We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
I pull on the old door handle and walk into the synagogue. The old foyer with its coat racks and eclectic mixture of hangers stands untouched by time. The blue carpet still lines the floor, the floor I knew intimately as a little kid in the UFC ring that was the foyer. The inner doors, sentinels of the sanctuary, stand right and left of the racks. Our fights would melt into stoic pretense when we’d pass their watchful eyes. I opt for the door on the right and walk in.
The sanctuary is a converted storefront, simply furnished, nothing gaudy here. Its congregants have included the very poor and the very rich, one departed member numbered among the ten richest people in the world. Religion can be a great equalizer you know; I wonder often about the tradeoffs between secularization and social stratification.
Time works differently here. The men inside are still the same, their hair tending a bit more towards grey, perhaps white even. There are fewer of them, to be sure. Many have left to be near children, some have left the earth. The children are now grandchildren. But the rhythms are unchanged. You can still set your clock to the start of prayers. There is no talking. The rabbi’s speeches are still mild-mannered and gentle, always novel and always the same.
I feel the boxes of childhood clicking into place, something in me preparing to reprise old and tired roles. The feels of a place aren’t fast forgotten. My body, is tense, my mind, cautious, my heart, closed.
Not entirely though, not this time. True I am here as part of the ritual dance of family and holidays. But I am also here to learn, to play with the lines. I am here willing to inhabit my skin, curious to understand what arises. To see if maybe the people here are real and my stories about them not so much.
Behind every God, is a human. Beyond the authority, the titles, the stories, is a beating heart, dreams and limitations, terror and joy, love and sorrow. Someone subject to the same precarious dangling we call life. And I may know that someone because I am that someone too. Fear no consequence and none have power over you. Fear nothing and you are free to see.
I walk up to the lectern to read the Song of Songs, the biblical love song of myrrh and aloe, beauty and beatitude, traditionally recited on Passover. I struggle to keep the tight parchment scroll open, but I do not struggle with the ancient words in their ancient script. In my devout youth I recited them hundreds of times, they flow out of me. The zealous congregants correct my token mistake. I stay within the demanding lines of tradition and read the twisty, poetic Hebrew with exactitude, honoring the place and the moment.
But my heart crosses all lines. Love has been a stranger to me, but the winter is thawing. The words frozen in my mind drip down into my heart. If the devotion of my youth expressed itself through ritual recitation, through adherence to the revealed word, that which arises now is revelation itself.
I leave the words on their parchment behind, I am lost in the pathos of this love song. These words of Solomon become mine, I sing to my own soul. No commentator governs my interpretation, no tradition limits my song. I do not know if there is a God beyond, but the one within will honor no lines.
People approach me after the services to tell me how they enjoyed my rendition, how much flavor it had. People approach me — not stories, not histories, just people. I take it in, more sunshine to melt the ice. I am slowly learning I can walk within the lines and yet know no lines.
The ice is melting, the glaciers, shifting. I am me and they are them.
I know the place for the first time.