In the months that followed that traumatizing Tuesday in 2001, when the world was transitioning to a different place, I attempted to control what I could. I stockpiled distilled water. Hid cash around my house. Kept my children close. Keeping it up was utterly exhausting. At night, I drank too much wine and cried a lot.
A few days after the attacks, I joined friends and hundreds of strangers in a nearby town, trying to keep a small flame alive in a candle lighting service. I turned to my own faith – Judaism - by attending services at my synagogue to seek wisdom and perspective. These had been meaningful and inspiring. But I was impatient: I wanted to make sense out of seemingly senseless acts.
Weeks later, the sting becoming a continuous throb, I found myself saying yes to my friend and neighbor Afsaneh when she suggested a spur-of-the-moment road trip to a Catholic shrine just a few hours north. For years, Affie, who was Muslim and born in Iran, had been telling me, a Reform Jew, and our mutual friend and neighbor, Sean, an Evangelical Christian, about a beautiful and mysteriously magnificent place that made an easy day trip from our block with several great lunch spots on the way, she had added, to sweeten the deal.
She had the right audience. Though we practiced different faiths, Affie, Sean and I were mothers of similarly aged children who not only shared the same street, but an interest in things spiritual. I figured this was a chance for a rare, mid-week escape. And escape was something I had not yet tried.
When we arrived on that Wednesday morning at Holy Hill, Afsaneh steered us to a small chapel adjacent to the main sanctuary. A beautifully lit image of Mary and baby Jesus filled the room. Wordlessly, we went our separate ways. I became absorbed in a pamphlet describing the artful, historical and cultural significance of the place. And then, I was ready to move. But Sean was kneeling in silent prayer. Afsaneh was lighting a candle. I thought about leaving and meeting up with them later, but something kept me there.
I couldn’t possibly feel comfortable enough to pray here, I thought to myself. It’s so unfamiliar to me. If I was going to pray outside of my synagogue, then let it be outside in nature.
I wriggled nervously on my bench, wondering what to do. I watched as visitors entered the chapel, their faces softening as they looked around. A palpable and serene energy filled the space. The sight of people lost in private prayer was very moving. Then, suddenly, without warning, my body stopped moving and I fell into a deep, serene and comfortable quiet. I found myself in meditative prayer. We were there for a long while.
As we headed back to Afsoneh’s minivan, I felt that something remarkable had just occurred, something more than three mothers on a day trip. I felt peaceful. For the first time in weeks, it just felt like everything would be okay.
Our small adventure had elevated a road trip and turned it into an accidental interfaith pilgrimage. We had prayed together as Christian, Muslim and Jew in a Catholic shrine, a holy place that was not our own, beyond our comfort zone. As we moved around in that little chapel, we were peacefully and freely exercising our shared belief in God. I felt strangely hopeful that people with different faiths could find moments like this, together. We may have been three mothers from the North Shore of Chicago, but we had created a small pocket of peace.
Several months after our trip to Holy Hill, I was on a plane with my 10-year-old daughter returning to Chicago from a family reunion. As I woke from a long doze, I heard her chatting with our seatmate, a mother of three from Boston. They were comparing religions. My daughter, who had just begun Jewish Sunday School, was sharing interesting facts about Judaism. The woman, a Christian, was sharing bits about hers. The woman said she had visited Jerusalem because it was considered a holy place to pray. My daughter became very animated over this new information, tugging at my shirtsleeve, trying to fully awaken me. “Mom, did you know that Christians call Jerusalem their Holy Place too, just like Jews? I didn’t know that,” she said.
I couldn’t help notice that a peaceful, interfaith dialogue was taking place, creating another small unifying and healing moment, this time, high above the clouds in a commercial airplane.
Ellen Blum Barish
(A version of this essay was originally published in North Shore Magazine, June 2002.)
Time Out: The Spiritual Nature of Iftar
Ramadan is a period of fasting from sun-up to sun-down that devout Muslims observe for one month of each year. Over the years, I’ve had many people react with shock and awe at this information with big eyes and an incredulous look: You don’t eat anything from sun up to sundown? Nothing? Not even water?
I always have to chuckle because I guess it really is something that may seem unusual to others – as it once did to me before I became a Muslim.
