Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
Some time ago, a friend who was the priest of a local Catholic church invited me to guest preach at Sunday morning mass. This church is airy and modern, a beneficiary of both sunlight streaming through her windows and of her generous benefactors. I rarely preach outside my own synagogue. Accepting my friend’s invitation was an opportunity for interfaith goodwill, so I took my assignment seriously.
After a quiet early morning mass, the ten o’clock crowd entered, a more boisterous group that busily filled the sanctuary. I took in the beautiful worship with a mixture of spiritual reverence and respectful detachment. I was witnessing a community seeking connection with God and each other. How could I not find that deeply moving? Yet I was also an outsider to this particular community whose beliefs are not mine. Naturally I would feel somewhat marginal to the experience.
I intently watched communion being offered, as the pianist played lovely contemporary music. I also watched a teenaged boy, maybe fifteen years old, waiting to take communion. He looked no different from my teenaged son. It was a hot day, so he wore shorts, a tee shirt, and flip flops, presumably permitted attire for summer mass in this warm, inclusive church. He playfully jostled a boy in front of him, most likely his little brother. When his turn came to receive the wafer and the wine, he quickly paused in his playful banter. He entered the sacred space of communion with no fanfare or trepidation, just a look of comfort with this ritual that belonged to him and his family. Thirty seconds later he was done, a faithful adherent transformed, yet the same teenager he had been before. Touched by this scene, I asked to meet his family after mass. They were, in fact, an active church family, and he was one of the musicians.
Afterwards, I thought about this boy and about the parallel spiritual experiences and comfort level of my own son and daughters. For all of them, religious expression is neither exotic nor alienating. It is a kind of mother’s milk that gently nourishes their everyday experiences without them giving it much thought. Like that boy and his family, my family and I have worked hard to foster a spiritual culture in our home, howbeit a distinctively Jewish one. My kids sometimes complain about it, and like most kids brought up in religious homes, they may reject all or part of it for a while as they explore adulthood. Yet at some level they know that our family’s consistent spiritual practice lends order, meaning, and love to our lives.
I do not know what has happened to that boy I met that Sunday. I hope that he and his family are well and that he is preparing, like my son and our family, for high school graduation and the bittersweet farewell to home that comes with growing up. I hope both boys will never forget that religion is a spiritual home where, when they feel they need to go there, God will take them in. I hope that no matter how far from that home they find themselves, they will also understand, to paraphrase the writer Max Dimont, that God is portable. But mostly, I hope that every child graduating this summer, whether religious or not, will grow in soul, as mirrors reflecting and flooding God’s light into an often cold, dark world.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.