prayer

PEOPLE: A Present Firmly Grounded in the Past

“Both of my grandfathers were bastards. I think this is important to my story,” says Velia Calcara. She’s definitely got my attention, so I keep listening. “One was born at the end of the 19th century, the other at the beginning of the 20th. At that time there was a great stigma attached to being an illegitimate child. So, right off the bat, even though their mothers tried to raise them with a certain set of beliefs, they could feel the rejection and the judgment, certainly in the Catholic Church, which was the predominant religion in Mexico, and they ended up pulling away from the Church. Not the faith, but the Church.”

Velia was born and raised in Jalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. Growing up, she experienced first hand the blooming of her hometown, a small city that was quickly becoming a cosmopolitan center for education, culture and the arts. She tells me about her mother and father, about the baggage they carried from their respective fathers and about how they raised her with Catholic teachings, but with a weary relationship toward the Church. “The faith was passed on to us but not the submissive attitude toward the priest, not the inflexible rules of the church, and not the rituals of the church and the rigid set of behaviors and practices,” she explains. When I ask what that meant in practice she says, “For instance, in my house we ate whatever we wanted during Lent and we were grateful for it. Forget about the fact that the Church said ‘no meat during Lent,’ we ate it. I did go to catechism and received the sacraments, but I don’t remember my parents insisting on going to mass and confession, or any of the common practices of a Catholic family.”

"Church is a suit that doesn't fit me well," says Velia Calcara.

“Church is a suit that doesn’t fit me well,” says Velia Calcara.

She spends the better part of our meeting telling me about her past, and she makes it a point to outline the main events, people and circumstances that shaped her views of the world as well as her understanding of God and spirituality. Her father had a significant part in shaping Velia’s independent and strong-willed character. “Some of my good friends were in the Girl Scouts, so of course I wanted to join. But my dad said no. I didn’t understand why. But, you know, Girl Scouts was so religiously based back then and my father didn’t want me to all of a sudden, I don’t know how best to say it but, he didn’t want me to lose the freedom of belief and mind that I had. I probably was 10 or 11, but I was not ruled or governed by any strict religious rules.”

As a young adult, It was another family member who would have a deep impact on the way Velia would see the world and her place in it. “When I was 19 or 20, I had an aunt whom I loved very, very much. She introduced me to metaphysics. And I found that very interesting, very logical, and in a way simple to understand.” As she tells me this I realize I’m not quite certain I know what metaphysics is, so I ask. “Understanding logically your reality, what surrounds you, understanding how things manifest in this world. Although I never went deep into that, it helped me make sense of a lot of things I was going through at the time.” She explains how being a teenager in the 80s, in a burgeoning cosmopolitan city and witnessing so many major world events was so foundational to who she is today.

So, I want to know more about who she is today. I’ve known Velia for about a year, but we haven’t had much of a chance to really talk until now. She tells me she’s been thinking about a question I asked her the last time, something about whether there was ever a time or a place in which she felt she fit in. “I don’t fit in,” she states, takes a breath and continues, “I’m too much of a rebel to be a good Catholic, I question too much to be a good protestant Christian and I like my freedom too much to comply with other religions. Religiously, I don’t fit anywhere, and…I’m brown…and, I’m a woman. So, no.”

Like most of us in the minority, Velia is keenly aware of the fact that she is perceived as other, as different, as not-from-here. Perhaps this is why she is so intent on speaking up for equality, “We live in a multicultural society and I have a problem when people refuse to interact with other human beings just because they don’t practice the same set of beliefs, or because of their sexuality, or because they don’t have a religion, per se, they are atheists. I think that respect is crucial for the success of a community.” Our conversation lapses into Spanish whenever she wants to drive a point home, such as when she quotes Mexican founding father, Benito Juarez, “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” (“Among individuals as among nations, the respect to other people’s rights is peace.”) This is one of her maxims, I learn.

