As Ramadan draws to a close, Muslims begin to look back in reflection on the month of fasting. Each day, from sunrise until sunset, Muslims refrain from food and drink to commemorate Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran.
Once the sun sets, the daily fast comes to an end and the nightly meal, Iftar, begins. Do you know what to expect at an Iftar?
1. Arrive on time
Iftar is a regular breaking of the fast, and occurs exactly at the time of the sunset. If you happen to arrive late, you may miss the most important part of this Islamic tradition. So don’t do that!
2. Expect a crowd
Community is an important part of Ramadan. Breaking the fast and sharing food strengthens bonds between family and friends. Iftar is often a chance for people to host each other in their homes or gather together for a potluck in a local mosque.
3. Enjoy great food
Since Iftar translates from Arabic as “break fast,” you would be right to guess that the main event at a gathering is eating food. Following the tradition set by the prophet Mohammed, the fast is typically broken with dates and water. Be ready for lots of snacks, drinks, and sometimes even full course meals, but don’t start eating until the crowd breaks fast together.
Caring for others is a central theme of Ramadan. Some Muslims choose to give Iftar to others as a demonstration of this theme. The Islamic religious texts teach that blessings and rewards await those who show kindness to others, especially during Ramadan.
5. Prayer is prevalent
Shortly after breaking the fast with dates and water, Muslims pray the Maghrib. This is one of the five daily prayers recited throughout the year. Immediately following Iftar, Muslims recite additional night prayers called Tarawih. These prayers take place either in a mosque or the home, and sometimes last up to two hours.
6. The last breaking of the fast
After Ramadan comes to an end, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Fast Breaking. In the spirit of each nightly Iftar, this festival marks an end to the month of fasting. Though the festival takes different forms across the Muslim world, the day of Eid marks the end of one of the important five pillars of Islam, Ramadan, alongside faith, prayer, charity, and the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
On an unknown date between the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. a son was born to a king and queen just below the Himalayan foothills somewhere between the Indian-Nepalese border. The infant was named Siddhartha Gautama, “Siddhartha” meaning “he who achieves his aim.” The infant’s mother, the queen, died within a week of her baby’s birth.
After the queen’s passing, the king desired predictions about his infant son’s future and was told by sages that the child would grow up to either be a king or a spiritual leader. The king wanted his Siddhartha to become a king. In order to ensure that would happen, he took great measures to protect him from the realities of the world by secluding him in a palace and showering him with worldly pleasures. Though Siddhartha lived a very naïve and sheltered life, he was trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, running, and anything that would prepare him to become a strong, brave and noble king.
It is believed that Siddhartha married around the age of sixteen and continued to live a protected, secluded life for an additional thirteen years. He and his wife, whom he affectionately called Gopa, had one child, a son.
In his late 20’s everything changed for Siddhartha when he finally convinced his father to allow him to venture beyond the palace walls. It was then that he first encountered a very old man. The princes’ charioteer explained to him that all men grow old. This new information enticed the prince to learn more about the outside world and he continued to arrange trips beyond the palace. Before long he had encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic, one who practices extreme forms of self-discipline. Siddhartha’s charioteer explained to him each condition of life. The prince was overcome by his new awareness of suffering and death. That very night he left the palace, his wife, and his child and rode far away, cut his long hair with his sword and replaced his fine clothing with that of an ascetic.
For six years he practiced the ascetic discipline, denying himself the most basic of indulgences such as food and water nearly to the point of death. This he did in an effort to better understand human suffering and to discover the meaning of life. During this time, he also investigated beliefs of all kinds and immersed himself in meditation and study. He was so dedicated to the ascetic lifestyle that five other ascetics with whom he practiced became his devout followers. Despite his passionate commitment to seek for answers, Siddhartha was disappointed when he couldn’t find what he was looking for.
One day, a young girl offered him a bowl of rice and Siddhartha accepted. He ate the rice, drank water and bathed in the Nairanjana river. His actions disenchanted his five followers who promptly left him. From his experience as an ascetic, he learned that a balance should be sought instead of a life of extremism. This lifestyle he called the “middle way,” or the “middle path.”
Siddhartha, still determined to find life’s meaning and having exhausted all outside methods for the answers he sought, sat beneath the Bodhi tree and finally looked within himself. After many days of intense meditation, he discovered enlightenment and became Buddha, or “the one who is awake.” He had finally found that everything he had been looking for had always been present and was accessible to anyone. For many weeks he basked in the liberating tranquility of his sacred experience and did not attempt to tell anyone. He felt that what had happened could not be fully described through words. Legend has it that Brahma, the king of the gods, encouraged him to try to share what he had learned, and so he did.
