Mixing and Sharing
by Kathy Roberts
May 5, 2013
I take the title of my sermon from a phrase that anthropologist Glenn Bowman uses to describe what goes on at sacred sites in Macedonia. It is his Macedonian research that I draw on here.
In John 14: 27, Jesus says to his disciples:
“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”
Good news, indeed. These words have settled over me in the past couple of weeks like a dusting ofhope. Beyond the day-to-day troubles and fears I wrestle with, I have been deeply disturbed by the Boston bombings and what they signify: an age of global terrorism facilitated by technological connectedness and social disaffection.
I keep seeing the faces of those two brothers accused of the crimes and wondering (as many of you may be): Who were they before all this? What did they believe? And what did they need?
Of all the fragments of information and speculation out there about the Tsarneav brothers, the one that stands out to me the most is this comment the older one is alleged to have made: “I don’t have a single American friend; I don’t understand them.” A chilling confession, to be certain. But not one I find all that surprising, or frankly, unfamiliar. Loneliness and isolation seem to be common themes in the experience of domestic terrorists in recent years.
I think I get what he meant, and I’m not a new immigrant or a member of a religious minority. I frequently feel isolated and alienated. In a society that prides itself on busy-ness, individual achievement, and mobility, it is difficult—if not impossible—to find stable sites of connection, actual places people return to and meet face-to-face. And—once there—encounter one another in a way that cuts through barriers of religion, politics, economics, culture, and taste.
Today, I want to talk about how shrines serve this purpose of communal mixing in multi-ethnic societies. I was inspired to talk about this when I read our passage from the Book of Acts, particularly verses 9 –10:
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Paul’s excursion into Macedonia in the first century laid the groundwork for Christianity, the majority religion there. But it is not the only religious presence. Macedonia was ruled by the Ottomans for more than 400 years, and today about 34% of the population is Muslim. Additionally, Jewish communities have come and gone throughout the centuries in Macedonia. Jews comprise a very small minority in the Republic today.
The Republic of Macedonia has a religiously and ethnically diverse population with deep historic roots. Not unlike the Caucasus region, where the Tsarneav brothers originated. Here, and throughout the Mediterranean, in particular, people of different faiths (I’m thinking primarily of Christians, Muslims and Jews—but there are others) share sacred spaces. These are often the tombs of local saints or the sites of miracles. People from multiple religious persuasions cross paths at such shrines, where they petition for blessings or for healing, or where they give thanks. They touch stones, tie bits of cloth to tree limbs, light candles and burn incense sticks, kiss effigies, drink and bathe in healing waters, murmur prayers, slaughter animals.
Take, for example, “The Tree of the Virgin” in Matarieh, Egypt, a large sycamore revered by Coptic and Muslim women (Mayeur-Jaoen 2012:159). Or the tomb of Rabbi Saadia in Morocco, a pilgrimage destination for Moroccan Jews and Muslim Berbers alike (Driessen 2012:142-43). These are sites of “mixing and sharing,” sometimes of ecstasy, often of joy, frequently of mourning. Pilgrims together on their way to and at sacred sites often experience a sense of community (see Turner 1969). And there is a gratifying sense of connectedness, too, that comes from loosening the spirit-self into a physical space where others have done exactly the same thing, over and over and over again.
When this happens among people whose theological and cultural frames diverge, it provides an opportunity to see common spiritual impulses. And the seeing and the being together build tolerance, if not understanding.
The church of St. Nicholas in Macedonia serves as a good example of the way Muslims and Christians share sacred space. Oral histories point to two people associated with this site—Nicholas—a local Christian saint credited with a miracle and the establishment of a Christian monastery in the area—and Hadir Baba—a Sufi saint, who also established a monastery nearby. Both men are believed to be buried in or around the church. Inside the church are paintings of Christian saints and, along one wall, a long, raised platform: ostensibly the tomb of either Nicholas or Hadir Baba. “In the vicinity of this platform,” writes anthropologist Glenn Bowman, “the carpets and the pictures on and leaning against the wall are Muslim and represent Mecca, Ali and Hussein, and the moments of what is in effect Shia history” (2012:20).
