Awareness of God


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If God Were Sitting at Your Sabbath Table, Would You Notice?

By Nina Amir Lacey

I've often wondered if, like the proverbial Buddha on the path, I found God seated at my Sabbath table, would I even notice? I've complained at the end of the Sabbath that I didn't have a spiritual experience, but some Friday nights and Saturdays I feel so harried I wouldn't feel the Divine Presence if It came right up and hugged me upon entering my home. Sometimes my focus is so far from unity that I might not even notice if God were in my chair when I sat down to eat my Sabbath meal. I might just sit there oblivious to the fact that I was resting on the Divine lap.

The struggle to recognize God and to know God seems inherent to our human condition, although few people think about this on a regular basis. I brought up the topic during a meeting of the Kabbalah Study Group I lead at my synagogue. During the discussion, one of the members asked, "Has anyone here ever felt close to God?" In response, two of the members said they had felt close to God during a near death experience, such as during a severe illness or when in serious danger, while another said he had never felt close to God.

While I had no impressive spiritual experiences to relate, I responded, "I have felt close to God on many occasions." Indeed, I have felt close to God when performing certain rituals, like lighting Shabbat candles, or when sitting quietly in a beautiful natural habitat. I have felt close to God when meditating or praying and when I ask for guidance and the information I need comes to me instantaneously. I have felt close to God upon sitting down at the computer to write after first affirming my intention of doing God's work; then, as the words flow smoothly from my mind onto the screen, words that are meant to help and inspire, I feel God's closeness.

This doesn't mean, however, that I feel close to God on a regular basis. I am at fault of wanting to hear the booming voice, to see the burning bush, to be aware of miracles - to have proof of God's existence and a personal experience of God's work. However, most of the time my prayers and rituals do not bring with them beams of Divine light that surround me in God's embrace nor do they illicit even the whispers of the "still clear voice" of God. Most often I feel very far from God.

While we need to be conscious enough, aware enough, mindful enough to feel the Divine Presence, to actually experience God we also must not cling to our old pictures of God. We see what we expect to see. We see what we believe. We see what we have seen before. Sometimes we can't see something right in front of us, because it is new and outside the realm of our experience, expectation, belief, knowledge.

This reminds me of a story my friend, Donna, told me about her daughter, Ashley. They took a trip to Savannah and, while there, went to the harbor to see the big ships. When Donna pointed to a gigantic steamer and said, "Look at that big ship, Ashley," her daughter looked in that direction and just wrinkled her eyebrows. "What ship?" she asked.

"Why, that one right in front of you," replied Donna, but Ashley couldn't see the ship. "All I see is a building," she insisted. "There's no ship there."

Then Donna realized that Ashley had no frame of reference for a ship that size. In her mind the only thing that big was a building. Donna carefully showed Ashley the outline of the ship, the gangplank leading up to the ship, the ship's propellers. Slowly, Ashley's eyes began to widen until she exclaimed, "I see it, Mom. It is a ship!"

What Ashley experienced was a paradigm shift - the experience of seeing something totally different from what we expect to see, of gaining a new perspective or noticing something outside the normal pattern of our thinking. A similar shift is necessary for most of us before we can see God at our Sabbath table or feel God's presence during a religious ritual or in our everyday life.

Unfortunately, unlike Ashley and her ship, we have no way to "see" God. No one can show us God's "outline." No one can help us feel God's presence. This fact presents us with the biggest obstacle to achieving the paradigm shift necessary to recognize and know God.

In "Conversations with God," God tells Neal Donald Walsh, "If you think God looks only one way, or sounds only one way or is only one way, you're going to look right past Me night and day." I believe the Divine Presence stands close at hand -- close enough to sense, close enough to feel, close enough to see -- if we only have the paradigm shift that allows it. However, we must let go of our old images of God - the old man with the white flowing beard and robe sitting on a thrown in the clouds, the angry judge that hands out verdicts of life and death, the patriarch who brings forth floods when he wants to punish us and pillars of fire and plagues on our enemies when he wants to protect us. We must let go of our old notions about God - that God is only love and that which is good, that God is all knowing, all powerful and determines our fate and our destiny. We must let go of the idea that God only appears as a booming voice and a burning bush.

We must drop all these pictures, beliefs and ideas, and in their place we must learn to have faith in God. We must learn to have faith…that God exists, that God can be invited into our lives, that God will arrive.

I define faith as belief without true knowing or without real experience of something - in other words without proof. Faith means believing in something without seeing it, without feeling it, without knowing it.

We could say proof of God comes from a personal experience of God. Lacking such personal experience, we could say that God does not exist -- or we could have faith in a Divine Presence. Without faith in God's existence, we cannot have a spiritual experience. For something to be spiritual or to feel spiritual, we must at the minimum have faith in God.

If we can attain even a little bit of faith in God's existence, maybe without really knowing what God is or how God interacts with us, we can "fake it 'till we make it." In other words, we can go through the motions of our rituals or prayers knowing that God exists and knowing that we can have a spiritual experience. We may not have one right away, but we can continue performing the ritual or praying or meditating trusting that we will eventually have an experience of God. Trust, in this context, is synonymous with faith.

