Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part Second, 5

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Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West by Ameen Rihani
Part Second
V. Of Church and Mosque


V


OF CHURCH AND MOSQUE


OF all the places of worship I know,—and I have lugged my unshrived soul and my weary limbs into many a foreign temple,—the mosque has always impressed me as being by far the most democratic and the most unstinted in its varied hospitalities. There is nothing in it or in its economy to flatter the rich, or oft end the poor, to repel the weary, or distract the devout. The welcome it extends is not of the two-by-two pew order; the solace it affords is no bread-and-cheese affair. And the Friday sermon, if you should care to hear it, is often taken bodily from the Koran and is, therefore, never extraneous;—a ringing and harmless bit of eloquence that charms the ear and lulls the senses in celestial revery. The mosque is always big enough to hold the declaiming preacher and the sleeping worshipper in an incommunicable vacuity; for the pulpit is never too near the enchanted corners, which offer a shelter to the body of the Muslem as well as to his soul. And here you often find a mumbling fakir, a blind beggar, a wayworn hammal, or a wayfaring Arab. In the most informal spirit of devotion, they drop in for a rest or a snooze; and they prostrate themselves before a mihrab or stretch themselves on the cool marble under the arches, while a great sheikh or a prince of the blood in another corner is genuflecting on a precious Persian rug and swinging his torso to and fro in prayer. Bism illah irrihman irrahim! (In the name of Allah the most Merciful and Compassionate). The fakir telling his beads chants himself into a state of coma. The beggar yawns out, Ya- Allah, ya-Karim! and drops off as he kneels. The Beduin is stretched under the huge arch like a corpse. And no one is there ill-bred or impious enough to intrude upon any one in his holy occupation. The mosque is a haven of rest to beggar and prince, a temple of democracy to the Faithful, a divine hostelry for the children of Allah. Here the outcast finds a stone, at least, on which to lay his head. And the calm flows from the vast domes above him and fills the airy spaces all around. Only now and then it is interrupted by a sigh of ya-Allah, ya-Karim! For though the mosque be in the tinkers' bazaar seldom a sound from the outer world reaches even its court or violates its hallowed silence. And in this vastness of spiritual repose the soul may loaf and invite the body, and the mind may doze and invite the soul. Without cymbals and bells, without organ and choir, without icons and statues, but with the lamps of faith and devotion ever burning, the soul is left to itself to find its way through an infinity of unworldly calm and silence to the divine infinities of the One Supreme—Allah.

One day at noon, after a long tramp through the country, I went into the little mosque of a village to rest. I doffed my shoes at the door, realizing then the deep wisdom in the tradition. There are practical as well as spiritual reasons for it. If it is a sacrilege to come booted into the House of God, it is worse than a sacrilege to soil with the dust and mud of the road its precious rugs. Aside from these considerations, my shoes pinched, and I was only too glad to conform. Many others, I suppose, find in the custom a like relief. Inside the mosque there were but two at prayer—a venerable old man in one corner and a wizened half-naked beggar in another. I sat down on a straw mat under an arch, leaning my back against the pillar, stretching my weary limbs,—feeling sweetly at home. Rest and relaxation, in these are the roots of purest devotion: and these you will always find in a mosque at any hour of the day, at any hour of the night. I prayed after my own fashion, and walked out with my two companions, my Brothers, praising Allah. The beggar happened to be a hammal who left his burden at the door, and being too heavy for him to lift alone, the venerable Sheikh, tucking his long silk sleeves, hastens to his assistance. Bismillah! and the hammal bowed in piety under his load, stiffens his neck to the rope around his head and, heavy but firm of step, walks away in the assurance of Allah.

"You are not a Muslem," said the distinguished Sheikh, detecting in me an alien manner.

"I too worship Allah," I replied, lacing my shoes, "and honor the Prophets."

Whereupon he invited me to his house for lunch. Strangers meeting in the mosque become brothers.

This reminds me of a visit to that American Mecca of fashion, Newport, where I went to pray in the Church of the Rich. A quaint, little wooden, barn-like building, outwardly a fitting symbol of the original spirit of Christianity, which was brought over, together with its first minister, from England. It was set up, not built, in Newport, a century ago. And this is considered very old in New England. But the stained glass windows, a distressing anomaly, with nothing in them to arrest the eye or tax the imagination, are absurdly new and whole. Not one of them is broken and cemented to give it the semblance of antiquity or to preserve a historic or a pious legend. Made in America, I presume. And like everything indigenous to this wonderful country, their value is measured with a golden rod. One of them was pointed out to me as being 'the thousand-dollar window' presented to the church by Mrs.——; another, even more costly, by Mr.——. It were uncharitable, indeed, to remember names in such a blaze of munificence; but I wonder how it is that those who are responsible for disfiguring the walls of this quaint and unpretentious church, have not tried to conceal their identity. I say 'disfigure' advisedly. For I can not conceive of a stained glass window set in a thin wooden wall, without some outward device of architecture to subdue the effect of the sunlight upon it,—to shade the refulgence of its beauty. But Philanthropy can not live in the shade; Philanthropy will blow its trumpet on the roof-tops in the noonday sun. Thou Brass Trumpet, never in those airy mosques of the silent East have I heard the faintest echo of thy shrillings. Nor did the Puritans, I suppose, ever hear it in their days.

