I’m not proud of it, but I’ve spent a great deal of my waking life actively feeling jealous of other people’s relationships. As a child, I would have given either one of my arms to pal around with my cousin Tom, like my older sister did. High school had me losing sleep over the sight of my friend Lori holding hands in the hallway with a boy I’d been obsessively fantasizing about since the Fall of Saigon. In my 20s, it seemed that all of New York City, where I then lived, was made of couples holding hands in the park, whereas I seemed to spend most of my free time alone, watching reruns of Dallas and Family Ties.
Then, suddenly, it all changed. I fell in love, got married and in short order had three children, a house, and a garden filled with dandelions and clover. Still and all, there was always somebody, such as couples whose marriages, unlike mine, seemed miraculously free of gripes or grudges, who seemed to have it better than me. What’s wrong with you? a nagging inner voice would ask me. Why don’t you have what they have?
You’d think that just around the time all these couples whose marriages seemed better than mine started getting divorced, I’d figure out that just because something looks good from the outside actually means bupkes. Of course it does. As I’ve told my own husband a thousand times, half the time I don’t even understand the workings of my own marriage, so how the heck could I even begin to discern someone else’s?
The good news is that, 20 years into marriage, I’ve finally stopped looking at other people’s relationships with longing or assumptions, learning to focus, instead, on what’s good for myself, my kids and my own marriage. Jealousy and envy are not, after all, the hallmarks of a peaceful mind, and at my age — I’m creeping up on 50 — harboring such petty envy is, to say the least, unbecoming.
I still yearn, though. I yearn and I yearn. Only what I now desire isn’t five-star lovemaking during a romantic sojourn in Paris, a husband so wondrous he looks like Denzel Washington and acts like a cross between Gandhi and Bruce Springsteen, or even my own youth to do all over again. Indeed, what I now desire, sometimes with such ferocity that I find myself face down, in a posture of supplication, is to be in a relationship with God.
And I’m not content to settle for the kind of on-again-off-again dalliance I’ve had with Him ever since my parents taught me to say my nightly prayers. Nor am I talking about mastering the rudiments of my own faith tradition, Judaism, which in any case I’ve done. I’m talking about something more profound, more all-consuming and more wondrous altogether. I’m talking about being consumed by Him.
“Jen, you’re cracked,” my husband sometimes says in response to my attempts to convey to him the depth of my yearning for the Divine.
God is worse than a two-timer. My college boyfriend was a two-timer, and I’m still seething over how he treated me. God, on the other hand, is a two-trillion-timer, maybe more. I hate to even think about it. Still, if the mystics of all traditions can be trusted, God, unlike my college boyfriend, can handle it. In fact, He lives for just that kind of opportunity — making love not only to the pretty girls with big white smiles and fashionable clothes but also to the geeky kids who huddle in the back of the classroom, doing spastic things with their faces.
He is so permissive, so promiscuous, that He even loves thieves. He loves litterers. He loves drug addicts and dictators and liars and hypocrites and pimps. Heck, He even loves Red Sox fans.
Which leads to the question: if God is so all-loving that He happily seduces all kinds of goofballs, schlumps and schlemiels, going all the way with them in an orgiastic flowering expression of ultimate bliss, then why the heck hasn’t he bothered to send me so much as an email? What am I, chopped liver?
Versus, for example, the author of Song of Solomon, who wrote: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”
Perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear that I have discovered a whole new vein of relationship-envy. And it’s not just people like Joan of Arc or Saint Teresa of Avila or Jesus or Maimonides or the Buddha I’m envious of, either, although, come to think of it, why did they get to be hand-in-hand with God when the best I can do is have faith that one day I will have real and abiding faith? Because when it comes to me and God, it doesn’t seem to matter, or at least not much, that He has granted me all the material wealth a person could want, along with health, healthy children, a husband who still rocks my world and work that I love. I need more! I need signs! So I pray for signs. No dice.
Oops, I spoke too soon, because not long ago a sign did appear to me. I was obsessing about a financial matter. Specifically, my husband, kids and I were soon to be moving from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, our home of 13 years, to New Jersey, and after nearly six months of it being on the market, we hadn’t sold our house. We’d barely had any lookers. We’re going to have two mortgages, I was thinking. What if the whole market crashes? What if there’s another hurricane? What if we’re forced to rent our house, only our tenants are smokers and accidentally burn it down?
I was stuck in traffic. The bumper sticker on the car ahead of me said: “WHY WORRY? GOD IS IN CONTROL.” I was so delighted, so surprised and so relieved that I burst into tears of gratitude, saying, “Thank You, God, thank You, God,” over and over. Then the moment passed, and I was back in my own narrow, envious, the-grass-is-always-greener me-ness. Sorry, but one little bumper sticker wasn’t enough.
Unlike, say, New York or Jerusalem, Baton Rouge isn’t a particularly Jewish town. What it is, however, is very, very Christian, with all kinds of folks, in any number of churches, who have bought tickets for the express train to Jesus. When I first moved to Baton Rouge, all the talk about Christ and sin and redemption and baptism and confession and the Holy Ghost and being personally saved kind of rattled me, as did the giant crosses looming over the interstate and the large signs which, in blinking, electrified letters, proclaim: JESUS SAVES.
After all, not only am I Jewish, but I was raised in the East, where people don’t readily discuss their feelings about religion except within the confines of their own families and houses of worship. Then I realized that some of these folks just might be on to something, that their vibrant faith, and the comfort they took in it, offered me a glimpse of what my own path might be. That’s when my heart opened up, and I began to learn.
