Yaa ‘ayyuhal-ladhina amanu
lis-Salati miny-yawmil-Jumu’ati fas’aw ila dhikril-lahi wa dharul-bay. Dhalikum khayrul-lakum in-kuntum ta’lamun. [62:9]
O you who believe, when the call for Salah is proclaimed on Friday, hasten for the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business. This is for your own good, if you but knew it.
I have struggled with the concept of discipline all my life. I was born in 1953, which means that the later part of my childhood and my entire adolescence took place in the 1960s. As you all know, this was the “Age of Rebellion.” Moreover, I was raised in a Unitarian church, whose only real creed is to respect each individual’s unique path to and understanding of God. I was therefore programmed, from a very early age, to inquire and question and investigate. I was not focused on sticking to one thing and perfecting it, but rather on checking out as many alternative “things” (careers, religions, cultures, etc.) as possible to find the one “thing” that might really be worth the effort.
This went on until I became a Muslim and got married. But even after I converted to Islam, it took me a long time to be able to commit to the chance for discipline offered by the pillars of the faith. Today, with your indulgence, I want to share a bit about my journey with one of those pillars - prayer. After converting to Islam I was not disciplined at all about my prayer. I loved God and believed in God, but I felt that, to be honest in my relationship with God meant that I should only pray “when the spirit moved me.” I was not convinced in my heart that praying five times a day at specific times in a ritualized way was going to bring me closer to God. I was programmed to resist the need for such “discipline” about my spiritual life. I felt it should “flow naturally,” or it wouldn’t be real. I have to say that I used to try to explain this to my Muslim family – my in-laws, and they were lovingly indulgent.
I went along like that for over twenty-five years, until my daughter had her inevitable “crisis of faith” after three years at university. I recognized that part of her struggle might have had to do with my own struggle, and that made me rethink some things. I realized that I had been using my recognition of the value in different religions and cultures as a reason not to truly engage with my own faith. I had the love, but not the discipline. And so I made a commitment to God, that I would pray five times a day for a year, as close as possible to the prescribed times, and see what would happen.
But before I share what has happened, let me digress a bit to address the topic of discipline itself. I don't know about you, but I have been captivated by the coverage of the Olympics in Sochi this week…. especially by the performances that seem to transcend the effort that so obviously goes into whatever sport is involved. The Russian ice skating pair, Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar won gold in short and long programs. They seemed to float through their routine, perfectly in synch, seemingly effortless. One had only to be watching all the others to see how much work was involved, but Trankov and Volosozhar were in that "zone" where performance transcends apparent effort.
There were many other moments where seeming perfection has been displayed, born from countless hours of practice.
I read a book recently about another team that competed in another Olympics - the men's crew (rowing) team from Seattle who represented the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler’s Olympics. These were men who grew up during the depression, dirt poor, most of whom had never set foot in a rowing skull before they arrived at university and tried out for the crew team so they could get their tuition covered. They practiced in the rough water of the Pacific Ocean, often in frigid temperatures, for hours every day, their muscles screaming in pain. But they had a coach who was relentless, and they were, each and every one of them, determined to succeed. "The Boys in the Boat " focuses on one of those men, Joe Rantz, but it really is about the team as a whole. The man who built their boats (skulls), George Pocock, was not only probably the best skull craftsman who ever lived, he was also an inspirational leader for them. He understood them, and helped them work past their weaknesses. Joe's biggest challenge was learning to trust. George told him, "Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you've ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars."
By the time they got to the race that landed them the right to represent the US at the Olympics, they had reached that level of precision, that level of disciplined unity. Bobby Moch, their coxswain, recalled later, "You couldn't hear anything except for the oars going in the water... it'd be a 'zep' and that's all, all you could hear... the oarlocks didn't even rattle on the release.' They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful." They went on to win the gold in Berlin, while Hitler watched.
No one gets to the Olympics without discipline. In fact, no one achieves anything significant in life without discipline, be it in sports, music, dance, theater, medicine, academics, auto mechanics or accounting. But those who reach the level of the sublime in their performance are the ones who also love what they do. Joe Rantz and his crewmates learned, not just to trust each other, but to love each other. (They remained close for the rest of their lives.) It was so obvious watching Trankov and Volosozhar that they love skating, and each other. And many of the other outstanding athletes at the games have talked about some form of love – for their sport, their families, an inspirational figure in their lives.
Why should our spiritual life be any different?
Hafizu alas-Salawati was-Salatil-wusta wa qumu lillahi qanitin [2:238]
Be ever mindful of prayers, and of praying in the most excellent way; and stand before God in devout obedience.
Qad aflahal-mu’minun. Alladhina hum fi Salatihim khashi’un.
Wal-ladhina hum anil-laghwi mu’ridun.
Wal-ladhina hum liz-Zakati fa’ilun. [23:1-4]
Truly, to a happy state shall attain the believers: those who humble themselves in their prayer, and who turn away from all that is frivolous, and who are intent on inner purity.
Wal-ladhina hum ala Salawatihim yuhafizun. [23:9]
And who guard their prayers from all worldly intent
I don’t think I was wrong all those years when I was focused on loving God, rather than discipline. I just wasn’t growing in my faith.
Now I can share that my one-year commitment to prayer has lasted three and a half years, and I cannot think of stopping. I have discovered that prayer gives me a discipline for reconnecting with God. Allah communicated this over and over in revelations to the Prophet. Surah 2:45 says "seek help through patience and prayer. It is indeed exacting, but not for those who are humble in their hearts." Ayah 2:153 says, "O you who believe, seek help through patience and prayer. Surely Allah is with those who are patient in adversity." Surah 4:103 tells us that "Salah is tied up with time." Surah 11:114 enjoins us to practice Salah at both ends of the day, and in the early hours of the night. Surah 17:78-79 tells us to pray between sunset and night, and at dawn, and that praise will come for an additional prayer of tahajjud in the night.
We are reminded in other surahs as well, to praise Allah in the afternoon, before sunrise, before sunset, and that prayer at night is the most effective way to subdue one's base self. [73:1-8]. I have learned this one myself. One of my biggest faults is that I am a worrier. Worry can immobilize me, it makes me overeat, it makes me procrastinate, it robs me of joy and makes me hard to live with… I can go on and on. Praying five times a day has helped me control my worrying, and recognize how selfish it is. This is just one of the ways prayer has helped me to become a better person. But it wouldn’t work – my prayer wouldn’t work – if I just did it routinely, without remembering my love of God every time I do it – reminding myself of the connection, and that God’s love for us is always there when we open ourselves to it. Prayer is the discipline of that practice, and practice, with love, reaches toward the Sublime.
George Pocock said "Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They're the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that's why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That's what he gets from rowing."
Harmony, balance, and rhythm are what the discipline of prayer can give us in this life. And praying together opens the door to trust, trust that we can strive together to come closer to the Sublime. As Muslims we have a gift from Allah, a revelation that turning our attention to Allah several times each day can keep us focused on what's important, and remind us of what is not, and give us the perspective and strength to face whatever comes our way in life with patience and grace.
Fa’idha qudiyatis-Salatu fantashiru fil-ardi
wadh-kurul-laha kathiral-la allakum tuflihun.
Then once the Salah is over, disperse in the land, and seek the grace of Allah, and remember Allah often, so that you may be successful. [62:10]