“Do you think its is difficult to pray five times a day,” Jilda asked?
“Yes. I think it is difficult,” was my answer.
“It is not difficult,” she responded. “I love God. It is not hard.”
Each visit with Jilda has presented challenging questions. I met her last summer during a brief interfaith exchange at a Muslim educational house where she was a residential student. The house was located in the cozy mountainous town of Khulo, in the autonomous Republic of Adjara in Southwest Georgia. The students at this residence received additional instruction in academic subjects as well as in the spiritual life in order to prepare for university enrollment. All of them were excited about the North Americans who had arrived for an overnight visit. Anxious to practice their English, they were drawn to the visitors like magnets as soon as we finished supper and their class ended.
As soon as the teenage girls encircled the North Americans guests and offered the first conversational English phrases they had learned, their teacher clapped her hands and said, “Prayer time!” With heads bowed in disappointment because of having to abandon their guests, the girls turned to make their way to the gathering room to pray. “We’ll go with you,” I offered. “Really?” they responded.
“Yes,” we replied. “ We’d like to pray with you, but you will have to teach us. We don’t know how to pray.”
The prayer session began with all of us getting our heads appropriately covered. Scarves were folded, turned, twisted, tucked and every strand of hair concealed—with the same kind of delight and amusement of young teens styling one another’s hair. The prayer instruction began with raised hands and included hands folded over our chests and bows with recitations. Clumsily we followed the graceful movements of these young women acclaiming the Greatness of God, the Glory of God and affirming God’s receptivity to our prayers. After completing the appointed number of prostrations we were all given prayer beads and taught “Allahu Akbar”—words echoing the table blessing all of us memorized as children, “God is Great; God is Good…”
So moved was I by Jilda’s instruction in prayer last summer, that I returned to visit her during my sabbatical, and to spend several days practicing the five-times-a-day prayer with the girls in the educational house in Khulo. Yes, I think it is hard to pray five times a day. Yet in the supportive environment of the community, I found after being there only a couple of days, my internal clock waking me in time for Fajr—the pre-sunrise prayer.
“Why do you want to learn the prayer,” the directors of the school asked me one night over dinner. After telling them of my admiration of their discipline, of the beauty of the prayer, and of how little Christians use our body in prayer, it seemed that the instruction became more precise, more strict. It was important I learn it correctly. Each session ended with my instructor saying, “Finished,” but for me it was just the beginning.
Since returning home, with my prayer rug facing the morning sun, the strictness is gone, but the intention remains. I begin each day with the morning ablutions: washing my hands, my mouth, my nose, my face and eyes, the top of my head and my feet three times each while repeating the accompanying prayers of intention and blessing for the day. Sometimes when washing my hands to the elbow the required three times, the chorus I learned as a Sunbeam spontaneously erupts:
I wash my hands this morning so very clean and bright;
And raise them up to Jesus to work for him till night.
I’ve abandoned the headscarf at home, and without the supportive community, my repetitions are not exact. Sometimes the prayers sound more like my childhood prayers than the Arabic words of my instructors. As I stumble through the prayer I remember Jilda’s testimony and seek to make it my own: “I love God. It is not hard.”