Daily Archives: April 15, 2009

Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Two (April 14): “The Priest Hole”

The topic of this post might be a little sensitive, but I am going to record it to illustrate some of the real difficulties that an interfaith pilgrimage such as ours can encounter.

Let me say right up that there are going to be a number of the really difficult issues to face once we get to Rome. This includes the issue of what food is suitable to serve our feed our Muslim guests and where we can find it, and where and when and how our Muslim friends’ need to pray might be accomodated. I am fairly confident that we will be able to solve all these problems – especially now that I have Italian speakers to communicate with Seniora Loretta.

But today we had a problem on our side. Bishop Prowse was desirous of having the Catholics celebrate daily mass together on the pilgrimage. So he asked us at the beginning of the day how we should go about doing this. Bishop Prowse had bread, but we had no wine. We also figured that we could go to someone’s room, but we were assured by Orhan that we would be able to find a room for use. In fact, when we asked the staff, they said that we could not use alcohol (necessary in the communion wine) in any public space in the hotel, but had to use one of our private rooms. We elected to do this in the end, taking a coffee table from the corridor and covering it with a white table cloth to be the altar. Nine of us then crammed into this space, where Bishop Prowse celebrated and we eight congregants sat on the beds.

It occured to me that this was the strangest episcopal mass that I had ever been present at. But it also struck me that we had just finished visiting one of the oldest and largest churches in the world, Hagia Sophia, which had been designed for the very purpose of the liturgy which we were now celebrating hidden away in our room. I thought that this must have been how the English Recusants must have felt after the English reformation. Bishop Prowse’s bed room had become our “priest hole”. Ah well. As Louise says, “Jesus turned up as usual.” Of course, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is “holed up” in the Fanar more or less. He could accurately be described as “the Prisoner of the Fanar”.

(The local wine, by the way, was not hard to obtain, but was 15 Turkish Lira (1 TL = approx $1) for a half bottle, and not the highest quality. It is a good thing that validity of the sacramanet does not depend upon the quality of the wine.)

After mass, we all met down in the lobby, because we were being taken out to dinner with the Lord Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the City of Istanbul. Jan drove us to a lovely restaurant on the banks of the Bosphorus which was in fact run by the Istanbul Municipal Association. Ersin, the General Secretary of PASIAD, was once again present, as were other municipal dignatories.

I sat next to a young businessman whose business is the live-meat export trade to Saudi Arabia for use in halal ritual sacrifices. I asked him if he had ever been to Australia, since this is where the bulk of hid trade came from. He said no, but he was intending to come soon. I told him to contact me when he got to Australia, and I would take him up to meet my parents on a “real” sheep farm.

The food was very good, but as usual there was lots and lots of it – more than I could reasonably eat. My Turkish business friend was horrified that I did not eat it all, and suggested that I should “take it home to my mother” (Turkish expression). He said that if I was staying in Istanbul for a year, he would see to it that I was fattened up a little.

It was not a late night, but it is late now, and I think it’s time to go to bed.


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Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Two (April 14): “Old Rome, New Rome”

I can’t quite get over this. One day I am sitting in an ancient monastery overlooking the forum and the Colosseum in Rome, the next day (or actually, the day after that – ie. today) I am sitting on the 5th floor roof of a very comfortable hotel on a hill in Old Istanbul in a soft sofa chair, smoking my pipe and overlooking the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. That is what I am doing right now, connected to the Hotel’s free wifi internet. Does it get any better?

Today the program for our tour group was a tour of the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Cistern, and the Hagia Sophia with free time after lunch for exploring the district and the Bazaar.

I started the day very early again, as Ismail had asked me to join him for morning (ie. dawn) prayers in the Blue Mosque. Having been to the Mosque before, but during the day when lots of tourists were there, I thought I would take the opportunity. You can’t sleep after the muezzins get going any way, so I thought I would get up and join him. He was waiting outside my door, so I am glad that I did not disappoint him. It was nice down there at dawn, with the atmosphere something like early morning mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. About 40 men and a few women showed up – some running to catch the start of prayer as the imam entered and began. I knelt behind the barrier at the back and used the time for quiet meditation and prayer myself.

Prayer in Islam is a little like the Daily Office in Catholicism. You can do it on your own, but it is better done together with others, and better still – at least from a spiritual sense – if done in a place of prayer. Dawn prayer in Islam is quite short and not compulsory, although Ismail tells me the Prophet was pretty hot on it. We all know that in this respect, he is in full agreement with Christian and Jewish tradition also.

Breakfast is a very big meal at the hotel, with a lovely buffet and lots of pastries and fruit and yoghurt and cheese and olives and bread etc. etc. I miss the Roman coffee though – I was getting used to my caffee latte hit first thing in the morning! The Muslim contingent of our pilgrimage are a bit concerned when they hear of Roman breakfast being just a coffee and a pastry or bread roll. I think we will stock up on yoghurt and fruit and cheese and bread and such for their rooms at the monastery so they can have something to eat before we have Roman Second Breakfast at a cafe later.

Visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia was a good experience given that I had visited both before. This time I was less awed by my surroundings and could concentrate on the reactions of the other visitors – especially the Muslims who had not been to the Hagia Sophia before. I took lots of photos, but of the faces rather than the places. Last time (2007) I came home with many postcard like photos but few photos of either myself or the group that I had travelled with. This time I snapped continually at the group as they interacted with their surroundings.

The guide we had at the Hagia Sophia really was out of his depth. He began with his usual spiel on the history of Christianity (which was wildly inaccurate) and then felt embarrassed when he discovered he had professional Christian academics in front of him. Much the same as I would feel, I guess, if I tried to explain the history of Islam to a bunch of imams. He gave Bishop Prowse full marks for recognising the symbolism of the serpent… After he left we went upstairs and investigated the Mosaics. I am aware now that we really have to put San Clemente on the itinerary when we are in Rome, so that the full byzantine mosaic effect can be seen.

One place I had not been on my previous trip was down into the ancient underground Cistern, which is like an underground cathedral with water a metre deep on the floor (complete with gold fish the size of tuna).

I have to switch off now and come back in a minute. Bishop Prowse wants to celebrate mass and we are negotiating where we can do it and whether we can have wine in the hotel (currently the answer to the last question is no).

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