This year I have much over which to reflect. God Almighty has blessed me with performing the Hajj, or pilgrimmage to Mecca, this year. There is no better gift He could have given me this year. It was the most amazing spiritual experience I have ever had, and it has left a deep impression on me I pray will last my entire life. In addition, the Hajj taught me many important lessons.
First, it taught me how to be patient. There were 2 million pilgrims in the Holy Precints this year, and that was a light year! Obviously, with that many people, one is bound to encounter frustrating situations. And I encountered many such frustrating situations.
I have lost count of the times I wanted to explode, which would violate an essential rule of the Hajj: that I do not enter into any dispute with fellow pilgrims. Many pilgrims who traveled with us failed that test and lost their tempers...multiple times. It is only by the grace of God that I did not succomb to my frustrations.
Yes, I got pushed around by fellow pilgrims. Numerous people cut in front of me while I was standing in line. While climbing the Mountain of Light, where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) first received the Qur'an from Angel Gabriel, I was yelled at in at least three different languages. But I tried my best to keep my cool. Now, whenever I want to blow my top at how slowly Chicago traffic is moving--and believe me, it moves very, very slowly--I remember Mecca and calm down. If I can stand almost being trampled to death by a fellow pilgrim, I can surely stay calm while battling Chicago's horrendous rush hour traffic!
The Hajj also helped to refocus my spirituality. God tells us in the Qur'an that the purpose of my life is to worship Him. I lived this to the fullest potential while in the Hajj. Mecca is situated in the middle of volcanic rock and mountains. There is no beach, no lake, no amusement park, no workout gym; there is nothing to do except eat, sleep, and worship God (well, maybe you can also shop). The march of people traveling to and from the Great Mosque between each prayer resembled the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. And since the day is relatively short (Hajj was during February), there is barely enough time in between the daily prayers to do anything else besides walk to and from the Great Mosque.
Another very important lesson Hajj taught me was the power of prayer. A sincere prayer to God, from the depths of one's heart, can move mountains. The mission of the Prophet Muhammad, in fact, was nothing more than an answer to Abraham's prayer to God. And I lived the power of prayer while in Mecca.
It was a very hot day in Mecca when my friend and I embarked on filling two large containers with the waters of the holy well of Zamzam. This well was dug by the Angel Gabriel at the foot of the Prophet Ishmael, and we wanted to take some home with us. We walked forever in the hot sun (in February...sheesh!) until we found faucets that would fit our big 10 liter jugs. Once filled, we had to walk all the way back, still in the hot sun, to our hotel carrying about 45 pounds of water. Every taxi cab driver we asked refused to take us to our hotel. So we decided to take the shuttle bus, which can be an hour wait. I made a prayer from the bottom of my heart for God to send us the bus...it came within 30 seconds. Coincidence? Not.
Of course I prayed for much more important things than sending the shuttle bus: prayers to bless my friends and family; prayers to heal my daughter who got sick while we were gone; prayers to bless my medical and writing career. The point is, no matter how magnificent or mundane the request I make of God, I should always make that request of God first and of God alone. (Lord, if you could make my medical school debt just disappear, that would be fantastic....)
Just like Lent is so much more than giving up chocolate or ice cream, the Hajj is so much more than walking around a stone cube, running between two stone hills, and throwing stones at a stone pillar. The lessons Hajj taught me were indispensible, and I am so thankful to God that He gave me the opportunity to have the Hajj teach me those lessons relatively early on in my life. The challenge now is to keep the spirit of the Hajj alive, which is proving to be most difficult.
The effect of the Hajj is already starting to wear off, and this is making me sad. But I am not going to give up that easily. My struggle, indeed my jihad, will be to continue pushing myself to remember the lessons of the Hajj and apply them to my daily life.