arches.

“God is greater!” calls the muezzin. “Everyone alive! Come to prayer! Everyone alive! Come to success!” His words in Arabic are liquid notes. Men begin to assemble in lines parallel with the long wall of the mosque. Women move to the back and also begin to form lines. Others just sit and chat or continue their private meditations. Though I am not formally a Muslim, I feel at ease praying with them this way. As I walk to where the prayer line is forming I feel as if something is being subtracted from me, some feeling of individuality from which I normally relate to the world.

I come up to the line and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a rough-looking man in his sixties. Another man with a dark mustache arrives on my left, this one in a decent-looking suit. More come, filling out the line. We adjust ourselves so our shoulders are nearly touching, our stockinged feet in a row. Then we stand quietly, waiting, saying our intentions silently to ourselves. The imam starts the prayers, and we follow his movements, bending, straightening, prostrating, kneeling, prostrating, standing, and again. Each position is accompanied by silent prayers. If there is a single quality to the experience it is surrender.

At no point does someone question me, correct me, or look at me with suspicion or judgment. The moment I join the prayer line I feel completely accepted. A tangible brotherhood is shared in that line. While we are praying, no one is more important than another. I have seen a Saudi prince in the desert pray shoulder-to-shoulder with his driver on one side and his cook on the other.

At the end of the prayer we kneel, turning first to the right and then to the left, praying for peace and blessings to the angels who, it is said, always gather near those who pray. Then we shake hands with our neighbors, wishing them peace as well.

Three Men in a Cave
Sometime in the third century, C.E., a black Christian monk from Ethiopia wandered up into the desert region northwest of Damascus. This man, later known as St. Moses the Abyssinian, spent years with his followers praying in the caves pocketing these desert cliffs. One of the caves, lived and prayed in since then by a succession of desert fathers, became the focus for the 6th century monastery built adjacent to it, now known as the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi. It is this small monastery that each of our pilgrimages end up in, a place of stark beauty, communion, and prayer.

One has to bow down to enter this cave which plunges like a tunnel into the mountain about 15 meters. Carpets have been laid down on the floor, and a humble altar and cushions placed at its deep end. The silence in the cave is striking. Before dawn each day a few of us make our way into the cave to pray in that silence. On the final night of our stay, two men show up to join me at 5:30 AM in the cave, lit by a single candle. I wait until they are settled on their cushions and then blow the candle out.

The darkness and the silence are like lovers, so well do they fit together. We each begin to pray silently, stating with the voice of our hearts the reason we have come here. Then we are ready to begin the remembrances, known in Sufi terms as zik’r or dhik’r, simple words or phrases repeated many times first aloud and then silently.

After some time we begin to chant the Christian prayer in Arabic, “Ya Rab urham!” which means something like: “Oh Rab! (Nourisher, Teacher, Bestower of Existence) have mercy!”

“Ya Rab urham, ya Rab urham, ya Rab urham!” The words sound tender, comforting, intimate. They vanish in the silence. They re-emerge from inside us. They vanish again. With each repetition of the prayer a pulse of mercy radiates through us and vanishes in the darkness. Mercy? What is this light that is like a warmth, and a sound, yet beyond sensation? We feel the familiar boundaries of our bodies become porous until the edges between us disappear, and the edges between us and the cave, and the mountain, and the light of the dawn outside, disappear. We sense the people awakening in their houses, the earth turning, the sun touching the land, everything happening at once, without boundaries, in a sea of mercy.

“Ya Rab urham!” we repeat, the sound of the prayer entering the silence of the cave like a heartbeat in a womb. “Ya Rab urham!” For an indeterminate moment it feels to us as if a new world is being created, and we are in the middle of its creation in a light in the middle of a mountain.

God’s Name is Peace
Father Paolo, the abbot of the monastery, is a great bear of a man with a voice to match. He watches with happy amusement as our group, and other members of the monastery, spend several days painting prayers on gaily colored pieces of cloth. These prayer flags are made in the belief the wind will carry the prayers from them to the four directions. They are prayers for peace, for understanding among all peoples, for justice, and for healing and joyousness.

The morning they are finished we gather on the monastery’s flat rooftop to sew the flags on a 100-meter length of rope. We also assemble a second rope of traditional Tibetan prayer flags. With one end of each tied to the building, the two ropes are dropped down and then played out along the cliff ledges on either side of the monastery until the wind catches them and they sail up in beautiful arcs of fluttering prayers.

Father Paolo raises his arms from the rooftop and starts to chant in his booming voice, “Allah husamahus salaam!” “God’s name is peace!” He turns slowly in circles, his arms outstretched, his immense voice filling the mountain gorge in every direction. He turns there, bellowing this prayer for a long time while one by one we all join him, calling out, reaching up, the sun glinting in our eyelids, “God’s name is peace!” and the truth of it is, for this moment, made manifest.

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