How To Ramadan:
Strategize a game plan to rack up the spiritual highs. Break it up in three ten-day segments.
First find mercy. Abstain from food and drink for 17 hours. Make your prayers – and on time.
Next, seek forgiveness. Think about where you will be making Taraweeh prayers. Ask others where they are reading their Taraweeh prayers. (Added benefits: any benefits to your personal aura by coming off as the type of person who thinks about where to pray night prayers.)
Finally, secure refuge. Attend lots of iftar parties and more than several fundraising dinners that all blend one into the next. Immerse yourself in the warm fuzziness of belonging to a community. Find it easy to stay up for Tahajjud prayer. Afterwards, read the Ramadan duas you wrote down in your phone.
Attain Ramadan spiritual high.
Over the past many years, that has been my strategy for taking on Ramadan. It’s been a game plan that has by and large worked for me as a way of grasping some semblance of faith-affirming spirituality and a closer connection to God.
Blame it on a winning combination of grisly factors – exhaustion finally being realized, countless social injustices witnessed, unwanted missives related to a former marriage, watching my children endure heartbreak, and getting dangerously close to the straw that breaks the camel back – this year has been different. Any vain attempts to “find Ramadan” through the navigated, proven, and traditional ways have largely been wasted efforts.
Forget finding Ramadan, losing God has been effortless.
Saying that out loud as an adult is terrifying. As a non-adolescent, as someone who should have the maturity and experience it takes to push through a crisis of faith, as someone who resents apathy, acknowledging my latest failure at faith only buries me deeper in my inability to connect, especially in a month where seemingly everyone around me is basking in the warm glow of Ramadan.
Where do you go when all the prayers, all the words, all the articles, all the khutbas, all the recitation, all the advice adds up to blank spaces and a deepening anger and internal isolation? Unlike my faith crises of adolescence, I already know it is foolish to seek advice from “sage” religious leaders on how to access the on-ramp to a spiritual path. Telling me that the sin lies within me and my salvation lies in simply praying more and returning to the tried and tested path is laughable at best.
Praying isn’t going to pay the bills. Praying isn’t going to take away my daughter’s sadness. Praying isn’t going to change the fact that I stayed in a destructive marriage for far too long. Praying isn’t going to change the utterly ignorable poverty or the decaying city streets I see everywhere around me as I drive to my job at a gothic, ivory tower. Praying won’t change my ability to answer my 7-year-old’s question about why all the people in Hyde Park are white and have nice houses and all the people outside of it are black and don’t have nice houses. Praying won’t take away the unwanted mail that still associates me with a man who abandoned me long ago. Praying won’t take away the stupid questions. Praying won’t take away the exhaustion. Praying won’t take away the fact that all too often complexity gets reduced to mundane, simplistic slogans. Praying won’t change the news. Praying won’t erase the deeply flawed decisions that I’ve made in my life without the assistance or influence of any devil.
This year I’m failing Ramadan, myself, my quest for any semblance of spirituality, and God so badly that even in these first 15 days I already know that surely the mercy, forgiveness, and refuge that are otherwise there for the taking in Ramadan are completely and entirely lost to me.
This morning I drove by Lake Michigan on my way to work and paid attention to the color of the waves just as I do every single morning. As I sat in traffic, a reel re-played in my head from a recent video I saw of the Chicago skyline taken by a drone camera. The four-minute time-lapse film, taken mostly in broad daylight, captured both the ever-changing and the consistencies found within, around, and above this city by a lake over the course of the past few summer months. Something in remembering the video invoked a sense of awe and Godly gentleness.
Even the notorious Chicago weather and the most violent of summer storms have purpose and follow a pattern, however filled with havoc it may be. My lack of acknowledgment of what happens all around me – in the sky, in the water, in the air – does not negate its existence or impact on my life. Summer storms, frightening as they are, are a thing of wonderment and beauty. This cannot be negotiated. Weather cannot be strategized against.
My own personal, spiritual storm pales in comparison to the weather and light patterns that surround a city. Yet, there is also awe to be found within the evolving patterns of my own consciousness and relationship with God. Just as one sits down to watch a summer storm descend in all its madness and beauty, maybe I just need to succumb to my own storm long enough to watch and observe it. In observing it, perhaps I’ll know that this storm too is predetermined, necessary, cooling, and perfectly good.
My circumstances may be ever-changing but the consistency is that as angry as I might get, I cannot lose God. He is above me, below me, around me, and without me. He is always near, even in the distance. Perhaps attaining mercy, forgiveness, and refuge don’t need to be broken into three ten-day chunks. Instead, it might arrive in a single moment, a single moment in a blessed, blessed month.
And so, in the remaining days of this month, maybe I will realize that this Ramadan the distance was the blessing, the mercy, the forgiveness, and my refuge. Maybe some Ramadan years from now, I’ll know that this was the beginning of the maturity of my own faith. It takes experience to know the difference between the things you can change and the things you cannot change.
Just like the weather, you can’t negotiate away God and you can’t lose what was never gone.
As the Executive Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise. She has three children and two step-children.