Tag Archives: Judaism

American Idol: A Guide for Hearing God’s Voice

 

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I love American Idol and could hardly wait until January when the fourteenth season began. I’ve watched it all through the years: those judged by Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson; those when Kara DioGuardi stepped in; the stints of Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj; the reigns of Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban.

This penchant isn’t easy to admit. My friends are mostly highbrows—educators, writers, and lawyers whose favorite resting pastimes are reading The New York Times or the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, going to the opera or the theatre, listening to NPR or jazz, and watching PBS. I’ve never had the courage to confess to them that I’m an Idol fan.

What’s the attraction of the show? Am I a wannabe diva who needs a fix of vicarious fame? Is my life so gray and dull that I need Idol’s glitz to glam it up? Do I wish to mock the contestants who’ve been deluded in thinking they have talent? Do I need a demonstration that even the down-and-out can win?

No.

The fact is that, to me, there’s nothing more exciting than watching people discover their vocations. They glow, bringing warmth and light to everyone around them.

Vocation. It’s a concept I didn’t understand when I was young, when I chose to practice law, meeting the dictates of my father and flouting my own yearning to teach English. The upside of that choice: money and prestige. The downside: depression and tempestuousness that the upside couldn’t compensate.

Vocation. It’s a notion I first began to grasp when I chose to quit the law and become a high school teacher. The upside: elation and serenity. The downside: poor pay and status that the upside more than balanced out.

Vocation. What does it mean?

Vocation is an early Christian concept that has evolved over time and been embraced by many. The word derives from the Latin vocare, meaning to call, which in turn means to cry out for the purpose of summoning a person.

To the early Christians reading Genesis, though, to call meant something more. They noted that by calling light Day and darkness Night, God brought Day and Night into being and gave each a way to serve the world, a way that was good. And they reasoned that with humans God does likewise: when God brings people into being, he calls each person by name and summons each to a special path of service, a path that is good.

Many people use the term vocation to refer to work, job, or career, but according to Jesuit James Martin, vocation is much broader.

Work is the labor we do in order to complete a task; a job is the situation in which we do our work; a career is the long-term series of jobs we take on in a lifetime. Our vocation may include all three or none of these, but always overarches and extends beyond them to include not just doing but being. The many facets of our vocation are unique to each and every one of us, and they change over a lifetime, some lasting for years, others for an instant.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, referring to the Hindu tradition, notes there are four ashramas—stages of life—each including its own facets of vocation:

Student—when young people strive to develop the skills they’ll need for adulthood. Householder—when people marry and have children (or not), take part in community life, and work for sustenance. Forest-dweller—when people begin detaching from their social identities to devote more time to spirituality. Renunciation—when people transcend identification with family, religion, nation, and race.

During a certain period, then, your vocation may be to study music education at Boston University, to sing on Sundays at Trinity Church, to head out on August 2 to take part in Idol’s Boston auditions, and to dial 911 at 10:23 am when a skateboarder whizzes by you, falls, and breaks a leg. The next minute or day, the next month or year, your vocation will be different, in small ways and maybe big.

The question for each of us then becomes: Who is God calling me to be and what is he calling me to do? Both Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage, and Jesus gave the answer: Your vocation is to be a person who loves your neighbor as yourself.

Simply speaking, then, your calling is to love others. But if you’re like me, you’ll find this tenet too fuzzy to be helpful. You’ll want specifics for each moment of your life. And that’s where things become difficult. I’ve learned that to garner the specifics, you must listen for God’s voice.

In the Bible, there are many people who hear God’s voice: Abraham hears it directly, Moses through a burning bush, Mary through an angel, Peter from Christ.

Calls, according to modern thinkers, though, rarely come in words. Fr. James Martin says that most calls come internally, through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that they come through our thoughts and through signs we must learn to perceive. Preacher Oswald Chambers states that calls come in gradual dawnings. Educator Parker Palmer says we have an inner teacher that calls within our minds.

For me, though, the most useful formulation comes from the sixteenth century, when Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola proposed that God calls us through our desires. Unlike many people, who equate desires with obsessive cravings for material objects and sex, Ignatius viewed desires as manifestations of God’s voice.

This makes sense to me. At root, the wish for things is good; we need food, clothes, and shelter to survive. Likewise the urge for sex; without it we’d become extinct. If God calls us to love, he must first call us to live, and in his wisdom must have wired us to desire what we need to do both.

