Sunday, 28 December 2014

Cait Clarke's Journey to Islam

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is the conversion story of Sister Cait Clarke in her own words.

“I grew up in Ohio and West Virginia, in the Midwest US.  My family was Protestant Christian of all kinds.  My grandmother on one side was Brethren, very close to Evangelical Quaker in practice.  My grandparents on the other side, were Welsh Presbyterian and lapsed Roman Catholic.  For a lot of my childhood, my parents took me to a Methodist church, but as I got older they went less and less and I started going to church with the neighbours.  In Ohio, my neighbours were Baptist and Episcopalian.  In West Virginia, they were Baptist, Baptist and more Baptist, with some Church of God, Church of Christ, Holiness and heaven knows what else thrown in.  I loved going to church with my mother’s mother.  She was the Welsh Presbyterian, and I loved going because most of the hymns we sang were in Welsh.  The minister there was kind, and there were no fiery sermons.  There were no fiery sermons in the Brethren church, or the Episcopalians either, but there sure were in the others.  As a small child, the frightening elements of religion did not appeal to me simply because they were frightening.  As an older child, they did not appeal to me because they were oppressive.  I learned early on in my teens that religion and the Bible did not necessarily have a lot to do with each other.  And at one point, I just quit believing altogether.

I was 15, and looking back, probably in early stages of bi-polar disorder.  Even though there were no drugs involved, there were black outs, and my surroundings would often look like a tornado had gone through, and I would have no memory of how it got that way.  I was convinced I was crazy, and I was on the edge of suicide, creeping closer every day.

At the lowest point, when I had my plans all arranged, she came.  I remember the room getting very warm, and a glow starting close to my bed, and then a woman’s shape emerging.  It was Mary (a.s.) in appropriately subdued splendour.  She told me to go see the priests the next day, that the answers would come, and that I would be fine.  That is the gist of it all anyway.  And then she faded out.  I was not sure if it was a dream, a hallucination, a real appearance.  I am still not sure, 40 years later.  But it did save my life.

I did as she said, and through a very weird set of circumstances, which are a story unto themselves, I began my conversion to Roman Catholicism when I was 15.  I was a very good Catholic, very devout.  I still was not too sure about a lot of things, but the Franciscan priests were well educated, and even liberal in outlook and practice, and CCD was actually good education rather than just indoctrination.  There were a lot of Catholics who had gone to Baptist and Methodist churches for years because there had been no active Catholic church for a very long time in our area.  So everyone had a lot of questions, debates, and misinformation.  We were all getting re-educated.

I found my place easily.  I was the organist, became a lector, was a youth advisor on the parish board.  I read everything I could find, and fell in love with Franciscan philosophy.  At 16, I joined the Third Order Secular of Franciscans.  This entailed vowing to live a simple life in communion with the Church according to the Franciscan Rule, and participating in Daily Hours and extra prayers.

During my first marriage, things slipped a little.  The demands of Third Order and family life and those responsibilities were harder to juggle than I had anticipated.  I had an idea in my head that if I believed hard enough, things would get easier.  But they did not, and I ended up neglecting my Catholic duties altogether.  After my first marriage failed, I went back to the Church, and even back to my original parish.  I fit in again, almost like I had not left, except now I had a child, and of course, re-marriage was off the books.

When I had been in high school, and doing all those CCD classes, one thing that had struck me were the chapters in our textbook about Jesus (a.s.), and his Jewishness.  It was something that many parishioners did not want to hear about, but I was among the ones who were intrigued.  During my first marriage, I lived just outside of Atlanta, and one of my neighbours was into the Jewish-Christian dialogue, meaning, ‘Let’s convert the Jews!’  Together, we often went to a congregation called Jewish Believers and Friends.  They were not so much a ‘Let’s convert the Jews’ sort of place, as they were a ‘Let me tell you why I’m a Messianic Jew and why you should be one too’ kind of place.  They knew their Torah.  They knew the rest of the Tanach.  They knew the Christian Testament, and could tie it all together to prove their point, even bringing in the Talmud.

But once outside their walls, their logic all fell apart to me.  It felt backward trying to make a ‘Christian’ religion out of the teachings of a Jewish preacher just felt disjointed.  If anything, Jesus (a.s.) was showing people how to be a good Jew, not starting a new religion.  Paul’s teachings suddenly felt out of place, a mess, a heresy.  I saw the Great Commission’ chapter where Paul is told to go out and preach to the Gentiles and James and John throw his money back at him as, ‘Get out of here, we’ve had enough of your heresy!  Go tell somebody who cares.’  And so, I went off in search of Judaism.

