When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Aya Sofia last week, there was concern among some Muslims that he would cross himself or otherwise pray within the walls of this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, as Pope Paul VI famously did when he visited in 1967. I was not surprised that Benedict avoided this impulse. Since his quotation of a medieval text defaming Islam in September, the pope has proven himself a quick study of interfaith diplomacy. When his ill-chosen remarks were met with riots and reports of Catholic clergy murdered in response, he learned the hard way that spiritual acts have practical, and sometimes fatal, consequences.
Yet concerns over the pope’s prayers in a predominantly Muslim country get to the heart of the increasingly volatile meeting point of religious traditions.
Did he pray in the Aya Sofia? How could we really know? Prayer, after all, is an interior act. It is often made visible with prostrations and gestures, and it is often made audible with words, but it is first of all a movement of the mind, as impossible to detect as a passing thought or a daydream. There is in fact a tradition in some strains of Christianity that encourages the faithful to pray “without ceasing”: to so fill the mind with devotion that it becomes involuntary, as automatic as breathing.
How then to know if the pope prayed? And what can be done about a conflict whose slights are often intangible, whose battlefield is the unseen?
I write about religion for a living, and so by necessity I enter into religious worlds that are not my own on a regular basis. I’ve been to Pentecostal exorcisms in Appalachia, gatherings of a thousand witches in Kansas, Hasidic weddings in Brooklyn, all spiritual forums as exotic to a Catholic boy from Boston as Ankara’s Blue Mosque is to the pope.
Often the greatest challenge is finding compelling ways to describe things in which I do not believe. The stakes for me are never quite so high as they have been in Turkey these last few days, but I’ve discovered that engagement with any faith begins not with prayer, but with another interior act: an act of the imagination.
Before I write about any sort of believer or community of faith, I indulge in a little role-playing fantasy. What might it feel like to have such fervor that I find myself speaking in tongues? Who would I be if I was a pagan among Christians in the Bible Belt? What would I be thinking if it were me riding high in a chair at a Hasidic wedding, floating on a sea of black hats?
In place of belief I call upon that skill we all had as children but often lose by the time we become adults, or parents, or popes: “make believe.”
As a former university professor, the pope is regarded as a formidable intellectual, a by-the-book theologian who once headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church body that used to be known as the Inquisition. Back then, “make believe” for Benedict probably had a more imperative ring to it; not an invitation to experience other ways of being or believing, but a charge to enforce the rules of the faith.
Of course, it is probably a bit much to ask of a pope that he fantasize about being a Muslim before he next speaks about them. Yet with so much at stake over a prayer that may or may not have been offered, I can’t help but wonder if we all might benefit from a little more exercise of our spiritual imaginations.
If only we could cease praying to our conceptions of God just long enough to wonder what it might be like to pray to another.
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.