I have returned now from my month in Cape Town, with a few extra days in Istanbul on the way home, and I offer these final reflections on some of the things I thought about and experienced while away.
The place where I lived while in Cape Town was a centrally located apartment near some government buildings that seem to be a gathering place for demonstrators. Demonstrating for or against what I was never quite sure, but nearly every day I would hear chanting and singing and look out to see a group with messages proclaimed in banner and song. Singing is a well-known aspect of protest movements here and around the world of course, and the music of protest seems to soften whatever anger the protestors are feeling, I think. Music goes a long way in creating a solidarity that changes the world in ways anger never will. Similarly, this week I heard an NPR interview with conductor Daniel Barenboim, who made the same observation about his work with an orchestra of Palestinian and Israeli musicians… discovering and sustaining bonds of understanding through music when words fail.
Services at the Cathedral of St. George’s in Cape Town are conducted in three languages, used alternatively throughout a given service – English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. At any given point someone in the service is or is not understanding what is being said. Well, let’s be honest, there are moments in a service completely said in English at St. Alban’s when there are people who have no idea what is going on after all! What is communicated, however, is that sense of community – of solidarity around a message of peace and hope. It’s communicated in body language, facial expressions, and the simple fact of being gathered in a space around a liturgy of words, music and movement.
The long journey home – four continents in four days!- was eased by a few days in Istanbul, a city which sits at the crossroads of East and West, divided between Europe and Asia. My daughter and I took every opportunity to sit at the outdoor cafes and drink Turkish coffee, we took a Turkish cooking class that culminated in a five course dinner shared with ten people from around the world, and she asked if we could see a performance by the whirling dervishes. The whirling dervishes? So touristy.
How very wrong I was. We walked a mile or so from our hotel on Sunday morning to get the tickets and the ticket seller was very clear – this was a Sufi ceremony and not a performance. (Note to church leadership: selling tickets to a prayer service is a great idea). Later that afternoon, seated in the round Galata Lodge, the first dervish hall in Istanbul, I don’t think I was alone in expecting a sudden burst of whirling white robes and frenetic music. Instead, ten men in black capes and tall hats walked in quietly, with incredible dignity, and proceeded to solemnly walk in a circle many times over, bowing to each other, seeming to receive a blessing from a leader, kissing their black cloaks before putting them on the mats, still more solemn walking…it was mesmerizing and very clearly a liturgy. I understood nothing, but was transfixed all the same by the clear intention to create a beautiful ceremony with many distinct parts that went from serene walking to prayerful whirling. It was never frenetic and every action, accompanied by chanting and traditional instruments, had a purpose. The fact that I personally understood nothing about that purpose was unimportant during the hour-long ceremony. What was obvious was the dervishes’ desire to pray with their bodies in a liturgy that was done with exquisite care and grace.
Several people have asked in the past few days what the highlight of my trip was. It would have to be a day last week when we were at a game reserve in the mountainous part of the Little Karoo region, a three hour drive northeast of Cape Town, a part of the world thought to be the cradle of humanity, the home of an actual Eve. It was a day of close encounters with Africa’s spectacular scenery and wildlife, yes, but much more. A guide and I climbed to a cave on a mountainside – he with a rifle at the ready, should the lions spotted that morning still be in the area – and saw the faint cave paintings of the ancient San people. They were elegant and whimsical and full of meanings to the San no doubt, but only partially understood by experts today. That evening a small group went out with the same guide and looked at the vast expanse of interstellar space right over our heads, and we saw the Southern Cross, the starry outline of the Scorpio astrological sign, and the impressionistic Milky Way. I am embarrassed to say that I had reached late middle age without knowing what the Milky Way looks like, and it is utterly humbling to think of our place in it. Feeling my human roots in the mountains and cave paintings of the San people, and my divine roots in the galaxies of light overhead was very moving. I don’t comprehend any of it intellectually, but my heart is full of understanding. The Sufi ceremony I would be seeing a few days later in Istanbul, known as the Sema ritual, is meant to reflect the whirling motion of the universe, revolving bodies in front of the existence of God, around God’s love and truth. I wish I had known that when I saw this starry sky because I think I would have done some whirling myself.
I look back on all of these experiences during the past month, having opened myself to the things I didn’t understand and wanting to embrace the differences, while gaining more clarity about all the forms that understanding can take. I think it’s possible that I left just a bit of my heart in South Africa, and I am living with more gratitude than ever for all the blessings of love, freedom, music and work, for being part of this human family in all its crazy diversity and all the more for my place in God’s creation.