LENTEN REFLECTIONS FROM ISTANBUL

Galatia

During the previous two days, Gayle and I had crossed the Bosphorus Strait a few times on a ferry with students. Home to fourteen million people, Istanbul compresses much of its vast history into this corridor between continents. Fifth-century fortress walls, which once resisted Ottoman invaders, now share the shoreline with twentieth-century mosques. High rises and hotels on the Asian side have displaced some of the gecedkondus, or immigrant shantytowns, not far from Yeditepe University, where the Westmont students spent the last seven weeks. Our students spoke often of their conversations with Turkish peers at the university, who generally oppose the government of Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdoğan. Many of the Turkish students had inhaled tear gas during the steady protests in Taksim Square.

Heather and Jim had drawn up an invigorating schedule for us, designating ample time to explore the city with successive cohorts of students. As they waked with us, all of the students had stories about their own discoveries of history and culture. And many of their discoveries were about themselves.

More than a few spoke about Lent. No doubt, living in the old Constantinople, within the legacy and realm of Orthodoxy, kindled interest in some of the liturgical customs of preparing for Easter. As their Lenten practice, some students had chosen to set aside meat or sugar, to reduce their reliance on technology, or to commit to rhythms of silence and reflection. As I listened to the students, I thought of how Lenten observance, with its themes of restraint and meditation, is a valuable motif during a semester of overseas study.

For many students, the encounter with Lent signals an engagement with the greater church, a new empathy with Christians in disparate passages of the world. Often that journey brings one near the fault lines of other ecclesiastical quarters. This year in Turkey Lent carried more than its usual share of political overtones. En route from London to Istanbul, I read how Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople had just convened Orthodox leaders in Istanbul to plan the “upcoming All-Orthodox Council" and to pray for "the situation of Christians in the Middle East.” In his homily at the start of Lent, he had called for “sincere repentance,” as well as the need for charity, altruism and collective action rather than the “individualistic and pharisaic way of life.” But the gathering in Istanbul also welcomed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who had just skirted appeals from the new Ukranian patriarch to lend his “voice for the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state” and to forestall the clash between "the fraternal peoples of Russia and Ukraine.” In response, Patriarch Kirill vowed to pray against bloodletting in the Ukraine but insisted that the Orthodox Church would not take sides in the struggle, linking potential bloodshed in Kiev to the hatred in citizens’ hearts, not to military intimidation. Certainly there were hopes that the Lenten themes of repentance and restraint could inspire church leaders to promote peace, even as there were fears that the theme of church unity could gloss over aggression and injustice.

Lenten introspection and restraint can also be valuable antidotes to the speed and exuberance of travel and study. Venturing abroad can awaken an insatiable curiosity and hunger for more travel, a desire to see as much as possible. I know that I have had more than my share of occasions when a quick encounter with a new culture fostered a touristy confidence, as if a few days and a handful of photos and postcards could be substituted for knowledge. A discipline of pausing to turn inward—to ponder how one has been stretched by the new context during previous weeks—can lead to greater wisdom than the rush to the next site. On the flight home, I read The Time Regulation Institute, one of the most acclaimed Turkish novels of the twentieth century. In the tale, author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar creates a darkly comic parable about an eccentric organization in Istanbul that fines Turks for clocks that do not conform precisely to Western time, even though the institute itself whiles away years in idleness and illusion. The novel clearly displays Turkey’s tug-of-war with Westernization, and also reveals how average citizens can naively become agents of bureaucracies. While it ancipates that personal technologies can be liberating, it still reminds us that contemporary forms of freedom and efficiency also resist our investment in meditative interludes.

Most of all, Lent is preparation for Easter, for the final hope of the Resurrection. Global study does stir new curiosity, but it should also prompt new forms of self-denial and constraint. Traveling, hearing new voices, encountering new perplexities, inevitably force you to set aside many preconceptions, suspending judgment as you begin the long discipline of recalibrating views about the world and its ways. A semester abroad is a powerful means of preparing one for more discerning and compassionate participation in a global society, and we should encourage students to find new levels of confidence and vision after their journeys. But, even during a semester of substantial growth, the discipline of restraint and introspection can be remind us that justice and reparation rely on the grace of Easter.

Syriac churchOn a rainy Sunday morning, we joined four students for a service at the Syrian Orthodox Church on the European side of the city. The bus ride down to the Asian shoreline took us around traffic circles entwined with strings of political pennants. After ferrying across the Bosphorus, we made our way to the small sanctuary in Beyoğlu, the cosmopolitan district in the city, home to immigrants and internationals. At the church, in an old Greek quarter, men and women convened on separate sides of the small sanctuary, about half of the women covering their heads with lace scarves. Even with the chanting, singing and preaching in Syriac and Turkish, there were aspects of the service that transcended language. David Baldi mentioned how meaningful it was to hear the Lord’s Prayer recited each week in Syriac, a Middle Aramaic dialect relatively close to the words of Jesus. As the elements were being prepared for the Eucharist, the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary had been closed. Once it was reopened, the congregation strided forward, beginning with adults carrying infants or young children to receive the bread and wine.

It was at once both distant and familiar, a different liturgy, the usual rite. When the drape was drawn across the nave, I thought of how we do indeed share a common mystery—that beyond the curtains of our understanding is the triumph of God.