Growing up, I never really understood why people went to church although everyone I knew did. I thought it was perhaps because they felt guilty. I grew up in a neighborhood of Catholics and Mormons and Born Again Christians. So I assumed they were all going to church on Sunday to confess, to take communion and to be absolved of the guilt of their bad behavior from the previous week. And this may have been true. For some of them. But it may also have been true that some of them went to church for reasons having nothing to do with guilt or bad behavior or obligation. Maybe some of them went to church because they just liked it.
Lately I’ve been going to temple every week. It started because Child Two has Hebrew school on Saturdays. In the beginning, Sig Other would drop the boy off and go for his morning ride. But every now and then, Sig Other would have a conflict and I would do the drop off. Child Two is just a little boy (though he’s almost as tall and certainly outweighs me by now) and I so felt it right to walk him in. And once in a while, I felt compelled to stay a while.
Week after week I’d go for drop off. And once in a while turned into more often than not. And I’d end up staying. At first it was just an hour. Then it was two and then longer and then time and time again I’d find myself staying for the whole service. Temple on a Saturday morning can be fun. It’s terribly social. There’s tea and sometimes snacks and often a group of folks sitting around outside chatting and avoiding the services entirely. And sometimes I’ll join them. Sometimes I’ll mill back and forth between the inner and outer worlds. But lately, more often than not, I find myself hunkering down. Lately, more often than not, I find myself really engaging – following along and yes, even singing like I really mean it.
For most of my life, I made fun of people who sing like they mean it. It was a joke to me. “Oh,” I’d say when being told about someone earnest, “does she close her eyes when she sings? Does she sing like she really means it?” To me, singing like you mean it indicated a kind of weakness. Singing like you really mean it was for people whose hearts bled, who were evil do-gooders, who looked right in your eyes when they spoke and pledged sincerity at all times. Those people, I was convinced, lacked irony. They didn’t share my innate cynicism. They were, I decided, simple.
But here’s where it gets kind of messy. Here’s where inherent cynicism clashes with conventional action. Standing in synagogue, joining a congregation with voices lifted in song can be moving – can transport me to a place of deep emotion – to a place some people could call – even I would perhaps call “spiritual”.
I hate to admit – I hesitate to bend to definition I would find abhorrent, but the truth is there are times I find standing in temple, singing with a group of people sort of spiritual. I sing in Hebrew – I don’t really know the words or what they mean – but I’ve heard them so often now I can sing a transliterated version of prayers and understand they all basically say the same thing – God is great, God is fabulous, God should be held in awe. And I sing and I know I don’t hold these beliefs in the literal sense of the word but I do feel something – I feel transported, I feel elevated and moved and deeply emotional. I feel like I’m praying.
Praying. What does that mean. Here’s what Wikipedia says about prayer:
Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional connection to a god or spirit through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of a hymn, incantation, formal creedal statement, or a spontaneous utterance in the praying person. There are different forms of prayer such as petitionary prayer, prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, and worship/praise. Prayer may be directed towards a deity, spirit, deceased person, or lofty idea, for the purpose of worshipping, requesting guidance, requesting assistance, confessing sins or to express one's thoughts and emotions. Thus, people pray for many reasons such as personal benefit or for the sake of others.
AH HAH!!! That’s it. I stand in shul and close my eyes and sing like I really mean it because I’m PRAYING. And it’s ok to pray even though I can’t say for sure that I believe in God. It’s ok to pray even though I may not be praying to God at all. Maybe I'm praying to connect to a lofty idea. Maybe I'm praying to confess or to express a thought or emotion. Maybe it doesn't matter at all why i'm there as long as I know that it really is ok to sing with my eyes closed – to sing like I really mean it.