In our first exploration into spiritual path, as it is pursued by women over sixty (Fall 2010), we heard from teachers in the Zen, Native American, and Catholic traditions. Now we complete our investigation with essays by three more women.
Kay Jorgensen, Unitarian minister, credits the influence of her Swedish grandfather in setting her on a path that has led her to confront suffering by living and working in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where poverty and homelessness hold sway. Mary Risala Laird recounts her journey from her Northern Baptist roots to the Sufi Order of the West, in which she serves as a minister, and reminds us of the surprises that can emerge in a spiritual quest. Leah Novick, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, found her way, at the age of 55, to ordination as a Jewish Renewal rabbi, calling upon nature and her urgency to transform the planet to inform her ministry. All three women embody a fresh approach to their chosen traditions and bring a seasoned perspective to their lives.
I was about ten years old when it happened. I was standing in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house, where I lived with my parents and younger sister. I was making a pickle, relish, and crispy bacon sandwich when the question came to me: “If God made everything, then who made God?”
I think now, these 68 years later, that I wanted to find out who or what came first. I wanted to get down to the beginning of things. I wanted to know who had some authority to rearrange the order and change the unhappy, confusing scene I was living in. I was trying to make some sense of an unspoken, yet powerful, conflict created by the strict orderliness and cleanliness of the life downstairs in my grandparent’s rooms, with its promise of a heavenly home at death (if we but believed in the Gospel of Christ), and the hell my sister and I lived in upstairs with our parents in the complete disorder of the attic, with no promise of a better life ever.
So I stared at the sandwich and began to think back, to before me and then before that, until I reached a sensation that felt as if I was going off the tip of my nose into an altered state of consciousness. I was in a strange space and could feel fear arising, along with an excited curiosity that ended all too quickly. After this brief moment was gone, I attempted to repeat it without success. I will never forget that moment. It was perhaps my first and most intimate experience of walking toward a threshold of human suffering in order to know and be known, beyond the reach of my struggling mind.
My grandfather, the Rev. Aaron E. Palmquist, with whom we were living, migrated along with many others to the United States from Sweden in 1890 in search of a new earthly home to rekindle the spiritual life of his Christian faith. He had longed to be a preacher of the Gospel in the Lutheran Church, but he was part of the majority of Swedes who were the working poor—peasants and laborers.
Once here, he managed to study at Chicago Theological Seminary, setting the foundation of his belief system, walking the path of its beckoning service, and dying in the assurance of this Gospel hymn:
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
It is said that the apple does not fall far from the tree. I did not realize how true that was for me until recently I read the results of my former husband’s genealogical study of the ancestors of our children and recognized how closely I have followed in my grandfather’s footsteps. Like him, I have sought a renewal of the human spirit by walking toward suffering. I recognize this path as my own and walk it in a spirit of common shared humanity seeking for home.
My intimacies with the unknown have come when I have found it necessary to move directly toward that which I don’t understand, or fear, or find difficult. As a child I had two imaginary friends, Oscar and Blowy, who were the truth tellers negotiating for me with a confused adult world. Now they are the clown and the mime, who work to keep me, as an adult and a minister, honest in a less-than-honest society, and who bring me the joy of play.
As a wife and mother I looked into the most difficult and fearful unknown of all when I left my family and everything of monetary value. Carrying only a suitcase, backpack, and three books, I literally left home to “join the circus.”
Now in old age, I walk into the unknown of the city streets of San Francisco. With those I encounter as fellow travelers, I seek to know and be known, always listening for the inner voice of recognition of the other one, who like me, asks,
What holds me separate?
What keeps me separated?
As I walk these streets, what still connects us?
Rather than seeking salvation in an imagined heavenly home, we seek it in a real one that we have in each other. My prayer is spoken well by the wise poet and theologian, Denise Levertov:
That our love for each other, if need be,
gives way to absence. And the unknown.
That we endure absence, if need be,
without losing our love for each other.
Without closing our doors to the unknown.
Be, Breathe, and Pray
by Mary Risala Laird
Gazing around my garage studio, I see poems I printed by Denise Levertov, Anita Barrows, and SR Grosslight framed on the wall. A small Buddhist poem by Derek Pyle shares space with reproductions of Madonnas from the Italian Renaissance, and quotations and photos of masters, saints, prophets, and poets. An 8 x 10 of Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) peers out at me from the head of my Vandercook printing press, on which I print poetry books. This environment may give some inkling of my path through life, as a Sufi and a woman.
How did I end up spending thirty years with the Sufi Order of the West after being raised Northern Baptist? From the time I was 7, lying in bed, staring at the stars, I wondered what lay behind and beyond “forever.” I have always been interested in mysticism. I have always been attracted to that depth in people, and all the paths used to plumb that depth. Even while following my Baptist faith, I found it quite natural to see Christ as a mystic. I also knew I wanted to honor all religions. After the birth of my first child I read the entire bibliography in Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There is, where I met my first Sufis, Susan Diridoni and Father Ochs of Berkeley, who gave a seminar in Madison, Wisconsin in 1977. They answered questions the moment they formed in my mind. I felt my heart stirring. There was no support for my spiritual meanderings on the home front, so I became a “wannabe closet Sufi” for four more years. By then I had three children under the age of five.
