Where Prayer Has Been Valid ( or Report #1 from Indonesia)

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” -Psalm 24:1

Two days ago, my wife, our Protestant language teacher, and I went to the royal cemetery of Imogiri, near Yogyakarta in south-central Java, where we half observed and half participated in an Islamic ceremony at the tomb of a Javanese sultan (the line between being a polite observer and a participant being quite thin in these parts). We were asked to don traditional Javanese clothing, and climb barefoot to the top of a hill, where we all sat or knelt, while the leader and Muslim participants chanted in Javanese and recited surahs of the Qur’an in Arabic in front of the door of the tomb. The leader then opened the door, swept the tomb, and then invited us to come in. The ceiling was very low, so there was no choice but to assume a reverent posture. We (or at least I) thought of what we were doing as simply paying our respects to the dead by dropping flower petals on the grave and leaving a small amount of money for the upkeep of the tomb. We were then asked to assume the prostrate position of Islamic prayer, resting our foreheads at a certain spot next to the grave. There was a small indentation from many previous pilgrims having done the same.

After our descent, the three of us went up another hill to pay our respects to the three most recent deceased sultans of Yogyakarta. Our teacher explained on the way that we were not praying to the dead, but asking them to pray for us, and that it was customary to ask their prayers for a specific need or wish. When we got to the top, she spoke in high Javanese to a man in traditional Javanese garb, who took our flower petals and, after asking our names, prayed in a mix of Javanese and Arabic while holding them over a fire that he lit. We then approached the graves on our knees, dropped a few petals on each, and said a prayer. I prayed for peace and success with my dissertation in the coming months. I addressed my prayers to God, but afterward, I told the sultans that I was grateful for the prayers of all friends of God. I crossed myself afterward.

Several things about this experience struck me. First was the reverence and enthusiasm with which our teacher explained and participated in the rituals. Unlike Javanese Catholics (who are possibly the most passionate practitioners of traditional Javanese piety), Javanese Protestants experience more tension with Islamic and traditional Javanese observances. In my limited experience, their services tend toward the megachurch style. They represent a modernist tendency in Javanese Christianity, which is also present in Javanese Islam. But our teacher called the places we visited holy as matter-of-factly as if she were talking about the weather, and there was never a question of whether we would participate in the rituals, albeit in our own Protestant way.

I think this is related to the second thing I noticed, which is that I too was struck by the holiness of the places, though I am neither Javanese nor a Muslim (and am, in fact, an active believer and practitioner of another religion which holds beliefs that directly contradict the Islamic doctrines of God and the prophets). But I think that whatever one’s theology or observance, everyone experiences this place as holy.

The third thing that struck me was the generosity of our hosts, who allowed us to observe and participate in their ceremony without any question, and even showed remarkable patience with two obnoxious Swiss tourists. They were very advanced in holiness.

So what does it all mean?

I believe that the one God is a Trinity of three Persons, one of whom became incarnate as the human being Jesus of Nazareth, who died and rose again for our salvation, that he will return as the judge of the living and the dead, and that nothing can or needs to be added to what was revealed in him. And yet, these followers of a later prophet who worship, not Trinity, but absolute Oneness are holy, and I can feel that I am supported by their prayers, as I am by the prayers of Christian saints.

I believe that all the earth was created by God, and that God is present everywhere, and may be worshipped anywhere in spirit and truth (as do Muslims, with the provisio that one should face the proper direction). And yet, Imogiri is a holy place in a way that most other places are not, and it is especially fitting that God be worshipped there. I’ve been to a few other such places, but rarely have I felt it this powerfully. I envy Catholics, who are more open than most Protestants to the special presence of God in special places, and am glad that this is also a feature of Anglicanism, and that I was able to be open to it here.

And I believe that God loves Javanese pilgrims, American and German scholars, and obnoxious Swiss tourists as they are, and yet draws out what they shall be. And I am grateful to our hosts for demonstrating that.

And in the words of a fellow Missourian who turned Anglican in adulthood, “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an ordering of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. What the dead had no speech for when living, they can tell you, being dead. The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere, never and always.” And also Java.

[Update: For the record, it turns out I misunderstood my teacher. She is actually Catholic. But I leave the post unchanged.]

Me in traditional Javanese attire at one of the entrances to Makam Raja Imogiri.

Me in traditional Javanese attire at one of the entrances to Makam Raja Imogiri.