Hospitality and Spirit
Embracing the Space Between Stories
by Paul Andrews
Why did I go?
Well, to begin with, I didn’t go to Temple Emmanuel to change religions. I went there to pray to You, to talk to You. Not my image or even my religion’s image of You, but You.
It says in the Psalms, “If I go up to the heights, You are there.” Are ashrams, gurudwaras, and mosques somehow exempted from this vision of Your presence everywhere? Clearly I can find You there as well.
I went with my friend Rita. It mattered to me to be sharing this with someone I like and trust. It would not at all have been the same going by myself, or with another Christian. I was very aware of stepping into a personal friend’s God-world, not just a “new experience.”
I also went because I wanted to observe a spiritual truth of Yom Kippur – reorienting my life to the One at the heart of things.
Going there in the middle of the evening, I park my car and watch couples walking past me, all heading toward the brightly lit door of the temple. A feeling a bit like Christmas Eve – when sacred time somehow cuts right across this ordinary weekday evening, and all that matters is this special night. Great numbers of people are doing something together that is out of the ordinary.
I go inside. I don’t feel at all unwelcome, just slightly different, and therefore a little self-conscious (momentary thoughts, like am I dressed OK). Very aware of people gathering in a great number, of the space being a spiritual center, a spiritual home where people are re-gathering for a ceremony that is obviously familiar to them and unknown to me.
The service begins. I’m glad I’ve read the whole prayer book beforehand. It gives me just a bit of familiarity with the rhythm, the themes of what will happen. In reading it, I have begun to notice themes – words or phrases that will weave through the service, reappearing again and again. A dim sense that the service develops and flows, that my attention is being led to consider things in a particular order.
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Having grown up in the church, when I am sitting in sacred space, I almost always know all the words. That’s both comforting and deadening.
Here, tonight, I am in a sacred place, with real prayer going on, but I am far from my own Christian story and words. And the words that are going on, compelling as they are, carry none of the deep overtones for me that fifty years of practice creates. And of course the Hebrew passages are completely off my map.
I feel hearts around me open to the One we are addressing in all this prayer. And yet I stand here in the temple with no language; wanting to pray, knowing that I have come here to pray; but stuck and blocked, with no familiar words for me to speak.
And then, quite unexpectedly, something extraordinary begins to happen. As if in a dream, I’m seeing these two great language/traditions meeting to form an immense, salmon colored wall out in front of me, like the high wall of some forbidding, ancient city. And all of a sudden, a crack begins to appear between them, and streaming through that crack is silent, dazzling white light, pouring from some place beyond both of them. I am moving into this crack BETWEEN stories – no traditions, no language, no words, no thoughts – and my heart just completely opens to this utter silence and light, recognizing its true home, Your immense night sky streaming with light and holy joy, Your absolute, drenching, saturating Presence.
All the rest of the evening I just SOAR in this canyon between stories, in this ocean of living light – like some high and ecstatic trapeze artist who has let go of one bar and not yet caught the other, soaring free and weightless in slow motion, in a moment utterly beyond limit, beyond time.
And more. This ocean of light is ALIVE. You are SEEING me, and You are speaking silently to my heart, in a language I do not yet understand.
Only much later do I try to absorb all this, to make sense of it. What comes is something like this. It seems that we seek You first in and through our own religious story. And through interfaith work, we learn and grow more deeply in our own faith as we listen to (and more deeply appreciate) the stories of others.
But maybe this is a new and deeper way You want to speak to us, a new way You want us to find You – we who become overly attached to our own stories. Maybe You want to break us free, not just from our own particular story, but from our attachment to ALL stories, even stories about You, so that we can actually meet You again. And because faith stories are practically the most precious things I “have,” they are one of the hardest “things” for me to let go of.
So then maybe what an interfaith community could be is this – a community where our presence to each other as friends would be a standing gentle invitation and challenge to put aside our own stories for just a moment, perhaps by a willingness to step trustingly and wholeheartedly toward the Divine-world of our friend. In just that moment – when we possess nothing, not even our Divine-story – you can quietly reach through the crack between stories, and touch us again with a light and a presence beyond all words.
Header Photo: Pixabay