“How do you identify,” I ask. She replies, “I would say I was brought up Catholic but I am not a very good practicing Catholic.” I almost want to say, “You could’ve fooled me!” But then she clarifies, “I’m a believer with a Catholic background.” I wonder what she believes, how she believes, does she pray? “Believe it or not, I pray,” she tells me. I ask her to elaborate. “My praying tends to follow the two main Catholic prayers, Padre Nuestro and Ave María. Every now and then, out of interest since I didn’t learn it as a young person, I pray the Rosary with a couple of friends. And some times I do a free prayer, more like a meditation, when I need to quiet myself down. I consider myself very intense and I can build up anxiety very easily.”

Our time is running out, but I want to make sure I understand what prayer means to her. “I don’t believe in praying like asking Santa for a gift. To me when you pray, you’re trying to be in touch with your Creator. Often times I pray for guidance because I’m spiritually blind and deaf and my ego gets in the way. And I pray for acceptance.”

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It is always better to go to the source

This past Wednesday I called the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City to schedule a visit. I had been reading through the website and learned that the center was open to visitors. The woman on the phone took my information and said she’d call me back with a time. About an hour later she called to let me know brother Mustafa would be happy to meet with me the following day. I was thrilled to have a visit scheduled so soon. This was to be my second visit to a mosque. The first was over twelve years ago, when my friend and co-worker, Khalid, invited me for prayers.

I arrived a couple minutes early and left my shoes in the rack by the doors. A few minutes later, I was introduced to Mustafa Hussein, the Service Manager for the ISGKC. He welcomed me into his office and for the next three hours he spoke to me about Islam, about the Prophet, about God, about the Holy Quran, about prayer, about fasting and about community. I was captivated and grateful that he should take this much time out of his busy day to speak with me.

“If you want to know something, it’s always better to go to the source,” he said. I had just mentioned I knew little to nothing about Islam, but that I had done some reading about it. He asked what I had read and had a Muslim written it. I hesitated and he explained he’d rather be talked to than about. It made perfect sense and I felt affirmed for having scheduled this visit. Thirty minutes into our conversation I realized I hadn’t set up my recording for the interview. I couldn’t bear to interrupt, so I decided to listen more intently than ever and try to commit as much as possible to memory. Did you know, by the way, that millions of Muslims have memorized the Holy Quran in its entirety?

The Holy Quran is the revelation of God’s word to the Prophet. Brother Mustafa explained that it is not meant to be read in a linear fashion; that it is not a history book but rather a collection of stories through which God reveals himself to man. Many of these stories are of people, places and events found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He told me about Moses, about Joseph and even about Jesus, all from a Quranic perspective. I knew this, that Islam shared a lot of common ground with the other two Abrahamic faiths. But to hear it explained from a personal point of view made it really come to life. I was riveted.

Prayer and fasting are two of the five pillars of Islam. And Muslims are people of prayer, stopping five times a day to pray. This is how a Muslim speaks to God, it is an act of worship and it is most often done communally. “When we pray we take on certain positions. It is said that the closest one can be to God is when one touches his forehead to the ground.” To prostrate oneself and touch one’s forehead to the ground is a sublime act of humility and submission. I love that; I love that in order to be close to God one must first be humble.

“Is prayer a two-way street? How does God speak back to you?” I asked somewhat nervously. “Good question,” he said and I felt back at ease. He said that we speak to God in prayer and that God speaks to us in scripture. It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon and men were beginning to arrive for prayer. Brother Mustafa showed me around the building. The main prayer hall is a big open space, bathed in natural light thanks to the large windows along the walls. There is no furniture and there are no icons or symbols. To the unsuspecting eye, it appears to be a big empty room. I asked about the absence of symbols or icons and I learned that the Prophet was very concerned about idolatry and that is one of the main reasons why there are no depictions of God or any of the prophets. There is a niche in the middle of the northeast wall, but it is also empty. Its function is to point to Mecca, to orient those praying toward the holy site. I learned that the holy month of Ramadan was about to begin, so I asked a few more questions about that.

