WATER & THE SACRED
A meditation in honor of the water protectors at Standing Rock
My earliest and most beloved memories of the sacred are connected to water. I can still see the mountain creek near our family cabin, where we waded in the icy, swift current and played for countless hours as children; I can still remember the moist feeling of dipping the fingers of my right hand in the dish of holy water whenever we entered our neighborhood church and the way the priests ritually washed their fingertips as I stood by as an altar boy; I can still recall the chill and the thrill of swimming in the Sea of Galilee at dawn on the eve of my twenty-first birthday; I can still see and feel the cool water running over my bare feet (and sprained ankle) as I stepped into the Sikh Harimandar (Golden Temple) in Amritsar; I can take myself back to the house of God – the Ka‘ba – in Mecca and relive the first time I drank the blessed water of ZamZam – the spring that has given life there since the day it first appeared to save Hagar and Ishmael; I recall many instances of making my ritual ablutions within the ancient sanctuary of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, near the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque; I remember the ritual washing and anointing of the earthly bodies of loved ones who have been called home… When I pause to consider the organic connection between water and the sacred, I also see images of Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges; I think of the Jewish ritual bathing or mikvah and the ancient remains of the mikvot on the excavated stairs that once led up to the Temple in Jerusalem; I think of John the Baptist pouring the water of the Jordan over Jesus; I think of the countless baptisms I have witnessed; I hear echoes of of the joyful squeals of my children as they play in the Hawaiian surf and feel the pull of the ocean; and I remember the water of the wombs that carried us and protected us and nurtured us in our first months of life.
In the beginning of Moby Dick, Melville wrote that water calls us, draws us, and that all paths lead to water. The very mystery of life is contained in water, he said, and so “meditation and water are wedded forever.” The Hebrew Bible says that “the spirit hovered over the water” at the beginning of the creation, and the Qur’an states that “all things come from water…” There is a mystery here that transcends tradition. Water is life, and life is sacred. It would then seem that, just as our bodily condition requires bathing for us to be healthy and beautiful, our souls require contact with water to be restored and reconnected with the sacred.
Some questions for us to ponder: how do we use water in our spiritual practices? Why do we use water? What does our contact with water have to do with our transformation and restoration as spiritual beings?
In Muslim faith and practice, one of the most common, everyday ways we connect with water is through our ritual ablutions, which ready the servant for prayer: “O you who believe,” the Qur’an says, “when you rise for [the performance of] prayer, wash your faces and your hands [all the way] to the elbows, and wipe your heads and [wash] your feet to the ankles.” (Qur’ān 5:6)
I was once asked by a Baptist minister friend if we have any form of baptism in Islam. I replied honestly that we do not any form of ritual washing that marks one’s entrance into the faith, but we do have our ritual washing, which is repeated several times in a day and does, in some ways, resemble baptism in both spirit and form. I then invited him to accompany me as I performed my ritual ablutions in preparation for the Friday noon prayer.
Following the Prophet’s customary practice (may God’s blessings be upon him), it begins with a clear intention and then with a washing of the hands. For me, washing my hands up to the wrists is a prayer for forgiveness – forgiveness for all of the destructive things I have done, forgiveness for all of the people I have hurt or wronged, forgiveness for all of the good and life-giving deeds I should have done but didn’t… More than a plea for forgiveness, the washing becomes a prayer for Divine blessing upon all of those wronged souls, a prayer that God might, in the mystery of Divine mercy, transform their hurts and wounds into blessings, a prayer that God might sanctify and strengthen my hands to be helping hands, hands that work good deeds and healing, hands that build instead of break, hands that protect rather than harm.
