Friday, August 26, 2016

The Meaning of the Pillars, Part I: Prayer

Yaa ‘ayyuhal-ladhina amanu idha nudiya 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.

In my last khutbah on Quran and the structure of Islam, I spoke of the transcendent universality of God/Allah, and how practicing the pillars of Islam is just one possible way of striving to connect with God.  But it is Our way – the way we have chosen, or inherited as Muslims.  So, in my next few khutbahs, I want to explore the meanings behind the way we practice our faith – the meaning in each of the pillars of Islam.  Today I will focus on prayer, and the discipline of prayer in Islam. 

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.  The positive outcome of this was open-mindedness.  The negative outcome was a deeply ingrained proclivity toward escapism.

Even after I converted 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.  It took me more than twenty-five years to finally realize that my recognition of the value in different approaches to faith was blocking me from truly engaging 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 address the topic of discipline itself.  I don't know about you, but I was captivated by the coverage of the Olympics in Rio these past two weeks, especially by the performances that seemed to transcend the effort that so obviously goes into whatever sport is involved.  There are the obvious ones – Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt.  But the one that brought tears to my eyes was one that I had to look up on You Tube, because Dressage was not included in the televised lineup. 

Allow me a moment of digression if you will.  Dressage can best be described as “horse ballet.”  It is the only Olympic event that can claim Xenophon, the ancient Greek general and student of Socrates, as its first coach.  The sport’s ethical rational is “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.”  Dressage horses begin training at age four or five, and it takes five or six years of strength training before they can even begin to learn the most advanced movements:  the piaffe, jogging in place – “three quarters of a ton of moving muscle, feet rising and falling in the same four hoofprints;”  the passage, a slow prancing trot, the pirouette, a hand-brake turn, ideally executed in six to eight strides.   I encourage you to look up Dujardin Olympics -Dressage on You Tube and watch the free-style performance of Charlotte Dujardin riding Valegro.  Dujardin began riding at age three, and she has trained with Valegro for ten years.  They won the gold this year, and at the London Olympics.  In that video you see rider and horse moving as one - seamlessly - through the movements set to music.  It is the most amazing demonstration of the beauty of controlled power and grace you could hope to see.

One of the best books written about what it takes to be an Olympic champion is 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 Olympics, they had reached that level of precision, that level of disciplined unity.  They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly, as if on another plane, 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.  Dujardin and Valegro – rider and horse - love each other.  And many of the other outstanding athletes at the games have talked about love of their sport, and their team members. 

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. 

In the past six years since I made the commitment to daily prayer, I have come to appreciate the structure that prayer gives me for reconnecting with God.  Allah communicated message 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.  

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 can make me hard to live with.  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, if I forgot what I was striving for - my love of God – reminding myself of the connection, and that God’s love for us is always there when we open ourselves to it.  Prayer is a discipline that, practiced with love, reaches toward the Sublime.

George Pocock, the rowing coach 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."

The ancient Greeks developed the art of Dressage based on the sacred precepts of “harmony,” “impulsion,” “self-carriage,” and “submission” - all so beautifully channeled by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. 

Harmony, impulsion, self-carriage and balance, rhythm and submission  - what better way to describe the elements of our prayer – reciting, standing, bowing, prostrating, sitting, greeting.  We, in this room, are not and never will be Olympic athletes.  But as Muslims we have this gift - the challenge to practice a simple discipline every day of our lives – five opportunities every day to connect us to what is greater than ourselves. 

And praying together opens the door to trust, trust that we can strive together to turn our attention to 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… and just maybe, every once in awhile, to feel like we’re praying among the stars.  

Fa’idha qudiyatis-Salatu fantashiru fil-ardi
wab-taghu min-fadlil-lahi
 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]