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!

An Interfaith Child in the World: Rise Up Joyful

My children have grown up in an interfaith utopia: a shimmering bubble of Judaism, Catholicism, Unitarianism, Protestantism and Buddhism swirling around them, creating gorgeous patterns. As interfaith couples raising children with more than one family religion, we created a community for our children, to show that interfaith families can be successful and happy while celebrating their full heritage.

Now comes the moment when my daughter, my first-born, must emerge from the beauty of this bubble, or so they say. In a few days, she leaves for a college that is thousands of miles away. She will encounter religious institutions still attempting to assign binary religious labels: Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Hindu, never both. She will hear that interfaith families must choose, interfaith children must fit into one religious box.

And yet, I expect my daughter to change the world as much as the world will change her. I have spent the past year interviewing grown children raised in interfaith family communities for my forthcoming book (Beacon Press, 2013). Based on the experiences of this new generation, I have great optimism that the gifts we have given our children in intentional interfaith communities will serve them well as interfaith activists and as ambassadors for religious peace.

My daughter is literate in two religions, and hungry to learn about others. She stands ready to defend both Judaism and Christianity, and to explain their interconnections. She can ponder the mystery of the universe in two languages. She is primed for deep empathy, building bridges, resisting intolerance.

For my daughter, interfaithness has never been incidental. Her confidence is bolstered by the presence and support of a beloved pastor, and a beloved rabbi. Since graduating from the interfaith Coming of Age program in eighth grade, she has taught in Sunday School classes for four years, getting up on Sunday mornings all through high school to teach interfaith kindergarteners.

At the final gathering of our interfaith community before the summer break, Our daughter stood at the front of the room, so that we could sing a parting blessing for her: an adaptation of a verse from the poem “Prayers and Sayings of a Mad Farmer” by our favorite farmer and poet Wendell Berry:

When I rise up let me rise up joyful, like a bird.
When I fall let me fall without regret, like a leaf.

We also said our weekly interfaith responsive reading, including a Benediction and Charge written by Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, from the interfaith families community in Palo Alto, California. On the eve of my daughter’s departure, these words took on new resonance:

May we go out into the world carrying with each of us the love and blessing of this Interfaith Community.
May we continue to hold on to what is good
and to stand as beacons of light and understanding for all people.

Demographics are on my daughter’s side. There is no stopping the formation of families across the lines of race, culture, religion and tribe. Some of us will choose one religion, one tribe. Some of us will not. I send my daughter out as a messenger bringing the good news that interfaith children raised with both religions can, not just survive, but truly thrive.
In my mind, my daughter does not exit, vulnerable, from our bubble into some harsh climate. Instead, I imagine that she is breaking off into a smaller bubble, rising on an updraft, taking the beauty of religious fluidity with her, floating out into the world for all to admire. Rather than leaving behind the idea of interfaith community, she will take it with her, gathering the interfaith children of her generation–Buddhist and Jewish, Wiccan and Quaker, Sikh and Catholic—and inviting them into this new reality.

Interfaith Spirituality: Earth Day

In celebration of Earth Day, my interfaith family got swept up in a spiritual experience beyond religious labels. I seek out such moments for my family, in order to complement my children’s education in Judaism and Christianity. The careful balance of two religions, the prescription to question and delineate, holds a risk that we will remain on the surface, at a distance, skeptical academics. As much as I appreciate this intellectual approach, I also want my children to have the opportunity for full emotional and sensory immersion: for letting go.

And so it was that my husband, my teenage daughter and I found ourselves in a community chorus of 125 people on Friday night, singing a “Song of the Earth” program to an audience of over 1000 people in the glorious acoustics and architecture of Strathmore Hall. I often write about how moments we call spiritual, or mystical, or simply happy, are usually triggered by some combination of art, music and nature. At Strathmore on Friday, we had all three. The program centered around poems by Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry, set to music by folk composer Malcolm Dalglish. Malcolm led us on hammered dulcimer, and the chorus backed traditional Japanese dancers, Irish step dancers, and Appalachian clog dancers, as well as percussionists, a fiddler, a cellist and a bagpiper. Like my interfaith family, the program was joyously eclectic and inclusive, with dissonance sharpening the senses, and contrasting layers yielding surprise and delight.

Singing six-part harmony in the midst of a huge choir creates a pulsing in the air: sympathetic, sensual, full-body resonance. My daughter stood next to me, at times following, at times leading me through the challenging music. At one point, she moved away from me to the front of the stage with a dozen singers, to perform a sign-language interpretation of a fragment from Berry’s poem “Rising.”  I was acutely aware that she is preparing to set out into the world; that we may never sing together like this again:

The earth opened in the spring,

Opens in all springs.

Nameless,

Ancient, many-lived

We reach through the ages with the seed.

Wendell Berry’s poetry did not strike me at first as overtly Christian. In a key essay in which he struggles with the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism, Berry writes of his own religious identification: “I have a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams.”

For better or worse, my children have two native religions. As I seek to nurture a positive sense of Christianity in my children, and in all children, I eagerly claim Wendell Berry as a favorite writer inspired by his Christian roots. I reach through the ages to plant seeds of Jewish and Christian appreciation in my children, so that they can scamper to the treetops of both religions, swing from the branches, close their eyes and harmonize.

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