On May 5th, the Orthodox Christian caretaker of the church readies it for the pilgrims who will arrive the following day to honor the Feast of St. George. She removes the prayer rugs from the floor around the tomb and “the green ‘Muslim’ ox-tallow candles and the Muslim prayer beads that visitors step through for blessings…are removed from the ‘tomb’ of St. Nicholas and replaced with white ‘Christian’ candles and a smaller rosary” (Bowman 2012:22). In effect the church is ‘Christianized’ for the hundreds [of mostly Orthodox visitors]” (Bowman 2012:22).
The day after the feast, the caretaker and her son return the site to its everyday ‘mixed’ state. “Carpets are carefully relaid, and intense discussion takes place around where exactly the image of Ali with his sword…should be placed and how to arrange the cloth that partially covers it” (Bowman 2012:22). They are careful to replace the rugs around the tomb, drape the Muslim prayer beads across it and relight the tallow candles.
Here, at this small, modest church, Christians and Muslims very practically share a space sacred to them both. But they do not just take turns in the space, as the above example would suggest. They also intermingle there. At times the Orthodox Christian caretaker of the church ritually passes the Muslim prayer beads across the bodies of Muslim visitors. “…[A]nd when a respected Sufi dervish comes to the shrine [the caretaker] asks the man to pass the Muslim beads over [her son] as to read his fortune”
(Bowman 2012:22). Even though it requires constant negotiation at the local level and can never be taken for granted, such sharing and mixing transcends the xenophobia and ritual purity espoused by religious and state authorities at times.
Where are the shrines, the sacred sites of mixing and sharing, in our own diverse, multi-ethnic society? Are they in churches, mosques, temples? Are they in the marketplace? Are they on the athletic fields? Where, exactly do we go together—heterogeneously—to ask for help, to pile our petitions on top of those who have come before us, and to experience community? Shrines in the sense of the Church of St. Nicholas in Macedonia do exist here. The ones I know about are in Catholic communities and are frequented almost exclusively by Christians, if not Catholics. I know of only one other kind of site in the US where people of all faiths come together to leave a material trace of their vulnerability and longing: the spontaneous shrine. You’ve seen them. There is one now at the site of the Boston bombings.
These shrines have a particular morphology: located on the site of a tragic event, they are usually at ground level and feature a proliferation of flowers, stuffed animals, notes, and candles. They stay for an indeterminate amount of time—until a respectful period of observance is deemed over, perhaps, or until the flowers and teddy bears begin to rot and fall apart. Until things stop being added. They demonstrate the deep human need to interact with objects and spaces made sacred, in this case through the loss of life.
When I experienced multiple pregnancy losses several years ago, I knew what I needed. I needed the cleansing waters of an Atlantic tidal pool along the coast of Morocco where I had once bathed with a flock of Muslim women seeking fertility, love, and healing. There had been music, there had been laughter, under clothes flung into the ocean in offering, and there had been the ebb and flow of cold, gray salt water made sacred through pilgrimage. Instead, I was here, where I mourned alone mostly at a makeshift shrine in the corner of our bedroom for months and months.
We need places—real places—outdoor places and indoor places—where we lay the burden of artifice down and make ourselves vulnerable with one another. Places not of consumption, nationalism, doctrine, or special interest.
What would it look like if we had shared sacred spaces of a more permanent kind here? The kind that drew people from the diverse populations we find in this place? The sort that beckoned us before (and beyond) a tragedy? What would they look like? What would we do there? How would they draw us with their wonder?
Bowman, Glenn. 2012. “Identification and Identity Formations around Shared Shrines in West Bank Palestine and Western Macedonia.” In Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, eds. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Bloomington, Indiana: IU Press: 10 – 28.
Driessen, Henk. 2012. “A Jewish-Muslim Shrine in North Morocco: Echoes of an Ambiguous Past.” In Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, eds. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Bloomington, Indiana: IU Press: 141– 147.
Mayeur-Jaouen, Catherine. 2012. “What do Egypt’s Copts and Muslims Share? The Issue of Shrines.” In Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, eds. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Bloomington, Indiana: IU Press: 148– 173.
Turner, Victor W. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.