Ramadan

This month, we are focusing on spiritual growth. On the first Sunday, we talked about what this thing called spirituality might be, and in the end we decided that spirituality is a word that is both important and all but impossible to pin down. We might even abandon the word altogether - convicting it of the crimes of offensiveness and criminal ambiguity and sentencing it to banishment for life - but then, we really don't have a suitable substitute!

Thus we are using it for lack of a better term and we are using it in a very pragmatic way - spirituality is that process that yields what we recognize as spiritual fruit. There are plenty of ways to list those outcomes of spirituality. The way I've suggested is to consider just four of them as primary: Compassion, Faith, Mindfulness, and Gratitude. Many more qualities can grow out of those four, almost as many more dishes can be prepared from a few basic ingredients.

And, for what it's worth, I have a mnemonic for those for C, F, M, and G: CoFee MuG. Get it? The consonants represent the four qualities: C for compassion, F for faith, M for mindfulness, and G for gratitude!

The second Sunday, we focused specifically on mindfulness - the essential sense of being present in your life so you don't simply sleepwalk through
the one precious life you've been given! 

This week, we are going to allow ourselves to be inspired by a special event that begins on Friday - the 30 day Muslim celebration of Ramadan.

First, let's consider where we are. Each of us, I hope, is prepared to accept that the fruits of spirituality are worth working for. Whether you go with my "coffee mug four" or some other formulation, I suspect that you recognise that developing in that direction will make you more content in your life, more loving, more connected - basically happier.

And more than that, if you become more like this, others around you will benefit. They too will be influenced by your way of being. Perhaps they will even be moved along that path themselves. 

And we can all imagine what kind of world this would be if everyone was on the CoFee MuG path. Compassionate, grateful, mindful, faithful people working together to make this world the true paradise it could be.

So, it could not be clearer that this is one of the most important things you can do with your life. Some of you have never delved into such things and you want to know where to start. Fair enough.

Others will say those words that ministers hate to hear: "we tried that and it didn't work." I don't hate to hear that because you've experimented and failed. That's a good thing! If you haven't failed and failed often, you have not taken enough chances. But I hate hearing it because it can become a reason not to try anything. It can become a reason to stop experimenting.

And, it is also very true to say that spiritual growth, like anything else worth pursuing, can be very hard work! I've been meaning to sit down to meditate this week... OK, and last week, and the week before, and... well, you know how it goes. Finding the time, making the time, committing. Doing it. It's very much like exercising you're body. You know it's really good for you and you have the best intentions - you even know you'll feel better for it! But there always seems to be something else to do...

So, if there's a challenge in doing spiritual practice, it's worth looking around to see how others have addressed it throughout time. Where to look? Well, religion, of course. It is interesting to me that people seem to feel either that traditional religion is good or that it is bad. It is either the essential and highest product of humanity or it is an oppressive bunch of, harmful, brainwashing, nonsense.

This is like saying humanity or nature or government is all bad or all good. We miss the truth and the subtleties and the possible lessons when we hold such attitudes. The truth is that all of these things include their useful and harmful elements.

Religion has done a lot of bad and it has done a lot of good. It exists for a whole raft of reasons. One of the things it has done well is to figure out ways to help people to stick to their spiritual practices. So, what has religion come up with?

OK, there's the threat of hell and promise of heaven. I suppose that if you could believe that, it would be very motivating.

More useful though is practice in community. Anything you do with others is something you are more likely to keep at. Hence meditation groups like the one that meets here every Tuesday evening. Hence prayer groups and services.

Another solution is to set times of the day for certain practices. Islam has mastered this one with its five daily prayer times. It helps, of course, to live among other people working on the same schedule as you.

One excellent solution to the struggle of making time for practice is to use commonplace events in your life as triggers or cues. Prayers before eating
and after eating. Prayers upon waking and when going to sleep. Prayers for washing, prayers for leaving the toilet... This is a way of being that integrates spiritual practice throughout one's day - something we have emphasized as part of the five seeds programme here.

And, we come to the 30 day period that begins this Friday: Ramadan.

Most of us know something about Ramadan. We may know it as a time of dawn to dusk fasting, and that’s correct. For thirty days beginning Friday, observant Muslims will abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sex from sunrise until sunset.

Ramadan is not only about abstinence.

The observance of Ramadan is, more than anything else, an approach to the sacred – a unique time for each individual to approach the indescribable wonder of life. Muslims are expected to be kind to one another, to increase their generosity, and to pray deeply and often at this time. Fasting is not a punishment, it is a tool for redirecting the heart away from the distractions and materialism of everyday life and toward life’s fundamental and yet ineffable truths.

And in terms of a tool for reinforcing spiritual practice, Ramadan is a brilliant invention! When I think of sticking with a daily spiritual practice, I think - oh no - every day forever? I can't do that.

But, what about the challenge - the limited time challenge - of doing something special for just thirty days. OK, I think I can do that!