A recent journey to Mongolia landed Judi and me, along with 12 other traveling companions plus a most excellent guide named Muuggi, into the middle of a ger owned by an older Kazakh couple named Ibrahim and Sailau. A ger (called a yurt in some cultures) is a circular, portable, tent-like structure. Somewhat like camping year around, the ger lends itself to a semi-nomadic culture prone to relocate with the seasons.
Visiting with locals in their home settings is one of the things I enjoy about traveling with the company that organized this itinerary. Over the course of 18 days, we visited a handful of different families, but this first home visit struck a chord that resonated with my soul. Ibrahim had worked in the coal mines as a means of providing for his own. Sailau labored to furnish and operate a very comfortable home. Patterns were woven into the larger overlay of fabric that fit the frame much like a bespoke suit. Walls were adorned with a few practical tools, plus keepsakes and artwork. Two single beds adorned with canopies sat opposite each other along thes edge of the tent. Nearly every colorful carpet or other textile item in the ger was Sailau’s handiwork.
These dear folks opened their home to us. In fact, they seemed delighted for the opportunity, with faces aglow and animated presentations of their topics. Through a translator, they spoke of Mongolian life and of their family. They prepared a typical Mongolian lunch for us. This country is hardly a vegan’s paradise, as the population consumes more meat and cheese than vegetables. This day, they served a delicious soup, homemade dumplings, and cheese curds among other things. Later they brought out examples of festive Mongolian clothing and dressed us in them just for fun. Afterwards, our guide whispered to me that he overheard the husband say to his wife as he nodded toward me, “I wish I had a beard like that man.” She shushed him, telling him to be quiet or I would hear him, as though I could understand a single word of Mongolian.
The kindness and hospitality of the occasion was almost palpable, even now creating a warm feeling within as I remember the visit; but these are not the primary causes for this first visit to resonate so deeply. The reason is that my new Kazakh friend reshaped my perspective about calls to prayer.
This couple is of the Muslim faith so there are no doubt some things we do not hold in common. As it turns out, Ibrahim issues the calls to prayer that go out to the community five times each day. I am encouraged by people who take the discipline of prayer seriously whatever their tradition; but I must admit I have a few issues with prayer.
For one thing, I am not a fan of perfunctory prayer like invocations that are included because someone, somewhere, thinks an event cannot start without one but who really is not interested in prayer per se. In many contexts, invocations can be more like starter pistols than words that invite the Holy One to join us. I say that based on my experience as a minister who has been asked to fire the pistol too many times to count. Once when asked at the last minute to offer a prayer before a public dinner event, I must have had a trying day. My response was to ask why, among a group of Quakers whose view of ministry would suggest anyone could fill that role, did it seem I was the only one who could pray before an event? The answer was, “You have credentials.” –- which is itself a comical statement in a Quaker context. In an irreverent moment, I agreed to do so, quipping that it was on the condition that my table went first through the buffet line. I said it as sarcasm, but to my surprise, the answer was, “You’ve got a deal.” I happily accepted the agreement and encouraged it to be standard operating procedure.
Perhaps I should be ashamed to say so, but the truth is that Muslim calls to prayer can get under my skin. My first encounter with it was around 2006 on a trip to Egypt. After hours of travel and finally getting a good night’s sleep on a comfortable mattress, I was awakened at zero dark thirty in the morning by a voice over a public intercom. It was the call to Fajr, the morning prayer that occurs when light first appears at dawn. To these Western ears it did not sound like any prayer I had ever heard. To me, at least, it was intrusive and unpleasant.
After several days of being awakened by that early morning summons, I recall saying to someone that I had never realized prayer could be so annoying! In the first place, I was not certain God wanted to hear from me five times a day on such a precise schedule; and even if that was the case, I felt certain that my God liked to sleep in, at least until 7 a.m. If that was not the case, surely a call to prayer could be less invasive to those who weren’t part of the tradition. How about a text message instead of a loudspeaker? Or a door-to-door wake-up service? I prefer to pray alone in quiet places, as moved by the Spirit. Nevertheless, I try to be respectful of those whose practices differ from mine so long as they are not harmful to others. I have lived long enough to know that sometimes I learn from those differences.
Upon learning of Ibrahim’s responsibility, someone in the group asked if he would demonstrate his call to prayer for us. I braced myself. As he prepared to do so, I detected his body stiffen just a bit, as though being brought to attention while he stood before God. His head tilted upward just a bit and he seemed to look off into the distance as though looking toward the recipient of his prayer in another realm. Clearly, there was nothing perfunctory about this for him. When he spoke, the words that came from his mouth were enchanting, flowing melodically like a song. I felt immediately hushed within, called to attentiveness and quietness, so much so that it would have been easy to enter a time of prayer myself. It seemed that despite being relative strangers from opposite sides of the world, we were, for those few seconds at least, wrapped together as kindred spirits sharing a moment in the presence of the Divine. Honestly, I wanted to hear more.
The experience left me pondering prayer as song. Speaking, sitting in silence, or even with groans too deep for words as Romans describes it, prayer takes various forms. Perhaps we (or at least I) don’t give enough attention to prayers as musical expressions. After all, the Psalms were prayers designed to be sung in worship. The Gregorian tradition within Christianity is known for its chants. The songs of Paulette Meier, drawn from the writings of early Quakers, is of a similar genre. I cannot listen to them without being drawn to a deeper place. One of the most enjoyable Lutheran services I have attended was one where the priest sang his parts of the liturgy. Now, here in a tent in a remote part of the world, the Spirit has reminded me again.
Prayer as song. For whatever reason, it is transformational. Is it that focus is required to keep words in synch with the melody? Or do the vibrations of the notes somehow change the experience? Or is it an adult variation of the way a lullaby can soothe an agitated child? I confess I do not know.
Prayer as song is hardly a new concept, but one to which I apparently have not given enough attention. Thanks to Mr. Ibrahim, it shall be on my mind for a while, and perhaps even lead to a few new notes of my own.