Brother Mustafa said I was more than welcome to join for Ramadan services, and for the breaking of the fast at night, which is a big gathering for the community. He gave me a copy of the Holy Quran and explained that it is only referred to as such when it is in Arabic, so that what I was holding was actually referred to as “a translation of the Holy Quran, but not the Quran itself.” I was about to thank him for his time and for his consideration when he said, “Oh, prayers are beginning” and quickly joined the others. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. But that’s okay… I will be back.

 

RAMADAN BEGINS THIS SATURDAY

Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer and doing of good deeds. Through fasting and prayer, Muslims practice self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. When I arranged for this visit, I was not aware that Ramadan was so soon upon us. Fasting is a spiritual discipline found in many of the worlds religions and many of the central figures in different traditions are known to have fasted for extended periods of time. Moses fasted, Jesus fasted, the Prophet Muhammad fasted, and the Buddha fasted. It is no surprise that fasting is universally held to be a means of gaining closeness to God or enlightenment.

Have you ever fasted or considered fasting for spiritual reasons? Tell me about your experience, I want to know!

PLACES: The Labyrinth

A generous invitation.

A generous invitation.

Today, as I was driving back home from an interview a particular church sign caught my attention. It wasn’t a clever play on words and it wasn’t a Bible verse either. It simply said, “Come walk our labyrinth.” I was interested and briefly considered coming back another day, but then I thought, “Why not do it now?” So I decided to turn around and accept the invitation.

During my time in the Episcopal Church I learned a little bit about contemplative prayer and I remember learning a thing or two about the labyrinth. But I had never actually walked one. As I pulled into the parking lot of Indian Heights United Methodist Church, I realized I had no clue how to actually walk a labyrinth. I pulled out my iPhone and did a Google search for “walking the labyrinth.” I skimmed through the first few pages…labyrinths have been around for over 4000 years…contemplative prayer…set your intention…meditative walking…and so on. And then I wondered if this church had instructions on their website… Ta-da! Just what I needed, a detailed yet brief explanation of their labyrinth and instructions on how to use it. I read everything on the labyrinth page and I read the PDF guide, “How to Walk the Labyrinth.” I was ready to try it for myself.

Follow the sign.

Follow the sign.

The labyrinth is beautiful. It is behind the church, across from the parking lot. As you approach it, you notice the care with which it has been landscaped. Per the instructions, I sat on the bench outside the labyrinth to prepare for my walk. I turned off my phone, sat quietly and stilled my mind. After a couple of minutes I began my walk, slowly pacing my steps, one intentionally following the next. Right step, “be still…” Left step, “and know.” The instructions suggest using a prayer or a verse as a mantra to keep yourself centered, this has always been one of my favorites, “be still and know.”

Prepare before entering.

Prepare before entering.

Walking intentionally is not easy. It feels unnatural at first. When I walk, I’m usually trying to get to my destination as quickly as possible. On the labyrinth, the practice is to do quite the opposite. Walking the labyrinth was a centering experience, physically and spiritually. As I made my way to the center, because of the way the path is arranged, there were times when I was closer to the middle and then closer to the outside. And isn’t that the way life goes? When I walked near the outside, the center seemed so distant, and yet I was closer to the perfume of the flowers along the perimeter. The sun was warm and gentle on my back, there was a light breeze every now and then, and I could hear the birds chirping and singing around me. I reached the center and felt engulfed with gratitude for the gift of a moment, for the respite of one breath. After a few minutes in the center, I made my way back out, at the same even pace with which I walked in. Thirty minutes after I had read that sign, “Come walk our labyrinth,” I was back in my car, on my way. But I was not the same. And all I did was accept a generous invitation.

This labyrinth is a custom designed, seven-circuit pattern, based on the classic Cretan Labyrinth.

This labyrinth is a custom designed, seven-circuit pattern, based on the classic Cretan Labyrinth.

YOU TOO CAN WALK THE LABYRINTH!
Indian Heights United Methodist Church
10211 Nall Ave
Overland Park, KS 66207
The labyrinth is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
I invite you to read this and this before you visit.