Gone for Some Weeks
The last time I performed the rite was 17 years ago, an odyssey that left me with the clear feeling that I needed to repeat the ritual to get more out of it. What I want out of this Hajj is simple. I want a vacation, but in the original linguistic sense of vacating my mind of such things as the assumptions we absorb as passive consumers of the worldly, and to vacate, for a while, the ephemeral identities we attach importance to.
For several days, the Pilgrim is one face among two and half million faces. In the crowd, I can bump into a CEO, a leader, an academic, or a beggar; there’s no way to really tell the difference. Rank and pomp are divorced of status. Ego is dispossessed of platform. In this condition the Hajj does its work.
The movements of the Hajj rites are not that time consuming. Surprisingly, what takes up most of the time are the long stretches within and between the rites that can be taken as times to “wait”. It’s easy to miss the point of the pilgrimage if we are not adept in the “art of waiting,” as a sage once said. In fact, what a Pilgrim does during the “wait” will largely inform the success of the journey.
The Pilgrims do what this place silently expects of them: pray to the unseen God. And so they ask for a good life, another chance, forgiveness, mercy, or for flashes of Reality—sifting out the real from the fake. The movements of the Pilgrims here are not as choreographed as one would think, even though everyone pretty much goes to the same stations and performs similar acts. The inner motions differ, as does what goes on in the mind and in the heart. Some come here simply to get this requirement out of the way, technical religiosity. Others come to rebuild or make sense of the crowded lives they live back home or to peel from their eyes a film of marketing slogans, comedy, and the unnatural need to want more material.
The dress, the motion, the crowds, the “meanwhile,” and the general sense of purpose draw out from the Pilgrim a level of resolve. For a precious few days—a reasonable requirement for a lifetime—one almost becomes a Seer. Suddenly, no sham paradigm is safe. Certainly it is one purpose and theme of the Hajj to pierce the bubbles, open the eyes, and ask the questions: “Where are you going? What is this whole thing all about?”
The rites are capped off with farewell circuits around the Ka’ba back in Makkah, where it began days before. The Pilgrims then get around to board the buses, and slowly the former identities begin to emerge as we prepare our papers and “ID’s” to board a plane. It’s the daunting challenge of the Pilgrim to give honest reflection on the questions provoked by the ritual, especially when he or she is back home driving a car, mowing the lawn, waving at a neighbor, or simply reading a newspaper.
It’s always a struggle to pierce the outer form of things and to imbibe the interior meanings. But the struggle is amplified when living in a context in which unexamined information is constantly available and when personal quiet and retreat are becoming odd things to pursue.