Prayers and Altars

I grew up around altars. Little make shift altars made from spare glass tables that my family’s witches would decorate with cheap, water-stained doilies from the dollar store.

Wait. I am not being fair when I said they are witches. I do not really have any witches in my family, but growing up around a lot of ladies who prayed a lot–to God, to Jesus, to saints and other Afro deities whose names were all robust and full of diphthongs in their pronunciation–I always imaged that I grew up around witches.

Truth is, I never felt comfortable in thinking too much in the unseen. I know I was supposed to believe in someone named Papa Dios and a bloody-faced Jesus, but I was also told to believe in the seen –that statue of the gorgeous Saint Barbara, the morose Virgin Mary, the list of saints that decked the churches and altars unto which I grew up kneeling.

I also did not like to pray on cue. I spent most Sunday admiring stained glass windows, growing increasingly uncomfortable while sitting on wooden pews; I used to narrated the stories of all the saints that surrounded me. I thought about the personal details in their lives, such as the food they ate and the way they may have laughed at jokes. I had to humanize them in the churches that would treat them as deities. I needed to know all of their stories.

I also wasn’t one much for confession. I felt uncomfortable sharing sins with a strange man in a black suit. When I would confess, I always went through the same list of sins that included disobeying my parents, having bad thoughts and saying bad words. I always received 5 Hail Mary’s and 5 Our Fathers as penance. I never completed my penance, but I always felt bad about lying to the priest and asked God to forgive me for that. Pretending to pray became an art because it meant that I could kneel at the very front of the altar until I was finished. I didn’t have to return to the wooden pew and the teachers could not say anything to me because they would not dare interrupt my penance.

I think I hated absolutely everything about Catholic school. Looking back, I felt uncomfortable with all small acts of indoctrination, but I never resisted. I was an obedient Catholic school kid. I was an altar girl once too. In all honesty, though, joining the altar team was part of the feminist inside of me who knew that altar boys were the norm until the Church recently decided that girls weren’t as dirty as originally thought and could handle the sacred books and chalices at the altar. I was the only altar girl at my ostentatious church and I was proud of that.

It has been approximately 12 years since I have kneeled at a church altar. I had left Catholicism at the age of 16 and spent many hard-earned dollars at therapist sessions trying to understand why I personally became so affected by the rituals, ceremonies and submission that my child body was forced into since the day I was born. I have been thrust into buckets of herbal water butt naked; I have witnessed the clever way an average-sized woman can decapitate a chicken in a sacrificial ritual; have been left for hours in a room full of wooden deities and their plates of food; have been told when to kneel, confess, pray and repent.

When I decided to release myself from gods and altars, I felt lost but also relieved. I could start all over on my journey to understand my Creator. Somewhere along the road, I met a lot of Muslim people and I also met Islam. Somewhere along that same road, I converted to Islam. I really like Islam. It’s a simple thing to say, but that’s just how it is. After so much awkward worship, I finally felt like I found a simple avenue to God.

But every few years of my life I enter into an existential crisis. Recently, I was thrust into a life changing experience when I met Valeda — the lady who could heal (name changed). I cannot tell you much about the predicament that lead me to meet Valeda, but I can tell you that Valeda can heal; Valeda can know things about people, places and things. Valeda is not a self-promoting fortune teller and she explained that nothing she does is “magic”. She assured me that her gifts were genuine and only possible through God, that she never took money for her help, and that she never used her gifts to harm (only to help). About a month ago, I experienced her healing first hand–and being healed literally felt like my soul was a stagnate river that began moving again. The healing I received nudged me in the right direction and saved my life. Valeda is a Catholic, which complicates my understanding of my beliefs and existence so much more. I do not think I am Catholic by belief even still, but I have come to the conclusion that shit is complicated and that God works through many people’s hands and in a million ways we will never understand.

I still don’t fully understand God. I still don’t fully feel satisfied with my understanding of God and this insatiable thirst only opens me up to accept the many ways that God works through his Creation.

Yesterday, my toddler got up and wrapped herself up in my sweater as if it were a hijab. She said “Allahu Akbar” and kneeled down to pray salaat. I was happy and her father was feeling proud that his daughter began to imitate him in worship. In the middle of the room, my toddler bowed, stood erect, bowed again and prostrated. She lifted one finger in her right hand (the indication for the single God) while performing worship. My daughter sat at her altar of an Arabic prayer rug, probably unaware that she herself has already began her own journey of prayers and altars on her way to knowing her God.

The Intersection of Faith and Intellectualism

Since returning to Miami and seeing many of the folks back home, I started to think about the relationship between God, religion, and intellectualism.

I have been wondering about the fact that the majority of those who claim a faith (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikhs, and so on) are mostly lay followers. By lay, I mean that many people of faith have not learned about God and their religion through books, but rather through word of mouth (i.e. families, school, friends). Oral knowledge falls under “conventional (or folk) wisdom” and is often undervalued. The reality, however, is that the majority of believers are not religious intellectuals*.  In this post, I refer to bookish scholars of any faith as “religious intellectuals” and the rest as “lay believers”.

I wonder how much we gain and lose spiritually with intellectualism. By intellectualism, I am referring to what we call “intellectual masturbation” in the academia (I think this phrase gets my point across the best). That is, an illogical and unhealthy obsession with arbitrary details and categories.

What I am noticing is that people (regardless of faith) who learn through oral tradition tend to show more wisdom and tolerance, while intellectuals tend to display arrogance and a sense of righteousness and entitlement.

This brings me to a concern about my generation and those of the future. Many of us today are doing things that previous generations could not do. Regular ol’ folks are reading information online, accessing scholarly books, and using technology to share knowledge about their individual faiths. Regular ol’ folks have access to a lot of information available through the internet and participating in the larger conversations (i.e. religious debates).

What are the benefits to quick and feasible accessibility to information in religion? Are there consequence in virtualizing the most personal part of our lives: our faith?  On the one hand, the access to and distribution of information widen our minds. On the other hand, getting lost in intellectualism can give us the false sense that the “smarter” we are, the better we are. When does theory take over practice and debilitate our connection with ourselves and God?

I have begun to believe that categories destroy most things; one of these things being human relationships. Categories forces us to focus on differences. I wonder about this a lot. How does my visibility (or invisibility) as a believing Muslim translate? How do I categorize myself as belonging to a particular faith without becoming part of the masses? Does this category (visibility) debilitate my ability to be seen as a Person? Does it define me in ways that I do not wish to be defined by others?

Two days ago, I was in the waiting room of a hospital. A middle-aged Cuban women sat next to me and began talking about her husband who was critically ill. Then, she began to talk about God. She was Catholic and assumed I was too. She talked about God in a natural and unpretentious way. I had begun to forget how simple it is to believe in God (regardless of religion). I had also begun to forget that God is simple despite the fact that we always try to attach human weaknesses to God (e.g. jealously, anger, fickleness, and so on). I feel that God is greater than our minds can imagine. I am wondering if intellectualism is what prevents so many people to continually bicker about “who” God is as if it is something at which we can arrive.

Can we arrive at our own sense of God through our particular faiths without discrediting valuable knowledge of other faiths? Can we work towards a common goal for humanity through categorizations? Do knowledge and faith depend on one another? Does religious intellectualism trap us in theory and make us impractical?