I backed into it, by signing on for a Hebrew class at the synagogue an hour away.  I figured even if I did not ever convert, knowing Hebrew and being able to read the Old Testament in the original would be a good thing.  I picked the rabbi’s brains for a couple of months, and then popped the question: How do I convert?  Now came the, ‘You don’t want to do this, but here’s how,’ answers that the Talmud teaches about, the ‘push away with one hand, draw them close with the other’ technique.  I went home with a load of books.  I read them all in a week.  This repeated itself for about a month.  He ran out of books.  I read them all again.  I started learning the Mishnah and the Midrash along with Torah. There were questions, answers, and practical sessions with the rabbitzen regarding keeping kosher; it was rigorous.  And after a year, I was sent to Boro Park in New York for mikvah to finish my conversion.

I was an Orthodox Jew for nearly a decade.  I did a Bachelor of Arts in Jewish Studies with a concentration in Talmud and Rabbinical studies.  I was trying to figure out a way to go to JTS in New York, as they were beginning to ordain women rabbis at that point.  But my second husband and I moved from Chicago to Iowa, and those aspirations went by the wayside.  I still wanted to do my masters, and I kept preparing the ground for it by reading and writing and exchanging correspondence with scholars.  My thesis was going to be on pagan remnants and magical elements in monotheistic religions.  As you might expect, my bookshelves were full of odd books.  I had books on pagan religions, magick, cults, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’ism, Sikhism, neo-Druidism and so forth.  My husband’s grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousin came from West Virginia to Iowa to visit, supposedly to stay a week.  They took one look at the books on my shelves and left the next day.  I also became persona non grata in their houses.

It was in Iowa that my conversion to Islam happened.  One of my cousins in Ohio had met and married a man from Saudi, and had converted.  She had never been particularly religious, but the Qur’an had spoken to her.  We had a heated discussion about what she had done.  I was livid.  Even though I knew practically nothing about Islam, I was sure it was horrible.  Jimmy Swaggart had said so years before, when I paid attention to his nonsense.  That was the best argument against it that I could come up with.  She asked me if I had read the Qur’an. I said yes, but it had been back when I was in high school, and I had not been all that interested at the time.  My mother was in college, as an older student, and there were people carrying copies of the Qur’an around, and I had wanted to know what the fuss was about.  But that was as deep as it went.  My cousin suggested that I actually read it again, and put some thought into it, read some books about Islam written by Muslims, and then see if I wanted to have a fight with her.  And I did.

I bought an Arabic-English Qur’an, and started reading.  It was not easy going at first, but I found another translation that did not have as much clutter in it, where the English read more smoothly.  And then backing into the idea just like I had with Judaism, I decided to learn Arabic, pick someone’s brains, and see what I could learn.

There were two mosques in Cedar Rapids.  One was the big, Islamic centre, and that was where I began.  The imam at the time was Egyptian, and he was friendly.  He began to teach me the basics of Arabic, and then found a suitable mentor for Qur’an and Arabic at the local community college.  I asked for books, and he gave me a list, many of which I had already read, which made me feel like I had found credible information.  After a few months, and meeting others from the community, many of who were white converts, including two entire families who had done their conversion at the same time; I asked to make my shahadah.

After the shahadah, I felt like I had been dropped into the soup.  Suddenly, I was expected to know everything, and how to do everything.  Yes, I had studied, yes I had read, but there is a distance between books and practice that only the novice can appreciate.  Criticism does not fill it.  I nearly renounced my new faith.  Instead, I found myself going to the other mosque out of curiosity.  It was run by the previous imam of the Islamic centre, a Palestinian.  There was a welcoming and instructive community at last.  I could make mistakes and not get angry looks or shouting.  I could talk about Sufis without getting told all kinds of nasty things about them.  I could ask stupid questions and get answers that made sense. And then there was that Shi’a guy.  My second husband was not impressed by my conversion.  He was not religious, but he was tolerant although bewildered.  He did not last for much longer, and we parted ways, but not over religion.

The next man I married was, like the previous two, an atheist.  But he surpassed tolerance, and encouraged and supported me in my practice until the day he died, as does my current husband.  There has been the occasional wobble; my current husband and I toyed with the idea of annulments and getting married in the Catholic Church, for example, but decided that would only be for his family’s comfort, not for us.  He is not interested in the Church, and I am not interested in being anything but Islam.

I have been Muslim for nearly 19 years.  It still makes intellectual sense; it still makes spiritual sense.  The Qur’an still moves my heart, and prayers sustain my soul.  This is Home.”


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