He began to teach others what are known as the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. He also shared three important realizations about reality 1) Everything is impermanent with the exception of Nirvana, which is a transcendent state free of suffering, desire and a sense of self. 2) The self doesn’t really exist. 3) Suffering results when people do not understand the first two realizations.
The 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path:
- Suffering exists.
- Suffering exists because of craving.
- Suffering can be ended.
- The eight-fold path is the way to end suffering:
- Right understanding
- Right intention
- Right action
- Right speech
- Right livelihood
- Right concentration
- Right mindfulness
- Right effort
Siddhartha Gautama spent the remaining forty-five years of his life teaching the Dharma, the name given to his teachings, and spreading it throughout northern India. His powerful example and influence live on today and is still leading people to experience enlightenment throughout the world. Buddhism is a beneficial practice that can easily coincide with most religious beliefs.
Linda Clyde is a devoted wife, proud mama, and a lover of uplifting things. A few of her favorite things: lasagna, farm animals, t-shirts and jeans, babies, and notebooks—lots and lots of notebooks.
I am on my way to a Passover Seder at Brigham Young University. Sponsored by the program in Religious Education, the occasion garners enormous interest. A friend tells me that I had better sign up early because it always sells out.
I have heard about the event for years — mostly from my students at the University of Utah, where I teach literature and Jewish Studies. It always sounded quirky and interesting, but now that I am writing a book entitled “Holy Envy and the Jewish-Christian Borderzone,” I feel obliged to check it out.
These seders are held on a Friday night — Sabbath Eve. Already I discover that traveling into the border zone can entail discomforting choices; typically I don’t go anywhere on Friday nights, except to celebrate the Sabbath. But research calls. As the hour draws near, I find I am dragging my feet; I don’t want to go. Friday afternoon traffic is terrible; and once I get to BYU, I can’t figure out where the event is being held. I wander through enormous ballrooms until at last a student approaches, asking me what I am looking for. When I explain, he looks at me curiously and says, “Oh I’ll take you, but why are you going? You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” How does he know? I am not wearing a yarmulke, or anything else that betrays my identity. But somehow my “otherness” blares.
I walk into a small ballroom filled with long tables and not an empty seat in sight. Over a hundred people are looking towards the front of the room outfitted with a screen. The “seder’ is in progress. I am about to take a seat along the wall, planning simply to be a spectator or silent witness, when a woman hurries up to me, pointing towards a seat at the table. Now I’m in for it. I sit next to Clayton, one the best-behaved 10-year-olds I’ve ever met. The rest of the table nods and turns back to the PowerPoint presentation on “Passover at the time of Gamliel and Jesus” (Second Temple Judaism holds special appeal for Mormons, who see themselves as inheriting and extending the Temple tradition). I find myself thinking, “Okay, the Seder as a museum — a bit off-putting, but nothing terribly objectionable.”
Then the leader announces that the “lecture’ is over, the seder itself will begin, and dons a yarmulke. I begin to get nervous and find myself desperately scrawling a list of all the things I have to do before Pesach really begins: kasher the silverware, clean out all the chametz (leavened foods), muttering to myself “I don’t just visit Pesach, I live there.”
The leader tells the group to pour “two fingers” of “wine” (grape juice, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol) and proceeds to say the bracha (the blessing) in Hebrew: a non-Jew prays to the Jewish God as part of a performance. Looking back over my notes I see that I have scrawled, “This isn’t yours, it’s mine!” This is probably the moment when I feel most deeply estranged, longing to be at my own Shabbat table; the border zone can be a cold, lonely place, saturated with loss.
And then I hear the leader explaining that the salt water in which we are to “swirl” our parsley symbolizes the tears of the Egyptian mothers mourning their sons lost in waves of the Red Sea. It is a moving interpretation, a wonderful drash, and new to me. Compassion for others, intuited by others. The border zone, it seems, can also be the site of new meaning.
It is time to eat. Clayton, who has waited patiently, tucks in. The rest of the table starts to pepper me with questions: “Do you know this all by heart?” “Have you been to a seder before — you seem to know what you are doing” (and here I thought I was being so discreet). “Is this what real seders are like?” I don’t dissemble, but after explaining that at my house seders are quite a bit noisier and messier, I begin to ask them about their own interest in attending. The answers are varied, but share a common theme: we identify with your story; we too struggled to be free; we too were oppressed; we too have food rituals. Listening to these responses, I start thinking about the limits of analogy. Is abstaining from alcohol or hot beverages in the Mormon tradition equivalent to not mixing meat and milk in the Jewish? And what about comparing a recent historical event — a grueling trek undertaken by nearly three thousand Mormons over a period of four years, pushing handcarts from the Midwest to Utah in search of religious freedom — to a mythic account chronicling more than two-hundred years of slavery brought to an end only by divine intervention?