Our faith in our ability to have a spiritual experience gains strength when it rises out of the belief that we are connected to God. I've heard it said by many people that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience rather than physical beings having a spiritual experience. Our experience of our connection to God is what we call a spiritual experience.

To me, spirituality means having a pervading sense of being close to my own soul. It means feeling a sense of awe for God's presence in my world, in my life and in myself. It means feeling sacredness in certain actions, rituals or practices, and having those actions, rituals or practices create an experience of being close to God, being connected to God, being in touch with my soul. It means being conscious of the part of myself that is connected to God and feeling that connection on a regular, if not daily, basis. It means feeling close to God and feeling God's closeness.

I believe that I am created in God's image, but that it is not my physical body that is like God but rather that my body contains a spark of the Divine. That spark is the soul, and it is the part of me that is like God. In addition, I believe the soul is connected to God. I imagine God to be in all things at all times; thus, God is in my soul and that soul is in my body, which is also of God. Thus, I am always connected to God, but my intellect and conscious mind do not always remember this truth. It seems that as physical beings we get so caught up in survival, in keeping ourselves alive and well and happy and our needs met, that we forget we are Divine beings connected to God, one with God, created in God's image, co-creators with God. Yet, we maintain some distant memory of this, and the memory keeps us longing for that connection, that oneness with God.

It can seem daunting to find faith in a God that is unknowable, to create the paradigm shift that allows you to believe in something you cannot see, but it is possible. We can begin with one small step: the setting aside of sacred time.

I said earlier that I believe God is everywhere and in everything. However, I have also heard the statement, "If God is everywhere, God is nowhere. If God is in everything, God is in nothing." I have struggled with this concept. I just didn't "get it"- that is until I attended my synagogues last congregational retreat, which was focused on the subject of holiness. I heard my rabbi say these words I had heard before, and I shook my head once again -- until he began discussing this concept in terms of the observance of the Sabbath.

He talked about the importance of setting aside a time that was sacred so we can experience its holiness. He talked about the Havdallah service that concludes the Jewish Sabbath and how its main purpose is to distinguish between that which is holy -the Sabbath - and that which is not - the rest of the week. Earlier in the weekend program a friend of mine introduced the idea of holiness or sacredness to the group, defining sacred as something "set apart." Suddenly I "got it."

If something sacred is that which is set apart as special, different, hallowed, extra-ordinary - the opposite of profane or ordinary, then the Sabbath certainly qualifies as sacred. But what about the rest of the week, I questioned? I do not think of the rest of the week as not sacred - not part of God, but the other six days are not set apart as special, not dedicated to remembering God.

So, why if God is in everything is God in nothing? Why if God is everywhere is God nowhere? Because if we see everything as the same and nothing as set apart or different, then we cannot tell the difference between that which is sacred and that which is profane. We go along, day to day, and nothing seems special, nothing seems set apart and, therefore, nothing is different. We cannot distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary not because nothing is sacred but because we forget that anything is sacred. We don't see the special-ness in all things only the ordinary-ness. By setting aside one day -- or any increment of time in our day or our week -- as holy, we make a distinction we can then use as a measure or as a base point for comparison.

The observance of the Sabbath as a distinction between sacred and profane strikes me as the beginning of mindfulness practice. The Buddhists try to be mindful - conscious, aware - of all that is around them at any time. They try to be "in the moment" - not in the past or in the future but in the present - and highly aware of their senses and that which goes on around them. In the process, they develop a heightened sense of the sacredness of all life and all experiences.

By once a week setting aside 24 hours as sacred time, and experiencing it as such, we begin to be mindful of what sacredness is all about. We allow ourselves to feel the holiness of the time, to feel spiritual in our observance of the Sabbath. Then, when the sun sets on Saturday or Sunday evening, we can experience the ordinariness of the time that follows. We become conscious of the difference between the sacred and the profane.

With that distinction we open ourselves to seeing the distinction in other things. Maybe at first we just feel and see the difference between the Sabbath and the other days of the week. Then we feel the difference in the time we spend saying evening prayers with our children or the time we spend meditating in the morning. The next thing we know, we feel something sacred about walking in our garden, because the flowers and trees and grass growing there remind us of God's creation. And maybe that memory resonates with our belief that God is in all of nature, thus all of nature becomes sacred and our time in nature holy or spiritual. And our awareness, our mindfulness, our consciousness of what is truly sacred continues to expand until, lo and behold, we find that, indeed, everything is sacred. God is in everything. As Jacob so aptly put it, "God was in this place, and I did not know it." We could say the same - at least until we become mindful and feel the presence of God in our daily lives.

Even when we experience this level of spirituality, however, we run the risk of becoming immune or numb even to this experience and once again seeing everything as ordinary. Even the extraordinary becomes ordinary if taken for granted. Thus, the weekly reminder called the Sabbath helps us continue to be mindful of the distinction between ordinary and sacred and of the sacredness of everything, of the presence of God everywhere and in everything.

Thus, with faith in God and awareness of that which is sacred, we move closer to experiencing the Divine Presence. We can send out an invitation to God to join us in our performance of any sacred ritual, such as Sabbath observance, and trust that God will, indeed, join us. And then, if we make the time, create the space and stay aware, we may just begin to feel - or even see -- the Divine Presence sitting across from us at the table.


from the July 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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