I went down to the river to pray

[Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by Ayesha Mattu, a writer, international development consultant and the editor of Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. Her writing has appeared in CNN.com, The Huffington Post, International Museum of Women, and Religion Dispatches. Ayesha is working on a memoir about losing – and finding – faith and love.]

O sisters let’s go down, 
Let’s go down, come on down. 
O sisters let’s go down, 
Down in the river to pray. 
 - Alison Krause, Down to the River to Pray 

 It’s hard for me to admit that light and darkness, love and rage, need and pain are entangled in my relationship with my mother. Every Mother’s Day, we go for brunch and pretend that love is pure and simple, that we’ve never been wounded or made each other miserable, that our hearts aren’t fists covered in each other’s blood.

I gave my mother an advance copy of Love InshAllah about a month before the release date. Although she knew the love story I was going to share, and had been a strong supporter of the book over the five years it took from conception to publication, after she read it in print, she disowned me.

Drowning in personal grief and anger as the book was acclaimed by media and readers around the world, I struggled to understand how the one who claimed to love me the most could leave me, cutting herself off from me overnight, disappearing from my life and that of her two-year-old grandson. How could the fear of what her community might say about my “shameful” actions be more important than our blood bonds?

It was during our painful estrangement that I heard the atheist philosopher Alain de Botton reflecting on how communal spiritual and religious rituals can help us accept the complexity of human relationships in ways that secular rituals cannot. Sacred rituals, he proposed, provide the safety from which to acknowledge the negative or frightening feelings that we harbor toward one another, help ground and release those feelings, and then bind us together in greater compassion and community.

De Botton mentioned the secular holiday of Mother’s Day as problematic because it acknowledges only one aspect of the mother-child relationship – the positive – when the truth is that most people both love and hate their mothers.

What would a healing ritual look like in relation to my mother? I wondered.

It wasn’t until I went to the Women of Spirit and Faith spiritual leadership retreat in Atlanta months later that I found out.

On the second day of the retreat, the women gathered on the banks of the Chattahoochee river to release our rage and fear, pain and anger, to yell out what we’d held inside, against whomever we had held it against, whether for days or decades.

At first, there was silence from our self-proclaimed crowd of shitstorm-kickers.

But, then the women, especially the younger ones, began to speak.

 They spoke of women – grandmothers, mothers, sisters, friends – who ripped jagged holes in their sense of worth, love and beauty, holes they still struggled to fill as adults.

Of men – grandfathers, fathers, partners, friends, co-workers – who abused, twisted or mistreated them. Of their own fears that held them back from fulfilling their greatest potential.

Of affection and pain and joy and anger inextricably twisted into fists jammed into stomachs and hearts, silencing throats from speaking or singing.

Rachelle, our First Nation guide, urged us to release our emotions into the river and let them be carried swiftly away by the broad, cleansing water.

I stood in silence, thinking of my mother, trembling with anger, choked with sadness and pain. Finally, I spoke the words I hadn’t been able to say for months. “Amiji, I forgive you. I forgive you for loving me with all the drowning force of a tsunami, and then for disappearing into the desert of absence, leaving me no place of safety in between. I forgive you for holding me to the standards of other people, for choosing them over me from fear and shame. For all the desires you had for me that I couldn’t fulfill. For your own dreams that you had to drown, but still hoped I’d accomplish in your place someday. I forgive you because I know you still love me, even though you’ve chosen to leave me – for now.”

I said I forgave her. But, it is truer to say that the ritual was the first step on the path to forgiveness, rather than forgiveness itself. It purified and watered my parched spiritual soil and then held open the space for the seeds of something better to germinate there instead, over time.

After the river ritual, we gathered in a drum circle to celebrate the release of all that had held us back, to ground ourselves in Mother Earth, and to honor our connection to each other through singing, bowing, and dancing.

Listening to the women’s joyful voices, I began to understand that no matter what life brings, I cannot sever myself from my mother, my blood, my family – regardless of our choices and cyclical distances. My family is the river I am immersed in, float upon, and will swim in forever – for better, and for worse.

But taking part in this communal ritual gave me the spiritual tools to navigate my troubled waters. I’m fortified by the knowledge that the water in my body is forever connected to that sacred ritual, healing stream, and circle of spiritual sisters who gathered to sing of joy, beauty and power by a river in Georgia.

Sometimes, while standing here in my kitchen in San Francisco, I can see the afternoon light slanting golden on Meredith again sitting on the grass as the circle began to wind down, and hear her singing, “I went down to the river to pray…” Her sweet, lone voice is soon joined and buoyed in my memory by the strength of many others. The circle is the oasis that I carry within my heart and soul and drink deep from to face – and heal – the rapids to come.

 A version of this post was originally published on Patheos, 7/12/12.