Before I can reflect any further on such questions that arise when religions come in contact, I overhear my neighbor musing, “It is funny that the Jews don’t understand that Passover is really all about Jesus. After all, they were saved because of the Blood of the Lamb on the doorpost.” All night I have been vigilant, on guard for even a whisper of religious appropriation, and just when I start to relax … bam! There it is. The border zone threatens to become a combat zone. But before I am able to react, the leader announces that the “seder” meal will conclude with a blessing . . . and BYU’s signature mint brownies. Although efforts have been made not to serve leavened food, exceptions must be made — and, to Clayton’s delight, I give him mine.
Once the afikomen has been found (and redeemed for another brownie), the leader dramatically takes off his yarmulke, saying, “Now I want to tell you why YOU should care about the Passover seder.” I sit up straight, listening hard. He continues: “as you know, Jesus was a Jew. Many Christians don’t know this, but he was, and he celebrated Passover.” Gesturing towards an image of Jesus at a table with the apostles, the leader cites a verse from Luke: “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them saying: ‘This is my body, which is given to you.’ Seders, like this, help us build a bridge to our Jewish friends.” (Well, maybe…) The leader continues: “But more importantly, Jesus instituted the sacrament, and on this occasion, we gather to celebrate not just His resurrection but this time of redemption. For we know that Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith to sanctify the building of the first temple. He — Elijah — is with us.”
I look quickly at my neighbor (the same one who insisted that Passover is really all about Jesus) and, without my asking, he says: “In 1836, upstate New York, Elijah appeared in a vision.” Then the leader asks us all to stand to welcome Elijah: “for Christ has risen and redemption is at hand.” A student opens the door to the ballroom and we all turn in her direction. The leader raises the fourth cup — Elijah’s cup — the cup of redemption, which also signifies resurrection; and we are all silent. Utterly silent for a full minute, I twitch a bit, singing under my breath “Eliyahu hanavi…” (the hymn to Elijah). Then I give in to the silence. The seder is over. As we file out, I ask my neighbor (yes, the same guy) how he felt during that moment of ripe emptiness and fullness. He looks back, meeting my gaze, and says, “Holiness. I felt holiness.”
We say our goodnights. Walking out into the dark, I think of my own seders (and those of my friends), and how the moment when we open the door for Elijah is usually filled with awkward giggles; someone might move the table (as if at a séance), saying “oooh, do you think he is here?”; or someone’s uncle wearing a Santa Claus beard knocks at the door and enters to gales of laughter and song. If anyone believes — really believes — that the messiah might arrive, or even that it is the faintest of possibilities, they keep it to themselves. But now, thinking about that ballroom filled with such calm, sturdy faith, I get a taste of “holy envy,” knowing now what it means to experience spiritual lack.
On the way back to my own, “authentically” Jewish home, where my own Pesach preparations await, I find that I am emotionally spent. The Jewish Christian border zone is so very messy: disquieting, humbling, and well worth the trip.
Maeera Shreiber is Associate Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of Utah. She is the author of Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics and the forthcoming Holy Envy: Writing in the Jewish Christian Borderzone.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and it is a month in which Muslims abstain from food, water, and sexual relations with their spouses during the day in order to develop taqwa (closeness) with Allah. It also serves to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. It is a pillar of Islam and obligatory on all adult Muslims who are healthy enough to observe it.
“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during then] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.”
-Surah Baqarah 184-185
To understand why this month is an essential part of any Muslim’s life, it is important to first understand the significance of the word taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic word that translates into English as piety, consciousness of Allah, fear of Allah, or closeness to him. A better way of understanding it would be to combine all these concepts: being conscious that Allah sees all and that reverence towards our religion influences our everyday choices, which in turn brings us closer to Him.
During this time we are also encouraged to give zakat (charity), read the entire Quran, study at the masjid (Muslim place of worship), break our fasts with family and friends, and participate in nightly prayers known as tarawih prayer.
When we break our fasts together and give zakat we form a closer bond with our family and community. When we seek knowledge and perform tarawih it strengthens our relationship with Allah and gives us a better understanding of him. All of this is meant to remind us that our purpose on this Earth is to worship Allah.
