Judaism: Day 29 – Being spiritual is about doing

There is a great New York Times piece title Is God Just Not That Into Me? The author describes how she started dating a Buddhist monk (they met online) and she became a bit mystified and jealous at his ability to access this universal “unconditional love.”

Some relevant facts about the author:

  1. She has a relatively weak religious background. Her family sometimes went to a Unitarian church when she was a child, she lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and she got tired of evangelicals telling her she was going to hell.
  1. She didn’t “believe” in God and couldn’t understand how anyone else could believe either.
  1. She clearly wants to feel that unconditional love, that spirituality her Buddhist monk boyfriend seems to be able to access at any moment.

This is similar to my religious background.

Unlike the author, the monk she was dating routinely attends prayer sessions and has built a little shrine on her radiator.

It occurs to me that years of religious zealots telling me I’m going to hell has taken more of a toll than I knew. Why didn’t I get the map to this oasis where all these people have been sipping the nectar of divine benevolence without me?

I am thinking grumpy thoughts like this one night as I watch my monk tend his altar on the radiator cover, his last act every day. He straightens a photo, a shell, a stone, clears away the dead incense stubs, refills the burner, and arranges the candles.

By now, I know what’s on his altar and why. I also know that, Buddhist-wise, this home altar is not a poor copy of, say, Chartres, but a manifestation and embodiment of something real. He moves around it; he makes a new space on the second shelf. He will put something there, and his selection is his art. He hums and moves a rock.

At the end of article, she concludes that the monk’s prayers and meditations are comparable to creating art. Her art is writing (she is a novelist).

When I realize that the oasis, the temple, the sanctuary, is on the radiator cover, I also realize that spirituality and making art are not such different practices. Both call upon the animating force of the unseen. As a writer, I can’t really explain it, either, what I do or how; when I work, I may look like someone staring uselessly into space.

And why do I sweat over words day after day? How do I know it matters? The answer is both “I don’t” and “It just does.” If someone were to ask me what it’s like to do what I do, I may say it’s sort of like building a cathedral out of rocks on a radiator cover. I don’t know if my faith stems from what I’d call unconditional love, but the energy certainly feels boundless.

There are two takeaways from this article.

The first is that those who seem to have access to God or “unconditional love”, also tend to be doing more to access it. Praying, meditating, building an altar, etc.

I don’t think the author understands this point. She thinks belief must come first before she can perform the formal and ritualized spiritual activities. She couldn’t understand how others could trick themselves into believing in God. She realizes that writing generates similar feelings to her monk boyfriend, but she doesn’t realize she could try meditating or praying and even without believing in the religion that surrounds those activities.

The second is that it’s possible to find God in all things. The monk finds it iin his makeshift altar. The author finds it in her writing.

You have to be doing things to find God, and you have to look for God everywhere. Religion has formalized the process of doing and seeking to maximize the odds that you will “believe” in God, that you will feel that spirituality and unconditional love that the author wants access to.

I understand why the author feels that religion is strange and inaccessible. During my Judaism month pretty much everything has seemed strange and inaccessible. But, like anything, over time you get used to it and can begin to appreciate it.