What do you do when you’ve walked away from one form of religion only to discover you miss, at least some aspects, of it? Seven years after converting from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, Lauren Winner admits that, while she is in love with Jesus and his teachings, she misses the practices and rituals of Judaism. And thus her new book, Mudhouse Sabbath, “is a book about those things I miss.”
Her eleven musings include the more obvious things one might miss such as Sabbath, food, hospitality, prayer and weddings, but also include practices that haven’t always had a voice in my Christian experience: aging, fasting, mourning, the body, candle-lighting and doorposts. Her warm and storied voice suggests that this book is “to be blunt, about spiritual practices that Jews do better. It is, to be blunter, about Christian practices that would be enriched, that would be thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism.” Indeed.
If underlinings through out a book indicate how words and ideas have connected with me in meaningful ways, then Mudhouse Sabbath, clearly resonated deeply within me. While the words "Seventh-day Adventist" are nowhere to be seen in this easy read, I still found that this was one of the most enhancing books to my own understanding and appreciation for so many of our unique beliefs and practices. It might well serve us as a textbook of sorts for our own religion, as it restores the heart of so much of what I hold dear, reminding me of the passion behind the rituals.
Many of us will remember with a grin our own childhoods when Winner reminisces about looking forward to Saturday night, the end of Shabbat, when she was younger, as the Sabbath days were sometimes “dull” for a child. And even sharing that opinion and shared history, you will still find yourself jealous of her heritage, her understanding and her appreciation of what Sabbath means and offers. It goes far beyond a commandment and is more about orienting one’s life, rhythms, affirmation and rest in God. Nothing I studied at the Seminary on the subject (i.e. proof texts, history of it being changed to Sunday) made me miss the Sabbath more than I do now reading this chapter on a Tuesday.
Or you might nod your head in understanding as she highlights the diet & food restrictions that shaped her grocery lists and restaurant options when she was an observant Jew. But when she gets “down to brass tacks” and decides that she wants to eat attentively again—one might be surprised that while she doesn’t intend to give up shellfish this time, she does want to eat seasonally which means she won’t be eating strawberries and avocado this winter in Virginia.
Her chapter on mourning struck a chord for me, especially when she says, "Christianity has a hopeful and true vocabulary for death-and-resurrection. It is Judaism that offers the grammar for in between, for the mourning after death and before Easter." Judaism provides a ritual for the long and exhausting process of loss and pain where the mourners are not only allowed to grieve but expected to. The space and time and rituals respect the pain and encourage people to engage in it and deal with it. A one-year process is provided not only for the family left behind, but also for the community that surrounds that family. I found myself pondering Adventism where so much of our focus on the subject of death focuses on what happens after we die, but do we all know how to offer hope, healing, and community in the meantime beyond the two weeks of casseroles, between the burial and the resurrection?
She affirms that in Christianity we have the freedom to pray whatever we want to God, speaking conversationally with Him, directly to Him, whenever we want. It struck me deeply that while I believe prayer should have that freedom, having seen repetitive liturgical prayers through her eyes made me want to memorize a few. Winner reflects that after putting aside her prayer book for long periods of time she feels that she lapses into narcissism:
Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news… but I never get much further than that. It is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all.
The power of not having all my prayers based only on my moods but based on something bigger—the need to sometimes have the prayer leading me as opposed to me always leading the prayer.
And then imagine my surprise when in reading the chapter on hospitality that she quotes one of her Jewish rabbi’s as insisting that “practicing hospitality was even more important than praying.” Affirming the God of Creation for giving us homes, we are to turn and share them with others. Her understanding that having people into our homes should never feel like an imposition (because we are not meant to “rearrange our lives for our guests—we are meant to invite our guests to enter our lives as they are”) sounds so good that we’d all nod, but then we’d all likely come up with excuses why we would never invite anyone but friends into our homes.
We confuse hospitality with entertaining and carry that out into all areas of our lives. “Asking people into my life is not so different from asking them into my apartment. Like my apartment, my interior life is never going to be wholly respectable, cleaned up and gleaming. But this is where I live.”
Like having a conversation with a friend, her writing is reflective, story-filled, and thought-provoking while also throwing in history, context, and tradition to give depth. To give roots. To give meaning. No doubt her doctorate in the history of American religion provides credibility, but her tone is casual, inviting, and reminiscent. Her personal experience in holding the tension between belief and practice and between rules that others have set and applications that are personally meaningful have a lot to offer those of us who aren’t trying to reach some standard but simply wanting to connect with God in deeper ways.
And perhaps that is one of the things I most appreciate about the book: her passion to see what her heritage suggests about her relationship with God and how she can live that out in a way that is meaningful to her. With the temptation for many who have grown up with the restrictions and rules of religion to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she takes us back to what the rules originally meant and what they say about God in such a way that actually increases my desire to have that kind of an experience. And that it can be enhanced with structure and ritual.
Certainly less important than her humble attempts of how she will end up practicing each belief is the simple fact that she does it. She figures out whether something is important to her, and if it is, then why it is, and finally how she can implement it in her own life. She allows for a third option between the way she was raised and not doing it at all—and figures out that third option with intention.
Intention is a big word for me. None of her chapter headings will be foreign territory to any of us within Adventism—we all age, believe in prayer, honor Sabbath and celebrate weddings. But do we do these things with intention? And do we see them infusing purpose to our spiritual lives? Not in the disempowering way of connecting them with salvation or for earning approval, but in how they enhance that relationship. Winner’s ability to recover the spiritual meaning of those religious rituals is significant to a postmodern world looking for an experience with divinity. She taps into the truth that deep inside we want life to be filled with meaning and purpose. We want our actions to be intentional and our traditions to be fulfilling.
The question then is: Is it possible for religious rituals to produce significant spiritual experiences without degenerating into a list of “do’s” and “don’t’s”? Lauren Winner’s story answers with a rejuvenating and soul-rewarding yes.
Reviewer’s Note: The idea of intentionality in my spiritual practices has been hugely significant for me, and Winner’s book helped me think of my heritage traditions—and new ones—more deeply and reflectively. As I was re-reading this book and thinking about it with the Spectrum readers in mind, I wondered if any of you have stories of traditions you’ve grown up with and cherish but have re-seen or re-appreciated as an adult. Is there anything you walked away from only to discover that you missed?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/308