Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.
A Path to God
My mother-in-law was a devout Catholic. Whenever she'd come down to our home in Massachusetts from Montreal, we'd bring her to the doors of the Catholic church so she could join Sunday services. We never went through the doors with her. My husband, who had been an altar boy, left the Church when he was 18, explaining to his parents that he could no longer believe in the Trinity. I had grown up as a secular Jew, uncomfortable around any kind of worship experience.
The religious lives of my husband and me are like an hour glass. For Guntram, the sands run from a devout Catholic life to atheism. For me, the sands are running from no religious attachment to a devout Jewish faith brought about by a trip to Israel on my way to somewhere else. When I got off the plane, I wanted to kiss the ground. To this day I can't understand my reaction to the Holy Land: it was as if I had finally come home when I hadn't even known I wasn't home!
As my love of Judaism developed, so, too, did my love of prayer. I began to see its universal power: any religion can transform an individual through prayer.
One year, caught up in my personal glow, I asked my mother-in-law if I could attend Midnight Mass with her when we were in Montreal for our usual Christmas pilgrimage. She was quite emphatic: "No! Why would you want to come to Mass?"
Her reaction surprised me, and hurt, too. Didn't she understand that I might enjoy the service? I already knew most of the Christmas carols and loved singing them (though I'd conscientiously never sing "Jesus Christ our Lord"). I am the only one at our Christmas gatherings who insists, year in and year out, on singing all the verses of every carol, and the only one who knows all the words to them! I grew up in a Christian world. I leaned these things by osmosis. They were the songs of my childhood.
I've added a Jewish liturgy, Jewish songs, Jewish knowledge. I feel comfortable in a temple. The Jewish prayer service has become a way of connecting with God and with the people with whom I'm praying. I would like to have prayed with my mother-in-law, to share that connection with her, yet the more I understand and love Judaism, the more I understand her reluctance. When we pray, each of us in our own liturgies, we are comforted by our own familiar sounds and songs. Our faith is strengthened, though how we get that strength varies. Perhaps awe or peace settle over us, a meditative mood that lingers beyond the moment, sweetens the week ahead. As she works weekly delivering Meals-on-Wheels, and as I work building the temple's Tent of Justice, our faces have the same glow. When we meet, we can each see the inner contentment on the other's face, and we recognize it, though how we've gotten there is unique to our own tradition.
After 9/11, our temple worked with an Episcopal church and a mosque to create a memorial healing service. We included prayers from each tradition, and I can tell you it was strange to hear the muezzin calling us to prayer in the synagogue! We were all in the same space, honoring our individual traditions, but I was not praying when the Islamic call to prayer came. I didn't even know the words! I watched and listened and respected that tradition, but it is not my tradition. It was moving and my heart responded, but the Arabic prayer did not answer my Jewish need to talk with my God in my language. Sort of like being Chinese in a foreign land and having to speak English all day in school, then oh, the relief of going home and speaking to your mom or dad in Cantonese!
Maybe my mother-in-law understood something I've just begun to know, that respecting our differences means we don't have to share the same experience of God, or know God in the same way. Though there is that common denominator--a need to connect to something--how we connect is our own private conversation.
Rarely at temple do we talk about God, or even mention the Creator outside of prayer, yet we study Torah, try to do actions that will invoke the presence, celebrate the holy one. The private ways we communicate with the ineffable are for our own hearts to know.