In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.
As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?”
In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?
Leaving behind the trappings of daily life, home, job, friends, family, even the clothes one normally wears, and making a journey to deepen and strengthen one’s faith, one’s connection to God, is the central premise of Islam’s fifth pillar, the Hajj. During this annual pilgrimage, Muslims travel to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, and engage in ten days of rites honoring Abraham and Hajar, rededicating themselves to God and to the practice of their religion. The promise of Hajj is spiritual rebirth, renewal of piety, and enhanced nearness to God and the values of Islam.
This belief that laying aside the concerns and material goods of normal life is essential to maintaining a balance between the spiritual and the mundane, to developing a sound character, and growing one’s relationship with the Divine runs throughout all of Islam’s rituals. The daily prayers are a means to set aside the cares of the moment, realign one’s priorities, and refocus oneself on the Divine, on the larger picture as it were. During the annual celebration of Ramadan, the renunciation of food, drink and sex during daylight hours turns one’s focus away from these basic human needs and sets it on spiritual development, the improvement of one’s character, and a life of piety and good works. Zakat, and it’s corollary of regular charity, involves renouncing material wealth, again loosening our connection to the material and refocusing it on the spiritual. Hajj, then, is the ultimate spiritual exercise, a once in a life time experience, the capstone of ritual practices that reinforce one’s connection to the Divine in overlapping circles of daily and annual devotions.
Each of the Islamic rituals represents a traveling away from worldly life, whether it be through a minor setting aside of time and mental focus such as the daily prayers, or by relinquishing our desires for material goods, or an actual journey to a different part of the earth.
My own experiences confirm that this time apart, this conscious journeying away from worldly concerns, is essential to maintaining balance and perspective. It helps me to focus less on the stresses and desires of the moment, and better able to live up to the values that I hold to — kindness, compassion, honesty, truth, justice. It makes me more able to be the person I want to be.