We experience a renewed sense of spirituality that doesn’t just end when Ramadan is over. It carries on into the rest of the year as well. We are still tasked with seeking deeper knowledge of our religion, remaining charitable, and maintaining bonds with our family and community. Taqwa isn’t just in the heart, it is also supposed to reflect in our actions towards others.
There are almost 2 billion Muslims in the world and anywhere from 3 to 7 million in the United States, yet most Americans know almost nothing about their Muslim neighbors or the religion of Islam. I’m sure there are a lot of things you could learn about Islam or Muslims that would surprise—even delight—you. Here are a few to get the list started:
1. The Qur’an and the Bible share many of the same stories. Many non-Muslims are intrigued when they learn my six-year-old son, Eesa, is named after Jesus—“Eesa” is the Arabic translation for “Jesus.” His middle name is Jibreel – Arabic for ‘Gabriel’. And my younger son is named Mikael Suleman – yes, you guessed it: Michael Solomon. (On that note, did you know that “Allah” is simply Arabic for “The God”? We add “the” (which in Arabic is “Al” – Al-Lah) because our theology is fiercely monotheist. There is only One God—The God. Christian Arabs called God “Allah,” too!).
The names are important because they point to the same revered figures. Jesus and Solomon are prophets in Islam, and Gabriel and Michael are archangels. Of all the archangels, only Jibreel and Mikael are mentioned in the Qur’an, which makes clear their centrality to Islam: “Whoever is an enemy to God, and His angels and His messengers, and Jibreel and Mikael! Then, God (Himself) is an enemy to the disbelievers.” (2:98). There are, of course, some differences—the most obvious being the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ, whereas for Muslims Jesus is a prophet. But the similarities far outweigh the differences.
What is most important about sharing these stories is that they inform our religious principles and behavior. To share the stories means to share some very fundamental aspects of faith and faithful action.
2. Every year, Muslims are required to give away 2.5% of their assets in charity. This charity requirement is called zakat and it’s one of the five pillars of Islam, that is, one of the five most fundamental obligations a Muslim has to fulfill. Islamic scholars have determined eight categories of recipients eligible to receive zakat funds, including those who cannot meet their basic needs; those who do not have a means of livelihood (for instance, if someone lost their job); and those encumbered with overwhelming debt.
Besides the obligatory charity, there is also a major emphasis in Islam on voluntary charity—we’re advised to give as much as we can, and to not be showy or pompous in our giving (the Prophet Muhammad said something you may find in the Bible, too: charity should be given in secret, such that not even “your left hand should know what your right hand” gives). The Qur’an describes charitable giving as lending God a loan, which God promises in the Qur’an to multiply for us in the many blessings we know only come from Him. “Who is he that will lend to God a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is God that decreases or increases (your provisions), and unto Him you shall return.” (2:245)
3. Muslims fast—and feeding others is a huge part of our faith. Another fundamental pillar of Islam is the required Ramadan fast. During the month of Ramadan, which is a month on the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims around the world fast from dawn till dusk. During the summer, that means a Muslim may end up fasting 16 or more hours! This is particularly arduous since the fast requires that we abstain from food and drink. Yes, that includes water, too. The fast helps us detach ourselves from our bodily needs and turn inwards to contemplate the state of our soul.
But what’s really special about Ramadan is not the food we don’t eat—it’s all the food we are encouraged to give others. The month is enlivened by a level of socializing you don’t otherwise see. Muslims are eager to host dinner parties or sponsor the fast-breaking meal at the local mosque because God awards us abundantly for feeding a fasting person. So you may likely break bread with a whole group of other Muslims every single night of the month! And beyond the dinner parties are the ample opportunities to feed the poor, both at your local soup kitchens and by sending money abroad to third-world countries where hunger is unfortunately an epidemic.
There are so many aspects of my faith that help me rejoice in humanity. The generosity that flows so freely from my co-religionists all year, then is amped-up during Ramadan, shows me the goodness God cultivates in His followers. I hope you’ll take a moment to talk to your Muslim neighbors about some of the fundamental pillars of Islam, and share some of your practices, too.
Asma Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also a lawyer and scholar specializing in American and international religious liberty.
Did you know the United States has an annual National Day of Prayer? Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can participate this year on Thursday, May 3. In fact, you may have been participating in small, daily ways already.
What is The National Day of Prayer?
The National Day of Prayer comes each spring, and has ever since 1952, when President Harry S. Truman declared it law. In 1988, the law was amended to appoint the first Thursday in May the official date of celebration. The amended law was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who said:
“From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”
People of many religions honor the day, including Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Some gather to pray in houses of worship, and others celebrate with food, music, and time together.
This year, the theme is “Praying for America: Unity,” based on the scripture Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
How Can Each of Us Participate?
