I was with my grandson Sam on a playground during his spring break at 4:25 pm when the dad and multiple kids on the soccer field near us paused to pray. The dad faced East, the boys lined up behind him, then the girls lined up behind them. As the dad spoke a prayer phrase in standing posture, with arms folded across his chest, the kids followed suit. There were probably ten kids praying with a man on a soccer field.
Then he placed his hands on his knees and said the phrase, and they followed. Then he knelt down on the grass, spoke the phrase, and leaned over to touch his forehead to the ground. The kids did too. They went through this whole process five times.
I was in awe. Out in the open field, in public, in the afternoon, a man led a group of kids through Salaah, (also spelled salat and salah), the Muslim prayers. I asked my grandson to notice them praying. His response was “weird,” and he went back to playing. I told him I thought it was cool that they were stopping to pray. I was embarrassed that I have done so little to practice prayers with him.
We started our day at 7 am when Sam walked to the couch in his apartment where I had slept and touched my hand lightly. This is our ritual when I visit. I suggested we start the day with a few simple prayers of gratitude, saying what we are thankful for. Then I suggested we be still, breathe, and relax for a few minutes. Then our activities of having breakfast and playing cards quietly began.
That is the most I have ever done to share spiritual practice with my grandson. I guess that is why I felt embarrassed in seeing another man sharing such a powerful ritual in public. They weren’t showing off. They were doing what they do when no one else is around. The part about being in public seemed to me like an expression of simple devotion, like, “This is just what we do wherever we are: we stop and pray five times a day, no matter who is around.”
I was moved enough to walk over after they finished and introduce myself. I asked the man his name, Rafit, and the word for the prayers they had just done, salaah. I told him I was blessed to see them share the prayers, thanked him, and left. He seemed pleased to share the way he has followed all his life. Seeing those kids learning the naturalness of just stopping their soccer play to pray showed me how the practice will be embedded when they are also adults.
That whole experience of connecting, including the moment of shaking hands and smiling to each other in brotherly loving-kindness, was like a gate of heaven opening between us. I felt a swell of well-being arise within.
In the photo above a group of us middle-aged adults are practicing our own form of devotion: prayers and bows only established in our adulthood. Most of us only practice once a day, if that. Some only practice when they attend our group. How much we have to learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters about a heart of devotion, whenever and wherever we are.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, now available as a Kindle book.