Last Saturday, June 24, I had the honor to join with the Alzin family to a very special break-fast: the feast to end the fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Jeannie Cleary-Burns, one of the faithful friends and mentor-tutors from St. Malachi was also an honored guest.
As I walked up to the house Saturday evening as sundown approached, Mohammed immediately came out to meet me with a huge smile. He embraced me, kissed me on both cheeks, repeating how honored he was to welcome me to his home. Jeannie received the same welcome and we were ushered into his living room. Mohammed said that he felt, “all of St. Malachi is here!” What a beautiful way of expressing the bond of friendship and connectedness our parish and the Alzin family have established in just under a year!
We had chatted for just a few minutes when I heard an Arabic chant coming forth from Mohammed’s phone. He smiled and said, “It is time! Ramadan – goodbye!” and joyfully led us into the dining room. His wife, Samah, brought in heaping platters of food: grilled chicken, brown rice, stuffed and roasted zucchini, chopped vegetable salad, pita bread, home-made yogurt and a tomato sauce for dipping. In moments, each of our plates were heaping with food, with the exhortation: “eat!”
To describe the food as “abundant” is to under-describe the reality. It seemed as if whenever either of us made some progress emptying our plates, more food would be dished on the plate: another piece (or two) of chicken, another heaping serving-spoon of rice, more salad, another stuffed zucchini. It was only when each of us said we were completely full did the plates stop getting filled up for us.
The Ramadan fast lasts from sunup to sundown for one (lunar) month, either 29 or 30 days, depending on the year. It is a total fast – no eating and no drinking. In the northern hemisphere, Ramadan fell this year during the time of the Summer Solstice – i.e. at the time of the longest days of the year and, therefore, the longest fast days. (For those in the southern hemisphere, it is the time of the winter solstice and so the shortest fast days.) For working people, especially those doing outdoor work and those doing physical labor, keeping the fast throughout the day is a very challenging and requires great personal discipline.
During Ramadan, as soon as sundown arrives, it is time to re-hydrate and to eat. People rise early, before sunup, to eat and get fully hydrated before the start of the day’s fast.
Because Muslims use the lunar calendar to calculate the seasons, Ramadan starts about 10 days earlier each year, rotating around the calendar year. Mohammed made it very clear that he much prefers it when Ramadan falls when the days are short and the nights are long. I asked him about people living nearer the poles, where the daylight can be almost continuous or the night can be almost complete. He explained that, over the years, the Imans have calculated an appropriate “fast day” for a person living in such situations to be observant. With the web, it is easy to determine the proper fast time for anywhere in the world. He also explained that some people are exempted from fasting, such as those who are ill or expectant or nursing mothers. He also spoke of practicing charity, which is an important aspect of Ramadan, though usually less evident.
After resting a little while from eating, our feast concluded with several kinds of baklava (lady fingers, bird nest, diamond) and watermelon. The children had received some money in celebration of the end of Ramadan. They were very excited and made their father promise to take them to the market on Sunday, because they were going to get “treats”!
In our conversation, Jeannie and I assured Mohammed that we at St. Malachi had been praying for them and the entire Muslim community throughout the month as they observed Ramadan. Although we did not express our solidarity by participating in fasting, we had true solidarity in prayer with and for our Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan.
I had learned about Ramadan as one of the “five pillars of Islam” in my world religion class in the seminary. I was able to compare it with the Christian season of Lent and the traditional spiritual practice of fasting, especially during Lent, and my own experience of keeping Lent each year was certainly helpful. To have a conversation about Ramadan with people who practiced Islam and to share the joy of the end of Ramadan with them was altogether richer.
Personal encounter and experience touches and transforms us in ways that learning itself cannot. Our encounter and experiences with the Alzin family has touched and enriched us all more than we could have expected or known.
Everyone at St. Malachi has a special opportunity for such an encounter: the upcoming Tea Time for Peace on Wednesday, July 12, at 7PM in our hall. You will understand more about Islam and you will be richer for the experience.