While many desires prompt goodness, others trigger evil and thus can’t be signs our vocation to love. Ignatius called these desires disordered, meaning that a God-given longing—a holy desire—has become perverted. If you’re a contestant on American Idol, you may have the holy desires to uplift your fans through your singing and to earn a living for your family. But if you sabotage another entrant to better your chances of prevailing, your holy desires have become warped.

When Ignatius was a young man, he happened upon a system for distinguishing holy from disordered desires. At the time, he was pulled by two strong yearnings, one to be a womanizer, the other to become a monk, and when he pondered these conflicting urges he noticed a difference in the feelings each aroused.

When Ignatius thought about philandering, at first he felt great pleasure, but this gave way to desolation—nagging feelings of depression, turmoil, and alienation. When he thought about religious life, initially he felt great fear and insecurity, but these gave way to consolation—lasting feelings of joy, tranquility, and connectedness.

Ignatius then deduced: when a longing brings us consolation, God is calling us to act on it; when conflicting desires bring us consolation, God is calling us to follow the one that brings us the most; and when a desire brings us desolation, God is warning us to snuff it out.

Ignatius, though, wasn’t suggesting that we should simply follow our bliss. He was letting us know that our bliss will endure only if it serves other people and that it will turn into grief if it simply serves our self.

Ignatius, thus, became a monk.

If you read the Bible, you’ll see that fear and insecurity often precede consolation, as they did for Ignatius. When God called Moses to rescue the Israelites in Egypt, Moses said, “Who am I to go?” and tried to weasel out. When God’s angel told the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, she was troubled and asked, “How’s that possible?” When Jesus called Peter to discipleship, Peter said, “Go away. I’m no good.”

But God reassured all three people that they were worthy and capable and gave each the means to succeed in their vocations: to Moses, he gave a magic staff; to Mary, a miraculous conception; to Peter, the keys to heaven.

Christians use the word gifts to refer to the abilities God grants us to complete a call. Gifts are more than vocational tools, though. Catholic writer Sherry Weddell, social critic Os Guinness, and educator Dawna Markova all explain that gifts not only enable us to perform our vocation, but also signal what it entails.

Sixteenth century Anglican theologian William Perkins gave advice to help us identify the gifts that point to our vocation: since we’re innately biased, we should not assume we have a talent unless reliable assessors say we do.

Rabbi Heschel, Os Guinness, Sherry Weddell, and Parker Palmer add other indicators: we can presume to have a gift if using it benefits others and brings us great delight. So, if multiple choirmasters ask you to join their chorales and your singing moves others and elates you, God is likely calling you to sing.

The opposite, though, is also true: a limitation—a lack of desire, positive feedback, joy, or beneficent effects—can signal our vocation just as much as our strengths do. Thus, if you love to sing, but audiences boo you, or if you hate to sing despite the praise you reap from it, God is probably not calling you to sing, but to something else.

Yet some of us ignore our limitations or let others talk us out us of them. All throughout our lives, we’re surrounded by people—parents, teachers, religious leaders, peers, marketeers, spouses, bosses, children—whose expectations counter our vocation although their intentions may be good. Attempting to meet their expectations, we take on tasks we’re not called to do.

Even if we do this out of love, the results can be disastrous. Ignatius, Os Guinness, Parker Palmer, Sister Joan Chittister, and many other theorists have all noted the result: desolation, aka depression, that can cause us to be bitter and turn our love to hate.

This was my mistake when I chose to practice law instead of teaching: I listened to my father’s voice instead of to my Father’s voice. I wasn’t interested in law and disliked my job, even though my skills were praised, benefitted my clients, and helped support my family. By persisting in practicing law, I made myself and those around me miserable, although my motivation had been good—to please my dad.

Coveting or assuming a vocation that’s not ours isn’t only harmful, but also unwarranted. Saint Paul once explained that humankind is like a body and each person is like a body part. Eyes can’t be or spurn ears. Ears can’t be or spurn hands. Each has a unique and necessary function that together with the others makes the body healthy, efficient, and whole. Thus, teachers shouldn’t be or eschew lawyers, and painters shouldn’t be or eschew singers. Each of us has our own vocation, and the more of us honor it, the more fully we meet the world’s needs.

