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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.

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Discretion and the Spiritual Life

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My experience is limited, so I don’t know if it’s the northeast, or seminary life or an Ivy League secret oath, but we don’t talk about much around here. Not about personal things. I think the word, the habit, is called discretion.

I have two close friends here who know the whole story: a friend my age— a self-described Rhode-Island-thug of a wife and mother with kids—and a queer young man who laughs with me and tells it straight. No pun intended.

We love Jesus, most of us. We might just might admit to stress or insomnia, but we don’t complain about one another, we don’t gossip, Thank you, Jesus! unless something really stings, and then only to one of our confidantes, and then only to the one who will be the most pastoral in said scenario and the one most detached from the circumstances and the most trusted to keep our indiscretion (gossip: speaking of someone who is not present) in the vault. A good practice, but one that helps one appear above reproach, beyond vulnerability.

Recently I was challenged in a formal setting—can’t say where—about referring to my 20+ years as a mother at home as invisible. I need to embrace those years, synthesize them into my new life and my new vocation, whatever God may want it to be. Those years brought me here.

stairstepYes. God makes all things work to the good for those who love Him. But the years were invisible. An invisible striving within tract-home walls hoping to procure and project domestic bliss, striving for the Catholic perfection of a large family my womb couldn’t manufacture (Do you know what stair-step children are?) Struggle with a child who couldn’t be made happy no matter how much we loved him, medicated him, educated him. A marriage my husband and I so painstakingly slowly learned to nurture into a mature love

Not all stay-at-home mothers have invisible lives, but I did. Homeschooling, fiercely devoted to the nest as I say too often, straining under—it’s not ecumenical to say it, and therefore not discrete— conservative Catholicism’s aspirational supererogation.

SUPEREROGATION: The concept of voluntary works besides, over and above God’s commandments, which are sometimes called works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety. By them men declare not only that they render to God their proper duty but that they actually do more than their duty. But Christ says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants.‘ (Book of Common Prayer)

There ain’t nothin’ I miss less than that. The Episcopal Church welcomes you! It’s chock full of grace over here!

It was a life strewn through with blessing and love, but also desperation, doubt, fear and grief. My husband’s job losses. Miscarriage. The long illness and eventual death of my father. The Great Recession, during which I once went grocering shopping for the week with $7 (apples, potatoes, sour cream). A toddler in surgery. A boy who went temporarily blind. The hospital bills that followed.

In my 30s, as I was trying to find my voice, my worth and my way forward by going back to school, a Catholic priest told that a Master’s degree was not what I needed. Just get a job as a cashier at the grocery store, he said. You just need to get out a little, he said. Thank you, Father.

If a woman tells you she was invisible, ask her why.

Of course, discretion is necessary if we are to serve God’s people as priests, deacons, lay ministers and chaplains. But if perfectionism becomes our practice, well, that can foment clericalism,  “a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of their moral superiority,” a recipe for the abuse of power.

A few nights ago I had a dream that in a fit of rage in a Divinity school lecture hall, I threw a desk across the room, papers and books flying. I was summarily kicked out. I woke from the dream in a noxious sea of shame. I’m ashamed to even write it here: In a dream I was not perfect. But I’ve discerned it’s time for more truth telling. It may not be discreet. But perfection is Christ’s work, not mine. I am but an unworthy servant.

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17