If you’ve been waiting for your Surprised By God preview excerpt, you are now in luck. The World Jewish Digest has been kind enough to print a snippet of the thing for your reading enjoyment. (There should be another bonus excerpt to come soon–more word on that when it does.)
Here’s the link to the piece as pubbed by WJD, if you want to see it in official format. Otherwise, just read on:
About six months after my mother died, strange things began to happen. I would walk around Providence at night – wide, clean streets, rows of crumbling Victorians in candy pastels, the sort of humming quiet that can be found at night in sleepy towns – and I would talk to the moon. It wasn’t really out loud, or even in words, but rather more like a sort of concentrated focus, a communion with this startling orb that seemed to be watching over me in a way that nobody else really was. I had never really looked at the moon, and now I was addicted. Some nights the sky was clear, and it would spread wide, clean light in all directions. On cloudy nights it would appear through a haze, swaddled in a muted rainbow.
I began to connect to something long buried that only had permission to stir as I traversed the winding streets, more than a little lost. I would listen to Tchaikovsky on my Walkman and weep at the moon. Not just the moon, though. I was equally moved by the shadows that were cast across the lawns by porch lights and the chunks of paint peeling off the old houses, or the weeds sprouting tenderly between sidewalk cracks. It was all too much for me to take. In the afternoons I’d walk home from class and suddenly everything seemed to take on a softness, an illumination of some sort. Colors seemed deeper, corners sharper. I would be walking down the street and, abruptly, the only thing that seemed to exist in the world was the stop sign at the corner – its bold red flatness, the tinny gray of the post, the holes in the post and the silhouette it created.
My mind would go still. It’d be absent of the clacking sound to which I was accustomed, with its endless running commentary about who I had seen and who I would see and what I had eaten that day and what I had to do and what had just happened in class and…suddenly the only thing in the world was this stop sign. And, somehow, that was enough. In a life primarily defined by a sense of deprivation and anxiety, it was striking, for a moment or two, to feel as though things were exactly as they ought to be.
I didn’t know what to call these experiences. I didn’t think to label them at all, really. They just sort of happened. They captivated me for a time and then I moved on.
The sense of losing myself certainly echoed how I had felt sometimes at [punk clubs I used to frequent in high school, like] Medusa’s or in the mosh pit, but these experiences against the Providence night sky were raw and unmediated; there was no music, no noise, no motion between me and this feeling of infinity.
I had had smaller moments like this in years past, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they began to come fast and furious after my mother’s death. My shell had been broken by grief, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I was unguarded enough to perceive a force that, for all of its power, is quite subtle in day-to-day existence.
I was empty, I was open. And I think it helped that I was also feeling alienated from the people and the routines from which I had expected solace as I mourned. It seemed that my friends were mainly interested in going to parties and riding the ups and downs of collegiate romance. My life had shifted radically while my friends’ lives had remained fairly constant; I was grieving, while they were not. Eventually I would once again become preoccupied with the location for the next adventure and the merry-go-round of who I would be kissing next. But that first semester back, I was a college senior drenched in grief and loss and hurt and heartache and the horror of everything that I had witnessed. And that created a gap between my friends and me.
Gaps are powerful, potent entities. Inside a fissure, things can grow. In lag time, we can hear quieter impulses too long drowned out by a comfortable noise. In the spaces between our lives as we have known them and our lives as they are, our peripheral vision tends to expand. As Annie Dillard wrote, “The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time…they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.”
Stripped from my usual context, from the comforts of normalcy, I entered, unwittingly, another dimension. It is inside the gaps that magic happens; an old defense is lowered, sensitivities are heightened, something calls in from the quiet. New questions flicker and, whether or not we’re aware of it at the time, a part of us follows after them. But it takes a long, long time to make sense of the clues we pick up along the way – usually years from the time we begin collecting them.
* * *
Transformation, if it’s going to happen at all, is protracted, often imperceptible in the moment. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes of his own experience, “I did not experience one seismic and pivotal movement with its special theophany. The process was gradual. There was a long series of these ephiphanies, often unrelated to one another, and the effect was cumulative.” Few, if any, of us go to Damascus and have one experience that changes absolutely everything (though in hindsight, we might be tempted to try to identify some turning point or other this way). More often, certain events make us ripe to regard things with a different kind of lens – though it’s never a foregone conclusion that we actually will. Maybe, regardless of a new experience, old ways of thinking will remain solidly in place. Maybe something within will shift slightly. And maybe, one day, we’ll find ourselves sliding into one of the great, gorgeous, terrifying gaps of stillness and uncertainty, somewhere in the disquieting space between comfort and crisis.
Certainly, my mother’s cancer didn’t prompt any profound personal development during my freshman year – I managed to get by, immersing myself in college life and going to enough parties to avoid thinking difficult thoughts. But as a grieving twenty-one-year-old, the same strategy wasn’t working. I found the same old conversations about dating and identity politics useless – they didn’t address my situation, my new, broken perspective, my needs.
