The day before Islam’s holiest month Ramadan was set to begin, I received an email from The Contemplative Society. I was logistically and mentally preparing for my fourth decidedly non-traditional foray into this time of fasting and spiritual recommitment. While I am not Muslim myself, I occasionally take advantage of the opportunity to participate in a global joint effort to purify ourselves and reorient to what is truly important: community and charity through what I would call contemplation.
So I was intrigued when I opened the email and saw that our friends at Contemplative Outreach had moved a conference they were planning in South Africa online for the world to join. Titled Oneness: The Secret Embrace, Thomas Keating’s final gift to the world, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to weave some of my personal spiritual orientation, contemplative Christianity, into my experience of this Islamic holiday. At $35 USD suggested donation for three mornings, the price was certainly right for a student like me!
For the next week, I struggled to pull myself out of bed pre-dawn to eat the hearty breakfast that would sustain me the roughly 14.25 hours until my nightly post-sunset meal. In between, I would spend about four hours on school, eight hours on work, and a couple more hours distracting myself by cooking, cleaning, walking, waiting, and yes, some contemplating. By the time the morning of the conference arrived, I had already calculated an average day’s hours of sunlight over the whole year in my region, math that bought me a couple more hours of energy and significantly improved my concentration for my priority endeavour, my master’s program. I’d also worked out a monetary cost for any hours I didn’t fast that I was “supposed” to, a plan I figured was in line with the charitable prescriptions and instructions I have seen that allow Muslims to make up for time not fasting during Ramadan as soon as they are able.
Feeling a bit guilty all the same, I settled onto my cushion in front of Cynthia for the first time in a couple years. Since I started my program, I have not been able to attend any retreats. These days, I mostly draw from the resources I collected from my three-year immersion working for The Contemplative Society. During that time, I had the privilege of unusually intimate moments with Cynthia, hooking her up with microphones when we were recording her. The warm nostalgia of seeing her getting settled into her own technological discomfort zone on the other side of the screen helped me let go of my preoccupations with perfection and open up to something new.
While I am not particularly familiar with Fr. Thomas Keating or his teachings as yet, the message I heard over and over seemed simple. As Cynthia shared his poems and some stories of his life, it became clear that Fr. Keating’s profundity as a teacher did not arise from a perfect life. By embracing the messiness, inconvenience, discomfort, pain, and, perhaps most weighty to consider during a pandemic, suffering, we create an opportunity to open ourselves to experiencing the overwhelming and undergirding perfection of “creation” as it unfolds. That does not mean we seek out the darkness in order to make ourselves perfect, but that we learn to lean in when it arises and see what might serve to let a little light in.
The way I interpret this, our little stories (of identity, identification, etc.) don’t get lost in a wash of sameness—as in, we all suffer, so ignore them. Rather, the honour we give to them transforms each experience into the unique thread that contributes to the tapestry of oneness. Our bits and pieces matter because, while particular, their similarities link us to the experiences of others and help show us what we might have to offer. A simple message, maybe, but not the easiest to live out.
After two weeks, I gave up on daily fasting and decided to do so only on Fridays. Term papers were coming due, and I needed all the energy I could muster in my off-work hours to keep up. One could say it was a pretty imperfect Ramadan. But rather than feeling guilty as I connected my experiences of suffering to the communities I would be charitable toward, I felt a sense of peace. Thanks in part to the conference with Cynthia and the lessons she drew from the example of Fr. Keating’s life, I saw that the month didn’t have to be perfect to be meaningful; I still saw where I could serve. And I saw that being ok with my imperfect Ramadan helped me connect with the community of people closest to me who were struggling with their imperfect pandemics: sourdough projects gone awry, social exhaustion despite isolation, and to-do lists still not getting done despite more time. Sharing the similarities between our unique experiences made to transform the bits of suffering into sustaining connection.
Ramadan Mubarak. Wishing you your own imperfect, blessed Ramadan.
Post-script: an online contemplative conference might sound pretty imperfect, especially to those who can afford in-person retreats. But given its accessibility, it is also an immense opportunity for unifying an incredibly diverse community of contemplatives. Deep bows to the organisers. I hope it happens again.