Several years ago, we visited Istanbul on a family holiday. After much research, we selected a destination which offered a rich history and culture, but was also equipped to keep three generations engaged. We were particularly excited about the prospect of exploring a city with its unique blend of East and West and upon arrival, hired a guide to help us navigate the plethora of sightseeing opportunities. We spent much of our time visiting Byzantine churches and Ottoman palaces; with occasional respite in green open spaces where my young nephews roamed freely. We cruised along the Bosphorous, passing opulent villas and fortresses, glistening majestically on the waterfront, as we leisurely napped on deck. The wonders of Istanbul left us eagerly anticipating each instalment of our fascinating trip.
It was on one such morning that my father and I decided to visit the iconic Sultan Ahmed Mosque (widely known as the Blue Mosque), with its cascading domes and elegant minarets. My father and I had an immutable fascination with God and were drawn to all places of worship, irrespective of religion. We had been raised to have utter reverence for God and faith was the foundation upon which we built our lives. For us, God was a beloved Father of infinite love and generosity and not the hardline, judgmental Creator often depicted. We actively sought any opportunity for an encounter with the Divine and our visit to the Blue Mosque was motivated by just that hope.
We arrived at the gates of the Blue Mosque fully intending to explore the interior, but our attention was immediately drawn to the nearby gardens. A kaleidoscope of flowers beckoned invitingly on a gloriously sunny morning and we decided to postpone the visit and take a walk in the gardens. As we began our walk, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of irrepressible joy, which brought me to a halt. I immediately thought back to the paradise we’d learnt about as children and turned to my father in quiet awe and said, “This must be what it means to be in My Father’s House”. In that moment, I felt as if I were walking in God’s house, as a blanket of bliss enveloped me and I felt a complete sense of oneness with the world. In my mind, heaven couldn’t be better than this and I shared my thoughts with my father, who smiled in agreement as we continued our walk in silent reverence.
A few days later the rest of the family decided to visit the Blue Mosque and we set off on another glorious sunny morning. There was cheerful chaos as we arrived at the mosque and I helped my nephews remove their shoes and sunglasses, before releasing them to race ahead. The rest of us followed at a more leisurely pace, pausing to appreciate the splendour of the blue Iznik tiles and mesmerising designs painted inside the domes.
Once the visit ended, my parents took refuge under the shade of the trees and the rest of us congregated near the entrance. As I was helping my nephews slip back into their sandals, I suddenly noticed my sunglasses were missing. I knew I had them with me as we entered the mosque and I’d kept hold of them, together with my nephews’ sunglasses, as we wandered around inside. I immediately searched the vicinity, but it was fruitless, as I realised that although I still had hold of my nephews’ sunglasses, mine were gone.
Suddenly the joy of the trip evaporated and I fell into despair. My sunglasses had been purchased on a recent trip to Italy and were of great sentimental and monetary value. I was devastated by their loss and we quickly retraced our steps back inside the mosque, hoping to find them lying on the carpeted floor. Sadly, our search was in vain.
By now, my despair had turned to desolation and as we walked back towards my parents, I realised my reaction was rooted in something deeper than the loss of an accessory. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether my loss was the result of karmic payback for some wrongful deed. This thought percolated in my mind (although I didn’t share it), as I relayed events to my parents. I was particularly frustrated that even though I had been carrying my nephews’ sunglasses (which were of no value to them), it was my pair which slipped through my fingers. My parents listened attentively to my tale of woe and when I’d finished, my father gave a deep sigh and concluded “God knows best”.
This innocent remark unleashed an avalanche of fury as I exploded with emotion, questioning how God could possibly think my loss was for the “best”. I had come to a holy site hoping for a spiritual encounter, only to be confronted with loss and pain. What kind of a reward was this for seeking God? Furthermore, I had selflessly helped my sister by taking care of my nephews when I could happily have left them to their own devices as I wandered around alone. But what really pained me was that even though I had been carrying three pairs of sunglasses, it was my pair, which dropped from my hands. I was incensed and after making my point vociferously, burst into tears.
I knew my reaction was puerile and hysterical, but I’m ashamed to admit it was genuine. I felt singled out and targeted by God, which left me with a discernible sense of rejection. I couldn’t accept that this was nothing more than an everyday occurrence rooted in carelessness or oversight. For me, it was significant and symbolic and I felt I was being punished by God for some misdemeanour.
My family watched my outburst in undisguised horror and each tried to comfort me. My father immediately reached inside his jacket, pulled out his wallet and handed it to me. His face was crumpled in pain and his eyes full of sorrow as he implored me to rush to the nearby bazaar and buy a replacement. He offered no judgment at my over-reaction over such a trivial matter and his only concern was to comfort me and banish my tears. Even today, I can picture his face at that moment, emanating fatherly love and anguish that his precious and beloved child was hurt.
I turned to my mother who mirrored my father’s pain and as I peered at them through my tears, I noticed their eyes were ablaze with love and protectiveness. It suddenly occurred to me that the love I was witnessing was not their love, but the love of God. They were being used as vessels to channel God’s love. An unconditional and non-judgmental love, which stopped at nothing to ease my pain and restore my good spirit. This realisation had a sobering effect on me and I quickly dried my tears and pulled myself together. We all had a good chuckle over my infantile behaviour and went on to enjoy the remainder of another wonderful family holiday.
As we left Istanbul, I reflected on that episode and noted it only for the intense spiritual encounter with God. I had gone to the Blue Mosque hoping for a spiritual experience and had been swept away by the walk in My Father’s House. That, in itself was a sufficiently profound experience to keep me aglow, but God was not finished. There was more to come and when I dropped my sunglasses, God used that event to not just correct wrongful thinking about karmic payback and divine punishment, but also to demonstrate the intensity of A Father’s Love.
I often think back to Istanbul and am always struck by the ingenuity of God. In a sense I was singled out and targeted, but only in the most magnificent way. I realised the loss of my sunglasses was a sacred offering which drew me closer to God, but even more importantly, revealed a greater truth which I would come to understand more fully, years later. It was the importance of suspending judgement about an event when it’s unfolding and to wait and allow the passage of time to reveal the truth. The loss of my sunglasses caused me pain and anguish, but it was momentary and eventually gave way to experiencing the ferocity of God’s love.
I recognised that far from being singled out as punishment or rejection, I had been caught in God’s loving embrace and that ironically my father had been right, after all. God did know best.
There is a post-script to this story, which took place ten years later in Nicosia, North Cyprus. Only God in His infinite wisdom can know the full meaning behind events and the connection between Istanbul and Nicosia. However, I invite you to read Reunion in Nicosia and draw your own conclusions.