The Hajj and the Profundity of Repentance
By Charles Rush
March 19, 2006
Jonah 3: 1-10 and Lk. 15: 11-24
(mp3, 3.5Mb) ]
was stirring sweetener into my latte at Starbucks this week and two neighbors were talking to each other about this and that. The subject turned to his impending birthday party, his 50th birthday party. She says to him, 'so who is your minder?' He says, 'Minder?' She is walking away and says, 'Someone ought to be assigned to follow you around for a year.' He turns back to me, a total stranger, and asks 'Do I look like I need someone to follow me around?' I though about it for a second and nodded, "Yes… yes you do."
took me back to the springtime at college, leafing through the library at Wake Forest, doing a paper on Aristotle. He was
actually talking about the disposition for thinking philosophically and how
young people are not given over to that sort of reflection because it is not
their time of life. And he went through the Greek life cycle for Men- women
didn't really count in his mind, I apologize- there is a season for athletics,
a season for soldiering, a season for the market place which is the season for
the accumulation of wealth, a season for parenting, a season for civic
involvement, a season for running the committees and charities and helping to
sponsor the big festivals that make up the life of the polis.
But then there
is another season. 50 was old for Aristotle. He was
thinking that you might live another 10 years, maybe. At this point in your
life, you have traveled, you know human natures best and worst capacities, you
know the possibilities and limits of communal life,
you have lived deprivation and eaten some of the best food the world has to
offer. The mind is more settled, you are not completely driven by your sensual
impulses as you are when you are younger.
At this point,
you need to take a break and reassess. You need to get off every committee and
all involvements. You need to be free of your family. He thought you should go
away for a while and reflect on your life, on your mortality, on your purpose
for living, and what you should do for the remainder of your life.
that this last phase of life should be given over to thinking about matters
eternal, to philosophy. You should be able to have the freedom and the
creativity to reflect on the bigger picture and to put the purpose of your
living into some perspective.
But, he was
pretty sure that you could only do that if you were free. So this last phase of
life is all about shedding yourself. Aristotle said that the ideal death is one
where you go out the way that you came in, with just your tunic. You don't need
all this stuff. Turn it over to others and take this time to go inward.
It struck me
at the time because, I was only 19 and really totally unable to envision how
life would be at 50 from any internal, existential perspective. But he said,
even your family should be up for review. When you take this time apart, your
wife should do it too. And he said, spouses should
free each other in advance… And only after you have gone away and come back,
should you talk together and decide whether you want to remain partners for the
last phase of life or whether you need to embark on a whole different direction
and leave your extended family behind perhaps.
serves, he skipped over how to divide up these assets and what to do if one
wants to be free and the other doesn't. And that is just as well because it is
beside the point spiritually. I was taken by the radical openness of his vision
and the spiritual liveliness of it. Far from just a retirement to play golf or
fish and take a nap in the afternoon, there was this sense that only now do you
actually have the life experience and only now have you accomplished enough to
be able to embark on the fullest spiritual quest that our life has to offer,
Contemplation and the discourse on the big picture with other wise people.
A couple years
later, I read a quite similar thing in Divinity School when I picked up the Confessions by St. Augustine. Augustine, as some of you will
know, was one of the most formidable intellects of his age, who became a
theologian of enormous historical influence in Western tradition.
In the Confessions he recounts his life
from a spiritual point of view. Historians (like Peter Brown at Princeton) have helped us fill in the gaps.
Augustine was a very passionate young man. Despite his considerable talents and
his aristocratic family connections and his education, Augustine was fairly
consumed with a girlfriend that he could not marry because they were in different
social classes and his Mother didn't approve. Here, a seasoned therapist could
endlessly track down threads of Augustine's interior psychological life but I
won't. By his own admission he obsessed with women and with parties in his
twenties. That is what he actually lived for. In his thirties and early
forties, it was women, career or reputation, and parties, each capturing his
attention in rotating fashion. They occupied all of his conscious concentration
and his unconscious motivation.
