I took a trip to Sarajevo, the Olympic City! I left Paris feeling nervous that I’d not care much for this city. Hadn’t war just happened there 20 years ago or something? Would the buildings be full of bullet holes and would poverty be around every corner? Driving from the airport to the center of town did not help change my mood. It was wet and grey and the nondescript apartments that lined the road did little to make me have hope. But my fears were not realized. But something happened, maybe after day two… I fell in love with the people and the city. I saw the hopeful signs of life.
May I tell you of a very personal, but perhaps for you, an odd experience? I do tread a bit here worried of your disapproving frown. Please do not rush to judgement. The rain had finally stopped and I ventured outdoors on my first evening. I was glad to only have to walk for about five minutes into the Old City. Immediately I could feel ancient history on cobbled stoned roads and through narrow alleyways. It didn’t take long to discover that there were many mosques. I had no idea of the make-up of the population. I did not know that over 50 percent of the population were muslim. I had a lot to learn about this land.
While walking further into the old section of town enjoying the architecture of one particular mosque, the call to prayer sounded. I know that sound well because in Thailand I lived near a mosque for years. I had never gone into a mosque there, to my shame! So I listened and caught the call to Prayer on video and watched as a small number of young men went into the mosque to pray. I wanted to go in and observe, but was quite hesitant. “Is it allowed,” I thought? That’s when I caught the eye of a more elderly man motioning me to come in. I pointed to my boots, I knew that they had carpets everywhere. But he motioned and gave me a thumbs up. I followed him in the small well-lit domed mosque. He showed me the proper place to put my boots. And I hesitantly joined the sparse second line of men who had come to pray. And that’s the part you might find that odd, unless you really know me. You see, I am at heart an adventurer and like to see where life and God will take me!
There I was, my first time in a muslim service. No expectations. No knowledge. And no one looked at me weird. At the front facing a wall, Mecca, was a young man in a cleric’s garb. He might have been barely thirty years old. He sang in perfect pitch his prayers beautifully. He then led the men in bowing, holding out the hands in a prayer position and then the literal touching of the head onto the carpet. It felt like humility was happening, the recognition of a greater God and His supremacy over us. And yes, I followed the actions awkwardly eyes open and silently praying to my heavenly Father. Over and over we did this for what seemed like about fifteen or so minutes. And then near the end, when we all were sitting on the carpet, one of the young men grabbed a basket of beads and threw me a set to use in order to recite more prayers. I prayed my own prayers starting with the Lord’s Prayer. Before I knew it everything was over. No sermon. No singing by a congregation, although there was one 30 second solo effort by the same young man who threw me the beads. My first Muslim service was simply participation in the movements of the body, respect for God, and for mostly silent prayer.
Afterwards I shook hands with each young man. One took the time to hug me. Smiles. Camaraderie. The older gentleman who invited me in stayed by my side. He introduced me to another older gentleman who spoke a few words of english. He began pointing at things in the mosque and telling me the meanings. I understood maybe 10 percent of his words. Maybe he was hoping I would convert? He showed me a newspaper article that pictured a Muslim cleric, a Jewish rabbi, a Christian Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest. Was it his way of saying we all need to find ways to love each other? I left that night feeling light. I had prayed. I felt close to my Lord. I used my own words coming from my own heart. This wasn’t at all about religion but the heart. My heart and my God.
The next day I heard the bells of the cathedral ring. It was Catholic Mass. I went to the door to go in and observe. The man at the door told me I couldn’t go in! I said I wanted to observe. He looked at me and said, “No pictures!” And the church was quite full. It was beautiful inside. There was a trio of singers, professional singing. It was pretty, violin and all! But no one joined in, even as I tried to harmonise. The reading of scriptures was done a couple of times. A long sermon. I didn’t understand the words but I was familiar with the structure of the service. I quickly began to be bored as the Dominican priest droned on and on. I wasn’t participating really. There simply was nothing to do but watch others, professionals, do their “holy” thing. And I left that night no lighter and wondering what had just happened? For me, the best answer I can come up with lies in the participation. I was truly invited to participate in the first service. In the second service I was more of a spectator. I enjoyed being in both services, but what I came back with is that participation equals value. Its true of everything in life.