December in Istanbul

December in Istanbul

December is a festive month full of lights, decorations, mouth watering aromas pouring forth from our kitchens, gatherings of families and friends, and abundant good wishes for Joy, Love, Peace and Hope.

“Come! Come again! Whoever, whatever you may be, come! Heathen, idolatrous or fire worshipper come!
Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times come!
Our door is the door of hope come! Come like you are!”
Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207-1273)

December is a festive month full of lights, decorations, mouth watering aromas pouring forth from our kitchens, gatherings of families and friends, and abundant good wishes for Joy, Love, Peace and Hope. It is a contagious celebration as witnessed by Santas mingling in Istanbul crowds and lights glimmering in various parts of the city. Going to my Christmas Eve service at the Anglican Church, I needed to walk down Istiklal Caddesi (a prominent pedestrian street on the European side of Istanbul), a street that this year was royally decorated and populated by amateur photographers and armored police. The stairway leading down to the door of the church had a wonderful arch of lights over it. At the left of the door was a creche that was constructed by the refugees who live in the crypt of the church. Inside the church hung red lit lanterns and numerous candles burned bright. Celebration was in the air. Nothing could defeat the hope that this celebration symbolized, at least not at this moment. Jesus was indeed born this night.

The words that I quoted at the beginning of this letter are famous for those of us who have become acquainted with Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi [more commonly known as Jalal ad-Din Rumi, or simply Rumi]. Mevlana was an Islamic mystic or Sufi who was born in Afghanistan and lived in central Turkey in an area called Konya. Foremost for any Sufi is seeking and embodying the love of God. The reflection of God’s love is through our service to others in complete humility, without complaint. Worship practices bring the worshipper into the presence of God through recitation, chanting, music, movement or dance, meditation, and prayer. The “whirling” that is shown in the photo, is one way to connect earth to heaven, the devotee to the devoted One.  Mevlana died in December so Sufis from all over the world make their pilgrimage to Konya to give homage to the Sufi saints who are buried there.  Some come for the Spirit that is present. Some come to watch the Whirling Dervishes. Some just come to experience something they are not even sure how to express. Perhaps they are seeking Hope as Mevlana expressed in his “radical welcome”.

Through friends in Iowa, I have become acquainted with a Sufi master here in Istanbul, Tayyar Efendi. Tuesday is “women’s night” for this master. I joined my friends and had an opportunity to interact with him. Tayyar Efendi had a penetrating way of looking to the core of one’s soul, which I must say can be a bit unnerving. I was trying to help the woman who seemed burdened with all of the translation from Turkish to English. Words at times would escape me or would be words that I just did not know. He always seemed to sense those moments of “weakness” and at that moment would insist that I translate! I was thankful for the woman who had such better translation skills than me to come to the rescue. I realized her translation was her service to Efendi. His message to those present was love, service and humility. He frequently quoted the Prophet Muhammad and verses from the Qur’an or the Sayings of the Prophet [or “hadith”]. He was gentle, charismatic, caring, inclusive and intense. Those who were devotees were full of love and were jumping up and down to be of service. In reflection of that afternoon and evening, I think as Christians about our relationship to Jesus. Are we focused on the love of God and service to one another in humility? Do we seek the disenfranchised of life and invite them in from the cold? Do we give them a warm meal of hospitality and a hand of friendship?

Coming at the end of the year, December is a time for reflection of the year that has just passed. It offers an opportunity for evaluation, remembrance and planning for the year to come.  We remember those who we have loved and who have passed from their earthly existence, such as my father and my stepmother. We think of those who throughout the world are challenged with health conditions, financial challenges, joblessness or homelessness. We are abruptly reminded of the existence of terrorism and of those who wish random violence at the cost of pain and suffering. We reflect on the politics of the year. I see Turkey at some kind of standoff in the political sphere, almost as if they are stuck and cannot move either forward or backward.

So we are brought around, once again, to the need for Joy, Love, Peace and Hope.  We are reminded of our priorities, love of God and love of one another. These are the Common Words of Christianity and of Islam and of Judaism. These are the words we must strive to live by. For this is our only Hope. For us as Christians Jesus is that Light in the Darkness. May 2010 bring to us a world that steps along this path.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:1-5

Selam/Shalom/Peace Be With You … 

Alison Stendahl

Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey.  She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.