50, he became reflective about his life and realized that he was insubstantial
as a spiritual person. He was quite accomplished, he had indulged himself quite
a lot, but the older he got the more restless and anxious he had become. He was
subconsciously worried because he hadn't actually figured anything out and he
wasn't very centered in himself because he had spent
most of his life looking for his lover to fulfill him or getting intoxicated or
competing in his career. He spiritual character was
weak and ineffectual and subconsciously this bothered him like putting off a
visit to the doctor because you know that the report is going to have bad news
that forces changes you wish you didn't have to make.
conversion was rather dramatic and passionate like the rest of his life. He
basically left behind his wife, his girlfriend, his career, the parties, and he
withdrew to a Monastery in North Africa where he began to reflect on the meaning of life, of what
God wants us to accomplish during our short time here. He adopted an austere
lifestyle in the arid sands near the ruin of the ancient civilization of Carthage. He changed spiritual focus with
very little external stimulation to divert his attention so that he could focus
inwardly and become contemplative. Now his intellect and his creativity and his
passion became focused in a concentrated synchronous way and an amazing amount
of writing poured forth from his pen that cast a long shadow down the course of
Western history. That spiritual concentration released a prodigious output so
that the last part of his life became, by far, his most prodigious and most
Just in case
you are concerned, I'm not about to go to a monastery in North Africa or any
other place, though I've stood where St. Augustine stood out of a certain
respect for he was a worthy guide…
But, I am
taken by this one dimension of our spiritual tradition, that of repentance or
conversion. I don't mean repentance in the sense of renouncing our pedestrian
sins in the confessional- cheating, stealing, sabotage, betrayal, lying. That
is too limiting spiritually. I'm talking about profound life changes that
happen to you a couple three times in your life possibly where you are put on a
Christianity is a spirituality of conversion or repentance. It is one principal
characteristic that we share with Islam, probably because both Jesus and
Mohammed had experiences as mature adults where they felt themselves to be
turned around and set in whole new directions.
Both of them
broke with the religious heritage that they inherited enough that their
disciples interpreted their lives as ones that renounced an old way of being in
order to embrace a new and different spiritual orientation. They described
their lives as 'turned around.'
Both Jesus and
Mohammed had pivotal spiritual experiences in the desert, the physical
austerity facilitating spiritual reflection and change. And their earliest
disciples found themselves establishing places in the desert to retreat in order
to seek a similar experience of change. Both of them pick up on the theme of
seeing our lives as a spiritual adventure that is given to us in the Hebrew
Bible in the characters of Abraham, Sarah, Moses and Miriam. These characters
are called in the middle of their lives to do something new, to start a new
adventure, to pack up and leave behind what they had known up to that point and
start out in the direction of the unknown and follow the Spirit of God as it
leads in a fresh new chapter of some important, indeed life defining challenge.
And they have to discern what this new thing is, not easy. And they have to
travel to new place, leaving behind most of what they have known. It is not
comfortable but you get the feeling that on their deathbeds they all said this
is was the most fulfilling thing they ever did. It was the most alive they
In the old
days, we used to have a built in way of actualizing this in the Christian
tradition through pilgrimages, some to holy places in Europe, some back to Jerusalem itself. Today, very few Christians
have continued that practice that was so widely done through the Middle Ages.
Today, it is
most profoundly carried on in Islam through the Hajj, the pilgrimage that
Muslims are enjoined to make if they can, to Mecca, once in their life. The Hajj is a
major ordeal that takes quite a lot of planning to accomplish and a good chunk
of time as well.
Muslims back to the desert near where Mohammed first heard the call of God in
order to trace a several day pilgrimage that remembers Abraham taking his son
into the desert, the son through whom God had blessed Abraham and promised the
future blessing of his people. What is remembered out of that epic drama is the
way that Abraham reached a point in his life with God where there was nothing
that he would hold back in order to follow God, even his most precious child.
It was that expression of transcendent loyalty, unqualified and complete, that
is remembered as something of a breakthrough for authentic faith.
