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Tag: interfaith family

blessed interweaving: jesuit girl with jewish soul

brisket making

a few months ago, i decided it was time to find out once and for all if a speck of me was jewish. i had convinced myself i was. how else to explain the profound holiness i find inside the nooks and crannies of all things jewish — the prayers, the writings, the blessing of the candles and the challah every friday night at our old maple table? most of all, the sanctification of time. of turning of the earth and all that glimmers under heaven’s dome?

turns out, there’s not an iota of jewish DNA inside me. alas. but i decided to sit myself down — at that very maple table — string together a few sentences, and bravely knock on the window of America Magazine, the great national jesuit review. i happen to come from a long line of jesuit-schooled folk: my papa, my uncles, my brothers, my very own self. in the catholic world in which i grew up, all things jesuit were spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. their intellect, most of all. anyway, America Magazine decided to green light my little essay, to post it online and run it in the print pages, too. because the world we live in now demands that a writer “share” her work on the few social media sites that might draw one or two more eyes to the equation, some of you might have seen my posting on facebook (a rare return) or twitter. but not all of you — and certainly not my mama nor my beloved mother-in-law (whose birthday is this weekend!) — so for you, i’m posting here, direct from the pages of America Magazine. 

(next week in this old house we’ll be weaving passion week and passover once again, and i’ll be deep in matzo balls and easter baskets, so the timing is especially fitting. here tis (i’d titled the essay something along the lines of “The Jewishness That Stirs My Soul,” the America editors wrote their own headline)):

How Jewish spirituality enriches my Catholic faith

By Barbara Mahany

I propped myself against the kitchen sink not too long ago and spit into a clear plastic test tube the size of my pinkie finger. I spit and spit and spit, following directions to be sure I would sufficiently trap my DNA. Once the accumulated spit crossed the “fill to here” line, I gave my test tube an emphatic shake (again, precisely as told) and popped the whole shebang in the pre-labeled shipping box. Post haste, I motored to the drive-by mail chute in my little town, tossed my parcel into the open maw of the postal box, sat back and awaited revelation. 

Over the years, I’d had a hunch that grew and grew, and I was submitting my hunch to science. Any day now, I figured, the friendly folks at DNA Central would lift the lid on what I had decided must be a long-kept ancestral secret. Surely, I must be some percentage Jewish. At least some fraction of a fractional percent. 

That chromosomal uncovering might shed light on just why it is that I—a girl schooled by the Sisters of Loretto and a phalanx of Jesuits, a girl with a rosary for every occasion—had found, all these years later, my sense of the divine so animated by the sacred Jewish lens of wonder and wisdom. All encompassing, it is one intricately tied to the turning of the earth, the sun, the moon, the shifting of the stars stitched in heaven’s dome. 

It is as if the ancient call to Hebrew prayer has reached out across the millennia and awakened all my senses. I am stirred by the command to whisper a blessing at the unfurling of a rainbow, at the first blossom of the almond tree. I am stirred by the command to scan the night sky till I spy the first three evening stars, and only then kindle the Havdalah candle, pass the spice box and recite the prayers that draw the Sabbath to a hushed and blessed close. 

I had convinced myself that deep in my DNA there must be buried some short link confirming my genetic claim to Jewish soulful lineage, aside and apart from my nearly three decades entwined in a Jewish-Catholic marriage. 

Alas, there is not. Not one strand of Jewishness to my Irish-Catholic name, not Ashkenazi, not Sephardic. How then to explain the soul-deep burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Jewish spirituality for this lifelong post-Vatican II Catholic? 

Sure, I had married an observant Jew some 28 years before. And we had raised our two boys the only way we knew: immersed in both their Judaism and their Catholicism; first Communion and Bar Mitzvahs for both, with priests and rabbis all along the way. 

Our older son, in first grade at the time, once exclaimed that interfaith Sunday school, where the curriculum taught all things Jewish and Catholic, was not enough; he wanted more, more fluency in each of his religions. So we signed him up for CCD and Hebrew school, as well as Jewish-Catholic school, and Sunday mornings meant an eight-mile dash down Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, from Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop to the Hyde Park synagogue where he learned his alefbet and all his Hebrew prayers. (That child, now a 25- year-old at Yale Law School, has trained his legal sights on the intersection—no surprise—of law and religion.) 