When the usual routine doesn’t click, there can be a space, a receptivity, to encounter something else that might. And I think that that’s really why I was able to enter these curious nighttime experiences, and became even almost open to asking certain kinds of questions about them. For, when I wandered around Providence and slipped into the place where the air vibrated, where rocks and leaves seemed to pulse with opalescent light, I didn’t wonder why. I didn’t really think at all. The experiences certainly didn’t disturb me; they were gentle, sweet. Safe. What began to bother me, as time went on, was what to make of them.
One afternoon not long after these moonlit walks had begun, I had lunch with my friend Sabah at a cafÃ© near campus. I don’t remember what she asked me, but my response caused her to look up at me over the soup and say, “You don’t consider yourself spiritual? I think of you as pretty much the most spiritual person I know.”
Sabah did and still does identify as a secular humanist, with no interest in religion of any sort. She did, and still does, count on my short list of people whose observations are almost never off target. The comment stayed with me, confounded me. What could she be talking about? What did she see in me to which this word could apply? I was confused and flattered at the same time, and then I wasn’t sure why I felt flattered. Was it a good thing to be “spiritual”? Wasn’t it just silliness? I was embarrassed by even the thought of applying the word to myself. It had always struck me as one of those ways people tried to make sense of their own insanity, of their blanket refusal to accept the world as it already was. These experiences of pure, rushing, vibrant presence didn’t inherently hamper my carefully constructed worldview. But a more objective attempt to give language to them, an attempt to explain why these deep connections with the night sky seemed to give me comfort when almost nothing else did…well, this direction of inquiry was philosophically devastating.
The implications made my head spin. I had always believed that religious people were deluded. What could it mean if the devout had all long been citizens of the remarkable, translucent world that I was just discovering?I had, at this point, spent several years studying religious phenomenology from the perspective of an academic trying to understand what people thought they were experiencing when they talked about God – even if, in reality, it was just a neurological reaction or something similar. And yet…I knew I couldn’t entertain the possibility that my midnight excursions might be connected to the word spiritual without extending the word to what I regarded as its logical extreme. And opening even the question of the concept of God made me a little bit nervous, a little bit jittery, and rather nauseous.
Like a lot of people, the only image I had of God, or even of “spirituality,” was this mythical, anthropomorphized God, the Guy in the Sky who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. The Torah talks about a God who took the Jews out of Egypt with a strong hand and a mighty arm and whose nostrils flare when He (always He) gets angry. The artists of the Renaissance added a few Zeus-inspired touches: big beard, thunderbolt, menacing glare. The only archetypes that I encountered in my upbringing and in the wider culture were of God as fascist dictator or, maybe, God as the Big Buddy who makes everything okay. It was this latter God – the one who was going to somehow swoop down from the sky and save my mother from cancer – that I had so vociferously rejected the year before, and years before that. From my 21-year-old perspective, it seemed ludicrous that I would throw away years of rational inquiry and historical-critical analysis, that I would give up my intellect and my power and go mooning after these problematic images in the naÃ¯ve belief that it would somehow help my life to do so.
Of course, I wasn’t experiencing an angry, or even necessarily a personal, deity. And that was just the thing. There was a disparity between the language I felt pulled to use to describe these experiences and my belief in what that language signified. The experiences weren’t wrong. The other possibility, then, was that these words – spirituality, or God, even – might refer to something much more powerful and primal, something much more fundamental than I had ever considered before.
The implications made my head spin. I had always believed that religious people were deluded, mistakenly transferring their need for a parent figure or for certainty in the world onto mythology. What could it mean if the devout had all long been citizens of the remarkable, translucent world that I was just discovering? And, sure enough, I would eventually discover that a great many people, from the authors of the book of Deuteronomy onward, understood what I, at this time, did not: that all the business of God’s flaring nostrils and mood swings was actually just metaphor, ways of describing the intangible force I began meeting more and more often.
Judaism’s ancient rabbinic texts make this point when they say that “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings,” and the medieval philosopher Maimonides is adamant that anyone who takes literally either the emotional or physical descriptions of God’s human attributes is committing idolatry. But at the time, I didn’t know this, any of it. I was like the people the twentieth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Merton described when he wrote “I know that many people are, or call themselves, ‘atheists’ simply because they are repelled and offended by statements about God made in imaginary and metaphorical terms which they are not able to interpret and comprehend. They refuse these concepts of God, not because they despise God, but perhaps because they demand a notion of Him more perfect than they generally find: and because ordinary, figurative concepts of God could not satisfy them, they turn away and think that there are no other.”
And here I was, suddenly, wondering if there were other concepts out there, if there were ways of understanding the world that I had never considered. Over the period of about a year, everything I had ever believed began to invert itself with a dizzying rapidity.
As I hesitantly experimented with using the word spirituality to describe these strange luminous rushes – the sense of being outside time, the sense of stepping into eternity, the sense that my self as I understood it seemed to melt away into the moment – the rushes got bigger. And later, as I began first tentatively, and then more assertively, to use the word “God” to describe the experiences, they got bigger and bigger still. It was as though, like Anne Lamott, I “had discovered that if I said, ‘Hello?’ to God, I could feel God say ‘Hello,’ back.”
Reprinted from Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion By Danya Ruttenberg. Copyright Â© 2008 by Danya Ruttenberg. By permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org.
haunting and devastating