Thursday, September 20, 2007
The Blessings of Self-Denial
Second Life lately has taken me from my original purpose in creating this site. I had intended to write about sacred festivals throughout history and throughout the world. Unfortunately, I failed to write about Lughnasa but I will remedy that later. At this point in time, however, it is Ramadhan that dominates the international Calendar.
I would like to wish all those who practice the way of Islam a 'Ramadhan Mubarak' or Blessed Ramadhan. Ramadhan is considered the holiest month in the Islamic calendar and it is a month when fasting during daylight hours is mandated. There are exceptions, when fasting would cause hardship or when health does not permit it. Travel is another exemption. Non-Muslims often are horrified by the concept of a religion that requires a month of fasting, but in fact, fasting is a means of purification and a spiritual act that facilitates 'nearness to God'. Blessings indeed can be obtained through self-denial, but this is a concept that is inimical to our contemporary consumerist society based on principles of instant gratification.
Ramadhan is a time primarily devoted to acts of charity. In fasting, the rich are reminded of the reality of life for the poor and are prompted to share their blessings with those who are less fortunate. That is one of the reasons for 'Saum' or fasting.
The other is a more universal reason. Fasting creates a special state of consciousness, a distance between the individual and his/her appetites as well as ordinary routines. During the month of Ramadhan, Muslims awaken before dawn not only for prayer but in order to eat before the beginning of the fast each day. This sets them apart from their normal routines. Special food often is prepared for this 'fast-breaking' or breakfast.
As the day progresses, whenever one thinks about food, one is reminded of the fast and this is designed to bring renewed awareness of the sacred nature of this particular month. The internal battle between the physical appetite and the spiritual ambition is one that brings a sense of great satisfaction whenever won by the strength of the spirit.
Thoughts of food are very much part of Ramadhan. Fasting only is mandated during daylight hours and when the sun sets, people break their fast with a date and a prayer. Often, people prepare very special dishes for the evening meal and it is considered more of a blessing to share food with others than to eat alone during this month. Treats are shared both at mosques and in private homes. Ramadhan is a very joyful time.
It is the unique rhythm of the days and nights of Ramadhan, however, that truly set it apart from the rest of the year. There is a sense both of individual closeness to God and participation in the worldwide community known as the Ummah.
The Islamic Calendar is a lunar calendar. Ramadhan therefore falls at a different time each year and through a decade, can move from winter to summer. This again is something that sets it apart from the ordinary wheel of the year and the change in seasons.
As the Islamic Calendar is based on the Moon, the actual sighting of the crescent Moon or hilal is the signal for the beginning of Ramadhan. Those who live in urban environments often become estranged from the Moon and planets. Ramadhan is a time for a renewal of awareness of the phases of the Moon and the movement of all celestial bodies.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Moon is more than a barren rock whirling through space. It affects the tides of earthly seas and the internal tides of every woman. In very hot climates, where the Sun often represents a threat to life, the Moon is a gentle vision reflecting light upon the earth and acts as a guide for travelers. The Moon always has been an inspiration to poets and lovers.
Living according to a solar calendar, we often forget the importance of the Moon in terms of history and civilisation. The 'Crescent' that is a symbol for Islam is, in fact, the crescent moon. Universally, the Moon symbolises both death and rebirth. In its monthly disappearance and reappearance, it was a sign of hope to the ancients. The Moon as well as the Morning and Evening Star Venus traditionally represented the Great Goddess.
The tale of Inanna and her visit to the Underworld is a lunar myth of course. The Goddess set her heart on the 'great beyond' and, while in the land of Death, the earth mourned and was barren. When she returned, the earth rejoiced and life was renewed. The re-enactment of this great journey was one of the most sacred rituals of Sumer and Babylon.
Ramadhan, however, cannot be considered a 'lunar festival' by any means, although the Moon is very much in evidence. It has more in common with the Christian observance of Lent, also a time of fasting, charity and contemplation.
I think we often forget the virtues of self-denial. The lightning speed of communication via internet as well as our ability to order an item from any source in the world and have it delivered to our doorsteps within a day or two do not lend themselves to self-denial.
If an experience is pleasurable, it is natural to want to repeat it. People often speak with contempt about religious constraints. I certainly do not subscribe to the idea that individuals should deny themselves anything from fear of divine consequences. On the other hand, 'fear of hell' has proven the worst enemy of religion in that individuals in repudiation have failed to comprehend the intrinsic virtues in acts of denial.
Fasting makes one more aware of the satisfaction and delight that food and drink can bring. It heightens all the senses in fact. It is temporary self-denial, a means through which individuals can ascend to another level of being.
All religions embrace fasting as a tool for purification and transformation. It is not a practice that is retricted to 'monotheists' by any means. Buddhists and Hindus practice fasting as do neo-Pagans.
Perhaps each of us should fast for a day during this month in order to appreciate the blessings in our own lives and to fully comprehend the magic of a simple act of self-denial. If one fasts from sunrise to sunset, one becomes very aware of the movement of the sun across the sky and sunset becomes far more beautiful and vibrant than it otherwise would be.
The ancient runemasters had a special rune that represented the moment of transformation that occurs at sunrise and sunset, when Night becomes Day and Day becomes night. As a point of intersection of opposites, it carries enormous magical potential.
For my part, having written this, I am conscious of all the sunrises and sunsets that I have 'wasted' by not even being aware of them... conscious of all the times when I have failed to experience the 'magic of the moment'. Even if I cannot fast now, I hope I can experience that rare sense of transcending all limitations to soar with the eagle and the hawk to the heavens once again. To me, 'nearness to God' is a sense of being one with the Universe, of feeling the breath of the Divine in the wind, and the touch of the Divine in the warm caress of the Sun. It is the rare moment when any sense of alienation dissolves and is replaced by utter contentment and acceptance of being.