Our nation is divided, but goodness can still be found. In 2017, stories of light shone through the darkness which shrouded nearly every bit of news. In addition to praying for the unity we desperately need now, we can follow the examples of the people who inspired us.
Find Common Ground
Do you remember when a 22-year-old rapper from Harlem and an 81-year-old grandmother from Florida became friends after competing in 324 rounds of an online crossword puzzle? Spencer Sleyon agreed to play a Words With Friends game with a random opponent. Over a year later, he and Rosalind “Roz” Guttman were still playing and had become real-life pals. They met in person in December of 2017, when Spencer traveled to Roz’s hometown.
Speak Well of Others
When Senator John McCain announced his brain tumor diagnosis last summer, fellow politicians—including some who opposed him in the past—rallied to offer support and encouragement.
Former president Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election said, “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
Help Someone in Need
Around the same time last summer, nine swimmers, including an entire family of six, were trapped in the current at Panama City Beach in Florida. Beach-goers spotted them and rushed to the rescue. No one could do it alone, however. So a reported 70 to 80 strangers held hands and formed a human chain that stretched from the sand to the swimmers, who all survived.
On this year’s National Day of Prayer, we can each do something to build unity in the United States. Whether it is through prayer, friendship, kind words, or service, your part will make a difference. How will you celebrate?
Over the years I’ve traveled to portions of the Navajo Nation a number of times. This piece of the American southwest is both beautiful and evocative. Long mesas, red rock pinnacles, and a unique mixture of old and new: trading posts and modern convenience stores; elders in velveteen and turquoise and their grandchildren focused on their I-phones; radio advertisements in both Navajo and English. The geography, the customs, the people all make the place sacred.
I am an Anglo Christian of Latter-day Saint persuasion and recognize the limitations of my observations. Navajo spirituality tricks me. I think I’ve grasped an insight only to see it change shape and point elsewhere. It is in the works of art that impressions hold together. Spirit and matter are joined.
I’m fortunate to own two Navajo rugs. One is of the Two Grey Hills style, named for the region in New Mexico where it originated close to a hundred years ago. These rugs are known for their natural colors — gray and brown hues, cream, white and black — their very tight weave, and their intricate patterns. At the center of this rug is a serrated diamond; seven borders in alternating colors and different edge designs radiate outward. In each corner are triangles, squares and terraced steps of different colors. A white zigzag line runs down the edge of the rug, just inside a surrounding black border. The entire rug is a perfect symmetry of numerous combinations of geometric designs and colors. When folded together, the corners or edges will match perfectly. Amazingly, weavers use no predetermined patterns or outlines. The design and detail of the rug is in each individual weaver’s mind.
The other rug (a different style) was made by a Navajo woman now in her nineties who completed the weaving in very traditional fashion. She raised and cared for the sheep from which the wool came. After shearing the sheep, she washed and carded the wool, spun it into yarn, dyed it with natural ingredients, and prepared the loom. Then the weaving began. While most rugs now are made of commercial yarns, the same levels of skill and patience are required in the weaving. The design is revealed through long hours (days, weeks, even months) spent running horizontal wefts of colored wool through precisely-spaced vertical warp cords. One expert has said that “weaving requires a unique combination and coordination of conceptual and manual skills.”
The Navajo woman who made the second rug knows her sheep like her own family. When she married as a young girl in 1936, she was given twelve sheep. Decades later, she can still trace her current sheep back to those original twelve. Incredibly, some of those came from sheep her grandparents obtained when they returned to their native lands after the Navajo Long Walk from Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the late 1860’s.
I marvel at Navajo rugs — the beauty and art, the craft and history. For me, they also reflect two elements of a Navajo worldview I particularly admire: symmetry and sacred homeland.
Symmetry. To appreciate their meaning, one must look often at Navajo rugs like these two. There is a complexity and a completeness not noticed at first glance. Repeated views reveal not only new designs and combinations of colors and patterns; there is also a wholeness to be grasped, a harmony to experience. The balance, order, and symmetry — touchstones in a Navajo worldview — are extraordinary. “The Gods designed this world to be a beautiful, harmonious, happy and healthy place. To be maintained, beauty needs to be expressed and renewed in ritual, song, art, speech, dress and daily living.” Such is a Navajo rug — individual creativity and cultural patterns that produce something beautiful, good, harmonious, and symmetrical.
Even older weavers, whose trembling hands or failing eyesight won’t allow for perfect lines or straight edges, still envision in their minds beautifully balanced and proportioned weavings. An aspiration and reflection of the lives they have lived. Such equilibrium in life reminds me of how Jesus would have me live.