Discovering our vocation, though, doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy. It’s unrealistic to pretend that every task we do and every minute of our life will be exciting, fulfilling, and successful. Sometimes work is drudgery that simply must be done, and often the job market is tight, forcing us to take whatever work we get.

While some of us may find a paying job that matches our vocation, many of us will not. Instead, we may find volunteer work and hobbies that jibe with our call.

So, if you love and have the gift of singing, I hope to see you on American Idol. But win or lose, if you sing because you’re called you to, you’ll bring joy to both your listeners and yourself for as long as your voice responds to God’s.

Previously published in Good Letters.

Image by Beth, used under the Creative Commons License.

Calling 2008

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The Kindle version of my memoir, Pieces of Someday, is free on Amazon through Nov. 5, 2014. Please download it by clicking the link to the right and tell your friends about it!  I’d love to give away as many copies as I can, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, please write an Amazon review.   

The following is the opening section:

What am I doing here this morning, sitting in a church when it’s not Christmas? Sunlit clouds, breeze tinged warm, pink clematis scent—I should be out in my garden. For twenty years I’ve driven by this place, felt the pull of its wine brick walls and copper steeple. Cornerstoned when my grandparents boarded steamships from Palermo, this Seattle landmark never called me in until this moment. Possibly its name has been the dissuasion—Blessed Sacrament— saccharine as raindrops on roses. Or maybe I still don’t understand what a blessed sacrament is.

I survey the strangers gathered in the pews—the quartet of moonfaced girls sitting to my right, their University of Washington sweatshirts nubby, needing bleach. They whisper, nod, and smile— smooth skin, glossy hair, teeth straight and white. To my left is a gray- haired woman in a hand-me-down cap. It’s crocheted, studded with buttons—S’ mores Not Wars, Hope Obama ’08. Crinkly eyes, liver- spotted cheeks, whisker-stubbled chin, she’s transfixed by something on the altar. Jesus crucified? Must be. For here, except for the icons, there’s a howling scarcity of men. Only Saints Dominic, Jude, Thomas, and Francis stand niched and polished around us. They watch in mahogany silence, this nave of waiting women, this raftered ark with its faint incense smell.

The walk from my house to this church took less time than I’d imagined, past Cowan Park, the student rentals reeking weed, Pierced Hearts Tattoo, the Wayward’s coffee cloud. Past the bungalow with the big magnolia and the homeless teen crouched in the doorway of the bar who reached his palm out to me, cut my core with steel-gray eyes. If I’d had the courage of a year ago, I would have stopped before him. I would have taken him by the hand. I would have pulled him to his feet and urged him to come along, for it’s the church’s Called and Gifted Workshop that’s drawn me. My kids are grown, away at college, last June I lost my job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, three decades of résumé be damned. Is this what middle age means? Superfluous, obsolete? Which is why I left the boy behind. The blind leading the blind.

The last time I heard about callings, I was probably twelve years old. Every Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Giordano and I left public school early to go to Catechism on a church bus. I was embarrassed by the attention this practice garnered at our mostly Jewish junior high, but also grateful that at least at Saint Christopher’s, I was counted among the flock. I remember the day Sister Agnes chalked vocation on the blackboard, her sprawling, spidery script, her rosary-crucifix-swinging habit hip. She explained that vocation was a calling, the work God created us to do. Each of us would have one, each would be unique, and God would give us the necessary talents—gifts—to do it well. Some of us would be doctors or nurses, others firemen or teachers, many husbands or wives. If we followed our callings, we’d please God by serving man. Every day of our lives, we needed to listen carefully for God’s voice so when He revealed our callings we would hear.

 ***

Gifts. A special calling. Through the years I’ve often thought about those teachings, sometimes with anger, others with longing, always with sadness. I’m old now, Sister Agnes, when will my revelation come? And how will I recognize God’s voice? Are my dreams signs of my calling? Or are they just sinister specters rising from the refuse of my childhood? After all, both the Crusaders and Al Qaeda thought they were heeding the call of God.

 ***

The light shifts in the church. Rainbowed sunbeams moving through stained glass draw my eyes to the panes above the altar. Jesus in white robes, golden crown upon his head, raises an amber chalice emitting a nimbus of flames. The Virgin Mary prays in turquoise; Saint John clasps a scarlet book. Then a host of swirling symbols— an emerald scale, a stringed harp, a silver sword. A pair of candles, a yellow star, a nodding lily. A russet heart, a rising sun, a purple fish. A pelican pierces her breast, splay-beaked fledglings at her knee.

