I was recently talking with a friend about the beginning of Ramadan, the Moslem holy month. She told me that she has been preparing for Ramadan, which begins 1 August 2011, by fasting for a week. I told her that I thought her preparation was commendable. She continued, “Ramadan only comes once a year. It is eleven months between one Ramadan and the next. Eleven months is a long time. I am anticipating the start of this holy month.” I asked her if she were preparing in other ways. She told me that all year long she fasts every Monday and Thursday and when there is a full moon. “Fasting,” she said, “is a gift my faith gives to me. I enjoy it. I take Ramadan with me throughout the year. I am a Moslem woman.”
Fasting for some is a sacrifice and for others a discipline. She described fasting as a gift her faith gives to her. I started thinking about the gifts of faith. I was not drawn to think about the spiritual gifts, such as patience, kindness, and so forth, but about the gift of faith itself. My friend’s remark helped me think again about how deeply personal and intimate our faith is for each of us. Faith is a decision about how we choose to live our life; how I choose to live my life and you choose to live yours. It is about knowing our self. My friend was telling me, “This is who I am. I am a woman who fasts every Monday and Thursday and every full moon.” And, she was very clear about why she was making this choice. She is a Moslem woman.
I thought of another friend who is Buddhist. She has a chime in her house that rings every half hour calling her to consciousness, reminding her that she is a Buddhist. The chime is a gift her faith gives to her. I see a lot of religious symbols made into jewelry and sometimes wonder if people are wearing this as a fashion statement or as a gift their faith gives to them. Whether we are Moslem or not, the start of Ramadan is a good time to think about the gift our faith gives to us and the choices we are making as we receive and honor the gift that has been given to us.
My friend’s comment also reminded me that in addition to being deeply personal, faith is also about being connected to a larger community. She smiled when she told me, “I am a Moslem woman.” Faith is personal, but it is not private. Faith draws us out of our self into a larger community. This is a statement that is in radical contrast with the rugged, autonomous, free to choose, self-made individualism of the modern era. A second gift of faith is that it keeps us grounded in relationships that are bigger than we are. We all have to make choices about the kind of community we want to help create and how we want to make our contribution to that community, and how we receive the gift that community gives to us.
Finally, my friend’s comment reminded me that Ramadan connects Moslems with others who are outside the community of faith. Sharing is a central theme of Ramadan. People gather in the evening to break that fast and to share the experience with each other and to give each other encouragement. People also share their wealth with those who have less during the month of Ramadan. It is a gift to cross the lines of economic class and create a more inclusive community.
This last point helped me remember a visit I made some years ago to the Madhya Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India. I was invited by the Bishop to attend a conference on the environment. It was a wonderful event. At the end of the conference one of the other guests asked the Bishop if he had a simple message for us to take home. The Bishop thought for a moment, then he said, “Since you asked me, I would ask you to ask your friends to eat less.” I translated that to mean, “Live more simply so that others can simply live.” That is a gift my faith gives to me. I receive the gift anew every time I go into the kitchen to prepare a meal. My wife and I do eat less. We feel better and healthier for it. Learning to live more simply, and more economically, is a gift of faith.
David P. Hansen