At the acute-care, big city hospital where I trained as a Muslim chaplain, I was called to support a family who had been visiting their loved one, when he suddenly died. To personalize the patient, I will call him, “Mr. Griffin.”
When I entered the room, the patient’s wife and adult son were standing in a corner with a nurse, staring at the deceased, wearing grim and shocked faces. It was the oddest thing, because he died while actively getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. His wife looked at me, feeling the need to explain, and said, “He just said he had to go to the bathroom. That was all he said, and he started to get up.”
One leg was already off the bed, not quite touching the floor. Mr. Griffin was wearing boxer shorts and a tee-shirt. He looked to be in his 50s. The whole length of his body was uncovered, revealing a tall, thin frame. He was lying on his side, on the edge of the bed, with one arm bent at the elbow, hand splayed, as if using it to push off.
Suspended in mid-air, Mr. Griffin was positioned like an action figure, basically half off the bed. I was inclined to run to catch him, before he fell. His facial expression was frozen, but not in surprise. Rather, his eyes were wide open, lips parted, and intent for his destination. But Mr. Griffin had been caught unaware in the act of dying and stopped by the instant of his death.
I asked the nurse to please place the man in a more relaxed position and cover him, while I escorted the family from the room to comfort them.
My grandfather, who lived into his nineties, would always say, “I’m not going to die one second before my time on earth is up.” As a Muslim, he was informed by the Qur’an, which states, not unlike the Bible, that every living thing has an appointed time on earth, known only to the Creator.
The image of Mr. Griffin sometimes visits me when I am praying. Usually, it’s a time when I feel rushed to get my prayer over with (and get back to my friends), or at a time when I realize, regrettably, that I am praying by rote. My next thought forms the question: Why am I rushing, when this could be my last breath or action?
My witness of Mr. Griffin in death has given me an indisputable piece of empirical evidence that my next breath is not guaranteed.
For a believer (no matter what religion), being in prayer is a sacred space and an opportunity to become aware of God’s presence. God-consciousness intensifies a sense of inner peace, and I would certainly prefer to die in this state of mind than get caught unaware.
Being God-conscious is the counterpoint to praying by rote, which is a state of ungratifying unconsciousness. I recognize that in this unconscious state, I take everything about my existence for granted, including the movement of my hands and legs, my breathing, and even whatever or whoever is waiting for me, when I am finished my obligation.
In fact, for those God-conscious people who have worked hard to establish prayer in life, the mindlessness of praying by rote defeats the whole purpose of taking time out to pray. . For those trying to establish prayer in their life, praying by rote is counter-productive and , actually makes it harder to establish daily prayers.
I should point out that praying by rote is not synonymous with praying by force of habit. Good habits are hard to form, require self-discipline, and are more akin to achievements. Self-discipline is one of the fruits of recognizing our self-worth. Taking time out (five times a day for a Muslim) to create a sacred space from the routine of another mindless, busy day is a discipline of mindfulness gained, similar to meditation, which has an appeal for similar reasons.
In Islam, however, prayer is something more than meditation. For being and fulfilling an obligation, it brings with it the inner peace of self-satisfaction. In addition to the satisfaction of self-discipline, prayer has a sacred purpose and brings with it the promise of a greater, unimagined reward in the hereafter.
Since my visit to Mr. Griffin, I am more immune to praying by rote. Carving out the time in my day and praying in a sacred space gives me an opportunity to occupy my mind, not in a superficial way, but in deep reflection. As I reflect on the existence of an All-loving, All-just, All-powerful, All-forgiving, and All-knowing Supreme power, I find myself listening to the rhythm of my breathing. Furthermore, as I enter into a state of pious mindfulness known in Islam as the Arabic word, “taqwa,” I pray for this precious God-consciousness to stay with me, because I know that it increases my appreciation for everything and everyone in my daily life.