A while ago my friend Jason Lanegan and I were exploring the shops in Flagstaff, AZ. He currently operates/runs/curates/coordinates (he wears a lot of hats) the galleries of the Visual Arts Department at BYU, and years ago held a similar post at NAU. Periodically I volunteer to drive down and back with him as he carries artwork for NAU or the Marshall-LeKae Gallery in Scottsdale – it’s a long drive, but totally worth it (there’s a limited number of people with whom the trip is bearable, and I’m sure they feel the same way – perhaps not with the exact same group of people). The landscape constantly varies, running between stark and devastating to rich and vigorous. On this particular trip, in one particular shop, I was sharing with Jason some of the traditional beliefs regarding different stones (some was real, some I made up), crystals, and oddities in a particular store (my dad would have described it as for bark and tree loving granola eaters), when I found a bowl of worry stones. I had been thinking about Al-Mu’min for a while; unable to proceed I had set it in the back of my brain under the “Waiting for the Next Step” folder, and kept my eyes open for the trigger of inspiration which would coalesce the ideas churning around.
The worry stones were beautifully polished flat ovals of jasper and agate with a dip for the holder’s thumb to rub. The sign described a tradition I had heard in Alabama years before: the stones alleviate worrying as they sooth the worrier, you rub your thumb in the groove until you wear a hole through the stone, at which time your worries disappear. A way, perhaps, of creating harmless ‘make-work’ so you can feel like you’re doing something, and maintain an illusion of purpose while you’re feeling powerless against the drowning onslaught of worries. Jason and I figured by the time you wore through the stone, you would be old and wise enough to realize worries amount to nothing, so in effect the promise of the stone was fulfilled. As soon as I picked up the stone, something clicked and the folder in my mind opened.
Faith is a process and quality of awareness, verifiable but only through experience. We have faith when we ‘hope’ or ‘believe’ in things which are true, but not seen. Sometimes this word is applied to the unfounded desire we have for something which simply isn’t real and can never be – forcing someone else to change through our thoughts alone, for example, or desiring something else for ourselves when we make no effort to change (New Year’s resolutions remind me of this sometimes). The words ‘hope’ and ‘believe’ are in quotes because I don’t think those are quite the right words – they imply a weakness of doubt, and the process of faith is one of strength. Doubt can be a strength, too, but that’s for another discussion.
In Islam there is a concept which echoes in the lives of spiritual people everywhere, a three-point sequence of actions which builds, nurtures, and inspires faith. The Creator does something which impacts our life, we react to the something, and we take the lessons learned or the consequences of our reaction to inform our relationship with the Creator. The ‘something’ could be absolutely anything and, in reality, is everything within our realm of experience. Blessings of food and the basic necessities of life, blessings of abundance, a chance spot of sickness or illness brought about through our own exhaustion and overwork, a narrow miss while riding a bike or lungs filled with the clear air of a spring morning, all experience is given for our individual benefit. Each of us are created to become something wonderful, and the experiences we have are to help us recognize our potential, see our weaknesses, appreciate our blessings, and grow.
But, most of us take the good for granted and complain about the bad. We turn to faith not so much to show gratitude for a life filled with blessings (Sufis teach ALL experiences are blessings), but because we feel desperate and ache for a better tomorrow. Although everything witnesses of the Creator and gives cause for faith, faith comes into our lives through our fears, concerns, and worries. Ideally, we can get to the point the Sufis teach, to see all things as blessings, but I believe the Creator is happy enough when we start on the path of faith even through our worries – He knows when we start, we’ll get there eventually.
The shape is a truncated cube or cuboctahedron, combining the cube of earth with a triangle to symbolize our earth-bound, limited perspective and the three-point faith ‘cycle’. Blue and green remind us of the flowing rivers and vibrant growth in Paradise, and the richness of Divinely given bounty here on earth as our eyes are open to see it. In the center is suspended the worry stone Jason and I found, and the structure is tied together to remind us of the Divinely inspired knowledge and wisdom we can find in books of scripture and the accounts of the wise who have gone before us, given us as guides in our path of faith.