An International study seminar organized by DoSt-I,  the Dominican Cultural Centre in Istanbul (Turkey)

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HOLINESS: threshold of the "proximity" of the divine to the human and of the human to the divine». This was the fascinatingtitle of the four day seminar which took place from 1st– 5thMay at the Dominican Priory near the Galata Tower, in Istanbul.

 

The format of the seminar at the time of invitation was not only a logistical necessity for Do-St-I (the acrostic means “friend” or “companion” in Turkish), the Dominican’s Cultural Centre in Istanbul, but a methodological choice: the invitation to all participants, lecturers and auditors, to bring a valuable contribution to a collegial work.

 

Dealing with the concept “Holiness” was very engaging. There is no religion without at least an implicit idea of holiness because this is by its very nature a religious concept. Certainly God is holy and holiness, as such, belongs only to Him. But the word "holiness" (with a certain number of other terms used, sometimes, as if they were interchangeable: as “saint” or “sacred”) referred analogically both with regard to God, and with regard to those that are linked to God, who have an interior relationship with Him, has forced us to a very long work of refining its multiple meanings. We have been able to appreciate the richness of theological, philosophical, historical and anthropological approaches to the question, but also, the different nuances present in the context of ecumenical and interreligious sensibilities. We tried to refine a definition of terms, while being aware that the context and different traditions are fundamental to shape the meaning of the terms we use! 

 

With particular reference to Islam, our Turkish Muslim partners and some of our Islamologists, invited us to question the notions and figures of awliyâ, “friends of God” or “those who are close” to God and bearers of his blessings. 

 

Finally, we challenged a widespread view of holiness as a mere static category of separation which solely belongs to the sphere of the cult, dealing with a more dynamic and dialectical concept that embraces both notions of separation and presence. 

 

The debated evoked some important questions which could stimulate common research in the future:

 

1) Holiness as God’s attribute, does it have an independent existence? 

If yes, what does it mean to say that both God and man are holy? 

2) How does one explore different aspects of God’s holiness and the ways in which it should be reflected in worship and in everyday life?

 

3) Can we hypothesize the existence of an inter-religious conviction in the sharing of the benefits of a holiness lived and offered for all? 

4) Can we speak about the existence of an ecumenical and communal “holiness dimension”?

 

However, the confrontation in rich debates stimulated by the various speakers’ contributions would not have had the same inspiring force, without experiencing totally unknown and sacred spaces together.

 

We refer, in particular, to the participation in a dhikrin the seat of an ancient Halveti-Cerrahi soufi community, at Karagümrük, in Fatih district of Istanbul. The dhikris the repetition of a sacred word or phrase. It can be the shahâda, "Lâ ilâha illâh 'llâh," but it is often one of the names or attributes of God. According to a Sufi tradition, the word Allâh is composed of the article al, and lâh, one of the interpretations of which is "nothing." Thus, the actual word Allâh means "the Nothing." For the Sufi the fact that His greatest name means "the Nothing" has great significance because Truth, or God, is experienced as the Nothingness. And one of the mysteries of the path is that this Emptiness, this Nothingness, loves you. It loves you with such intimacy and tenderness and infinite understanding. It loves you from the very inside of your heart, from the core of your own being. It is difficult to remain indifferent to the meditative atmosphere that is created in these assemblies. 

 

       The participants in the DoSt-I seminar were able to experience something very similar in the half-day visits to Eyüp Sultan Muslim Shrine (at the very end of the Golden Horn) and to Balıklı Greec Orthodox nuns’ monastery, located close to the Theodosian walls, at the city’s western edge, some 220 meters from Silivri Kapısı (Gate of the Springs).  Balıklı is one of the most renowned sanctuaries and popular shrines in Istanbul. During Byzantine times, this monastery assumed its name from the many natural springs in this region, attracting pilgrims for over fifteen centuries, both Christians and Muslims. 

 

       In societies with tendencies of inter-religious conflict, what makes coexistence possible in Shared Sacred Sites, when relationships outside are strained and polarised. These religious spaces are mediated between different (and often conflicting) religious, ethnic, and spiritual groups. Once more, it was important to investigate deeper into the meaning of the experiences made. In order to understand these sites of coexistence and tolerance, the following questions have been asked: What makes sharing possible? Who is likely to share a religious site? Can we understand joint participation as the product of a particular flexibility of a religious leader, or are there practices and rituals that facilitate the acceptance of another into one’s religious sanctuary? Can we speak of a common sacred dimension, which allows a shared experience of holiness?

 

       Every moment of this little week lived together by Dominicans from different countries and continents, and with DoSt-I friends and collaboratorsTurkish living in Istanbul, was rich and joyful. After having begun to reflect on a shared methodology of study and debate, we are willing to continue on this path, with other future initiatives, for which we are also awaiting some proposals and suggestions.