 ***

When I was a little girl, my cousin Angela told me life’s a circle, and looking across the generations, I suppose she was right. We are born, have children—at least those who can and want to. Then we die and, theoretically, our children carry on.

But I pictured life as a vector, one leading to a place called There. To arrive, I’d have to work hard—that’s what my father said. I’d also have to be good, which I knew meant do as I was told thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Then one day I’d finally be There, in an Oz of endless sunshine, love, and reward where I could remain for all time.

Now life seems neither circle nor vector. Those shapes are too simple, one-directional. So I’ve tossed away both paradigms, and that’s just fine. I did well enough in math, but only through resolve and application. Numbers, graphs, and figures don’t come naturally to me.

Life, it now seems, is a stained glass window composed of bits of translucence and opacity—fragments of yesterday, chips of today, pieces of someday, soldered with time. Some jewel-like and whole. Some fractured by the weather. Others fallen from their leaden frames. Only fusion and repair complete the image and allow us to make out the picture. Am I a scale, a harp, a star? A candle, anchor, or heart?

And what about tomorrow?

Isaac Unbound

CollegeParent

 

Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.

For the Time Being

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I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

I love the way it travels through the ages—from the days of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who unified his country in 221 BCE, to the days of the Galilean Rabbi Isaac Luria, who reinterpreted the Zohar in the 1500s, to the days of the French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose archeological team discovered Peking Man in the 1920s, to the present day.

And I love the way it juxtaposes incongruent images—images of clouds, carnage, waves, plagues, trains, cemeteries, dwarves—so that readers can stir them all together, add their own connections, and marvel at the subtle, complex stew.

Dillard’s book shows so well that no matter our technologies or theories, we can’t control or comprehend our baffling world, or disentangle its disasters from its wonders. It also highlight that we humans, each unique and precious, are at once common and insignificant, and that this paradox unites us all.

This brings to mind a personal connection. While I believe in one God who made all that’s seen and hidden, I can’t believe that any single human doctrine can fully capture his utter mystery. All throughout the ages, and all around the world, his children have attempted to revere him in innumerable ways.

My tradition is Catholicism. The teachings, the liturgy, the organ, the incense, the light through stained glass: all of these move me to reverence. But you may be moved by something else. And the students I once taught at a yeshiva, by something different still.

But what should we make of the difference? A few years ago, I signed up for a yoga class—something I’d never done before. Following the instructor’s directions, I sat cross-legged on the floor, straightened up my spine, pressed my palms together, relaxed my face and closed my eyes.

The instructor began to chant in Sanskrit: Yogena chittasya padena vacham. The experienced students responded: Yogena chittasya padena vacham.

The instructor continued to chant: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena. Again the veterans responded: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena.

I couldn’t understand a single word. But despite this or likely because of it, I discerned something deeper than words could ever have disclosed. For sitting closed-eyed in that studio, I felt the presence of all of humankind—people calling, listening, responding, searching for each other and beyond.

And their dissonant separate voices—many raspy, off-key—combined oddly into harmony. It was a harmony that rose around me, ran through me, expanded within me.

It was a harmony distinct from all others, yet identical to all—the harmony of Gregorian chanting and Southern a cappella hymns, the harmony of Torah cantillations and Quranic tarteel.

It was all harmonies I’d ever heard and those I’d never imagined. It was all harmonies I’d yet to hear and those I never will.

In it, I sensed God.

I’ve remembered it often since then.

I remembered it when a Taliban assassin shot a Pakistani schoolgirl in the head, almost killing her, and when Hurricane Sandy swept the East Coast, killing dozens and leaving eight million without power.

I recalled it when a young gunman murdered twenty-six teachers and children in a Connecticut elementary school and when two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, wounding hundreds and leaving three dead.

I remembered it when Syrian government forces massacred five hundred civilians in a Damascus suburb and when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing and injuring three thousand workers.

Each time I’ve recalled that harmony, I’ve let it fuse with bygone melodies still resounding from the past and blend with distant songs I somehow knew were being sung in other places.

It’s always brought me peace, the peace I know is God.

So, for the time being, I’m determined to cherish that harmony, as I wish my good friend could. I hope to always keep it in my memory so that it can rise again to buoy me when the next typhoon waves come.