Can you believe the rain this week? In the middle of May? Here? In Northern California! Weeks after the rainy season ended. As if the Rain took its bow, the curtain fell, and we're all halfway to the parking lot when it comes back on for an encore. And we stand there awkwardly, coats over our arms, bewildered and almost embarrassed for its poor read of the audience.
Usually, our weather here is quite parallel to the weather in Israel, both ancient and modern. And that affects things in Jewishland. So, for instance, it is Jewish practice that in the months from Sukkot until Pesach, that is, over the winter, you pray in the amidah for rain. And then at Pesach you switch to praying for dew. This made no sense to me growing up in Chicago, but it makes sense in Israel and here. Our ancestors knew that there was not going to be any rain over the summer, so why pray for it?
Instead, they wanted us to pray for the attainable, for the seasonal; not to utter a prayer that we knew would be l'vatalah – that is, wasted. You don't pray for something that would seem to require miraculous intervention. You pray that the cycles of rain and sun happen properly in their season – gently, reliably and in moderation.
This is what I've taught at J School when we've hit this time of year, when we switch from rain to dew. But there has always been an objection among some students. Last year Addison led the charge; this year it was a kid named Hannah. "No, you should pray for rain during the summer," said Hannah, "because you need it so much more." In other words, the expected requires no prayer! But prayer might alter the anticipated course of things. And while I had painted such a prayer and such as view as counter-traditional, she obviously kept it up. Just look outside.
So what's the deal with prayer? Because it probably would've rained even without her insistence. Not every prayer comes true. The picnicker prays for sun and the farmer prays for rain and they both can't get what they want.
So then why? Why do we pray? Or, backing up, do we pray?
We gather here on Shabbos and we work our way through a series of prayers. We do many of them creatively, we sing them gorgeously. But then I see many of you outside of this room, outside of Shabbat, and you are eager to tell me that you don't believe in God, lest I presume too much about you by seeing you in synagogue. But face it, here you are. We are spending 90 minutes in prayer, and here you are. Again.
So what is it that we're trying to do, even if its important for us to point out that we don't put much stock in it, or that we don't believe in doing it in the traditional way, or whatever other apology or distinction or declaration of independence we feel we need to declare in order to be in this room?
Maybe people just say these things to me, because I'm the rabbi here, and I symbolize something about the tradition, and the demands that folks think the tradition makes. But I'll tell you, I'm in the same boat. The God you don't believe in, I probably don't believe in either. My own prayer in this room is often – usually – distracted, because I'm multi-tasking. One part of me is trying to pray while another part is wondering how to transition to the next thing or what key the next melody is in or worrying that I'm doing a terrible job and you are getting nothing out of this.
My less conflicted moments of prayer are more likely to happen at home. Or maybe sitting against a tree at Crane Creek. Or maybe in church.
I confess that I like churches. I like being around Catholics and Episcopalians and maybe a couple other flavors of Protestants. Specific Catholics who have strong devotional lives, and who are self-reflective about that. I actually find some relief in not having to explain, qualify or apologize for what I do and don't do in ritual; for what I believe and don't believe. All that apology, all that walking the line between personal authenticity and rabbi role is, frankly, hard work. With my friends the Catholics or Episcopalians or whatever, I don't feel judged for not believing enough and I'm not apologized to because someone presumes I believe more.
Outside of our own pond, I sometimes, for a short time, get to float a little more peacefully. As I did last shabbos at the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle. I was at Seattle University with our 18-year old, who is starting school there in the fall. This is a Jesuit college, and a friend of mine who is a former Jesuit – not former because he stopped believing, but former because after all his years of seminary they would not ordain him because he was gay, and so his ministry ended up being enduring and unofficial, sort of like mine – anyway, this friend told me that while I was on campus with Ari, I should do myself a favor and sit in this chapel.
He was right. While I can gawk at a Notre Dame or a Sagrada Familia, the places where I'm drawn to sit quietly, to sit and maybe pray, are smaller. Less ornate. Designed to help hold your spiritual life, as opposed to cathedrals built to make you feel small.
This Chapel of St. Ignatius was built in the 1990s. The interior layout is a little like here – wide and shallow, so that you're always fairly close to the bimah. The design feels vaguely southwestern. There are windows facing different directions that conduct the light through colored glass and bounce it off baffles so that everywhere in the room has a slightly different color of light. Not quite enough to identify with your eyes, but enough to feel in your body. And the walls, which look like stucco, were made in part with beeswax so that on those rare warm Seattle days, for which Seattleites undoubtedly pray year round, the chapel has a vague scent of honey.
We walked through on our campus tour. Then afterward while the boy texted with friends, I went back to sit. And the next morning, while he slept off being an 18-year old, I went back again. It was Sunday morning. I was the only person in the place. It was 2 hours before the scheduled Sunday morning mass. I closed my eyes and imagined color and imagined honey and I felt warm and held.