No doubt the stained glass windows would have been tabooed by them as was the organ, which was brought over with the church. Music, like our modern brass-trumpet philanthropy, shocked their sense of piety. They could not associate it with worship. It interfered with the digestion of the soul—it promoted impiety. If the organ, which was subsequently restored, is the one I heard, than I am, too, a Puritan. And the fact that it has now an electric action, does not make it less objectionable to those who seek peace in the House of God. I may be wrong, foolish, narrow in my idea of worship; I may not have an ear for music: but I submit that no two of our poor jaded senses can be occupied simultaneously with equally good purpose and effect. The shrill cymbals of an Oriental church may tear the ear, but they do not reach the soul; the daf and the tomtoms of the dancing dervishes are innocuous, because of the fundamental absurdity of their scheme of salvation; the music in a modern restaurant, and though it interferes with digestion and promotes dyspepsia and profanity, has no real spiritual after-effects: but when I hear a Miserere in a Church—and all Church music to me is a variation more or less of the same theme—and think that the salvation of my soul depends upon it, I can not go on and pray. The sepulchral notes seem to dance before my eyes in their winding sheets, and the invisible choir, alas, becomes a lugubrious joke. Judge if I was sacrilegious in the Church of the Rich. Instead of praying, or following in the wake of devotion, I was counting the 'thousand-dollar' stained glass masterpieces, or marvelling at the amazing sounding board that hung above the minister's head as by a spider's thread. One day in the nick of service—Allah forgive me for the wanton vision! But the precariousness of the situation held me for a spell in a mingled sense of fear and excitement. What if this huge sounding board should crash upon his Reverence when he is lashing the air with his potent words. And yet, by a freak of chance, it may be the last thing to remain intact if the church were struck to-morrow by a thunderbolt or destroyed by an earthquake.

Remarkable, too, are the quadrangular pews, which are big enough to hold a few arm chairs and a rocker, and which are so arranged that the worshippers can sit in them facing each other as in a drawing room. 'The vulgar rich,' the 'lazzaronis of wealth' as they are called in America by those, I suppose, who have failed to accomplish the miracle of riches or to at- tain the 'lazzaronic' state, must feel at home and quite at ease in these little drawing rooms of their church. Not with them, however, or those who denounce them, but only with the pews am I now concerned. Why should a place of worship, I venture the question, be parcelled into lots? Why not, as in a mosque, a clear open space, unencumbered and untaxed, where you can come and stay when you please and as long as you please? Pews mean an imposed long service, an imposed tax, an imposed restriction on one's freedom. You may want to go to church for five minutes of spiritual stimulation or for five hours of spiritual repose; in which case, locked in a pew, you must either disturb or be disturbed in following your desire.

But the pews of this Newport church, I was told, are neither to be sold, nor rented, nor given away: they must be acquired. Even as an estate or a mansion or a throne, they are hereditary. No stranger, therefore, can come into this church to pray, unless, by gracious suffrage, he stand at the door. His, then, is the better chance of salvation. I shared the pew of mine host, which he must have acquired by right of conquest. For on the fly-leaf of the hymn book was written a name other than his own,—a name of one of the distinguished families of the early settlers, who might have descended of old England's wearers of the purple. The pew had gone through one of those social revolutions that result only in a change of name. And thus, no other name will be written on the fly-leaf of that hymn book in the future, except by the suffrage of the nobility of wealth. Snobbery this, indeed.

But those who suffer from the disadvantage of riches, of whom even the Founder of Christianity has said a few mean things,—shutting them out of heaven with a parable,—ought not be grudged the right of making a little quadrangular heaven for themselves in a little church on earth, where they can commune with their God uninterrupted and undisturbed. Here, the poor rich lock themselves up for a brief spell, and no one in all the world has a right to intrude upon them in their devote moments. And they sit down in their armchairs, snug and serene, and sing the 176th hymn or the 61st psalm in perfect assurance, imbibing religion, at every pore and feeling, at peace with themselves, with the world, and with God. Even with the Minister, who hurls from his pulpit no Nazarine-parables of Dives and Lazarus or the Needle's Eye and the Camel. No; the Most Right Reverend respects the attitude and peace of mind of his congregation, wherefore his tenure sacerdotal would seem less precarious than the pew-priveleges of its richest member. But that colossal sounding board is hanging above him as by a spider's thread, and some day, when, in the very nick of his sermon, he is applying the divine salve, it might give the congregation a different interpretation of his Mortal Text.

Allah forgive me for what I have here set down. I came to this church to pray, not to cavil. And for those, distant and near, in present or past incarnation, who might have caused this unhappy turn of mind, I also invoke Allah's forgiveness and mercy.

The service is over. But the essential part of it we behold in the narrow street in front of the church where a squad of police are directing the high-lackered traffic. Slowly from many corners and by-ways invisible, it drags its length along, a train of sumptuous equipages, multicolor, multiform:—refulgent limousines adorned with classic-faced chauffeurs; shimmering victorias drawn by high-stepping, full-blooded steeds; liveried and cockaded footmen leaping from their seats to open and close carriage doors;—a bustle of vanities, a flutter of conceits,—a dazzling array of outward splendor.

Come, my Christian Brother,—come with me to the mosque.