A change of heart and soul accompanies a cross-continental journey and religious eye-opening
I went to church a few Sundays ago. It's not something I normally do.
The last time I was in a house of worship I went to our synagogue because my wife wanted to go to services for one of the holidays. I sat in the back, away from everyone else. I looked at my fellow Jews and listened to them pray. Since we've been members of that synagogue for almost a quarter of a century, I know many of the congregants. They are intelligent and rational people. But as I listened to them pray I thought, They're crazy. They're just talking to themselves. There's nothing out there listening. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud.
Something happened to me, though, when I wrote my Contrarian column back in September, "Love Traverses Time and Space to Touch Its Beloved." I decided to take a different attitude toward religious beliefs I do not understand. Perhaps there was some truth to be found in them.
And so I found myself in a Roman Catholic church on this particular Sunday. I was driving to New England to see two of our children before flying overseas to join my wife for a two-month vacation. I stopped off in upstate New York to visit a dear friend from high school. She is a believing Catholic. I asked if I could go to church with her.
It was a beautiful and moving service. The priest—a big, bearded guy who strangely reminded me of our rabbi—delivered a wonderful homily. There was even a bizarre coincidence, though my friend Marie insisted there are no coincidences. The section from the Gospels that was read concerned Lazarus. Of all the Sundays to go to church!
I was not in that church as a skeptic. I had no desire to laugh. I tried to get into the spirit of the service. I even got down on my knees when everyone else did, though Marie told me I didn't have to.
And I had an epiphany as I listened to the music and the singing and as I watched the believers take Holy Communion. This connection with the Divine that they believe they experience during their Sunday worship lifts them up from their everyday lives, soothes their cares and eases their pain in a way that nothing else can.
It was a beautiful and moving experience being part of that service. It also filled me with sadness. To me it was a poignant example of the human condition: grasping for transcendence when there is none. But there was no small amount of envy for these people who found comfort in the face of what, in truth, is an uncaring universe.
A few weeks later I had another epiphany. My wife, Nitsana, and I were in southern France, in the city of Narbonne, visiting a Roman Catholic cathedral. Now I had been to cathedrals before, and always had the same reaction. Because I was brought up in a religious tradition in which "graven images" are strictly forbidden, these cathedrals seemed to me to be pagan-inspired and full of idolatry.
I did not have this reaction in Narbonne. For the first time I understood the meaning of what I had derided earlier.
The beautiful artwork that adorned the cathedral was the highest expression of love for the Divine. To produce this beautiful art—the paintings and the sculptures with their incredibly precise detail—unknown artists had to pour their souls into their work. The church had to support these artists. And the believers had to support the church. The result was a space where mortals could experience the wonders of the infinite.
A few days later I had a third epiphany. Orthodox Jews try to fulfill the 613 commandments of the Torah. I had previously shaken my head at these attempts to fulfill so many minute rules, but now I realized that they have the same purpose as the ornate cathedrals: to reach for the Divine.
I was filled with awe for this noble human impulse.
But the same trip that led me to these epiphanies also illustrates the complexity of that impulse to reach for the divine. My travels included visits to the Holy Land, a place sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a place over which rivers—no, oceans—of blood have been shed through the millennia as men fought over their different interpretations of the nature of God and what He wants of us.
And so, in the season of Christmas, let me raise a question: Is this God that humans worship a transcendent God who brings spiritual peace or a God of War who delights when His humans slaughter each other in His name?
Or is He both?
If you have an answer to my questions, or if you simply wish to respond to my column, you are welcome to leave a comment below if you’re reading this online. If you’re reading this in Change magazine’s print version, visit www.ChangeMediaOnline.com and leave a comment. Thanks.