On Pure Religion, Undefiled

The first call for the noon prayer moans out of a mosque somewhere below us, to the west, toward the sea. Another call rises from the south, then another and another. Thousands of minarets jut upward from Jeddah's skin like broken bones, and suddenly they're all aflame with song. A cacophony of musical calls is crashing and colliding and congealing and climbing up the walls of this old, leaning tower, spilling through the twenty-two glassless windows that encircle the small unfurnished room where we sit at the tower's tiptop, washing over the faded, intricate carpet, the cushions that line the walls.

Kilmuir, Isle of Skye, Scotland. 2010.
The union of countless prayer calls keeps swelling and it fills the room, and I swear it's the power of the song and not the breeze that's making the lanterns hanging from the ceiling sway, and it's like the call has filled the city and there's nowhere left for it to go but up. So it ascends. It slams against the bottom of the blue sky and percolates upward, heedless of gravity, encircling the hot sun and singing straight through the stratosphere where the air is thin. And I imagine the call careening through the universe looking for God. And wherever he is, it finds him. Today, this call, it finds him. It's not the dissonent, groaning pitch to prove your piety to your neighbor that sometimes seems to fill the streets of this city. Today, it's a plea, a petition. And it finds him.

We're quiet in the high leaning tower as the call dies. All we can hear now are insistent zephyrs pushing past the empty-palmed window frames. The fabric on someone's blouse flaps. The old man with the feral beard and the bald head unscrews the lid on his water bottle. We're four Muslims, two agnostics, three Christians. Six Americans, a Saudi, a Sudanese, a German. Six men, three women. But drawing dividing lines seems silly somehow.

The Muslims rise for their prayer. An American cardiologist. A Sudanese mapmaker. An American law professor. An old Saudi sheikh. The rest of us just watch. At any other time, on any other day, watching people of another faith pray would feel really weird. But today, somehow it's not weird. We sit on the floor, leaning against the cushions that line the old walls. The Muslims lightly and easily banter as they decide who is supposed to be the imam for the group. Somehow it ends up being the young Sudanese guy. They line up. The Saudi corrects the group's direction, pointing them more squarely toward Mecca, forty miles away. And they pray. Four or five feet from the rest of us. And we watch. Without academic interest or judgment or analytic reasoning or even polite curiosity. Somehow, what's happening is matter-of-fact -- religion and agnosticism don't matter here and now. It's not surprising and it's not suspicious and it's not childish. It just is. And we sit there and we watch people talk to God.

And I'm reminded that the Bible talks at one point about "pure religion, undefiled." And I suppose that's what I'm seeing. And I start to think, I start to reason, to try to figure out what this means in terms of Us and Them, in terms of doctrine and dogma, in terms of Christianity and Islam and atheism and every other means of interfacing with or flat out ignoring the cosmos. But then I do something kind of smart -- I stop thinking. And for a little while I don't worry about who God hears and who he doesn't. He's hearing these people at this moment. That's all I know right now. And it's enough.