A Public Faith

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Amman, Jordan. It was an incredible experience, though I’ll admit I was definitely ready to come home by the end of it. I remember thinking in the final weeks of my internship about what I would miss the most – what I would regret leaving. The answer was easy for me:

More than anything else, I would miss the call to prayer (the adhan).

Yes, it’s beautiful (if you’ve never listened to an adhan, you’re missing out), but it was more than the auditory aesthetic I would miss.

Even though I’m not Muslim, there was something incredibly touching (and quite moving) about the way that it broke up the day. The public reminder to take a moment and think about God. The shared understanding that there was something more important than whatever it was you were doing at the moment. The outward manifestation of an inner belief.

Fast forward several years.

I have fallen utterly and completely in love with Washington, DC. Why? Well, many reasons, but one of my favorite things about living here is something you may least expect and is, in fact, not unique to DC at all.*

One of my favorite things about living in DC is Ash Wednesday.

DC is, shall we say, not famous for its religiosity, but every Ash Wednesday, I see people walking around with the cross of ashes on their forehead. And every Ash Wednesday, I see priests waiting hopefully outside busy metro stations, ready for whoever will take a minute out of their busy day to receive the cross of ashes. This is not something I saw in Utah (Mormons are Christian, but we, like some other branches of Christianity, do not usually observe liturgical holidays like Lent, Pentecost, etc.), and it’s something I have loved ever since my first Ash Wednesday in DC when I did a double take coming out of the metro after nearly running into a smiling priest.

In thinking about these two things I love (the adhan and Ash Wednesday in DC), I realize there are two reasons for my random attachment to them. First, I love old things, and things steeped in tradition. And second, they are rare** public demonstrations of faith, and I find that both beautiful and touching.***

Faith is something that is usually quite private (even attending church does feel like such a public display of faith), so it’s nice to sometimes see it represented so boldly and publicly. There’s a boldness and confidence in it that is not only admirable, but timeless.

I thought a lot about this over the past few days. So much of DC is shut down on Good Friday, and that’s yet another example of a beautiful public express of faith. Yes, that’s not how a lot of people think about it. And yes, there are problems in thinking about religion as a shared experience. (After all, it’s shared only within a particular community, whether large or small.) But here’s what I love:

In a world where religion is reserved for the private corners of the mind, unabashedly and publicly (yet respectfully) showing faith in any number of ways is beautiful, thought-provoking, and inspiring; and in a world with so much vitriol, it’s a lovely reminder that there are so many ways in which we’re not so different after all.

*I assume so, anyway, although I have never been anywhere else on Ash Wednesday besides Utah or DC.
**Rare in my experience. Obviously, if I lived in, say, the Vatican, or in a Muslim majority city, it would feel different.
***I fully recognize the problems with religiosity or piety being too exhibitionist (as well as too public) and such, but I still love and appreciate the beauty I find in it.


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