I then cup water in these hands and raise that water to rinse my mouth. Here, too, I ask God to forgive all of the hurtful, mean, and destructive things I have said to others; I think of all of the times I have yelled at my children or spoken critically of them or others; I think of the times I have argued with my parents or with my wife; I think of hurtful words spoken to people who are no longer actively present in my life; I think of all the times I have spoken out of vanity; I think of times I have abused the gift of speech by speaking falsely or thoughtlessly or without purpose. And I ask that my speech be sanctified so that I may speak words of healing, love, and truth, words that build others up rather than break them down, words that are necessary and purposeful rather than idle or empty. In this moment I remember my monastic brothers and sisters who begin their day with the prayer of Psalm 51: “O Lord open my lips, that mouth may declare Your praise…”
Having begged for the cleansing of what comes out of me, I then rinse my nose and ask for God’s protection from negative and hurtful forces that enter me from outside. Then I wash my entire face (paying special attention to my eyes) and ask God to forgive me for all the times I have turned my face toward things that are other than God or toward purposes that are contrary to my true purpose; I think of all my lustful glances that objectify (and therefore do violence to) other ensouled beings, my mean-spirited glances, prejudiced glances; I think of all of the times I get caught up in worldly distractions and so fail to look for God’s face… And I entreat God to illumine my vision with the light of Divine presence and to keep my face turned toward that light.
I then wash my forearms to my elbows and ask God to give me strength to take hold of the Divine teachings and to keep my grip upon the life-lines of faith and hope, to give me the strength I need to do what I must in the service of truth and life.
After this, with dripping, wet hands, I rub my hands over my hair as I ask God to purify and illumine my thoughts and intentions, so that my mind might become a garden of blessing for all those who come to mind. And then I wipe the inside of my ears as I ask God to help me hear the cries of the poor, the hidden voices of those whose voices have been robbed or silenced by trauma, the voices of those who cry out for justice and protection and help. And I seek God’s forgiveness for all the times I have covered my ears or failed to hear such cries.
Finally, I wash my feet with the prayer that God will sanctify my feet so that I may stand in the Divine presence and so that I may walk in God’s way, a way that ennobles and gives life. I ask that all those I teach and lead be similarly guided. I also ask God to forgive all those times I have, knowingly or unknowingly, walked a path of destruction and darkness.
Then, after these washings and accompanying supplications, I am ready to stand for my ritual prayer observance. In other words, I am ready to be fully present to the Holy One. In the Islamic religious life, this is a process that we are required to repeat at least five times a day. The ritual ablutions, while a required precondition for prayer, have come to be for me an independent prayer ritual that makes standing in formal prayer possible. For, if I did not have a way to entrust all of my inner and outer misdeeds and transgressions and thoughtlessness to God, if I did not have a way to entrust all of the people I have hurt or wronged to God’s care, the burden of them would keep me from being able to be fully present and attentive to God in prayer. Without such ablutions, my mind and heart would be stuck in remorse for things past, and I would never be able to be fully here, fully now, for this sacred moment with the Divine. This is what this water ritual has come to mean for me. More, the fact that I must repeat this process several times a day is an acknowledgment that God is aware of my broken nature and my repeated falling but keeps calling me back, again and again. In other words, God calls me back to Godself through water, and I make my way back to God, back to myself, through water.
The mystic-poet-sage Rumi puts it in this way: “ours is not a caravan of despair. Even if you have broken your vow a thousand times, come. Come again; come.” The water ritual of ablution is thus a physical, lived sign of God’s open invitation.
When I explained and demonstrated all this to my Baptist friend, he was visibly touched and acknowledged that this was indeed related to the Christian sacrament of baptism. We come to life in water. Our life is sustained and restored by water. And we return to God through water.
In the words of Mircea Eliade,
“The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, ‘spring and origin,’ the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede and support every creation…On the other hand, immersion in water signifies a regression to the preformal, reincorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence…This is why the symbolism of water implies both death and rebirth…” (from The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion)
In this post-industrial age, which is characterized by what Eliade calls the “desacralization of nature,” our water rituals summon us from slumber and reawaken us to the sacredness of nature, including our own human nature. May the Spirit never cease to hover over the water, and may Divine blessings never cease to be upon the water protectors.
Timothy J Gianotti, December 6, 2016