Saturday, 27 August
This is the last weekend of Ramadan. Excitement is at a high pitch as people make their final preparations for Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday of feasting. Either Monday or Tuesday night, insha-allah (God-willing) the first sliver of the new moon will be sighted at sunset. Thereupon begins a three day period of resting, celebrating, and visiting friends and families. Businesses shut down. Great piles of sweet pastries and sweet juices will be consumed. Presents will be exchanged. And everyone will bid a bittersweet good-bye to this demanding, but strangely alluring month.
I am not eager to end the fast. I am VERY eager to get home to Monica, the kids, and normal life, but this experience has cast a spell on me. I talked about this to some of my friends here, and they just smiled knowingly. Ramadan is not a burden to Muslims, it is a gift. How do I make sense of this? Fasting in Christian tradition is almost completely identified with penance. We fast to purge ourselves of sin, of bad habits, or to recall somber days in the life of Jesus and the Church.
But the Ramadan fast is about solidarity. During the day, one fasts to be in solidarity with the poor. One fasts to be in solidarity with all Muslims the world over, the “Ummah,” or community. One fasts knowing that every Muslim in the world is enduring the same pangs of hunger and thirst, the same gripping fatigue in the afternoon. And then, at sundown, there is solidarity in giving thanks to God: a shared magical moment of sipping cool water and taking a bite of ripe fruit. I never, ever knew what it meant to give thanks until this profound visceral experience. It was no less intense tonight than it was on the first night. There is solidarity in hearing together the recitation of the Quran, which is read aloud in its entirety during Ramadan in homes and mosques. And there is solidarity in increased attention to prayer, and to friends and families.
Don’t worry my friends. I am not about to become a Muslim! I can no more leave my Christian faith than I could renounce my own mother. But I do so wish we had something like this unity of purpose, this shared mix of struggle and celebration. Jesus on his final night prayed that we all might be one. We have made a total hash of that prayer, and Muslims are not shy in pointing this out. What would a common shared experience look like for us? Could Lent or Advent ever become something like Ramadan? Could they become less of the “give a little something up” or the “get ready for Christmas” jokes that they are, and become more real, more visceral, more joyful? I wonder.
As I sit writing this, I am actually tearing up. I have fallen in love with this comely experience called Ramadan, and now I must soon leave it. Even standing on the outside as I have, not able to enter the experience of prayer in mosques or to comprehend the beautiful reciting of the Quran, I have nevertheless enjoyed deep spiritual refreshment like none I’ve ever had before.
Next year, Ramadan begins in July. That means Ramadan will fall at the end of our family vacation and into August. Could I do Ramadan on my own? Could I awaken at 3:30 for As-suhour without a muezzin blasting me out of bed? Could I sit and watch the kids eat pancakes on the Whitefield Common and not eat anything, not drink that fabulous coffee? Could I hike up a mountain with the family on an empty stomach and no water? Would it be the same experience alone? Would God be as present in that as God has been present in this? Will I have to come back to the Middle East to have this experience again?