Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reciting the Kaddish for Rose

Rose Polsky. Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord.
Spiritual journeys are remarkably untidy things--at least mine has been.  Whenever I describe to people the path that has led me to the priesthood, there's part of me that's a little embarrassed by the meanderings and false starts, inconsistencies and contradictions, tensions and turbulence.  It's as if I feel I have to explain away the messiness of it all.  But I can't deny that it's authentically mine, and I suspect that I may not have gotten here if I had actually plotted out this destination ahead of time. Don't ask me why; it's just a hunch.  As I live into my priesthood, I discover that I am being called to dig more deeply into myself, to root around into dark corners, dusty boxes, and oft-neglected bits of my identity.  A situation or need arises that urges me to seek a resource I forgot I had.  I'm both delighted and befuddled when I recognize it.  I blow the dust off it and turn it around in my hand nostalgically, but awkwardly, uncertain if I still know what to do with it.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail informing me that a member of my weekly Bible study at Atria Senior Living next door to the church had unexpectedly died.  Rose Polsky was among the most faithful and engaged of my spiritual companions in the class; and she was an absolute joy to know.  Rose was almost always smiling, quick with a kind word or an incisive observation on the Scriptures, a careful listener, and a source of social cohesion and stability.  She was the person that welcomed new residents, encouraged her neighbors to come to social events, and served as a leader of the community.  Many of the residents, her friends, were therefore taking the loss rather hard, and so I was asked if I could come over and grieve with them.  I asked the staff, "how can I be helpful to everyone?"  "Just come and be a familiar face, and let them talk about Rose," they said.  So, I did.  As I expected, the room, like my Bible study, was mostly filled with Jewish women, some of whom I knew, but many of whom I did not.

The mourner's Kaddish.
You might think that an Episcopal priest might not be the most suitable or helpful spiritual presence in such a situation.  But, even as Fr. Ethan, these folks knew me as the person who read and studied the Scriptures with them week after week.  Everyone talked about who Rose was, what she meant to them, and the important role she fulfilled in the community's life.  And then, one lady turned to me and asked if I would say a prayer.  Fortunately, before leaving the rectory, I instinctively grabbed the Jewish prayer book I had used as a child off my bookshelf.  Channeling my inner Jewish teenage self, I opened the prayer book to the page with the traditional Jewish mourning prayer, the Kaddish, and began to recite it in Hebrew, as I had done countless times as a kid.  I was surprised at how easily the words tripped off my tongue, barely even looking at the page.  I then recited the English translation on the opposite page, the assembled mourners joining me in the Amens.  It was odd, and yet oddly familiar.

Administering ashes on Ash Wednesday, 2012
In the end, I was deeply grateful that I was able to still be useful as a priest in a moment when I wasn't relying on my Christian heritage, and yet still drawing upon an authentic part of my spiritual self.  Had I not been raised Jewish, I might have felt wrong about appropriating a tradition not my own.  But it was a part of me, the result of the many weekday Hebrew School classes, bar mitzvah lessons with the cantor, and long Saturday Shabbat services.  It was a stage on the path to my becoming a priest, and it seemed right that I should own it.  This situation reminded me that being who we are, whether as a priest or something else, involves embracing the meanderings, the contradictions, the tensions, and all the rest of the spiritual untidiness swirling around inside us.  As a child, I had wanted to become a rabbi, but I became a priest instead, and yet, in the weirdness that often accompanies God's grace, I came full circle nonetheless ministering to this group of predominantly Jewish women.  If ever there were a moment in my life of interfaith solidarity, this was it, and I couldn't be more thankful that it came a few days before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  As one Roman Catholic member of my Bible study said yesterday, "We are all God's children," which means that we must minister to each other through all of the events of human experience, including death.  Whether Jewish, Catholic or Episcopalian, we share a common humanity.  We are all dust, and to dust we shall all return.

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