Pekudei: lessons on sacred space and on cultivating Mystery
Not a sign of defeat, but a sign of engagement

Privilege, prayer, parenthood

Mudra_000There's a teaching from the Maggid of Mezritch about morning prayer. I love this teaching -- and I also struggle with it. Here it is:

Take special care to guard your tongue
   before the morning prayer.
Even greeting your fellow, we are told,
    can be harmful at that hour.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
    like a new creation.
Begin your day with unkind words
    or even trivial matters --
    even though you may later turn to prayer,
    you have not been true to your creation.
All of your words each day
    are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
    in the first words that you speak.

(That's as cited in Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.)

It's a beautiful teaching. I love the idea of taking special care to guard what comes out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. I love the idea that when one wakes up in the morning one is like a new creation. I love the idea that all of the words I will speak in a day are rooted, somehow, in the first words I uttered upon waking. What a beautiful idea, to keep silence until it's time for morning prayer, and to begin the day with praise and song. I've done that on retreat, and it's a joy.

Here's the thing, though: most of us don't live on retreat. Most of us don't have the luxury of beginning the day in perfect silence and contemplation, gliding into a joyful morning service, and only then engaging in trivial or ordinary speech. Most of the people I know wake up to someone's needs: the needs of children, the needs of parents, the needs of a sick or disabled partner, the needs of animals. Who has the luxury of avoiding "trivial matters" until after morning prayer? Certainly not me.

I think it's possible that the holy Maggid, may his memory be a blessing, was speaking out of a kind of privilege. Something tells me he wasn't waking up to care for a child who chatters and expects answers -- presumably that was his wife's job.

Waking up to care for a child is a privilege, in the sense that I'm grateful to have the opportunity to do it. But waking up and being able to devote oneself entirely to spiritual concerns, because someone else is doing the familial caregiving -- and not noticing that, nor thinking about the fact that for the person doing the caregiving, the day necessarily unfolds differently -- is a sign of privilege. It's unconscious, but that doesn't make it any less present. (In the words of author Cat Valente, "Your privilege is comprised of the questions you’ve never had to ask.") Most of the beautiful spiritual texts at our disposal were written by men, because for most of our religious history, men are the ones who've access to the lives conducive to writing those texts.

Of course, in the Maggid's paradigm, prayer was a mitzvah incumbent upon men but not upon women for precisely this reason. Women were presumed to have familial obligations which exempted us from prayer. (I've written about this before, mostly since I became a parent -- see, for instance, the post Time-bound, 2010.) But I live in an intentionally egalitarian setting, spiritually and otherwise. His gender-determined world is not the world I inhabit, nor the kind of community in which I serve. And yet I recognize that my world isn't wholly liberated, either. Even in my egalitarian community, it's most often women who do the lioness' share of the caregiving -- not always, but often. And I suspect that often we measure our progress in spiritual life against a yardstick designed for people who don't have those responsibilities.

I don't think the Maggid could have imagined the life I lead: ardently religious but not always in ways he would have recognized; invested in prayer and in God, but also accustomed now to finding new ways of living with prayerful consciousness, ways which don't require me to set aside my parenting responsibilities in order to enter into relationship with God. For that matter, I don't think it's only women who struggle with these choices -- not in today's paradigm. Those with caregiving responsibilities, and those who work multiple jobs to get by, and probably other groups of people I'm not thinking of (so feel free to chime in!) -- I suspect that most of us today experience tension between our responsibilities and our yearned-for spiritual lives.

How might I reframe the Maggid's teaching? Maybe something like this:

Take special care to speak with kindness
   when you first wake to those for whom you care.
Even in greeting your child, patient, partner, or loved one
    you can cultivate compassion and lovingkindness.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
    like a new creation.
If you begin your day with frustration
    or, worse, resentment --
    though you may later turn to gentleness,
    you've started the day on the wrong foot.
All of your words each day
    are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
    in the first words that you speak.

 If you would adapt his teaching differently, I'd love to see your version in comments. (Or if you want to keep his teaching precisely as it is -- which I admit I do too! I both want to preserve it, and want to adapt it. I think I need both.)

I don't want to have to choose between "spiritual life" and "caring for my child." I want to be able to engage in spiritual life through caring for my child. I want to make caring for my child part of my spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't what happens after I'm able to put my caregiving responsibilities aside. Spiritual life and spiritual practice are -- they have to be -- bigger than that, deeper than that, richer than that. (I've written about this before, too -- see This is spiritual life, 2011.) Maybe that means spiritual life takes different shapes. Maybe it means we need a more expansive sense of what spiritual life means.

Here's one more teaching about prayer from that same English compilation. This one's from Zavat Ha-Rivash, a collection of teachings attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and his disciple the Maggid of Mezritch:

There are times when you are not at prayer
    but nevertheless you can feel close to God.
Your mind can ascend even above the heavens.

And there are also times,
    in the very midst of prayer,
    when you find yourself unable to ascend.
At such times stand where you are
    and serve with love.

"At such times stand where you are and serve in love." I love that. Wherever we are -- whatever we're doing -- we can seek to wholly inhabit that place, and to serve in love. To serve the people for whom we care. To serve God. To serve God through serving the people for whom we care. To serve the spark of God in our loved ones; to see the spark of God in our loved ones. Stand where we are, and serve in love. It's a beautiful ideal... and I recognize that I can't always manage that, either. I can aspire to it! But as with any other spiritual practice, there are times when it comes easily, and times when I can't seem to get there at all.

That's part of why I'm grateful to have the privilege of going on retreat, from time to time. (Or just going on a rabbinic business trip where I get to focus exclusively on my rabbinic life instead of on my other responsibilities for a few days.) Relinquishing my parenting responsibilities for a few days can be a gift, as can focusing instead on cultivating the life of the spirit and nurturing my connection with God. But what do I do when I inevitably fail, in ordinary life, to measure up to the kind of focused spiritual immersion I can manage when someone else is preparing the food, doing the dishes, and looking after my child?

The answer has to be that the goal isn't to replicate the retreat experience at home, but to bring the sustenance of the retreat experience into my householder spiritual life. Which is also a ordinary mom life, and I don't want to fall into the false dichotomy of privileging the "spiritual" part of my life over the "mom" part. In my best moments, I can glimpse the life of the spirit elevating and enlivening the alphabet cereal and the board games and the books before bedtime. The mom life is a spiritual life. Or it can be, when I'm awake to it. And when I'm not able to access that awareness, at least I can try to stand where I am and to bring love to whatever task is at hand.


(Image source.)