I am on the train to NYC. In a way, my Hajj has begun. Although I won't technically be considered a pilgrim until I enter the state of ritual sanctity (ihram) during my flight to Saudi Arabia, I have left my house in Providence intending to visit the Sacred Mosque in Makkah. The Islamic tradition affirms that each movement I make in that direction can be an act of worship, and so I hope to take each moment seriously and purify my intention for making this journey.
The Hajj is the most demanding form of ritual worship in Islam. Various statements of the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) liken those on the Hajj to those who serve, giving up ease and comfort for the sake of a higher purpose. This has always moved me at a deep psychological level. As an all-American kid, growing up in Chicago, I always wanted to be a Marine. In high school, I seriously considered it, but backed away. After college, I considered Officers Candidate School, but again backed away. As much as I was drawn to the ideals of the military, my inner voice made me question whether those ideals could ever be a reality in a world where words like "collateral damage" have become all too common. In a way, the Hajj is a means of fulfilling that innocent longing of my youth in a manner more appropriate to the realities of our age. I have come to sincerely doubt whether any form of modern warfare can be considered just, no matter who wages it and for what purpose. Men on horses wielding swords seems like monasticism in comparison to the hedonistic bloodlust embodied in tanks, machine guns, and laser guided missiles. I hope that by becoming a peaceful pilgrim, God blesses me with a spiritual reward equal to those who spend sleepless nights guarding the borders (known in Arabic as murabitun).
Hajj is a way for me to fulfill a deep need to give all of myself to something greater than myself - to engage in what I consider to be a heroic undertaking for the sake of an ideal. I believe that this is a need felt throughout my culture, especially amongst young men. It is reflected in the popularity of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. One can see it in the misguided rhetoric used by those who beat the drums for war. As Chris Hedges said, "war is a force that gives us meaning," but meanings can be both good and evil. We grew up hearing stories of our grandfathers confronting Hitler, but then quickly learned that even our fathers questioned the ethics of Vietnam. For me, the Islamic tradition offers a way to positively embrace this part of my psychology, for it teaches that the greatest war that has even been fought is the war to overcome our selfishness. This is what is often referred to as “the greatest jihad.” This internal struggle is one of the things that gives the Hajj a deeper meaning. Looked at from this angle, the Hajj is a yearly battle in a spiritual war that has raged since the beginning of time.
The Hajj demands human beings to give up their selfish desires. One cannot always have comfort, and often the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few. When one gets tired and sick, one must press on, for there is still so much more to do. In the Sacred Mosque, one is surrounded by pilgrims who are trying to live up to the ideals of Islam: sincere love of God, diligent following of the example of the Prophet Muhammad, good manners with other human beings, and much more. The pilgrims do not always succeed, but they try, and it is their honest effort which makes the Hajj beautiful despite its difficulties. The pilgrim knows that even their best is not good enough, for all are in need of God's mercy. One will reach one's limits on the Hajj, and there one will find the comforting presence of God which carries you beyond that which you thought was possible.
There is a well-known story that is often emblazoned on cards and plaques which embodies the experience of Hajj. A man dreamed of a beach that represented his life, and he saw two sets of footprints in the sand. He knew that one set represented him, and the other represented God. At one point, he noticed there was only one set of footprints. He cried out to God, "Dearest Lord! You told me that if I walked in Your way, you would be with me! But in this most difficult moment, you abandoned me and I walked alone. Why?” The Merciful Lord replied, "My beloved child, I never abandoned you. This was when you were too weak to walk yourself, and so I carried you."
May the Merciful Lord carry me, my wife, and all the pilgrims from around the world, travelers hoping to see the light of the City of God through the dense fog of this earthly realm.