Often people say they are spiritual but not religious. Those who self-identify that way may
find spirituality in nature, love, music, childbirth -- experiences that
connect one with the ineffable. There's a realization that one isn't alone, that one is part of something. One feels love, and gratitude. "But I'm not religious." (Right? You know what I mean? Maybe you've heard that. Maybe you've said it.)
But what does "religious" mean, anyway? Religion is that which connects and binds. It's how we engage in the work of re-ligare, linking ourselves back with our source. It's like we're reattaching spiritual ligaments. And ligaments are by their nature flexible; they allow movement, and they hold us together.
Flashes of enlightenment can arise through "spiritual but not religious" experiences. But the feeling of connection is necessarily finite. That's the nature of things. We get stressed, overwhelmed,
burdened. It's hard to keep the portal open.
Religion, at its heart, is about reopening our connections with the infinite. The practices of Jewish tradition are designed to cultivate and strengthen those connections.
No one imagines they can run easily and far if they don't work out with some regularity. Just so, we can't run spiritually if we don't stretch and work out spiritually. The practice of daily prayer is a chance to stretch spiritual muscles. It allows us to domesticate the peak experience.
Domesticate means to bring it into our homes. In other words, the ardent prayer of my first week on retreat at Elat Chayyim five years ago -- "I wish I could bring this home with me!" -- contained the seeds of its answer within it. Of course I can bring it home with me. I can and I do. That's the whole idea of daily prayer -- to connect me with the infinite. Not just when I'm on retreat, but every day of my life.
Walking the paths of our liturgical texts more closely and attentively helps me be awake to the possibility of transformation.
Our liturgical focal point during week 3 of DLTI was shema u-virchoteha, the shema and her blessings. (Many of you who read this blog know that the shema, which is said twice daily, is surrounded in the mornings by a trio of blessings, and in the evenings by a quatrain of them, three on the same themes as the morning plus an extra one asking God to shelter us in peace throughout the night.) The shema is like an iris, a magnificent flower with a deep center, and its blessings offer us a journey of consciousness toward inner change.
First, the blessing for God Who creates light. We praise the One Who every
nanosecond completely renews the light of creation. On a surface level this blessing references physical light, but really we're talking about the light of wisdom,
the primordial light which
was the first thing to emanate into creation. Yotzer or teaches that in every moment I am
new. Nothing is ever locked into how it has been. Every
possibility lies before us at every moment.
Then comes the blessing for the God of love. This is love so
vast, its enormity cannot be grasped by us. Infinite love manifests
tangibly, crystallizing in teachings we call Torah. And just as visible light points us toward primordial light, tangible
love points us toward primordial love. Love (ahava) leads us to oneness (shema) which
pours back out as love again (v'ahavta) -- the shema is the filling in this love sandwich! Light and love awaken in us the willingness to dissolve
in oneness. The shema calls us to be at one
with where we are.
And from oneness comes the desire to return our love to its source and move into redemption. The ge'ulah blessing, the final petal on this iris, is our redemption song. The remembrance of liberation from slavery is woven into our liturgy and our consciousness. Every day we remember yetziat Mitzrayim, our emergence out of constriction, the parting of those waters and the passage through. Every day we look toward the possibility of unfolding and transformation which our tradition names redemption.
The siddur offers us this map of awakening, this process of daily reconnection. My relationship with the words changes as I pray them, as I change inside them, as they change inside me.