I love that I named my blog Guide and Seek: Reflections on a Guided Journey, but haven’t yet addressed the topic of spirituality in the foregoing blog posts. Spirtuality’s no longer an everyday Practice for me anymore, because I’m not doing any of the spiritual observances with which I used to engage. Like prayer or meditation, observing kashrut dietary laws or Shabbat, making blessings or even immersing myself regularly, dutifully, in nature. I ask myself why, and my answers range from laziness all the way to almost but not quite, alienation. But wait. even as I write this post, I’m remembering a daily practice I have maintained, probably even strengthened, during my stay here on Paros. Every night before I go to sleep I give thanks to God for the day and it’s wonders. Which is not an insignificant spiritual Practice.
Somehow, I feel that my relationship with God has integrated into my life, merged, if you will, with who I am. Maybe God and me, maybe we’re married or long-time roomies, and an affectionate nightly check-in is all we need to keep the home fires burning.
I used to fancy myself some kind of a spiritual guide in my work both as psychotherapist and life coach, and of course, later when I studied to provide Jewish Spiritual Direction. I didn’t make excuses for using the God word and that sometimes attracted people with a fundamentalist streak, but I didn’t mind. I liked joining them in their passion and dedication and opening up more possibilities to live an expansive life of love instead of living obstructed in narrow places. They never even saw it coming! I can be a woman of profound influence, but only feel permission to use that influence when there’s a professional contract between us, a contract that is explicit in that the consumer of my professional services desires to be influenced by yours truly.
After I got divorced, the bottom fell out of my self-confidence and I no longer thought of myself as a wise elder, a wise woman. Who was I to advise or guide others on their spiritual journeys when I had aborted the sacrament of marriage, the most challenging of spiritual paths.? I felt lost and without purpose, no longer tethered to the path of making a marriage work, of loving unconditionally, no matter the toll it took on me. If I was more spiritually advanced, I told myself, the marriage wouldn’t have taken such a toll. I would have been more loving, accepting and detached from the triggers that brought out the worst in me. With the distance of a decade, I realize that the best I could do was, indeed, the best I could do; that I am better off no longer struggling to be satisfied with an unsatisfying situation. It took a while, but I do believe I’ve arrived at peace with the choice I made.
At the time I left the marriage, I also left my profession, my house and all my possessions, my community, my country, my children, and most of my family. I started over, twice, in fact, moving first to Israel for six years, and later to a small Greek island where I’ve lived four winters. Some say these were brave moves, but it takes courage to be brave and I hadn’t the need for courage to make those moves. I was propelled by curiosity and a sense of adventure, as well as a long-standing desire to live anywhere other than in America. I was perfectly content at the time to remain in Jerusalem and only after a 5 day end-of-May holiday on the island with my writing buddy from Jerusalem, did I decide I wanted to live on Paros during the “off season.” Ten months, from September to June. And somehow, that move has morphed into what is now three and a half years and no current desire to return either to Israel or to the U.S.
When I lived in Jerusalem, my observance of Jewish religious practices deepened but I felt no more connected to God than previously, when I was involved with Alanon, the period in my life when I was closest to God, and then later, as a spiritual leader, founder and musical prayer leader, of a Reconstructionist/Jewish Renewal synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, In those days, my Jewish observance was lightweight, but the few practices I followed were meaningful to me. In Jerusalem, there was comfort as well as conflict in deepening my observance of Shabbat, the holy days, and everyday practices like kashrut. It was easy to be more observant, living in Jerusalem. I found congregations that were progressive in ways that mattered to me, such as how Shira Hadasha elevated the role of women in synagogue life, supported by radically feminist interpretations of Jewish law, Halacha. Yakar used feminist interpretations of Halacha to allow women intellectual leadership on an almost equal footing as men, and musical and dress leniency for women in their congregation. And Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan’s Jewish Renewal, Zalman Shachter-Shalomi-inspired congregation, Nava Tehillah style of offering mystical interpretations of Jewish texts and practices sustained me.
But it was more for community than for God that I deepened my observance and I found that I didn’t miss it when I moved to the island in Greece. I can’t remember just when I started to say good-night and thank you to God — Israel or Greece?— but it has become a ritual I am not likely to give up, and on the rare occasions when I forget, I don’t fall right to sleep until I remember. I think of Sylvia, an early client when I became a Jewish spiritual director. She thought of herself as agnostic and having no spiritual life whatsoever despite an intense involvement in her synagogue. During the course of her counseling, she developed the ritual of saying thank you and good-night to God and complained that it made no sense to her since she didn’t believe in a God. I suggested that she leave out the God word and simply say thank you but that shift didn’t do the trick for her. No, she knew she was addressing God, whatever that was, and had to voice that truth in order to receive comfort and satisfaction from the ritual.
I have no trouble addressing God, as I believe there’s something greater than us, responsible for all of life as we know (and don’t know) it. I also believe there’s no way for us to truly know God, so we might as well create something to relate to in order to have a relationship with this God-thing. At times when I need lots of comfort and succor, I imagine God as a big, black woman, with a large lap and bosom that I can snuggle into and feel safe within. I know that’s not God, but it’s my way of opening up to receiving the comfort I need at the time. Christians have their Jesus and Mary and all those saints to relate to. Why shouldn’t I have a God who is relatable? As long as we all remember that the images we have of this God is a figment of our imaginations, what’s the harm? A God that works, who is useful. That’s all I’m suggesting. If these beliefs give us strength and courage, comfort and relief from fear, and support us to be better, more loving and compassionate people, why not? When people keep icons and pictures and statues of holy people on their altars at home and in their religious institutions, isn’t it an attempt, a spiritual practice even, to catch a ride on the energies of holiness emanated by these holy ones?
Tonight, when I tumble into bed, properly scrubbed clean for the night, or not, depending on my mood, I’ll snuggle under the covers and thank God for the electric blanket that’s warmed my sheets and the heavy down duvet gifted to me by an island friend, for my friends I visited, talked and texted with and my dog and even the cats, and thank God again for all the wonders of today. And I won’t need an image of a big black woman or a Buddha or a Jesus because that’s just the kind of day it’s been.