Seeing the Sacred in One Interfaith Family

Slowing Time, Barbara Mahany, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Barbara Mahany describes her new book as a field guide to wonder. The essays in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door at times bring to mind Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller, Waldorf pedagogy, and mystics including Julian of Norwich. Mahany leads us through the cycle of seasons in the natural world, and in the life of a Christian and Jewish interfaith family. A former Chicago Tribune columnist (and former pediatric oncology nurse), Mahany writes as a parent, a naturalist, and a Catholic. Her voice—funny, humble, brave, affectionate—narrates this unusual volume, pulling together disparate elements into a moving whole, lovely in both form and content.

 

So, at the bottom of each page we find a running commentary of poetic field notes on the moon and other astronomical and agricultural changes through the year. Each section ends with a recipe, reflecting the spiritual and seasonal bounty (beginning and ending with winter, which gets two sections, and thus two recipes). And each season begins with notes acknowledging the agrarians roots of Jewish and Christian and secular holidays, and providing suggestions on how to infuse these celebrations with new meaning.

 

For example, I love this entry on the spring calendar, for a holiday with Pagan origins: May Day (May 1): Caretaker of Wonder Pledge: I will rescue broken flowers and ferry them to my windowsill infirmary, where I’ll apply remedies and potions, or simply watch them die away in peace.

 

In this one brief and surprising sentence, Mahany manages to avoid both the saccharine and the how-to, instead reflecting on the hard truths of the natural world, providing insight into her interactive and intentional approach to marking the seasons, and perhaps provoking us to join her in this novel contemplative activity.

 

For me, the fact that Mahany writes as a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, raising children with both religions, provides an important key to experiencing Slowing Time. (For more on Mahany’s interfaith family story, listen here to her wonderful Holy Rascals interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro). Often, I am asked if interfaith families celebrating both religions end up with a dry, intellectual approach, devoid of spirituality, as if we are studying the religions in a museum or academic course, comparing and contrasting, with all the sacred juice drained out.

 

These questions come from people who have never experienced life inside an interfaith family like Mahany’s. I like to say that we are religious maximalists, not minimalists, celebrating both, rather than nothing. Indirectly, quietly, without arguing or defending or setting out data (as I must do as an advocate and journalist), Mahany makes the case for the rich spiritual lives of interfaith families who intentionally immerse themselves in the earthly connections, and particularities, of these two sibling religions.

 

Or, as Mahany writes, while her family “encounters the Divine in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions,” she finds that “the dual lenses refract and magnify both light and shadow, and that my sense of the sacred pulses throughout the year.” The sense of sacred pulses throughout this book, and throughout the lives of those of us who draw meaning and take inspiration from more than one ancestral religion. I am grateful to Mahany for her deep consideration of how this looks and works and feels for her, through many small moments, keenly observed.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

On Mourning, Christmas, and Interfaith Community

Star Ornament

After the tragedy in Newtown, townsfolk gathered together at an interfaith service with Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i prayers. In this moment of great sorrow, we sought solace and inspiration in a gathering that reflects the complex religious pluralism of America in the 21st century.

We do not need to share a creed or dogma in order to share our burdens. Community provides a balm to the believer, the seeker, and the secularist alike in times of trouble. Sitting together, singing together, mourning together, despite theological differences, we are able to experience catharsis, and ephemeral hope.

I feel profoundly grateful to be part of an interfaith families community, a community that allows my family to feel the transcendence of interfaith gatherings on a regular basis. On Sunday, just two days after the Newtown tragedy, we attended the annual Lessons and Carols service for Advent and Christmas. My husband and I sing in the choir, so we found ourselves at the front of the room, looking out at hundreds of parents still in a state of shock, many with arms wrapped around small children bewildered by all of the tight hugging and extra kisses.

In the choir, I stumbled imperfectly through the alto harmonies, and closed my eyes to receive the poems by Mary Oliver and Madeleine L’Engle. But this year, the imagery in song and readings became almost unbearably poignant—the innocence of the baby, the mother destined to lose her son. At the emotional climax, Rich Shegogue, an extraordinary tenor, stood alone, as he does each year, to sing “O Holy Night.” The refrain of “Fall on your knees. Oh hear, the angel voices!” and the alternation of soaring and tender musical phrases, broke open the hearts of many parents. Gazing out through tears, I saw Christians and Jews alike weeping, including our choir director, Rich’s Jewish wife Marci, who must have heard Rich sing this carol hundreds of times before. But never before like this.

In the darkness of the solstice, in the darkness of tragedy, we crave community. For interfaith families, finding community has not always been easy. Some of us have found homes in churches or progressive synagogues, or in Unitarian-Universalist communities, or in the Ethical Society. Some of us have created our own interfaith families communities in order to teach both religions to our children. In an interfaith families community, both Christians and Jews have permission to take solace in the beauty of the story of the birth of Jesus, without having to agree on whether or not he was the messiah.

As Christians and Jews who married across religious boundaries, we each approach a service like the Lessons and Carols from our own personal theological perspective. Whether we understand the Christmas story as history, or metaphor, or myth, or mystery, we are glad to live in a time and place when we can experience it together, sharing both comfort and joy.