As a child in a devout and open-minded Catholic family, I believed in God as I believed in my parents: unquestioningly.
At age 18, I suffered a crisis of faith. I had been taught in church that there was an Old Testament God—wrathful, vengeful, violent—and a New Testament God, the one we followed, who was generous, forgiving, and endlessly loving. Lacking sophistication and spiritual guidance, I couldn’t square these ideas with my belief that there is only one God. If the Old Testament/New Testament split is at the heart of Christianity, I decided, I could no longer consider myself Christian. It was an agonizing conclusion. But I still believed in God, unquestioningly.
Some 15 years later, when I decided to become Jewish, the beit din (rabbinic court) asked me about my observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. They asked about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. They asked what I thought about Jesus. (My reply: I don’t think about him very much.) If the rabbis had asked whether I believed in God, I would have said yes. But they didn’t. After the beit din, I went to the mikveh and emerged as a Jew, my faith in God still unquestioned.
In the years after that, spending time with passionate, intellectual Jews who spoke more often of God as a character in the Bible than as a force in history or in their lives, I began to realize that I was quite unsure what my belief meant to me. I could tell you what kind of God I did not believe in: an old man with a beard, a thundering giver of laws, a divine vending machine where you could insert your prayers and get what you asked for.
But what kind of God did I believe in? What did I mean by “God”? To some, these are the most important questions anyone could ask. To me, they did not seem so important.
Even as I committed myself to daily prayer, wrapping myself in a tallis (prayer shawl) and reciting the morning blessings, I was unconcerned about the nature of the God named in those blessings. Prayer, I believe, is for the benefit of the one who is praying. So as I thanked God for the light of the morning, for the use of my body, for health and prosperity, I reminded myself to be grateful. As I praised God for kindness and compassion, for taking care of the sick and keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust, I reminded myself of my obligation to do the same. In a very real and important sense, I was talking to myself. Life was good, and it didn’t matter whether anyone else was listening.
Until it did.
I hate needing help, and I hate asking for it. Needing help makes me needy, less-than, unable to take care of myself. Asking for help puts me at the mercy of whomever I ask. If they say yes, I’m in their debt. If they say no, I’m devastated. They don’t care about me enough to help. Or I didn’t ask the right way. Or I don’t deserve it. In any case, it proves that I never should have asked in the first place.
But last year, I realized that my self-reliance had reached its limit. I had lost myself. Two years after my father’s death, I longed to feel like myself again—but I didn’t know who that self was. I struggled to find my way back to the person I thought I was, or to the person I needed to become. More and more, I recognized that my psychological journey was also an intensely spiritual journey.
And so my prayers began to change. I still found reminders of gratitude for what I had—a home, a family, friends, a job—but now, also, reminders of what I needed.
Elohai, nishama she-natata bi, t’horah hi: my God, the soul you gave me is pure. Deep inside me is something pure, something I did not create, something with intrinsic value that does not depend on what I do, but is simply part of who I am. I need to believe that.
Ashrei yoshvei veytecha: happy are those who live in your house. What would it mean to live in God’s house? I decided that for me, it would mean being fully present in the world and in my life—inhabiting myself fully. You could call that mindfulness. You could call it being myself, truly myself, the person I am meant to be. I need that.
Ha’michadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit: God renews the works of creation every day, eternally, in goodness. Every day is a new start, a new chance. I need to remember that.
Mah rabu ma’asecha: how great are your works. The natural world is a wondrous place. I need to pay attention.
Ahava rabba ahavtanu: you love us with a great love. I need to feel that.
Eventually, with sheepishness and trepidation, I began directing my prayers outward. I began asking for what I needed. Wisdom. Compassion. Strength. Forgiveness, especially the ability to forgive myself. Healing. I sent these prayers out into the world, not knowing whom or what I was asking for help. The universe, whatever that might mean? Some hidden source of strength within myself? The Almighty?
Just giving myself permission to pray that way was an act, maybe not of faith, but of trust. I have to trust myself enough to believe that this form of petitionary prayer is a good thing, because it somehow feels right. I have to trust that asking for help will help me, even though I don’t know how.
Asking other human beings for help is also a giant act of trust. I have to trust the other person to give my request the consideration it deserves. I have to trust myself to survive the possibility that they’ll say no, even the possibility that I’ll feel kicked in the teeth. I have to trust that our relationship will survive my decision to ask—my neediness—and their decision to help or not.
Likewise this Mary Oliver Challenge. As I dig beneath the deeds and relationships by which I have defined myself, trying to discover who I really am, frightening questions emerge: what if I don’t like what I find? What if I do, but other people don’t? What if I don’t find anything to speak of?
It’s a trust walk with myself.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.