In that story
Abraham nearly sacrifices his son, his most precious son, and that dimension of
the story is filled with an abandon fraught with moral risk, indeed
contradiction. It threatens to violate a fundamental taboo, not only taking
life, taking it in the name of God, taking our own children in the name of God.
But the story
means to take us to that place of faith in the midst of uncertainty, but not
only that, faith in the midst of contradiction and moral ambiguity, it is a
confusion that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is only resolved by God, but
not before Abraham has his arm raised with the knife at the height of abandon
and obedience, this movement of uncertainty and resolve. Through all of that God honors this loyalty in Abraham that
supercedes and all earthly ties that he has forged through this long life and
sets him in a new direction for the remainder of this days.
The text is
meant to be fearful and horrifying, but strangely faithful and honorable at the
same time. It is this way, because it is a reminder that we get to junctures in
our life, not one, not two but a few junctures, where we are positioned to shed
the ties that bound us through family, through community, through vocation, to
reassess and re-direct ourselves for the future. It is what needs to happen, or
sometimes, it just has to happen. Death, tragedy just force
it upon us. I was reading a story about two brothers that were separated one
fateful day when the SS invaded their town and each fled for their lives in
different directions. They had one of those moments, completely unexpected
where they simply had to drop it all and run and keep running, each their own
way, both wondering about the other, presuming with each passing year that they
were dead. Now, 50 years later, they are re-united for the first time. Some
times these changes are forced upon us.
like Aristotle imagined it ought to be, we have the freedom, the creativity,
and the contemplative space to envision these changes ourselves.
One of the
profundities of the Hajj is doing it with over a million other people. It is
literally the case that people come to this place from all over the world. That
experience alone fills you with a universal transcendent awe in the midst of
the sheer scope and breadth of people all bound by this common tradition and
And in the Hajj,
everyone comes as a pilgrim. They are asked to adopt the simple white tunic of
the pilgrim in the Middle East, encouraging everyone to be the same to recognize their common human
quest. It is, in fact, about the same amount of cloth that you would wrap a
corpse in at death, because one of the things that it is important for the
pilgrims on the Hajj to reflect on, subconsciously, is their own mortality. It
is done in mid-life, remembering that the clock is running, and you are asking
yourself, 'what is it that God wants me to do with my remaining time?'
It helps to be
surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people dressed exactly the same,
following the same route traveled by pilgrims for centuries before you and
centuries after you, eating the same prescribed foods, saying prayers at the
same time. It helps to give you a certain spiritual perspective, to see that
from God's point of view, there is not nearly so much unique to you as there is
common with those around you, that whatever distinctions of power, wealth, and
status you may use to separate and define yourself at home, it just dissipates
when you step into the wide river of historical humanity. It helps you to be
delivered of your own sense of vanity and importance so that you might have an
authentic conversation with the Almighty during the course of that week,
walking across the sand with hundreds of thousands of other people.
What is genuinely moving to hear from the pilgrims is their
reflections at the end of the Hajj after 10 days. For many of them, somewhere
along the way, they became changed. They realize that the woman that got off
the plane when it landed at Mecca and the woman that will get back on
the plane to return to her home far away are not the same women anymore. They
say things like 'That was my life up to here, but from now on, I am doing
this.' Maybe they go back home, maybe they rejoin their family again and even
resume their old jobs, but it is not the same because they are not the same.
They may not
be able to exactly describe it but they are free. They are spiritually free.
The old things that bound them have been reassessed, many of them let go. They
are getting God directed and focused on what is really important. They are not
being driven by their desires as much as they have a sense of self-direction
that comes from being properly centered transcendently in God.
St. Augustine said at the end of the book about
his life, "My heart was restless until it was at rest in Thee". That
is the possibility of profound conversion. But it is not a one time thing. We
don't just find rest and then, aha, it is over.
No, but we do
change. We can become less restless. God can re-direct us… perhaps, more
profoundly as we get past a certain age. Maybe the best is yet to come, but not
the best, the most profound. I hope they are right. And may you be courageous
enough to 'let go… And let God.' Amen.
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