Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Walking with the Angels

Hajj, or “setting out with purpose,” is the fifth pillar of Islam. Known as the pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj is a journey that millions of Muslims across the globe dream to take. The essence of Hajj is to be granted forgiveness from God; its meanings are countless and its benefits far reaching. In October, I was blessed with the opportunity to undertake Hajj and learn from this experience. One of the unforgettable lessons is the depth of purpose that was driving these millions of individuals, and the place where I felt it manifested the most was during the tawaf, or “circling the ka’ba,” the first house built for the worship of God. As I joined the thousands of worshippers in the tawaf, I felt a sense of calm, safety, peace and serenity that I had never felt before. While performing this ritual, each was busy with individual, silent prayers: praising God, asking for His forgiveness and guidance, offering supplications to heal the sick and invoking His mercy. Praying among millions, my sense of self was reduced as my soul yearned to connect with The Creator. I could not but think of the planets’ counter-clockwise motion as I walked in this manner; I could not help but remember that the angels are engaged in the same movement around a House of worship in heaven. It was as though we were diving—in silence and total submission—into a state of utter love and awe to The Most High. As we finished the seventh round of the tawaf, I emerged from the depths of that state to recognize Hajj as a quest for knowledge and better understanding of myself, the world around me and, most of all, God, The Truth.

I remember when I first read about the tawaf in a memoir by a British-Muslim physician who was working in Saudi Arabia and decided to journey to Mecca for Hajj. Like you, Yasmina, she wrote about feeling like a small part of a larger whole while walking the seven circuits around the ka’ba: “As I looked up and surveyed the multistranded circle of humanity adorning the Ka’aba, a giant, rich choker of pilgrim pearls, I found myself among them. In this diversity, finally I belonged. Islam was many-faceted and I was simply one.”[1] My own experiences with rituals that involve moving in circles have been similar. As a bride under the wedding canopy circling the groom, I felt a sense of serenity and solitude—despite the presence of many family and friends—and a deep conviction that I was not only joining my life to my spouse’s life but also that we were connecting to God. The physical movement of these rituals, coupled with the “music” emanating from the surrounding souls, transports us to another realm.

How transformative Hajj, Yasmina! While I have not had the privilege of participating in such a major pilgrimage, I do share both your and Tziporah’s regard for ritual that, in solitude and serenity, binds us to God and to one another. For that reason, I take periodic retreats to a Benedictine monastery, where I spend several days in total silence, enveloped, as you describe, in the peace of God’s abiding presence and love. Many Christians are now reclaiming an ancient religious practice of walking a spiritual labyrinth, whose singular, yet maze-like, circular path alternately narrows and expands as one moves slowly to its center. Perhaps in imitation of early Christian pilgrimages, walking the labyrinth reminds us of the recurring patterns in our life’s journey and brings fresh revelation about submission, guidance, trust, and promise. Some place a pebble somewhere along the labyrinth’s path as a symbol of a burden being released to God or as an offering of thanks to God for mercy and forgiveness.  Even this “pilgrimage in microcosm” helps readjust a skewed human compass!

[1] Ahmed, Qanta A., In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel, p. 149.

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