And I prayed. I prayed for the boy's protection. We've already filled him up with as much parental advice as he can contain, and far more than he will heed. But I couldn't be there without praying for his protection. The chapel seemed in some way to be the embodiment of the angel of the Seattle University campus, in that way that our sages believed that places and nations had their own sarim, their particular angelic guardians. I felt or invoked or imagined that angel, who then simply transformed into Shechinah, and I spoke. I didn't touch on academic success, I brushed only lightly on happiness. So much of all of that is really up to him. But his safety seemed right, a fair request, never out of season. Safety, simply.
So yes, I guess even in my quiet prayer life, that might often be just sitting, that might look like meditation, and maybe noticing Shechinah in front of me or around me, I confess that I do sometimes pray for. Sometimes it's specific, and caught up in the mechanics of this world. Because I can't stop myself. I pray for Ruth Bader Ginsberg's health. I pray for the safety of the women of Alabama and Georgia and Missouri. I pray for the polar icecaps and the environmental impact of Burning Man. I pray for the health of the people of this congregation, and my own family, and people in war-torn places or waiting at borders. I pray for the birds that I hear in the trees and for the trees holding the birds.
And when I'm done with some of these specifics, I try to broaden out and pray for love. Always love. That it should enfold this world. That there should be a field of love so thick, so viscous, that it slows bullets and catches falling people.
When I pray, at some point, it is no longer me lofting prayers into the world; it is the world drawing prayers out of me.
It's never meant to be instead of acting in the world. But if I can create a field of prayer, a field of love, like feathering a nest from within which I can then act, I feel like I've achieved something; that I will be able to trust my own actions a little more. As if my actions and words in the world are launched from within a field of love and Shechinah and that gives them shape.
When I pray like that, I often forget to decide whether I believe in God or not. I forget to care.
And that's how I was praying in the honeycomb of the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Deep in a warm twilight of concentration and petition and love. Suddenly I heard brisk footsteps, then a piano began playing – something modern and contemplative. The chapel accompanist had arrived and was warming up for mass, and I guess it seemed more respectful for him to ease into the music than to tap me on the shoulder, rousing me out of some reverie, to say, "Hey mac, mind if I play?"
So I floated with that music for a while, until a tenor came in and they began rehearsing a piece for the service. Something like, "He is our shepherd, we are his flock." A beautiful piece of music, but the spell was broken as religion intruded on prayer. From the divine embrace that I was experiencing in this warm light, there was suddenly hierarchy again, and the Divine had gender, and a species, and a role, taking form as a shepherd – beard, staff and all.
I gave up on praying, listened to the music, chatted with the musicians for a minute about the funny intervals, and marched out into the overcast Seattle day.
I was and am in no position to complain. We use those same shepherd metaphors, the same flocking words. The editors of our Reconstructionist siddur were careful to step around gender in the English, replacing "He" with the much more intimate and neutral "You". And replacing the word "Lord" – which has typically been used to translate Adonai, itself a stand-in for God's unutterable name – replacing "Lord" with virtues we would hope to find in a loving God: "Ancient One," "Compassionate One", "Faithful One" "Wise One".
This is done artfully. But the Hebrew – almost unchanged for 2000 years – does not afford a workaround. God is He in Hebrew, unless we're making a specific statement in the feminine to challenge that. Even when we call God "You" in Hebrew – Baruch Atah, "Blessed are You" – it is a He-You.
And so it becomes our project to reinvigorate the Divine Feminine, to bring such images and metaphors and language in. And that helps, it really does. It is medicine for the unrelenting maleness of our tradition. And even that medicine is, ultimately – hopefully – a step on a longer road toward a sense of the Divine that isn't this or that, but is the totality of all, every impulse, every gender, every species, all matter and all wave, all thought, all hope, all love. Divinity that is not separate from us, but of which we are a small and integral part.
Maybe we get closer to that experience sitting in silence, or under the tree, or in the dark house before dawn. Maybe we can get close to it even here, relaxing into the music, or using the machinery of our ancient and flawed prayer language as a chariot, a carrier wave, on which our most authentic and audacious prayers ride.
So I say, let 'er rip. Let the prayers loose. Rain! Sun! Peace! Safety! Let us not be the judges of likelihood. Let's pray for everything. Let's use the book. Or discard the book. Let's pray even if we don't know exactly who we're praying to or where our prayers will land. Let us pray without a theology, which would just get in the way anyway. Let us fill this Universe with a field of love and life, even if we're fuzzy on the details, even if the old time religion of our childhoods leaves us cold. Let us let loose the cold and reviving floodwaters of our spirits.
Baruch Atah Adonai, mashiv haruach u-morid hagashem.
Blessed are You – blessed are We – whose spirits fly like wind, drawing down a torrent of blessing.
#chapelofstignatius #jesuitsandjews #prayforrain