Sacred Homeland. I think of those generations of sheep that link my rug to the joyous, distressing and necessary Navajo migration back to their homeland, a homeland surrounded by the four sacred mountains. The land was given to them by deities after they emerged from various underworlds. (Several other indigenous tribes have emergence and migration narratives, being led to sacred lands.) The wool for the rug is connected to earth, as are the plants from which the dye is made to color the wool. The connectedness and symmetry achieved in making a rug also exists in all things. The earth is “a living, breathing entity in an animate universe. The land with its water, plants, and animals is a spiritual creation.”
In my own religious tradition, we do not separate matter from spirit. The Navajo worldview takes this thought further and helps me appreciate even more a statement from early church leader Brigham Young. “There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and, in short, in every description and organization of matter.”
Much can be learned from a rug.
Val Edwards is a retired public relations professional and outdoor enthusiast living in southern Utah.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.
 I am indebted to Gary Witherspoon and his clear thinking and understanding, especially as found in “Self-Esteem and Self-Expression in Navajo Weaving,” Plateau, Vol. 52, No. 4.
 Robert S. McPherson, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 1992), 11.
In Judaism, or certainly in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to imitate, much less envy, the ways of the gentiles, a name we give to those outside our faith. So when Krister Stendhal, the late Bishop of Stockholm, urged believers to look for the admirable in other religions, I did not entirely know what to make of it. Does my own faith, the one true faith if I’m right, lack something? Did God give other peoples better ways to serve Him?
These questions do not preoccupy me unduly. But there is one thing I particularly admire. It is, perhaps, the simplest religious act of all.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” In America, a country whose religious culture is shaped by Christian ways of worship, it is the child kneeling by the bedside that often comes to mind when I think of prayer. This is so despite the fact that I recite the prescribed Jewish prayers three times a day. For Ultra-orthodox Jews, who are more insular, the dominant culture’s images play far less a role in shaping their religious imagination. But, for me, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who, in my youth, consumed the same books, movies, television shows as my fellow citizens, the image of the child knelt in prayer is strong.
What does this act of kneeling mean? To kneel is to humble oneself. It is to show reverence. Submission. Sometimes it is to beg. Other times it is to surrender to overwhelming pain. One story I will never forget is of a great rabbi who, upon hearing that his wife of many years had passed away, fell to his knees in grief, sobbing and wrapping his arms around God’s ankles, as it were. Perhaps being on one’s knees is so compelling because it is not always a voluntary act, but an involuntary expression of being physically, emotionally, or spiritually destitute.
In Judaism, we take kneeling very seriously. In ancient times, this act took place at the Temple in Jerusalem when, on the holiest of days, the high priest pronounced the ineffable name of God. Nowadays, we reserve kneeling (and bowing down from our knees) for a few moments during the High Holidays, especially in the part of the liturgy that recounts the Temple scene. But never besides then. In refraining from kneeling at all other times, in prayer and not, we demonstrate that nothing equates to the Temple experience. Indeed, depending on the flooring of the synagogue, we often put down a cloth or paper towel to avoid incidentally touching down on a marble or even wood surface.
Moreover, during the holiest prayers in our liturgy, including our daily recitals, we stand fully erect, feet together, in imitation of the angels who are said to appear to have only one leg (like our two legs together) and no knees. So, kneeling in prayer is not only rare for Jews but also not necessarily our most sanctified stance.
And yet—and yet—when I am feeling most humble (not often, to be sure) or desperate (not often, either, thank God) or praiseful (working on that one), I feel the urge to kneel. I don’t do it, but I almost wish I could. At those times, I am slightly jealous of my Catholic friends who kneel each week (or day) at Mass. We Jews are ever mindful of the fact that worship is not just a function of the mind and the lips, but of one’s entire being. We regularly enact the Psalmist’s image “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee” (Psalms 35:10) by swaying back and forth as we pray. It is a characteristically Jewish image — somewhat like the Evangelical Protestant with outstretched arms, hands high in the air — a trademark of our faith that is alien to all others.
So, it is not that my tradition is insensitive to praying with one’s whole self — with heart, soul, and might devoted in concert to God. Rather, it is being schooled in a faith that values embodied worship and at the same time in a culture that has powerful depictions of knelt prayer that may explain why I am tempted to take a knee from time to time. Spontaneously. Or perhaps the urge to kneel before God is built into our nature as humans, and the God of Israel disciplines us to genuflect only before Him in His house.
As an Orthodox Jew, I will continue to kneel only in the holiest of moments and places. As God would have me do. But whenever I behold seekers of divine comfort drop to their knees in prayer, I will still be moved to a spiritual solidarity that makes this world a humbler place.