It was in such a spirit that, in the summer of 2003, I made an appointment to see Sister Dulce Maria of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. I didn’t tell my beloved rabbi, Stan Zamek, about my visit, because, in short, I didn’t want Rabbi Stan to think I was a nut job. Because the thing is: in general, nice Jewish girls don’t consult nuns for spiritual counseling. On the other hand, Sister Dulce is a healer, and I was in need of healing.
I’d just finished six months of chemo and radiation treatments for breast cancer; my mother was dying; and, though I’d been snatched from the proverbial jaws of death by a kind, beneficent divinity as expressed (in my understanding) by an entire army of superb medical professionals, I was still schlepping all my ancient psychic boo-boos, oozing wounds and resentments. I suffered, on and off, from a lifelong bout with depression, and my career, such as it was, seemed to be in a permanent stall.
When I asked her how she came upon her remarkable healing powers, Sister Dulce told me her story. When she was a small child, her parents took her to the beach. This was in Texas, I think. She waded into the water, where she was quickly overcome by the waves and pulled under and away. She didn’t know how to swim. As she struggled to retain consciousness, she heard a voice saying: "Put one foot down. That’s it. Now walk. Now take another step. And another.” And thus was the future Sister Dulce saved from death.
The 11th-century poet Judah Halevi wrote:
I have sought to come near You.
I have called to You with all my heart;
And when I went out towards You,
I found You coming towards me.
My sentiments exactly, only, more often than not, as I go “out towards You” I come back with a tall caramel latte.
It would be one thing, I think, if this kind of thing — these great poetic outpourings of mystical ardor — were confined to the past, when people simply didn’t know any better. But really, have you read what’s out there in the world of contemporary spiritual writing? All kinds of folks who aren’t Confucius or Saint Francis de Sales or the Dalai Lama are reporting that, typically as a result of meditation and prayer, they’ve heard the Voice of God Himself. Or if they didn’t hear it, they felt it; they were flooded with divine love. Or they saw it, as an aura or an angel or a dream.
My favorite is the author who describes being filled with radiant, holy light, and knowing that — at last — God is in her bones. Goody-goody for her. After reading this particular description (in the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love), I was so jealous that it was all I could do to continue breathing.
It’s not like I just sit around wanting the divine goodies, either. I pray. I meditate. I volunteer. I even speak a not-bad rudimentary modern Hebrew, something I tackled in the hopes of getting closer not only to my actual father, who speaks Hebrew fluently, but also to the Father of Us All. I figured that if He wrote His book in Hebrew, it would be worth a shot. All this effort, all these years of memorizing Hebrew verb forms — and for what? So I can, once again, warm a spot on the bench?
And even if I never so much as wandered past the “Spirituality” section of a bookstore again, I can’t help but notice that all kinds of regular, ordinary folk — people who, like me, schlep kids to orthodontists and baseball games — seem to be getting it on with the Lord. One of my yoga teachers recently confessed that yes, she does see auras. A neighbor of mine who isn’t a doctor can sense whether you’ve got a disease, and often can diagnose it as well, which is just plain weird, if you ask me. Joyce, a woman I’ve known for years, talks to Jesus on a regular basis. Not only that, but He talks back, and not in an interior, “felt” way, either. “I can hear Him as loud and clear as I can hear you,” Joyce once told me.
What’s a big house, or a killer C.V., or even a long-standing marriage compared to that?
“So go be a nun,” my husband told me recently as we were getting ready for bed. "Or go to an ashram. Or a yeshiva. Whatever. Just please stop talking about it already.”
“But I don’t want to be a nun, or go to an ashram or a yeshiva," I said. “I want to stay right here, with you and the kids.”
“Why did I marry you?”
“Because you love me?”
He looked at me, shaking his head slowly, as you would when scolding an errant toddler or a beloved pet. “I guess I must,” he finally said, reaching for the book on his nightstand, while, on my side of the bed, I bent into a posture of supplication and began my nightly prayers.
“Lord,” I prayed, “let me be a vessel of Your intention.”
When my now 15-year-old twins were in kindergarten, they came home from school one day singing: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!” Other lines address Jesus. Oi, I thought, the goyim. But then again, the twins went to an Episcopal school, which I had personally chosen for them.
In any event, I figured that the ditty was no more than that — a nursery school singsong that would be all but forgotten by the time they turned 6. In fact, the twins did forget it, or in any case, they moved on. Their mother, however, is still singing it, because their mother, who has always been a bit of a slow learner, finally figured out that the little light is no less than our profoundest, truest selves — the spark of the divine that the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) talked about when he taught that everything is by Divine Providence, including a leaf being turned over by a breeze, and that Jesus (another Jewish liberal) talked about when he proclaimed: “I have come to set fire on the earth, and what will I but that it be enkindled.”
“God of creation,” I continued, “let me hear Your voice inside me.” I kept at it for a while — I had a lot of things I wanted to discuss. Finally, however, as my husband turned the pages of his book and my children, down the hall, sent text-messages into cyberland and grooved down on their iPods, I finished up, kissed my husband goodnight and fell into a deep sleep.
Where I dreamed that I was in an enormous house filled with treasures: teapots and porcelains of all kinds; vases filled with roses and lilies; richly embroidered fabrics; velvet-covered settees; rugs of marvelously swirling, vibrant colors. Best of all, in the house there was a turret, and in the turret were three small rooms. These rooms, however, were empty. They were waiting for me.
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou. Her fiction, essays, Op-Ed pieces and reviews have been widely published. She recently moved to Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, three children and little mutt, Marion.