My own trek into the Jewish interior began with Shabbat, the holiest of Jewish holy days, one God offers at sundown every Friday, when we are commanded to kindle lights, bless bread and wine and, most of all, put down toil for the sacred arc of 25 hours, sunset to sunset plus a smidge for holy measure. The practice of slowing time, slipping into timelessness amid the cacophony of the modern-day world, is one that literally stopped me and, from the start, stirred a deeper soulful hunger. 

It was not long after our wedding under the cathedral of oaks in my mother’s garden, when I was but a young unpracticed bride, that I set our first Shabbat table, tentatively placing amid the dinner plates two Israeli candlesticks, a kiddush cup for wine and a braided loaf of challah (which I would learn to bake over time, at the side of a Holocaust survivor who became my Shabbas friend). A rite at once domestic and sacramental, Shabbat became for me a tucked-away cloister of anointed time. 

It is God whispering, I like to think. God cocking a finger, calling us home, each and every one of us. Come, be where it is still. Put time on pause. Savor this moment, this holy stretch of hours, savor each and every sense, savor and embrace the ones you love. And so, around the globe, as Friday’s sun slips from the sky, as our world dips into darkness, there is, house by house, table by table, the kindling of sacred illumination. 

At my house, I hear the whisper early each Friday. Over the years, I have tiptoed into the kitchen at dawn to begin the alchemy of yeast and flour that becomes the challah. Awaiting its pillowy rise, I crack into the cookbooks of my various adopted Jewish mothers, peruse the spiral-bound recipes of temple sisterhoods from around the country (Bella Abzug’s Matzo Balls, among my clippings). My kitchen ministrations usher in the quietude, the prayerfulness, that has become my coveted weekly office. By the time I have set the table, ferried plates to the dining room, pulled out chairs for whoever has shown up (our Shabbat tables have often been populated by an eclectic roster of professors and scribes), I am, curiously, the Catholic who finds “church” in the holiest of the Jewish holy days. 

Time and again in synagogue, on Friday nights or during the long hours of the High Holy Days, I find my soul soaring as the cantor lifts his voice in the minor-key call to prayer, as my husband beside me bends his knees, bows from his waist, wraps himself in his prayer 

shawl. The rhythms of the Hebrew prayer, even when the words escape me, tap the sacred within. I perk my ears to the still small voice that calls us, each and all. Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” begins the holiest of all the prayers. And my soul listens. 

That blessed once-a-week Sabbath interlude—and an urge to know more, to follow some sacred cord—led me into the Jewish bookshelf, where I discovered, among others, no finer poet of Shabbat than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” 

Heschel only whetted my appetite for deeper and more nuanced reading—even of the Torah. I explored such sacred instruction as the one for the harvest festival of Sukkot when, through the roof of the sukkah (a temporary shelter built for the eight-day celebration), we are commanded to be able to see the stars in the heavens. Or the Talmudic teaching to recite 100 blessings every day, a call to attention if ever there was. Inscribed in Jewish text, there is a blessing for hearing thunder, another one for when you see a shooting star. 

It is this ancient, agrarian-rooted call to see God’s wonder all around that I find woven into Jewish spirituality, and it is now an inseparable thread of my own, though I remain Catholic as ever. 

Perhaps it is the echo of ancestral Celtic spirituality or the Ignatian instruction to see God in all things, that pulsing sense that every moment of the day is a vessel of the holy. According to Celt or Jesuit or Jew, all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer. 

In a word, it is “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet, a “manifestation of the sacred,” a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. What stirs me most about Jewish hierophany is that it is infused with the astonishments of the cosmos, a core belief that creation is God’s first best text. Or in the words of Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” 

It is this understanding that even before the Word, God gave us the litany of Genesis. And if we read closely the book of nature, if we surrender to the rhythms of season unfolding into season, if we allow ourselves to startle at the nascent vernal shoots, the newborn green pushing through the thawing crust of winter’s end, if we heed the mournful cry of geese in chevron streaking autumn sky, hold ourselves rapt when first snowflakes fall, if we witness the hand of God in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of wonder, we cannot help but feel ourselves cradled in the outstretched palm of the one who breathed and birthed it all. 

