Sacred Space in Hidden Illness
"In spite of all this, I still try to find my way to the sacred in action and in place. A sort of embodied worship that transcends the conditions that we at first believe bind us."
- Ashley May
Henri Matisse - Musée Nazional d'Art Modern Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 92 x 73.5 cm. 1939
As I sit here writing this reflection, a sort of joy hangover flutters in my heart. While it could be that autumn kissed summer breeze blowing through my grandmother’s garden on the morning after the Eid. Or perhaps it’s daydreams sticking around from yesterday reminding me that we finally got this whole parenting thing pulled together and we were better than on time to the masjid, our place of worship, leaving space to breathe and take in the blessings flowing through the current on that most auspicious of days. But, my soul tells me there’s more to it; it tells me that we’ve finally mastered this path we walk together—me, my body, and my soul. A little cobblestone path that winds and turns about, meeting at the crossroads of sacred space, womanhood, and chronic illness. And it feels like it has taken me a lifetime to get here.
Illness complicates my ability to fully take on the spiritual dimensions of the holiest of times on the Islamic calendar, from the beautiful month of Ramadan to the blessings of Dhul Hijja. An illness that exacerbates my very gendered walk through religious observance, under the standard conditions of which I would not be required to fast while menstruating, pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or nursing my child. Medical professionals call what I experience a “pelvic pain condition,” but any woman walking this path with me knows that's far too simplified. I step into holy months and religious observance with conditions on my worship and the space that I can and cannot take up. Little ponds of blood build up in my womb and show up at my front door without warning, blurring the boundaries of menstruation to the untrained mind. What seems like never-ending bleeding, with minor breaks in between, drains my body of life force and sends me tail spinning into bouts of debilitating anemia. And when one has passed the boundaries of what is considered menstruation, blood clots and “flooding” come from out of nowhere acting as blocks to praying comfortably and in full presence. The pain, inflammation, bloating, fatigue all wreak havoc on the body and turn the mind in circles trying to figure out simply “what is it that I can be doing at this moment right here?” Yet, I’ve learned in the moments of helplessness from not long ago to lean on scholarly guidance instead of anecdotal advice from well-meaning confidants in order to navigate my sacred acts with wisdom and confidence.
In spite of all this, I still try to find my way to the sacred in action and in place. A sort of embodied worship that transcends the conditions that we at first believe bind us. Once I have released my attachment to what I cannot do, I am in awe at the moments that present themselves to me on days that I wish that I had the strength to be fasting during Ramadan or standing in prayer.
This rang especially true not long ago when, as the sunset on the horizon and we welcomed the first of the ten most blessed days of the Islamic calendar, I learned that my grandmother had fallen in an accident. By morning, I received a call from her requesting my help. I washed a pint of strawberries for freezing and stuffed breakfast cookie dough into the oven before the summer heat took over my kitchen. I packed my boys and our easy summer rhythm, and took it all to her house where we talked all day, sat around in the garden, and did what people do for their elders who need healing. During her recovery,, we would keep her company from morning until late afternoon. Then we would pack up our things and head home, where we’d collapse in exhaustion with just enough strength in our bodies to read a short story meant to teach my children to trust in divine wisdom. And we spent every day for the next week or so doing the same thing each day up until the Day of Arafat, the day I had wished to fast but found myself unable to again. Exhaustion had set in from long days of caring for my grandmother and two wild boys; signs of imbalance crept up in the form of a dull ache up my back and by night time I found myself in another cycle of bleeding that forced me to set aside traditions such as baking cookies and melt into the moments with my family at home on the night before the Eid. It had become a survival skill to let it all go in order to embrace the unknown.
Yet, by morning I no longer felt defeated; I felt fulfilled. You see, that week I spent with my grandmother was a sort of soul food, and every finger I had to lift for my grandmother a sacred act. Nobody but us sat in that garden on the Day of Arafat hanging playsilks from branches with Mecca in our imagination and cookie crumbs on our hands. Divine beauty weaved itself through each action that day in a way that you don't realize until you look back. When I woke up on the day of Eid, symptoms subsided with the help of plant allies and the wisdom of listening to my body. When I found myself able to attend Eid prayers in congregation, I knew there was baraka (blessing) in those moments I spent in the garden tending and bringing joy to my grandmother’s healing body. It confirmed my belief that there are many paths to the same goal and Divine wisdom in the exceptions made for those with an illness who find themselves unable to fast or to pray. For every door that seems to have shut us out, another one opens ushering in our hearts to the unknown. And for me, with this illness that plagues me, I have to believe that I can find the sacred wherever I am, even if it’s in my grandmother’s garden.
About the Author
Ashley works in educational research and program evaluation, specializing in equity, emotion and cognition. She has an M.S. in Education Psychology from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in Women’s Studies with a focus in Policy Studies and Feminist Theory from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ashley is a lifelong writer and most of the research she engages in begins from a writing process that downloads directly from her heart. Ashley lives in Los Angeles with her two sons, husband and large family. You can find her at @chasingwildones where she juxtaposes motherhood, resistance and identity with thoughtful reflection and images of a home filled with love and fresh baked sweets.