In 1981, at a workshop with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, I announced I was looking for Sufis. Sometime later I connected with Shahabuddin Less, a travelling sheikh, and I knew I had come home. I joined the Order. My focus became retreats. Practices and prayers from many religions formed the retreat lexicon. I learned to experience space between my thoughts. I loved the silence and slowness of the retreat process. I aspired to be enlightened by the time I was forty. Forty came and went!
We had weddings and funerals; meditation classes and retreats; dark nights of the soul and examination of the conscience. Short on levity, in need of more joy, I was definitely taking myself too seriously. It gradually dawned on me that being imperfect was being human, and I needed to befriend myself. After all, the purpose was embodied spirituality, wasn’t it? I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, finally washed up on the shores of my heart. My goals changed to: “Be, breathe, and prayâ€¦ in whatever fashion.” And Ram Dass’s admonition : “Love everyone, serve everyone, and remember God.”
Pir Vilayat, who was head of the Sufi Order International, always talked about looking to see “the cause behind the cause,” or “what transpires behind that which appears.” Imagine my surprise when I had an anxiety attack in the middle of a six-day retreat, unable to see the cause! I wondered if I were dying or losing my mind. Would I end up in a sanitarium like my father? Was this the end of my life as I knew it? For 25 years I had turned to retreats for my refuge and had even done 30-40 day retreats. This anxiety attack turned out to be one I couldn’t pray myself out of. I needed help and asked for it.
The old and much-looked-at issue of my father and his nervous breakdowns had re-emerged. I had to change my life. Again. I finally had to accept my need for medication as well as meditation. I would say it was my most successful retreat because I had to come home and deal with some practical concerns like a safe car, retirement issues, house repair, allopathic medication and a more down-to-earth view of myself. As a result, I began to relax more and to embrace the adage “Do something that frightens you every day” to get beyond my fears. My tendency to rigidity, to follow the rules, was challenged.
Now I am coming to understand that the most valuable thing I have to offer anyone is my ability to sit and listen. There is no “ism” there. If I can sit and be in my heart and encourage others to do the same, I can give up the methods, the belief systems, and as a consequence not be blocked by them. I am grateful for all the ways that end in self-acceptance, which turns out to be illumination after all.
Return to the Garden
by Rabbi Leah Novick
As a young child, my grandmother’s garden was my personal sanctuary. There, playing among the roses, the lilacs, and the lilies of the valley, I felt what I now call the Divine Presence, Shekhinah. I recall prostrating myself in the bed of fragrant white flowers and inhaling deeply. This womb of nature was my own world—unfettered by the demands of the adults who watched over me in our extended and often chaotic Orthodox Jewish family. Though I was not a solitary child, it is those quiet moments by myself that I now regard as the foundation of my spiritual life.
While the flowers, bushes, and trees did their work of entering my youthful consciousness, I also communicated with birds. Large numbers swooped in daily to consume the fine bread crumbs I spread out for them. Every afternoon, when my father’s bread truck returned from its delivery route through rural Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, I brushed out the left-over crumbs and prepared the meal for my avian friends. I was always called to outdoor activities. Even with friends I favored walks in the woods, picking blueberries or climbing the neighbor’s cherry tree. I also spent time skating and sleigh riding, shooting marbles and building campfires. My favorite season of the year was summer, when I helped my grandmother in the vegetable garden and accompanied her on trips to the lake, where I learned how to swim. (Despite her strict adherence to Jewish law in most areas, Grandma loved the water and did not hold out for Orthodox standards of modesty.)
Indoors I was tutored in Hebrew and Jewish prayers from age three by my very learned grandfather, who had run away from home in Eastern Europe to avoid the army and an arranged marriage. Grandpa never became a rabbi, but he studied Jewish texts as though he were still in the Yeshiva. Having retired before I was born, he had time to mentor me daily in Torah study. (My uncles maintain that I could quote Rashi, the 11th-century master of biblical and Talmudic commentary, by the time I was seven years old!) I also traveled with Grandpa to towns without synagogues, where he taught classes. I now see this experience as a prelude to my travels in recent decades as an emissary for the Jewish Renewal movement.
Our family moved to New York City in the 1940s to fulfill my mother’s longing for a more Jewish life. I became an observant but rebellious teen-ager and an ardent Zionist, and I fulfilled my parents’ dreams with an early marriage and three children. In the 1950s and 1960s, my husband and I joined a Reform congregation, which fit our involvement in social and political action. (Politics was my career path until my mid-fifties.) After ending a twenty-seven year marriage, I came to California, hoping to leave behind my lengthy political career. I discovered Jewish Renewal, a movement that strives to bring greater spirituality to Judaism, and I met the man who would become my mentor, Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi.
I was ordained as a rabbi at the age of fifty five. Since then, I have served as a rabbi in both conventional and alternative communities, and I started the spiritual retreat group that was my dream. Having become an ancestor (grandmother of five grown Israelis), my hope is that we will leave the planet and the Jewish condition in a healthy state for the generations to come. To that end I speak and lead workshops in communities in the U.S. and other countries. My work has been helping others to find a joyous Jewish spiritual path that will nourish their souls and be part of the transformation of the planet.
These days my connection with Judaism is less institutional and more focused on the personal in relation to nature. While I greatly value community, my spiritual path is less dependent on praying and meditating with groups. My studies continue, my teaching expands, and my inner life is sustained by the natural environment. Long ago, the magical Pacific Ocean took hold of me and graced me with a daily life that includes swimming, yoga, and sunset walks on the beach. And when I hike in the redwoods, focused on the plants and the trees, I know that I can still return to Shekhinah’s garden.