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Michele Somerville Headshot

An Irish Catholic's Prayer for Rosh Hashanah 5772

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I'll celebrate the head of 5772. There will be apples, honey and challah bread on my table. I'll await with excitement the sound of the shofar, and know hearing its sound will run right through me, electric, charged with light. I wont swing a chicken around my head tomorrow, but I will walk to a body of living water and throw bread in. I'll cheat with a coffee before fasting on Yom Kippur, and I'll plan a special meal for Shabbot Shuva (the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

I'm not Jewish. I'm a never-misses-mass-on-Sunday Roman Catholic.

Unlike many who practice other Christian faiths, Catholics don't usually co-opt Jewish customs or rituals as tools for better reflecting the Jewish nature of Jesus. As a whole, we, for the most part, seem to grasp how disrespectful that approach has the potential to be. The last thing in my mind when I touch my prayer book to the Torah or say a name aloud at during Yizkor (mourning prayer) is Jesus. I know some Catholics and other Christians would say that makes me a lousy Catholic and Christian. Let each take a number. They are legion.

How can I find any prayer without Christ in it meaningful and valid? Part of the answer is that because Christ is in me and with me I don't feel the need to parade Christ the concept and victor into places where doing so would be disrespectful.

Why then, does a Catholic observe the Jewish High Holy days at all?

My children have a Jewish father. He does not share my affinity for organized religion; I am the believer in the family. I want our children to see how important Jewish worship is to me. I want our children to see how beloved Torah and Jewish prayer and ritual are. I think I can help my children grow toward Jewish worship. I want them to identify as Jews. I want them to learn to pray as Jews and to see how expansive -- and inclusive -- Jewish ritual, practice and prayer is and can be.

How can a Catholic observe the Jewish High Holy days and actually feel something if Jesus is not involved?

I feel the connection to the Jewish people through being the mother of children with a Jewish parent. I feel the God of the Psalms as a poet, and as a person trained in another religion that uses the Psalms. I grew up being guided by Mosaic Law and hearing and reading the Hebrew Bible. I have hosted and, in part, conducted a dozen Passover Seders. I have written a Hagaddah. I prepare a Shabbos dinner about 40 nights a year. Prayer tends to build on itself and I have prayed enough in temples to create an climate within me in which Jewish prayer can build on itself.

I saw a Torah up close for the first time on the occasion of the Bar Mitzvah of a friend this past spring and it was one of the most walloping spiritual experiences of my life. I nailed mezzuzot on my doorposts a few years ago because I couldn't stand not having them there. Jewish prayer rousts a particular religiosity in me that is always there. A girlfriend, Jill, said one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me at Yom Kippur services two years ago: "You should become a Bat Mitzvah." It won't happen but she was onto something.

As I see it, the main goals of all worship are something most faiths share: to express gratitude, to ask for help for all who need it (self included), and to seek God. The aim of prayer should never be to look to men and women who claim to have the bottom line on who God is and what God wants.

On the other hand, I think too much mixing of faiths, like colors on a palette, becomes muddy. I like the lines to be clear and not too perforated. I get that many Jews would say that the prayers of a Christian have no place in a temple. I respectfully disagree. I can't know, but I believe, that God hears my Shema and deems it legit.

I get that many Christians would argue that praying without Christ makes me a lousy Christian. They are wrong. It's a mistake to be daunted, in prayer, by those who would presume to know the mind of God. One of the great failings of organized religion, in my opinion, is the propensity of faithful people to mistake chauvinism for devotion. I get that many Jews think my children are not Jewish. That's their problem, their loss.

I like the discipline of practice, but I believe over-focusing on obedience and doing religion right stunts one's metaphysical growth. The illusion of perfect compliance and unwavering adherence may feel good to some, but I think a lot of the God bleeds out of prayer when the rules and regulations are the main focus. Under such conditions prayer becomes hollow, shallow. The poetic turns prosaic. The proper aim of practice and religious ritual is to reinforce spirit, elevate it, not pound it into the ground like a corpse. When doctrine, ritual and rules in organized religion fail help those who pray to magnify the God within, they taint all they touch.

I don't want to get worship exactly right. I want to struggle with it. I distrust faith that is tidy. Why search if you have all the answers? The deeper I go into practice, the more doubt I develop. I think this is a good thing. This doubt does not send me fleeing. It is just there. To be wrestled with.

I belong to a church whose hierarchy is, as anyone who reads the news knows, in a state of crisis. Why do I stay? The short answer is because I think there's something to it; it's somehow tribal; it's my practice. I keep showing up because I believe there is great good in the gorgeous mess my church is. Perhaps that's what belief is-- a blazing, ineluctable urge; a flaming, driving hunch.

During my junior year in college I lived in a campus apartment with three other young women. One of my roommates, Jody, came in one April afternoon with a bag of groceries, cleaned out the fridge and claimed a Passover shelf therein. Jody had grown up in a kosher home and was, in the limited ways she was able, trying to keep the kashrut (kosher) ball in the air. I came into the kitchen to find two of the roommates and Jody engaged in a conversation about her plan to claim a 'kosher for Passover' section in the fridge. Our apartment was hardly kosher, her friends pointed out. Jody's plan seemed to make no sense. Sometimes there was even bacon in the fridge. I chimed in: "Of course it makes sense! Every time she opens the fridge for one of those yogurts she has to think about Passover, God and being Jewish."

I wasn't practicing much of anything then, but I think that remark was a faith affirmation of sorts. Since then, Jody and I have been having the God conversation -- for more than thirty years. Sometimes talking with her about being Catholic has helped keep me faithful to worship when I've floundered. Our conversations have been helpful to me in figuring out how to teach my children about Sabbath and Torah. Without Jody and the Chabad website, I wouldn't be half the Irish Shabbos Balabusta I am today.

Last week Jody and I went together to the temple I occasionally attend on Friday nights. 'My' temple is a Reform one; Jody's Sephardic tradition is quite traditional. As I looked up at the pretty female rabbi with the lovely singing voice, I had to laugh, for I surmised that Jody was probably feeling a bit like I did the first time I attended an Episcopal mass celebrated by a woman priest. Stirred, but shaken.

I suspect it required an imaginative leap for her to pray in my temple. But the Mi Sheberiach (a prayer/song for the sick) was the one she knows, the Kaddish and Shema were the prayers she knows and standing to welcome the Sabbath like a bride through the door was standing to welcome in Sabbath like a bride through the door.

Some fellow Roman Catholics inform me that what they would call my pluralism makes me a terrible Catholic. But because I take seriously the idea that the mind of a creator God defies parsing and fathoming, I am comfortable imagining that my conception of the true God may be just a glint or shard of the infinitely more colossal Divine. I'm reasonably intelligent but I don't know God's mind -- neither does anyone else. I recognize that at the end of days we might all be right. Or wrong. Or that some of us will be correct and others, not. Or that maybe our whole conception of being right might be rendered moot by a God that exists beyond the reach of our knowing and imagining.

When I read religion news, I am dismayed to see how devalued imagination (perhaps the greatest tool any worshipper really has!) is in the context of organized religion. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qu'ran are holy texts, but so are Whitman's "Song of Myself." Believing is not the same as knowing, and truth is not the equivalent of fact. Human understanding of God can not exceed human imagination, but it seems to me that imagination -- because it does have such reach -- should always attend prayer.

We human animals might live in a world without war were we to figure out how to worship more imaginatively -- which is why my own Rosh Hashana prayer - or hope, for those who prefer hope to prayer-- is that the forces of imagination and prayer will marry, and ferry us all toward peace in 5772.