Saturday, November 14, 2009


Photo by Laitche

Photo by Paul Lomax

The windows run with rain, though I do not see it falling through the air. Little brown and white birds with slightly pink heads sit on bare branches beaded with rain drops, flapping their wings and hopping to dry themselves, their little tails twitching in and out for balance. Then they flit in the direction of the bird feeder on our front balcony, but I see them stop on the railing, perched on the cold metal in a row, waiting.

Another flock is arriving from the sky and settling near the feeder, big, speckled fellows with long, sharp beaks. I can't see the feeder from this angle, but I imagine they leap at it, their weight causing it to sway so they fall off, knocking seed down onto the wet ground for a group of them to grab at. When they are done, the little birds are allowed to take over, perching gingerly or picking with care at leftover seed on the ground.

I look back out the window after my imaginings. Both kinds of birds rest in the dripping tree now; sometimes a big bird shares a branch with a little bird. The little ones still fluff and flap, and the big ones do, too, their greater weight shaking the water from the branches and making them sway. One big bird alternately flaps his wings and pokes his long beak at the branches that surround him, as if to distract himself from the cold and wet.

Will they sit until the rain is over? What if it rains for days? Do they enjoy the bath or resent it?

Now only one little bird and one big bird are left in the tree. More flocks fly overhead.

The grey clouds press low, and it feels wet even in our warm, dry home, and I feel happy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hungry Hungry Katie

Picture by RecoveryMinded

I'm fasting today. And I'm hungry. Hungry for what?

Last year, after Ramadan, I decided to start consistently doing a voluntary fast of 3 days per month. I think it was because I had such a good experience during last year's month of fasting that I wanted to continue it throughout the year. Thank God, I was able to do it, though I stopped during our summer travels.

Well, this year, after Ramadan, I wondered if I really wanted to continue this. This Ramadan I focused more on inner qualities than outer: instead of aiming to pray the extra tarawih prayers at night, for example, my goal this year was to work on thinking more positively. Is there a point to the monthly voluntary fast, I wondered, or should I focus on something else?

I missed the fast during the month of Shawwal, the Islamic lunar month that comes right after Ramadan, and I continued to wonder whether I should do it this month.

Then I started to feel full. I was overwhelmed, full of things and thoughts, like I was drowning in one of those bins of plastic balls that kids play in. "Think positively!" I shouted to myself, but my thinking muscles weren't enough to pry away the things that encrusted themselves around me like barnacles.

What would make me feel empty? What would de-gunk me and clear me and help me focus again on what was important?

Aha! Fasting.

When I first began fasting a few years ago, it mostly gave me a splitting headache. But as I've gotten used to it, I find that fasting allows me to trust in God more and dedicate myself to Him, focusing not just on what gives my body pleasure but on Who really provides everything.

Today is the second day that I've fasted this month, and I hope to complete three and continue with my voluntary fasts in the coming months, God willing.

Today as I fast, I can feel the plastic balls and the barnacles breaking up and flowing out of me as I breathe out, and a clear stream takes their place, flowing through me and cooling and cleaning me. Maybe I just don't have the energy to hold on to all the things that overwhelm me; maybe I'm losing it from hunger; maybe there is some scientific explanation.

I don't need to know exactly how it works, though it is interesting.

Fasting helps me shed the clutter and fullness and makes me hungry for God. Then, when I do work during the day or when I break my fast at night, I feel like I have been given a precious gift and I appreciate it with fresh eyes and a clean heart.

So, tonight I'm hungry for our leftover Tofurky roast, but I'm also hungry for meaning, and God willing, because I denied myself while fasting and de-cluttered myself a bit, I'll have room for both!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Knowing or Unknowing?

Photo by a4gpa

I am reading Karen Armstrong's book, The Case for God. In it, she surveys people's understanding of and relationship to God over the ages and across different religious--and atheistic--traditions. Throughout the book runs the author's warning that we should not confuse God with idols of our own making. Going beyond what many monotheists would consider idols--lesser gods or statues of them, for example--and even beyond other insights as to what constitutes idols--money, power, fame, Armstrong illustrates how concepts of God can become idols.

She seems to criticize modern, literal readings of scriptures and the modern believer's impulse to prove the existence of God using science or argument (making the title of her book tongue-in-cheek, perhaps?). She calls into question the notion that we "know" God is good, great, exists, is on our side, etc. In what way do we know this? Does God exist like we exist; is God limited, then, by the same natural laws? If we can know all about God, does that diminish God?

Many religious people take classes to learn more about their faith and about God. I've taken classes that feel oddly empty, like I was getting information, but something spiritual was missing. I've taken other classes where I feel spiritually uplifted as I learn. Often, what I've found, is that if the attitude of the teacher and students is humble and open to surprises and wonder, then this Other something spiritual is there. If the teacher and students are arrogant and congratulate themselves on knowing everything while others know nothing, then I feel empty.

Can we only reach towards God in "the cloud of unknowing," as the 14th-century Christian book of that name suggests?

I have often felt that when I empty myself of anxieties and thoughts and assumptions, when I make a vacuum inside, then Something comes to fill it. But when I try to construct my own ideas, hanging thoughts and theories and creeds onto the framework, I end up with a tacky, overdone Christmas tree that falls over.

And yet, these frameworks are important; learning is important. I have a desire to know God, not just to unknow God.

I come to no final conclusion, just to the experience that beliefs and practices are a roadmap to follow, but we have to walk. And we can walk humbly, we can skip, we can listen to the birds singing; or we can torch the trees and pillage the houses and salt the earth we pass.

What happens if our fellow believers who walk the same path are the bad kind? Do we give up? Can we find another path? Maybe. Do we need to walk together or can we do it on our own?

All of these questions frustrate me. But maybe if I let them go, take a deep breath, and unknow, the answer will come to me. Or not. I'm not sure which is best.

Back in Montreal

We have been back in Montreal for quite a while, and after the summer's travels, I have forgotten how to write my usual posts. I'll try to start again now.