Finding the Holy in the Everyday

No one has ever asked me who my favorite Jewish spiritual writer is, but if I were asked, one reply would be Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel was born in 1907 in Poland.  His father was a rabbi.  He studied for his doctoral degree at the University of Berlin.  In 1938 he was living and teaching in Frankfort, Germany, where he was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo.  They sent him back to his home country, Poland.  He could see the clouds of Nazism blowing over Poland, as well as Germany.  Right before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Heschel escaped to London and, then, in 1940 onto the United States.
   
Heschel spent some years teaching at Hebrew Union College, the Reformed Jewish seminary in Cincinnati, OH.  And then he moved to New York to teach at the famous Conservative Jewish seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  There he made his mark as scholar and spiritual writer.  He died in 1972.  But during his lifetime, he was not only a Jewish scholar.  He participated in the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.  I appreciated seeing him pictured with Martin Luther King, Jr in front of the marchers in Selma.  His life and writings made a profound impact on me.
   
I like to use some of his work in my classes.  Obviously, students know nothing about him---virtually no one ever heard of him.  But his ideas are timeless and his powerful writing style still grabs students’ attention.  One of his books I like to use is his book, Quest for God.  The subtitle is “Studies in Prayer and Symbolism.”  I would like to share some thoughts from this book---thoughts about how God is found in our everyday lives.
   
I offer this nearly full paragraph to put forth his ideas and also a nice example of his writing.  Listen to Heschel.  “We have said that prayer is the quintessence of the spiritual life, that is, the climax of aspirations.  But faith cannot be satisfied with climaxes.  It cannot rest content with essences.  Faith knows no boundaries between the will of God and all of life.  Therefore, we have been taught to care for the meaning that is found in deeds, to sense the holy that is available in the everyday, to be devoted to the daily as much as to the extraordinary, to be concerned for the cycle as much as for the special event.”  And now I will unpack this by focusing on a few ideas and developing them.
   
Seldom do I read Heschel and not be challenged.  The first sentence of this quotation is challenging to me.  “Prayer is the quintessence of the spiritual life,” he says.  This is simple enough, but I wonder how many of us who belong to some faith tradition---Christian, Jew, etc.---really believe it?  It is easy to say we believe in God, but do nothing with that belief.  Heschel says that prayer is the climax of our aspirations.  Indeed, this is challenging.  Is prayer really the climax---the highest---of my aspirations?  I am not sure I can claim that.  But I can imagine wanting to have it become so.
   
That notwithstanding, I like where Heschel goes with his thinking.  He adds that “faith cannot be satisfied with climaxes.”  That makes sense to me.  Climaxes are things happening in ways that are as good as it gets.  In sports it is a series of wins.  I hear players talk about getting in the “zone.”  Is there a comparable spiritual zone?  I rather doubt it.  The spiritual life, unlike an athlete or musician, is not a performance.  I don’t think one wins or loses in the spiritual life.  Heschel is correct; prayer is not a climax.
   
“It does not rest with essences.”  Prayer is not always a mountain-top experience.  Heschel gets it right when he develops his idea.  I appreciate his insight that “faith knows no boundaries between the will of God and all of life.”  Heschel says in this idea that God permeates all of life.  There is not a “God place” and “all the rest of the not-God places.”  The classic way of talking about this is to talk about the sacred and the profane.  Heschel understands that God is in the everyday.  Of course, it is possible to live our everyday lives and not notice or, even, care that God is available to us.  If we do this, we are preferring the profane.  We turn our sacred possibilities into profanity---even if we don’t swear!
   
He charts the way.  Heschel says we need to be attentive to the everyday---the ordinary---as much as the extraordinary.  One thing this says to me is there are seven days a week.  Dealing with God is not simply a Sunday affair.  We engage God every day; we seek that daily encounter.  Our real challenge is finding the holy in the everyday.  To discover that likely will not be spectacular, but it can be special. 
   
Heschel concludes that through discipline we can become concerned with the cycle just as much as the event.  The cycle is that which keeps coming ‘round.  It is the day-by-day, week-by-week.  The cycle has to be done over and over.  It is the everyday---the daily.  That is where we actually learn to live with God.  That’s what possible when we actually fine the holy in our everyday.
   
Ultimately, I am reassured.  Finding and living with God finally is pretty ordinary.  But when it happens, the ordinary always becomes special and so do we.  

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