My grandmother used to say that life is a great wheel. Sometimes it grinds you down to the mud and other times it lifts you up to the light. We are strapped to this wheel, but the point is that most times you get a second chance. You just gotta wait for the wheel.
– John Crichton, Farscape
Today is Nawrúz, the official end of the Baha’i 19-day fast and the first day of our calendar. It’s also my second since joining the faith. When I look back on last springtime, more and more it feels as though February 23, 2009 was a culmination of sorts. In the least it was appropriately symbolic, at most not a coincidence, that I joined right before the fast, as though I had to pass through a kind of death in order to be resurrected and rejuvenated. I think my friend Tony, who joined with me, has a similar interpretation.
The 2009 fast wasn’t my first. I attended a Catholic university, so I was familiar with Lent. During my long complicated romance with Islam I had undergone Ramadan numerous times. I was never successful, breaking down after only a few days, at best after two weeks. But last year was different, and not because the Baha’i fast is a week shorter. My heart had never been in Ramadan; it always felt like an obligation. For the Baha’i fast, though, I found that my heart was ready for the commitment.
Tony and I have talked at great length about the meaning of the fast for us. While many Catholics, Muslims, and Baha’is feel that the act of sustained self-denial brings them metaphysically closer to God, he and I have had no such experience. We personally reject such sudden discovery of piety; instead, of ourselves we demand consistency. As I recently put it to a Flemish comrade, “I was a screwed-up jerk before the fast and I remain a screwed-up jerk during the fast; the big difference is that now I’m starving.”
But of course that’s not the main difference. It’s perhaps surprising considering our normally mystical inclinations, but Tony and I instead find ourselves understanding the fast in worldly terms of challenge and, most of all, ethics. We see the fast as an act of solidarity for those suffering privation throughout the world — approaching the divine via His justice, not His presence. This makes sense to us because for most of the year we’re more theophanic than ethical.
The themes of challenge, commitment, ethics, and most of all, justice, were especially big for me during this year’s fast. In an academic year already filled with death, when the fast began I was confronted with two more: first, my aunt’s, after decades of suffering, then second, quite possibly the chances for a normal life in America, after an error with my nation’s unjust higher education and debt systems resulted in what may have been a catastrophic crippling of my credit rating that might take the better part of a decade to repair.
For the next three weeks I subsisted on bread, water, and rage. Sometimes the anger was righteous, sometimes just plain ugly. On the positive side, through my struggle against the collection agency Leuven’s international admissions office saw firsthand the dark side of American higher education debt, which will undoubtedly prove useful for future students here. Many of my Flemish friends also came to appreciate their nation’s social security system in a way that they couldn’t before.
But on the negative side, my lowest moment came during French class, when I exploded at several of my classmates, especially the Americans. Much to my regret, I lost the respect of a Colombian colleague whom I like very much. His disappointment was a confrontation with myself, a mirror showing how much the terror of debt, even more than the terror of never finding love, has tyrannized my life.
The rage and despondency also polluted the spiritual retreat I participated in last weekend. I came away from Drongen torn, on the one hand missing the ease of familiarity back in the United States and disgusted by the dreariness of Flanders, on the other hand realizing that I could no longer run from my loneliness — a realization with which I’m still struggling. What does it mean to be alone? For how long will I be an exile?
All in all, it was a very messy and emotional fast this year. I thought often of the Báb, especially his last moments. Ever the slippery one, he confronted the arbitrariness of the world, embodied in the corrupt Persian authorities, and mocked it, transforming his brutal death into a joke that was more than mere human joking, laughing at the darkness, telling it, You are merely the absence of light and a dawn is coming.
There were moments when I could channel this sense of transcendence, when I watered this seedling that I am with the spirit of detachment, and there were moments when I failed, leaving myself to dry from neurotic thirst. But perhaps thus is Chris Schwartz:
I do not progress but I also do not regress. Instead, I circle, like a wheel in mud, never advancing but nevertheless churning, descending deeper and re-discovering the same lessons but with new textures, like the sediments of the earth. Perhaps one day I will finally see the light of the planet’s burning core, and entering it become transmuted, my spokes reformed as roots and my hub as a seed, hatching and finally, after long last, arising toward the sun.