You Say Sacred, I Say Sacral

S. Donato Chiesa - Civita

My favorite necklace is practically worthless—but only if its value is counted in dollars.

Considering my feelings about organized religion, it might be surprising that this necklace consists of two Catholic charms: a crucifix from Civita with a grotesque suffering Christ cast in relief, and a small medal depicting St. Michael the Archangel on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other. I purchased the medal at the Vatican in 2004 for a Euro, and the cross last year in Civita for nearly the same.

Since the charms are made of tin, the most valuable component of the assembly is the chain, which is real silver—a relic from a high school boyfriend. He received it as a thank you gift from a German exchange student his family hosted. The extra long silver chain once suspended a small, thin rectangular wafer of silver that bears its weight (10g) and the word, “Silber.”

Today, I wrap the chain double around my throat so that it hangs like a choker; the medals dangle in the hollow of my suprasternal notch. I often rub the smaller medal between my fingers when I’m lost in thought, which has created a dark patina around each of the figures. The crucifix is still blindingly bright.

My propensity for wearing items with religious iconography (rosaries as necklaces, my Virgin Mary T-shirt), can sometimes leave people questioning whether I’m devout or profane.

In Michigan, for instance, when my aunt’s friends were trying to reconcile my religious charms with my zippered motorcycle boots and my aunt’s helpful explanation of my marital status—not as single, but divorced (thanks, Auntie Jill)—they weren’t sure whether to pray with me or for me.

After all, good Catholic girls from Dearborn don’t get divorced, and my style is much closer to the Motown Material Girl than the actual Madonna.

I contemplated my feelings about religion quite a bit on Saturday as I sat in Temple Beth Am for Natalie’s bat mitzvah. Though half of my family is Jewish, I wasn’t raised in the faith, so ceremonies like this always seem simultaneously familiar yet mysterious.

As we were asked to recite certain prayers together, I found my lips uttering language that I don’t care for, no matter what the faith: praying to one God, a God that can swoop in and save people, magically removing pain and suffering; that only this God was the true God.

It reminded me of the eulogy delivered for my uncle, which I found totally uncomforting: we were reassured that, though this life holds more misery than joy, we would be rewarded in the afterlife with complete bliss, that God would take care of everything and we shouldn’t worry, just put our trust in him. He is the way and the light, etc.

In spite of any similarities, at Beth Am there was a difference between what we recited and what we practiced. While certainly religious, the ceremony outside the prayer book was much more in harmony with the tenets of my personal beliefs: social and emotional intelligence and compassion, love of family and community, rejoicing in the human body, and in singing, laughter, and dancing.

While I felt put off by some recitations, I felt equally warmed by the beautiful music—singing along with the choral group, the guitar, the piano—the rabbi’s sense of humor, the dancing circles that wound around the entire synagogue, much like the circle dancing that we did in the piazza at Civita. It was almost as if there were two services happening at once: one of the old, and one of the new.

As Natalie shared her personal interpretation of her assigned Torah portion, I noted how were well-composed and insightful her thoughts were. Her words, lightly brushed with the genuineness of her sweet school-girl persona, formed a mature, reflective essay all on their own. Watching this young woman affirm her desire to join this community as an adult further encouraged me to reflect and delve deeper into my own beliefs.

As Natalie read from the Torah, sunlight beamed down through the skylight, illuminating the sequins on my skirt, and a gentle, cool breeze caressed my cheek. I realized it was the first time that I had ever felt a physical connection with nature while inside a house of worship–perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve never felt connected to a greater power there.

Growing up, if light entered church, it was through stained glass windows; at Beth Am, I could see trees and plants and blue sky framing the altar. At the masses of my childhood, once the heavy wooden doors closed, we were contained in a dark, air-conditioned bunker of the Lord; at Beth Am, clear glass doors slide back to invoke the presence of Mother Nature inside Mother Church.

My previous religious experiences—from St. Robert’s and St. Raphael’s to Santa Maria della Salute, Notre Dame, and even S. Donato in Civita—have always been in buildings that prevented distraction from God by blocking out nature and the man-made world.

At Beth Am, the World and Nature are treated as part of God.

Most suprising of all was how the parallels between yesterday’s service and this morning’s yoga practice revealed themselves when Denise, as always, reminded us to be thankful—not just that we were healthy enough to practice, but that we had the oppounity to be embodied—that we had the gift of a human life and our yoga community.

Our practice wasn’t about tomorrow or a far-away, promised-land after-life, but about today—about appreciating this moment, each breath, as a gift.

The synergy in our collective voices singing the Anusara invocation called to mind yesterday’s joyful chants of, “Hallelujah,” and refrains of “La, la, la,” punctuated by hand claps and finger snaps.

Laying back in savasana (corpse pose), swaddled in the visual warmth of our fuschsia and satsuma orange studio, I glanced through the tall windows, wishing for yesterday’s blue-bell clear sky—but happy that I could see clouds, birds, and fluttering trees from within the place where I commune with something greater.

Like my weekly writing time, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my yogic ritual of reflection and meditation also occurs on Sunday, my approach to observing the Sabbath.

As I packed up to leave after today’s practice, my hair curly with sweat, I couldn’t help but grin at the irony: somehow, in spite of my rather pointed resistance to organized religion, I’ve managed to find one of my own.

Some people may genuflect and kneel, while others of us choose handstands and backbends. I’m not an expert, but I’d like to believe that, if there is a God, she understands that they mean the same thing.

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2 thoughts on “You Say Sacred, I Say Sacral

  1. This kind of thoughtful reflection–including a wrestling with–a Jewish observance is a true mitzvah ( not a good deed as commonly misunderstood but a commandment). In fact to wrestle with ideas of what conprises god and belief is definitional to being a Jew.

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