And so it is, in the particular and timeless attention Jews pay to the turning of earth and heaven’s dome, in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk and depth of night, hours the Jews consider the holiest of holy, that I find myself wrapped in the most sacred prayer shawl, one I had never known was mine. 

But now, it deeply is. Even if my DNA claims otherwise.

as published in America Magazine, April 9, 2019

on the soulful journey that is your own, have you been surprised by where you’ve found epiphanies and hallelujahs?

p.s. happy blessed birthday, VPK, and ellabellabeautiful, too!

improbably, the prayer shawl

will BK AZk bar mitzvah photo

a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)

silence on a day that darkens

today is the day it gets dark. it does, i swear it does. it almost always does. i watched, when i was little, for the darkness to roll in.

God was broken, broken-hearted, on Good Friday. and i, grade-school believer with all my heart, i kept an eye, all afternoon, on the sky. sometimes i’d take to a rock. a thinking rock. i’d sit and watch the sky. i would know, come three o’clock, when the story says that Jesus closed his eyes, sighed his final sigh, and we all drop to our knees, that black clouds would roll in, eclipse the light.

early on, i told my jewish not-yet husband that story. i’ve told my children. i will watch the sky today.

and while i watch, i will be silent. three hours, noon to three. the hours that, by his hands and feet, Jesus hung on that heavy wooden cross. it is, my mother taught me, the least that we can do.

last night i went to church. my very favorite day of the whole church year is holy thursday. the last supper. the washing of the feet. for two hours, the stream of people, humbled, on their knees, feet naked, washed. i was washed, and i washed. a beautiful mother from kenya, her baby on her hip, washed me. i held her baby on my lap so she could wash, yes, between my toes. i washed her toes too.

it is not hard, when you see an old priest walking barefoot, ferrying pitchers and basins of water and clean white towels, to the blind, the wheelchair-bound, the teenage boy with down’s syndrome, the black, the brown, the pink, to picture Jesus doing the same.

while all the washing was going on, while the long lines of people filled with prayer, stood waiting, waiting to be seated in the chair, to lift their naked feet above the bowl, to have the stream of water poured, then lathered, then poured again, then dried and blessed–no half-baked, symbolic washing here, this was real and hygienic as well as full of spirit–while all the washers waited, i thought about the sins of this sorry world.

there is much to be silent for this good, dark, friday. as i sat ticking through a litany of sins, once again, i found myself informed and borrowing from jewish prayer, from yom kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest of holy days when you’re a jew. and if you listen, if you pray along, it is a deeply holy day even if you’re not.

i find myself, every year, filled with awe at the breath-taking jewish admission of the brokenness of the human condition. they do not tick through mamby-pamby sins. no. they get astonishingly real, and very close to the bone, to home. where my mother, again, always taught me charity begins. i think forgiveness might do well to start there, too.

so, in the spirit of atoning on this day in which it feels so right to be considering our sins, especially the sins of the homefront, that place we spend so much time considering here, i borrow from that same frank baring of the soul, i tap into the confessional vein i have found, and been held by, in the jewish prayers of the mahzor, the prayer book for the days of awe.

on this most christian day of awe, i beat fist to breast, i wrap myself in cloak of silence. i look deep within.

there is much, yes, to be silent for…

the sin of being afraid to speak up–even when it is among neighbors, and you hear or see exclusion.

the sin of shouting, singeing tender hearts of children.

the sin of not opening the door–or closing it in too much of a hurry.

the sin of breaking down the beauty of this world, and not repairing that that you’ve left broken behind you.

the sin of not noticing the hurt right in front of your face.

the sin of asking too much of your children.

the sin of wanting too much.

the sin of believing but not taking action.

the sin of standing back, watching injustice eclipse the truth, and doing not enough.

the sin of saying you’re too busy, but you’re not.

the sin of holding back, not fulfilling all that you can be, for being afraid to manifest the seed of genius that, surely, has long been buried deep inside you.

