A Muslim Lent Story

The Rev. Ethan Jewett, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, waits to place ash on worshipers' foreheads on Ash Wednesday in
The Rev. Ethan Jewett, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, waits to place ash on worshipers' foreheads on Ash Wednesday in front of a Starbucks Coffee at the corner of Chestnut and 19th Streets in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time when Christians prepare for Easter through acts of penitence and prayer. Jewett said he placed ash on just over 600 worshiper's foreheads. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In third grade, we had a simple rule: If you heard a siren, everything stopped. Cursive lesson, history presentation, even "The Magic School Bus" -- whatever it was, it stopped. Sirens meant someone was in trouble. Whether it was a firetruck flying past our playground or an ambulance somewhere in the distance, someone was in need of help. And that someone could probably use a prayer.

That was the lesson instilled in us by Sr. Mary Dolores Wagner, a Catholic schoolteacher following in the tradition of The Sisters of Mercy. For her, it was simple: You do what you can to help people. As a third grader, you might not be able to perform CPR or help put out a fire, but you could pray. You could bring your hands together, drop your head, and spend just a few seconds in silent reflection asking God to help those in need and thanking Him for keeping us safe. It was small, but it was something.

As a young American Muslim student attending a Catholic elementary school, the message hit home. It sounded almost like... Islam. The message of hope, of trying, of simply trying to do something kind seemed so familiar. It was the same message of the Quran, the Sunnah, and the never ending Sunday School lessons: We were supposed to do good, to help people, and to always pray for those in need. To borrow an Ignatian maxim, we were taught to give and not ever to count the cost.

Of all the lessons I learned at that tender age, one has stuck with me to this day. It comes from midway through the second chapter of the Quran: "Compete in good deeds" (2:148). It's a simple verse, one about competing in doing good -- in loving, in caring, in giving, in doing all those things that bring benefit to humanity. In the Quran, bettering ourselves through learning from one another is a recurring motif. If we were given the abilities to learn and to communicate, we were given them to use for good.

Even as a child, I could recognize the beauty of praying for those in need. The imam I saw on Sundays told me that prayers made for those not present were the fastest to be accepted. The Catholic Sister of Mercy I saw Monday through Friday reminded me to pray for those in need. The practices went hand in hand. They existed together on a beautiful platform of hope, recognizing and appreciating how much it is that we each are in need of the love, the support, and the prayers of those who care.

Listening to the Pope Benedict XVI deliver his final Ash Wednesday homily at the onset of Lent, I found myself listening again to words that felt familiar. Recounting the story of the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke of the importance of "almsgiving, prayer, and fasting." As a Muslim, my Ramadan ticker began beeping.

I might not believe in the divinity of Christ or the Crucifixion of the four canonical gospels. But I do believe in charity, in prayer, and, of course, in fasting. As he drew from the Old Testament, I believed in his message of overcoming differences and working together in faith. And when he closed with a message "to return to God with all our heart"--yeah, I believed in that too.

Seeking to join in on the proverbial "fun," I joined millions of Catholics in giving something up for Lent this year. Having observed my first Ramadan fasts long before even third grade, Lent seemed ever so natural. As tradition goes, what I gave up was supposed to be something that would be a challenge. It needed to be something that I would miss, something that would remind me of why I was doing this. I found two obvious candidates--chocolate and soda.

My sacrifices were neither grand nor life shattering, but they were meaningful. They were parts of my everyday routine that I knew I would miss. For the last six weeks of Lent, I've learned how difficult a starving sweet tooth can be to manage, how difficult it is to break a habit, and, most importantly, how rewarding it is to know that you are giving up something and challenging yourself so that you too can partake in bettering yourself.

In the Islamic tradition, we are reminded, "The best actions are those which are small and consistent." Those words from the Prophet Muhammad remind us the importance that even the smallest of deeds can have with the right intention. Each of us can pray. Each of us can give. Each of us can share a smile and shoulder a sorrow. Whoever we are, we each have the capacity to engage in small acts of kindness that can change the world.

Sometimes, it takes a few weeks without chocolate to remember how blessed we are. Sometimes, it takes a short prayer after a siren to remember how much we need each other. And sometimes, it takes just a short reminder to remember how much it is that we can learn from each, how much good our traditions have to share, and how much beauty we each have to offer.

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