Daniel Mark is a professor of political science at Villanova University and currently a visiting fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as the Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.
“So what exactly is Shrove Tuesday?” my sister texted me on February 13th this year. While many people were preparing to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many people the world over were stuffing their faces with pancakes. Shrove Tuesday, also known as “the feast before the fast” signifies the gathering of Christian communities in homes and church basements across the globe to break bread before the forty days of Lenten fast that proceed Easter.
Having been raised largely in the Mennonite tradition, Shrove Tuesdays, Ash Wednesday services and the practices of a prolonged Lenten fast preceding Easter were unfamiliar to me before my university days. While I would often reflect on the story of Easter celebrated by Christians every spring, there was really very little sustained meditation on preparing one’s heart for Easter.
This year was different. I attended a Shrove Tuesday dinner in the basement of my new church. Hemmed in on each side by congregants from every stage of life, I devoured homemade pancakes prepared cheerfully by our clergy. At my table sat a young mother, an older man with a story of ongoing homelessness, young professionals and for a brief time the Pastor’s wife. The next morning I rolled out of bed for the 7:00am prayer service marking Ash Wednesday, a penitential service that signals the beginning of the season of fasting that precedes Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
Before we celebrate the sacrifice of our Saviour we must first remember the agony, we must first repent; we must first understand what it is to do without in our own small way. Lining up behind congregants, I bowed my head as the curate made the sign of the cross, repeating softly “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I’ll be honest -this Lent, this doing without, that dust the curate talked about, all seem very apt in the anticipatory season that precedes Easter. In this Lenten season, the world does indeed seem dark and close to crumbling with great specificity to dust. It’s nothing and everything all at once. The dust seems visible to me through the shadow of the grave of which I am reminded as an acquaintance mourns the brutally slow loss of his mother to brain cancer and news of yet another bloody school shooting is splashed across the newspaper one morning. The dust rises in the seeming ashes of a dream as my friend cries across from me into her half eaten lunch. All she wants is a baby and new life seems impossible. Dust comes to me in the form of dust motes that slip through the air as I muffle sobs of my own as those dear to me describe a seemingly irreparable relationship. What to do with all of this space and sadness? Dust seems almost merciful in light of these losses.
Yet, I find myself thinking, perhaps herein lies the message of Lent and Easter: That redemption, hope fulfilled and comfort all begin within the presence of darkness. Isn’t this what first drew me to the faith? Isn’t it what breathes life into me on my darkest days now? The promise that in the ashes of brokenness and impossible darkness, a light dawns over the resurrected world. For what is the hope of resurrection and restoration if not seen alongside what comes before?
This Easter, it was the long shadow of the cross to which I looked to, baptizing my view of all that has gone before and all that is to come. As we in the Christian tradition broke the fast and celebrated the miracle of our Saviour restored and returned once again to live among us, I prayed for new eyes to see all that God is creating from the dust. As my eyes continue to catch on the crumble, on the dust motes and the shadow of the grave, as I know they will, I’ll remind myself to remember that dust is not the end and that resurrection has the last word.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in the door of Christ the King United Church of Christ (UCC) in the fall of 2014. I just knew that I had to be in church, but I didn’t know where to go. My family and I had moved to St. Louis a year earlier, and it still felt like an unfamiliar place. When African-American teenager Mike Brown died on a street in Ferguson the previous month, just a few miles away from our house, I knew I needed a church community to help me mourn, to take this moment of fracture—both mine and that of the larger community—and nourish it into something new.
On the face of it, Christ the King was a lot like the church I had been a member of for 25 years in North Carolina. It was part of the same denomination, a liberal Protestant tradition that prided itself on advocating for progressive social causes, including women’s ordination. The minister at Christ the King, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, embodied what the UCC calls its “radical inclusiveness.” But my church back home, for all of its expansive outreach, consisted of a large, fairly traditional, white, affluent congregation in a college town. Christ the King, on the other hand, perched right next door to Ferguson, was small and strapped for money. And the congregation, at least the gathering I could see on Sunday mornings, was all African-American.
I’d like to say that this was an entirely comfortable transition. I’m a scholar of religious history and have taught and written about African-American Protestantism for over three decades. I have attended plenty of services in the black church tradition as a guest and observer. I knew about altar calls, shouting, and prayers that lasted twenty minutes. I even knew the words to some of the gospel songs.
