Star for a Blue Mosque

Star for a Blue Mosque

Places of worship are an odd  thing for me to like. On the face of it, it would seem unlikely– I am not religious.  I am an atheist.

When you say that world, the average person thinks you believe in nothing, and this could not be further from the truth.  I believe in the ongoing reality of the universe.  That is easy.  It is right there in front of us and all around us.  I believe in medicine, science, poetry, art, physics and evolution.  Again, things that are evident in our daily lives.  I also believe people are basically decent, though some events recently have shaken that faith but good.  The long and short of it is, I believe in humanity and the ability to repair our ills and to look beyond our own selfish needs. . .what people of my parent’s generation called, “brotherhood” and people of my own generation refer to as humanism.

I had a conversation with my friend, John McNaughton today.  The question of, “Is there a god?” is something he and I kick around in almost every conversation we have.  McNaughton has a ferocious intellect.  He is a film director who has made some amazing American fare. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which, despite its title, was more of an art film that comes unnervingly close to the reality of such people.  Nothing glamorized nor a hint of condescension, it is the raw ether of the real thing.  In almost all of John’s film’s, we are asked, cajoled and sometimes titillated with an ellusive idea–What is evil?

It is something he thinks about as a big picture.  Unlike me, John does not believe people are basically decent.  Let’s just say he takes a dim view of people as a body politic and his evidence is history.  Yet he believes in a god and I don’t.  Our conversation comes down to  John believing that there is something beyond us. . .bigger than us.  I agree with him there; the universe and all of those other things are bigger than us.  These conversations are more than an exercise.  We are grown men past the age of 50.  The names we read in the obituaries are, sometimes, people even younger than us.  Death has definable features.  Where it once lagged long behind us, it now walks hand in hand. My friend, John reads every goddamn thing; Herotodus, Tony Judt, The Economist, Plato, and  Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish intellectual and deconstructor of Marxism.  This is his “light” reading.

As often as we have this conversation, we both can name all of the big houses of worship in Chicago: Holy Name  St. Stanislav’s, The Ba’Hai Temple.  The Mosque Maryham.  Because they are cornerstones of communities.  There was a time when Chicago Catholics didn’t ask you where you lived in the city, but what parish you were in.  Though I no longer consider myself a Catholic, by those around me I will always be considered “culturally Catholic.”  Is Catholicism still present in my life?  As much as I’d love to say I’ve separated myself from it, it’s still there.  My work as an artist definitely is a marker of my early Catholicism.  The center figure with activity surrounding it and a narrative?  Textbook holy car imagery and I come  by it honestly.  Holy cards were a huge part of my life as a child because my father worked in the funeral business.

I remember the holy cards as things the dead left behind.  For the longest time, I carried my father’s in my wallet until it fell apart.

The holy card would have the name of the deceased, the years they lived and some brief prayer.  My father’s had St. Teresa, the little flower.  She was his favorite saint.  Every time he won money in the lottery, he cut the St Teresa Society in for 10 points.

This fall, I went to Istanbul and visited the Blue Mosque.  Its proper name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  They built it in 1609 because the sultan had lost some wars.  He figured he’d better scratch together a legacy and he built the Blue Mosque.  They call it the Blue Mosque because of the over 20,000 Iznik tiles inside; tiles that all have some variation on the tulip contained in them.  It is a woudrous thing to see.  The inside of it is breathtakingly beautiful.  When I saw this place, I actually shook and the hair on my arms stood up.

It is as much a source of pride for Turks as it is for Muslims.  It is a place of worship for Islam and it is  one of the jewels of the Ottoman empire.  I walked through this place thinking about the differences between Islam and everyone else and I  felt that no matter what anyone says, no culture filled with hate could’ve built this thing.

Houses of worship have this effect on me. I want to like the people who go there; the devout, the faithful. those who seek the strength to do good, even as I disagree.  Or maybe because I disagree.  I want to believe the thing beyond us as humans is ourselves, as a collective, trying to achieve Grace.

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