the sin of leaving someone else to reach out a hand to lift up the poor, clothe the naked, give the extra toys in the basement corner to children without any.

the sin of going along with the crowd.

the sin of thinking you needn’t be the one to feed the forgotten on your block.

the sin of going to sleep another night taking for granted there will be a tomorrow morning.

the sin of sending children off to bed without saying, “i love you.”

the sin of not saying i’m sorry–or not being so.

the sin of not feeding yourself–body or soul.

this might be just the beginning. but for each of these, i am so heartily sorry. Father, forgive me, for i know not what i am doing.

i leave you now in prayerful silence. i leave you to this day that just might darken. i’ll be watching. trust me.

feel free, should it mean something, to cast a sin….

holy, holy week

in our house, it is the gospel according to matthew, and the seder infused by elie. and this, by the blessing of the calendar, is one of those wham-bam weeks.

we’ve got it all, and weave and flow from exodus to last supper, from parting of red sea to rending of blackened sunless sky. we dash the house of bread, but then bring on the easter baskets.

long long ago, we set our own pesach dispensation for easter sunday. even when it’s in the midst of the eight days of no leavened grains, we part the matzo for a sprinkling of chocolate, for jelly beans, in the easter basket.

i was musing that wednesday is the only day of this whole week not rich in something jewish or catholic, and thus i would need to consult the koran to divine my depth for the day.

it is, very much, a fact that the interlacing of the passion of jesus, a passion set in history at the cusp of passover, and the jewish remembrance of the exile from egypt, is, for me, a rich one.

after 25 years of living them on top of and through each other, i have come to see shadows, understand subtleties that would have escaped me were it not for my being drawn, in love and faith, to a man who is, himself, a son of the tribe of israel.

and so it was that we all, the four of us, two jews, one catholic and one just learning both, walked into a church courtyard yesterday where palms were swaying in the air, the priest’s red robe was billowing–nay, blowing–up and nearly over his head from behind, the winds were whipping so unrelentingly, a red bird’s plumage in flight. the red cloth punctuating the otherwise gray day.

the priest, one i’d known long ago, one who’d grown older and even wiser, and though he’d grown bent, never bent from his focus on that core of what i call dorothy day catholicism that sees peace and justice as the central burning flame of a religion he won’t let go down in flames.

he was in the midst of reading the passion of jesus when he looked up, looked out at the sea of waving palms, and implored the multi-colored crowd: “consider and tend the wounds of the world as if they were your own—-for they are.”

that then, i gulped, is the mission of this week.

i came home, sat down to consider elie wiesel, the nobel-prize winning poet and seer who survived the holocaust and will not, bless him, let us forget.

“i love passover,” he wrote, “because for me it is a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.”

wiesel wrote those words in perhaps the only autographed book (certainly the only autograph that fills me with awe) on my shelves, “a passover haggadah,” (simon & schuster) his 1993 commentary and guide through the seder, or meal of remembrance, the retelling of the exodus story, that is the centerpiece of passover.

“sometimes the sheer speed of events makes us reel,” wiesel also wrote in the haggadah. “history advances at a dizzying pace. man has conquered space, but not his own heart. have we learned nothing? it seems so. witness the wars that rage all over the globe, the acts of terror that strike down the innocent, the children who are dying of hunger and disease in africa and asia every day. why is there so much hatred in the world? why is there so much indifference to hatred, to suffering, to the anguish of others?”

wiesel asks. the old priest implores.

because i am catholic, because i spent many years on my knees studying the 10-foot-high crucifix that hung before me in the church where i grew up, i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the wounds that i’ve been asked to dab with cool and healing waters.

and so i walk, i stumble, through this most holy week.

what questions do you carry into this blessed string of holy days? what thoughts do you put to those questions? those callings?


p.s. some really fine thoughts–really fine–have been tacked onto meanders in recent days, thanks to the brilliant souls who keep pulling up chairs. bless them! don’t forget to take a look back and keep the conversation flowing. just because we move on to a new meander does not ever mean the case is closed on a meander past. in fact, we might have drummed up a real-live beekeeper to tell us a thing or three about the
heartbreak in the hives….
p.s.s. welcome back from break, all of you who flew away…we held down the fort just fine….