It was harder to know what my whiteness might mean amid such raw racial fracture. But I was raw too, in my own way: I entered there in need of something I couldn’t even identify, an acknowledgment of feeling and experience, that I hadn’t found in the predominantly white UCC churches in town that I’d visited. I came not as an expert ready to interpret this experience, but as someone hurt and angry and in need, both for myself and for this new place I wanted to call home.
What did I find? I found a willingness to talk openly about the gaping wounds in our city that divided us by race. I heard a call for love enmeshed with a vivid and persistent thirst for justice. I saw a community that opened its doors to all-comers, including a homeless man who occasionally showed up and even interrupted the service a few times—and I saw his cries met with attention and acceptance. I met a congregation that didn’t find it weird to see a lone white woman showing up week after week; they just kept right on hugging me.
Most of all, I discovered at Christ the King an astounding mix of joy and pain, both of which were embraced and welcomed in. It is a church that can hold it all because it has to. One sunny Sunday morning we gathered outside the sanctuary after the service with over 100 red and black balloons. As Rev. Blackmon spoke the names of all the victims of gun violence in St. Louis over the past year, we let them sail away into the air. She then asked others to name loved ones who had been shot and killed. At least two dozen people in the gathering identified family and friends lost. So much grief to bear.
Yet it’s the joy and love that nourish people. There’s a lot of great music, and plenty of potlucks after church. And there is a great deal to celebrate: weddings, births, graduations. We take time during the service to praise the young people who are achieving remarkable things and getting good jobs. Sometimes I get antsy when the service goes past the two-hour mark or when the choir launches yet another verse. I’m never convinced I like the keyboard playing in the background during the prayers. None of this is the “white” Protestant tradition in which I was raised, where you felt self-conscious coughing out loud during the service.
Is this holy envy? Close, but not exactly. It’s more of a fellowship of the heart. Christ the King isn’t a typical “black church” any more than there is one typical “white church.” But I do think there is a lot that many white Protestants could learn about loving and living together in community from their brothers and sisters in African-American Protestant traditions. How to hold and share deep pain and profound joy, and most often both at the same time. How to sing and pray as if your life depended on it. How to welcome whoever God brings through the door.
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.
As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, faith counts every second of my day. Many people these days are prepared to (over)share nearly every aspect of their lives, from what they eat for breakfast to who they go home with after dinner. Yet for most millennials, being open to talking about the faith is not a part of this culture of oversharing.
Oversharing my faith led me to both a beautiful transatlantic friendship and a professional failure. As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, my conversion was met with both blessings and challenges. The zeal of a convert can be an inspiring thing– from sparking new relationships to deepening current ones. On a snowy February day three years ago, I ran into a woman I vaguely recalled meeting briefly the day before. She was a Hungarian research fellow spending the semester in Washington. We spent six hours on a snowy day talking about Christianity. I opened up to this Hungarian woman about my faith journey- from my love of the church’s teachings on contraception and chastity to those on the Eucharist and confession, some which I embraced intellectually and spiritually and others which I was still struggling to accept. She wrote to me that night, about how our conversation had inspired her to consider her Christian faith. Three years later, that friend is now a Catholic woman, and I will be celebrating another sacrament with her at a wedding in Budapest this May. Somehow, the exuberance of this American Catholic did not scare away this Eastern European woman.
While the fervor of my faith led me making a friend over 4,500 miles away, there are also downsides of wearing my faith on my sleeve. In one particular case, my exuberance was met with hostility. Just after I was received into the Catholic Church, I started a new job in Washington. I was twenty-five, a newly minted Catholic, and excited about my next professional adventure. After a few months into my new position, apparently something Catholic I said at an event was reported to my boss. I was profoundly embarrassed by this anonymous feedback relayed to me at my brand new job. What did I say? Who did I say it to? What can I do? A few months and two complaints later, I felt utterly defeated. For the first time in my professional life, I was made to feel insecure about my faith. While my pre-conversion encounter earlier that year made a great impression on a total stranger, apparently this post-conversion work encounter made a terrible one. I began a period of soul-searching- do I have to change my personality? Put my passions on the backburner? Hide my faith?
Today, I no longer feel divided between my aspirations for professional success and spiritual sanctity. If you take the call to evangelization seriously– “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), we are all called to wear our faith on our sleeves. Christ calls us to carry our lantern alight with Truth wherever we go. And if we happen to be exuberant lantern-carriers, it will be difficult to hide the light we are carrying. While our profession of the faith will vary at different moments and in different stages of our lives–perhaps I don’t have the zeal of a convert that I had in the spring of 2015–we are indeed called to stand up for Truth and profess our Christian values in the public square. Through these trials that saints are made. We grow in humility, and although our lessons in humility might be painful, Christ first said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”