The breaking of the fast each day is an experience of worship and gratitude. Iftar is the word describing the meal eaten at sundown when Muslims break their fasts. Muslims are commanded to fast in verse Sura Al Baqarah (2:183). In the Quran, we are told, “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may have piety and righteousness.”
My first experience with iftar came in the year that I became a Muslim when I spent the first couple of weeks of my first Ramadan in the small Turkish city called Izmit. I am very lucky that my first iftar was in a Muslim country because I feel that I truly was able to see how much importance people placed on the month in general, and on iftar in particular. In most villages, towns, and cities, people observe the month of fasting and the additional prayer sessions as well. Experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim country was a wonderful opportunity for me to fully understand such a collective act of worship.
My first year, the things that stand out so much in my mind were the long days (it was June), and how hot and dry it was. I remember feeling so full after just a few bites of food or a simple bowl of soup, but food never tasted so good. It was the first time in my life that I experienced deep hunger and that measure of the need for patience. It made me remember all of the times growing up that I heard about how lucky we were compared to the children starving in Africa. Hunger, I learned, could truly be difficult, but we were blessed with a meal at the end of each day that others in the world could not count on. I was also fascinated with how, just before sundown, the neighborhood that I could watch down over from my mother in law’s balcony, would empty completely as if someone waved a wand. Children scattered, and others scurried home to wait for the Athan (call to prayer) that can be heard from mosques all over the town after which it was time to break the fast. Everyone had endured a mutual struggle, and all are prepared for a collective release and relief: the iftar.
During those long days, “killing time” for me was definitely a priority. It sounds funny to say in a way, but it was a way to deal with this difficult personal challenge called hunger. I found ways to pass the time from sleeping to preparing food slowly and methodically - (peeling potatoes 20 minutes, check; wash lettuce, 15 minutes, check). On more than one occasion, I passed time by slicing watermelon and then removing every single seed for easy eating. Everyone around me thought I was a little nuts, but it helped to pass the time. I’ve learned since then that the eating part is the least important, and that sustenance in moderation is the key to the meaning of Ramadan.
In preparation of the iftar meal, it is not necessary to spend hours in the kitchen preparing a “feast.” That time is better spent in worship during the month. The point of the fast and iftar is that God provides us with what we need, but first we learn to control our desires. The meaning of this daily meal during Ramadan becomes a vivid reminder of the need to be grateful and appreciate food as a blessing beyond its obvious benefits.
Insights While Swimming
Do you get any insights while you are swimming? For a moment, the question seemed to just sit there in the middle of the table at Café Roma in Berkeley, California where the morning lap-swimmers gathered for coffee. The unexpected question stilled us into remembering as each of us admitted that yes, this experience of insight was a part of our own swimming experience. Sometimes the knowing that came to us in swimming was a mundane reminder of a task unfinished – the cat’s litter box not cleaned, a bill gone unpaid, a promised telephone call not made, an email postponed and not returned. But there is more. Most of us have also experienced the insight of finding a way forward where there had seemed to be no way – a way through conflict in a relationship, an understanding of a dilemma at work, an approach to a dreaded future appointment.
In some inexplicable way the repetitive lift of arms and head, the regular breathing in and out through mouth and nose, the legs kicking and the body moving itself through the water and through the rhythm of lap-swimming, allows deeper truths to be understood. It is as if the knot that has grown tight within me is loosened by the repetitive motion. As the knot eases, I am freed to hear what was there all along. For me, sometimes it has been the voice of God’s own Spirit speaking within my body but gone unheard because of the rising volume of my own fears or life’s endless distractions.
When I began journaling after a long time away from this practice, I usually exercised before I wrote. Beginning my journaling with physical exercise seemed to relax the muscles in my shoulders and back, giving me more room to breathe. Usually filled with thoughts that seemed trapped within my head, I was able from the beginning to let thoughts and feelings flow to my hand and onto the page with an ease that surprised me. I still find that if I exercise before I begin a spiritual discipline such as journaling, I am more present to myself and my feelings and better able to listen to the movement of God’s Spirit within me.
From “Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God Through Attentive Writing”
Chapter Six “Listening Beyond Words”