Eight years ago, I was in La Hulpe Belgium for a training seminar. La Hulpe is a leafy village in one of the POSH suburbs of Brussels, near Waterloo, where Napoleon lost his final battle in 1815. Back then, IBM owned a Danish designed training facility nestled in the woods. It had spartan hotel rooms - single beds in mid sixties teak cosseted next to walls with small night tables and large windows facing mossy oaks and elms. There was a large auditorium, many good sized classrooms, a decent cafeteria, a good bar where I first tasted Belgian Ale, and wonderful trails through the woods. I remember this place as a part of IBM that sadly doesn't exist anymore, a collegiate history where education took place face to face. So quaint in retrospect.
The training seminar spanned two weeks, and I had a weekend in-between. In 1995, when I first joined IBM, I spent my first six weeks of employment in La Hulpe, studying the Insurance Application Architecture - an object-oriented data model for insurance optimization. Over the next five years of my IBM career in EMEA (working in Copenhagen) I spent months in Brussels and La Hulpe and got to know it extremely well. So on this weekend, I decided on something new.
I rented a turbo-diesel Alpha Romeo 146 and took off on the motorway - direction Bruges. Ghent lies on the motorway between Brussels and Bruges and I made a breakfast pitstop in that city on a sunny Sunday in 2002. Ghent is a an ancient city like Bruges, with wonderful streets, canals, old buildings and churches. It is perhaps less famous than Bruges but no less charming. My decision to stop there eight years ago would prove more important than I could have realized at the time. In many ways, one short experience in that city changed my world view in profound ways.
It was about 11am by the time I got to the city center and found parking. I had a camera in hand, and was prepared for sightseeing. My parking spot was on the outskirts of town and I had to walk far to reach the center. Modern balcony apartment buildings on tree lined streets with shops below gave way to older buildings with stucco walls and flower boxes. Along the way, I stumbled upon a darkened 15th Century Church. The walls were black, the flying buttresses grey, and the outer door was open.
As I stepped inside, I heard voices and I froze. It was Sunday. 11am. Mass was being celebrated. I speak German and Danish. I can understand some French and Dutch. But Flemish is beyond me. During the day, an empty church is a museum of art and architecture. It requires no involvement. You stroll through and admire ancient imagination.
At this moment, I thought about turning back. "I don't belong, I'm not part of this community, I don't speak the language, it's not my religion."
I went in anyway. When you travel you can either be an observer and stay in your bubble, or you can jump into other people's lives and be a participant - to try and understand the world through someone else's eyes, ears, and heart. You can't do that on the outside looking in. You need to be on the inside.
It was a massive space inside, and only a small group of 20 or so seated in the first three pews near the priest. No one paid any attention to me sitting several rows behind. It was a catholic service. I'm not catholic. It was in Flemish. Mircea Eliade calls such moments historical archetypes - the temporary suspension of historical time - because each group repeats a ritual and in doing so connects back in time to other groups who repeated the same ritual. There was incense, standing and sitting, singing and praying, communion and kissing. And it was beautiful.
After 30 minutes or so everyone got up, shook hands, and walked out into the bright light of a sunny spring Sunday. I told some Jewish friends about this experience later and they were shocked I attended a Christian service. The history of Jews and Christians in this world is not a good one. Blood and recrimination, persecution and ignorance mark most of it. My own grandparents fled Christian pogroms against Jews in Russia that killed many of their relatives. But I told them what I saw in that church was trans-formative. Not that I felt Christian at that moment, but that for the first time I experienced what they experienced in a service, transforming the church from a museum into a community, a living replica of human experience that the paintings fail to adequately describe.
You can't describe the world in a painting. No reference compares with being there in the moment.
Some years later, I was in Istanbul speaking at a conference on Compliance and Data Governance. The venue was in Maslak, the business center of Istanbul and after my speech I took the subway to Taksim and walked across the bridge to the old city. Constantinople it was called from 303 to 1455, when the Eastern Roman Empire ruled a vast swath of Africa, Arabia, and Southern Europe. They build the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) in 457 and for centuries it was the largest free standing dome in the world. 1500 years later it still stands, but in 1455 the Ottomans converted it from a church into a Mosque as the city and the empire changed rulers and religions.
There are five other magnificent mosques in Istanbul and one can't possibly understand the city, the history, the ottomans, or the Turks without visiting them. My first was the Blue Mosque, just across from Hagia Sophia. It is just as massive, and like all Mosques you have to take your shoes off to enter. You sit on the floor in a mosque. There are no pews. The floor space is covered with rugs, the walls and dome are adorned with mosaic. There are no paintings, statues, or physical representations. Electric lights hang 30 feet above the floor in chandeliers that must have once held candles.
Most tourists huddle together in the back gaping at the space. But there are no restrictions on where you can sit, how you can sit, or what you can do. Except, you shouldn't talk much. It is very quiet. Moslems pray 5 times a day and I was there in the afternoon between prayers. There were a few people praying quietly and the overall impression one had was private contemplation.
I visited five other mosques in Istanbul that week. Outside, in the streets, protesters were railing against the islamic government of Recep Erdogan as he was installing his foreign minister as President. There were pro-democracy ralies, and many anti-American protests. The Turkish Army was sitting on the sidelines contemplating a coup, and the courts were considering constitutional appeals.
The Mosques were silent inside. People prayed, life went on. And it was beautiful.
The next week, I flew to Israel to visit customers in Tel Aviv and talk with IBM Researchers in Haifa. After the meetings, I drove to Jerusalem. We parked in East Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate. Our tour guide was Palestinian and we were Jews. We did the Via Dolorosa (walk of Jesus), prayed at the Wailing Wall, and walked on the Temple Mount near the Dome of the Rock.
At the Wailing Wall, I met a lubuvitcher from Brooklyn. We talked about NY, Judiasm, and Jerusalem for a few minutes and he asked me if I would like to pray at the wall. I said yes and he led me to his trolly where he laced me up with a Teffilin on my head and fore-arm. The Teffilin is a wooden box with a microscopic copy of verses from Torah inside and leather bands that tie it to your body. They put a Tallit around my shoulders and Kippah on my head. I no longer can read ancient Hebrew so the men from the Chabad gave me an english phonetic version of a few prayers and together we walked to the Wall.
The Wailing Wall is the last remnants of the City of Jerusalem and the Second Temple of Solomon that remains since the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD during their sack and plunder of the city (from which they took enough gold to finance the construction of the Colosseum in Rome). The lowest blocks weigh 70 tons and they are massive. People have for centuries written small notes to God and inserted them between the blocks.
I put my hand on the wall and said the prayers. There were many other people nearby doing the same thing, repeating a ritual, suspending historical time. And it was beautiful.
Above us Moslem's were praying at the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham was persuaded to spare his son Isaac 5000 years ago. And nearby, Christians were worshipping at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the spot where Jesus was crucified 2000 years ago. All so close.
These are three tribes with derivative roots. They share common ancestry and ideas. And each believes they are right and the others are wrong. They have fought and continue to fight savage wars against each other in the name of their beliefs.
Is there something that unifies them? Perhaps. Is there one way of living or doing things that is better than any other way for every human being and every human culture on the planet. I think not.
The best we can hope for is that people from different tribes, cultures, religions, and beliefs learn to appreciate what's beautiful about life regardless of how it is described.
My next challenge is Yoga. Buddhism is beautiful too.