Saturday, March 03, 2007

Sitting in a coffeehouse, not drinking coffee

It's the second day of the annual Nineteen-Day Baha'i Fast. During this time period, Baha'is (like myself) abstain from food or drink between sunrise and sunset. While it shares similar "rules" to the Islamic observance of Ramadan, and while I get questions all the time about whether it's the same thing, it is not -- it's not only a separate observance, but a separate faith entirely. And yet I think, from the little I know about Ramadan, the intent is quite similar. In fact, the more I reflect on this period of spiritual cleansing and detachment from the physical world, the more I realize that the Baha'i Fast is also a great deal like what I understand to be true (and what I remember) of the Christian observance of Lent.

I grew up observing Lent in various ways. Some years it was a challenge in and of itself to simply remember not to eat meat on Fridays, and observe the Catholic fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday -- one skipped meal, one half meal and one regular meal on those days. Other years I attempted a greater degree of sacrifice and self-denial -- the year I gave up chocolate was one in which my entire family suffered along with me, I think. (I don't remember repeating that vow in subsequent years.) But all along, the small, inconsequential pain of self-denial was a constant reminder of the sacrifices made centuries before by One greater than myself, and also a reminder of the spirituality I wished to strengthen within myself.

The Fast is much the same for me. Now I keep at the forefront of my mind (as I bypass morning coffee, Shipley's donuts at breakfast meetings, lunch with friends, the quenching of my thirst as soon as I feel it with any variety of refreshing drinks like the blended Mocha Drift at my favorite coffeehouse [where I'm sitting], afternoon snacks of Girl Scout Cookies or crunchy apple slices with creamy peanut butter, and early dinners) the thought that with this small observance of detachment from the physical needs of my body, I turn instead to the spiritual needs of my soul. My dry throat reminds me to pray -- in the morning, when I begin my Fast each day, at noon in observance of the Daily Obligatory Prayer, at night when I break the Fast, before bed as I think back on the events of the day and wonder whether my actions have been pleasing to my Creator. My hunger, growing steadily all day, informs me that while my body will someday crumble ("From dust I created you, and to dust you shall return ..."), my spirit has been promised everlasting life, and that I should remember its needs well beyond the Fast each year. And when I gather with the members of my Baha'i community to worship together, to study the Writings we cherish, to lend support to one another in times of need, I am reminded too that we are blessed beyond measure in being able to gather openly, with no fear of retribution, no threat to our safety. Our fellow believers in Iran, in Egypt, in many other parts of the world enjoy no such guarantee. I am in awe of their simple bravery, their everyday courage, their devout faith. And suddenly, my hunger seems a trifling discomfort compared to the danger that is just a part of life for them.

My Fast this year is dedicated to my fellow believers in Iran and Egypt, where basic human and civil rights (such as hospital treatment, education, the ability to work and the right to travel freely) are denied Baha'is. May the strength of our shared community and the fervence of our prayers lift the oppression under which they live -- may our letters and our voices reach the ears of our national leaders to take measures to address these inequities -- may the hearts of the leaders of those oppressive governments be softened and changed through the power and steadfastness of the believers. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, tells us that a gentle drop of water, applied with regularity to the hardest of substances, may over time erode away the most powerful barriers.

My Fast, then, is in celebration of those gentle drops of water.