The main division within Islam continues to this day, as does the basic question: can a person possess an extraordinary relationship to the divine? Those who might answer “yes” are the Shiites (decedents of the group who wanted Muhammad’s cousin Ali as his successor), and they believe their leaders have been endowed with the living spirit of the Prophet given to them by blood ties that trace back to Muhammad. Like the Catholic Pope, Shiite imams are thought to be sinless and infallible.
Sunnis (who preferred Muhammad’s father-in-law as successor) are those who would disagree. Their leaders are considered religious and political executives. This position is similar to the one held by Eastern Orthodox Christians who define priests and bishops as ordinary people—occupying extraordinary positions. Congregants are still encouraged to kiss the hand of the priest or bishop, though in doing so one should keep in mind that it’s the office being honored.
But as I mentally trace the roots of these theological divisions, they seem to grow too flimsy to understand because doesn’t every faith somehow incorporate the idea that a person can have a special relationship to the divine? Christians agree that Jesus was an incarnation of the divine and every Muslim believes Muhammad brought Allah’s words to earth. So perhaps the issue is not a human’s ability to channel the divine, but whether this quality can exist beyond the originals?
Or perhaps the argument is all just a smoke screen for the very human inclination to possess power and control.
The Greek Church I remember from my childhood is gone. Several years ago, the congregation purchased land just north of downtown and built a new building. The property allowed for a bigger main chapel, as well supplemental structures for social gatherings and classrooms. It also let church leaders mold a fresh identity. They opted not to recreate the white stucco exterior that was so readily identifiable with Greece. Instead, they used brick in a style more broadly Byzantine: arches and columns and the squat domes that speak to the shared history of a huge region. The strategy seems to be working. Recent years have seen a spike in attendance, filled out by congregants from a wider spectrum of eastern orthodoxy.
The main sanctuary may be bigger, but it evokes the same feelings I remember from being a kid standing by myself in the old chapel. Similar red carpeting lines the aisles. Recognizable faces stare down from murals on the ceilings. Even empty and quiet, the room back then had seemed alive. Today, it is further animated with movement and sound as Grandma and I slip into a wood pew. The priests and their helpers are revving up around the altar, lighting the candles and stoking the incense. Grandma hands me a pamphlet on the rules and procedures of attending a service, tucked into the back of the pew along with bibles and hymnals and a laminated card of the communion prayers. It spells out the proper way one is to enter the main chapel: first, by “venerating” an icon and, second, by lighting a candle. It explains that venerating means kissing. Out in the foyer, I had watched others pressing their lips against the glass under which sat a painting of a saint. It says here: “It is not proper to kiss an icon in the face.” Thank goodness I didn’t attempt it; that’s exactly where I would have planted a wet one. Instead, I caught up with Grandma who was making a donation in exchange for two thin candles. She handed one to me. I lit it using the flame of another and then nestled it into the sand of the raised box by the door saying a prayer for my grandfather who was a staunch atheist.