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Stations, 1 10 April 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Spirituality.
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August, 2006.
The journey there will be a long one, spanning two days. As a final nod to comfort, I have purchased first class tickets for the train ride between Boston and New York. There will be, I suspect, plenty of difficulty in the hours to come. I must pass from Boston to New York to London to Abu Dhabi to Muscat to Ruwi before I will again see a bed. In the light of such a trial, a few more dollars for a decent meal, a comfortable seat, and relative silence seems worthwhile.

The first class car is nearly empty when I climb aboard. I select a seat at a table, underneath a large, dark window. While the rest of the passengers board the train, I stare out through my window into the train yard. A half dozen tracks converge on the station. Sodium vapor lamps burn warm, bleak orange above them. There is nothing extra on which to lay my eyes: no murals, no chimes. No sculptures, no charms. The yard is a study in bare utility.

The stewardess places a menu on the table before me, and takes my drink order. She is back in a moment with a tray of rice crackers wrapped in seaweed and an icy Sprite. I roll the ice cubes around in my mouth while I read the menu. The car shivers to life while I am deciding between entrees; now I have done it. Now, I am on my way.

I fold the menu, and stare at the table ahead of me. I do not want to watch Boston slip away. I do not want to feel sentimentality for the city I am leaving. There is enough heaviness in my heart without it. Homesickness at this stage would be too much. I look back over my memories to the time before I moved east. I think back to Iowa.

I am the product of religious conflict. Since before I was born, my family has been divided along lines of faith. My father’s parents, devout Lutherans, were torn to pieces by the thought of him marrying my Catholic mother. My mother’s parents, Scottish converts, insisted that we be baptized and raised in the Catholic church. Each half of my family held tight to its identity. Every Sunday, every holy day, every Lenten season when I was growing up was spent in theological war.

The intensity of my religious instruction was furthered by this conflict. The differences between the two faiths were magnified before my eyes, until it seemed as though a canyon of infinite width grew up between them. We were shuffled from service to service, from Mass to Mass. I became expert in manners of etiquette. I tried to help my sisters. At the Lutheran church, don’t genuflect before you enter the pews. At the Catholic church, be sure you genuflect. Mind when and where you make the sign of the cross. The Catholics expect it, the Lutherans do not. Dip your finger into the Holy Water and bless yourself before you leave the Catholic church. Never say the Hail Mary in front of the Lutherans. Use the Nicene Creed at Dad’s church, and the Apostle’s Creed at Mom’s.

The better I got at the details, the further I felt from belief. When I tried to think about my own beliefs, I got confused. I believed in God, but not in the divinity of Jesus. How could I? Jesus, I felt, was instrumentalized by both the Catholics and the Lutherans; the differences in their beliefs concerning him split my heart like a wedge through wood. As far as stories in the Bible go, his did not spark my imagination in the way that Moses’s and Joseph’s did. I wondered if maybe God had put a Jewish soul in me. Finally, silently, I rebelled. God, I felt certain, could not possibly care about the issues with which my relatives tormented my sisters and me. I wanted my family to be at peace. I wanted to close my eyes at night, and feel the hand of God. I wanted to know God, and live connected to God. But how? Surreptitiously, I began to change the way I prayed.

I developed a secret way of praying at church. Instead of struggling to recite all of the words to all of the prayers perfectly for each congregation, I began to leave words out. When a prayer included a phrase that I found objectionable, I would not say it. My prayers became simpler. I no longer invoked Mary’s intercession or Jesus’s help. I felt half of the way to better; at least my prayers were no longer lies. Yet I still felt as if I were doing something wrong. I felt as if I were caught in a snare, which as I tried to free myself, pulled tight around my neck.

I was fifteen when I first saw a way out. I stood in the kitchen, stirring spaghetti sauce on the stove, with the radio tuned to NPR. Such was my tie to the world beyond Iowa; from the small black speakers on top of the cupboard, a reporter in Washington interviewed a woman. She was an American, who had converted to Islam.

I listened with fascination as she described her transformation. “I was raised to be Christian,” she said, “But I never liked the idea of praying to Jesus. I felt that this was like praying to a person, and I only wanted to pray to God.” My heart stopped. I saw myself curled up and tiny in the palm of God’s hand. In the woman’s voice, I heard my own desire echoed. For the first time in my life, I imagined being free of arguments about the rosary, the trinity, the sacraments. I imagined a simple faith.

“Muslims worship the same God as Christian and Jewish people do,” the woman on the radio continued. My heart moved. The idea of worshiping God and only God was beautiful to me. I felt like a person dying of thirst, who has finally found herself at the edge of a clear, fresh sea. “What about Jesus?” the journalist conducting the interview asked her. “Where does Jesus fit into Muslim beliefs?”

“We believe that Jesus was a Prophet, and that he came to deliver a message to his people,” she said. “We believe he was a person created through God’s spirit. But we don’t believe that Jesus is God, or the Son of God. We don’t think God needs a Son.”

A thought traveled the length of my spine like charge up a Jacob’s ladder. Listening to the woman talk, I felt a curious absence of guilt. Then the journalist asked the woman how she converted. “It was so easy,” she said. “All you have to do is say ‘There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger.’” She paused, and I could hear the whistle of traffic in the space behind her words. I wondered what it would be like to live as she did, in a real city, in the East.

“Anyone can become Muslim at any time,” the woman said after a moment. “It isn’t up to anyone else to tell you whether or not you can be a Muslim. You don’t need a priest, or a minister or an imam to make you a Muslim. You just need to believe in your heart, and say the shahadah.” The spot ended and some sort of light jazz began. I switched off the radio then to better hear myself think. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his Messenger,” I said. A flame took root in my heart and began to burn, and began to cast light.

The stewardess delivers dinner to my table, and I am shaken from my reflections on faith. It seems curious to me that so many years would pass between my first experience of Islam and my second. I spread my napkin out in my lap, and whisper my prayer.

My salad is crisp, with nearly frozen radish slices, cucumber wheels and bright green lettuce. I lace it with ribbons of buttermilk dressing, and sprinkle on salt. I spear a piece of bell pepper with my fork, and carry it to my mouth. I chew each bite thirty times, slowly, to stretch out the meal. While I eat, I think about my second experience of Islam.

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