Saturday, February 20, 2010

the faith conundrum

This morning I spent 2.5 hours in a conservative synagogue. It was the bat mitzvah of a family friend, a kid I adore, who exists so on my wavelength that when we get together he and I spend more time talking than he does to my kids or I do to his parents. While I was delighted to celebrate this very big deal with him—actually, as I wrote that I realized I wasn't delighted in the least. Yes, I was proud of his accomplishments. He was poised, funny, had stage presence (as he always does), I could tell how much work went into the terrific job he did today. But, I don't get it.

I don't get temple.

I don't get religion.

I never did. I remember going to services when I was a kid and feeling like everyone else was in on something I didn't understand. Was an outsider to. That there must have been some secret no one was sharing. Or perhaps there was a faith gene I hadn't inherited. Our rabbi droned sermons in a flat monotone that induced sleep in many adults. I would sit, stand, sit, stand, following in my reform prayer book, praising God and all his greatness, bored out of my mind, saved from a silent breakdown by frequent trips to the basement soda machine and then necessary bathroom runs.

Wearing nail polish, the sheerest palest pink known to living man, for the first time was just about the most memorable experience from my bat mitzvah. That made me feel more grown up than chanting words I didn't understand. Being welcomed into a community I didn't feel any connection with? Meh (hey, that's the first time I ever used that word). There were other kids my age who "got it," who continued on for communion, sought out Jewish youth groups, sang those folk songs, went on retreats, to sleep away camps, their religion continuing to be a presence in their lives. Me? The less I had/have to pretend, the better.

This morning we scrambled to get to synagogue early. It wasn't easy getting everyone in my family dressed, let alone dressed up. There were tears for a dress which had been fine when we bought it, but now was nothing short of public humiliation. A mad scramble for dress socks (in the end they were never found and the fancy black pants and shoes were broken up by white sweat socks). I never have something appropriate to wear and always try desperately to pull it together. Today was a vintage A-line dress, black, with a sparkle green cardigan I'd knit and a cool scarf I'd just finished. Funky black boots. It sort of all worked together. Sort of.

We walked in at 9:25, with less than 10 people already there. Turns out we could have skipped the first hour and would've been fine. There was no welcome, no announcements of what was going on, just people chanting, out of sync, sitting, standing, sitting, standing, chanting. Did I mention chanting?

I didn't get it.

This time I tried to figure out what the appeal was to the joyous looking folks in front of me. Obviously, they were getting something out of the experience. People wafted in, benches filled, the chanting got louder and louder. As the cantor took over, several women seemed to be rocking it as if listening to Led Zep. Maybe their faith translated Jewish prayers into 70s power anthems. Was there a comfort, a sense of satisfaction in the familiarity of the routine? At times everyone was so off in their own worlds it was hard to imagine any of it was a communal experience.

Was it feeling closer to God?

I didn't feel any spirituality in that cold, stark, white room. No coming together of spirit, of intention, of consciousness.

But, I realized, I've found that place. Just somewhere else entirely


When I'm in class, breathing, moving, flowing from pose to pose, my body recognizing, stretching, opening, my mind relaxing, letting go, slowing the thought spin, I'm transported. Transformed.

I walk out different than when I sat down. Calmer. Freer. Quiet. Less me, more a part of something else.

Maybe, finally, I found my way to connect. Maybe what I feel in that practice is what people feel when they're in temple, in church, in mosques.

While perhaps that intellectual thought will help me understand the great appeal of religion is, I'd much rather be sweating on my mat.

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