Just a Moment: Of Children and the Spiritual Life

I’m finding God, these days, not in the Big Miracles, but the little things. Rather than cultivating visions of seas splitting or of mountains leaping like lambs, rather than straining for spiritual ascents to the seventh heaven, I’m discovering the sacred in the constant interruptions and distractions of being alive, of being a father. My children have given me the gift of the present.

This awareness of the holiness of the moment isn’t my discovery alone. The Buddhists call it “mindfulness,” and Jews call it “kavanah.” More an attitude than a skill, this consciousness reflects a focus on living in the world, emerging from the confluence of thought and life experience. When you focus on what you are doing or saying at that particular moment, you demonstrate kavanah. I have two little children and they both constrain and cultivate a focus I didn’t previously possess; they teach me to give up my plans, they force me to let myself simply be. They shape my kavanah.

God of Little Children

Prior to having children, my spiritual life was primarily one of sacred scriptures and prayer. On Shabbat, prior to going to synagogue, I would wake early so I could study Talmud for a few hours. When I prayed I would try to meditate or read some poetry first, to get in the right mood. Sometime during each day, I tried to make time for an hour or two to read and to learn. Of course, since there were no children around, the house was always appropriately quiet for contemplation or for study. Interruptions were rare.

Such an orientation bore rich fruit: my inner life was a bouquet of devotion and connection, what the mystics call hitboddedut, of uniting with the Holy One. Solitude and persistence are the requirements of an inner spirituality; productivity and accomplishment are its results. Calm tranquility and leisurely thought offered untrammeled room for spiritual growth and exploration. I was graced in abundance.

Now, I look at that inner spirituality as through a veil: there’s precious little lone time, and far fewer completed tasks. The quiet is gone, and I have no spare moments. I don’t set my alarm anymore; instead, I am awakened (early) by my children. The day offers a series of hurdles: endless needs to be met, and those needs aren’t my own. As a result, I don’t have the time to sit down to read a book or to meditate on the marvel of life. Does that mean my spiritual life has atrophied? Does this busyness and responsiveness mean I can’t connect to the sacred? While my contemplative form of spirituality may be in abeyance, I’ve discovered—to my surprise—another spiritual form to take its place.

Instead of an inner listening, a meditative stance, mine is an engaged spirituality, a wrestling with little creatures who reveal themselves to be angels if I but show sufficient tenacity. If I hold on long enough, I become witness to the flowering of God’s latest miracles: consciousness blossoms, speech finds a surer footing, character consolidates.

Answering the Call

My children call, and I must attend. I am obligated to my children, true enough. But the compulsion comes from a place deep within me. “Nafsho keshurah be-nafsho, His soul was bound up in his soul” says the Torah about father Jacob and his son, Joseph. My children are a/part of me, and I am in exile without them. My soul yearns for my children the way the medievals pined for Jerusalem. My Galut is their absence. In their presence, surrounded by their noise, chaos, and demands, I feel grounded. That is where I am supposed to be. They are my homeland; they are the footsteps of Messiah.

Which means that my spiritual life has been overturned completely. Silence is no longer haven; it is death. Israel is no longer a distant land, it is embodied as these two little forms. The ancient God, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is now my God, the God of Shira and Jacob.  My children call, and through them, I am called. To be a parent, like being a Jew, means a willingness to live life in the light of that call: S/someone wants me. Do I dare to respond?

Kavanah of Kids

Before there were children, I bound my tefillin alone. Now, my four year olds scamper into their Abba’s study, take my tefillin bag and insist on “helping” me put them on. Once I’m properly garbed, they then want to davven with me, shuckling back and forth as I do. After a few minutes, bored, they begin to play in my study, while I, praying above them, no longer fight their energy, their chaos, and their din. Instead of fearing their uncontainable energy as disruption, I accept it as God’s bounty—limitless divine effusion of love, of health, and of life. My kavanah no longer focuses on the words in the Siddur, but on the confluence of ancient words of praise and boundless childish enthusiasm. This is an encounter with God: raw, unrehearsed, imposing.

A popular American proverb holds that “life is what happens while we are making plans.” I now know that God erupts in the guise of life, sheer exuberance, untrained zest, smiles, drippy noses, tears. Formless and endless, children are the vessels through which that Godliness becomes visible even to contriving adults. My children are the still small voice. My children summon me to put down my plans, set aside my studies, and live.

It is in the distractions and interruptions that God is to be found. In the moment, open to what may come—bruised knees or child at play—we live. And our studies, our mitzvot, our communities, they train us to be able to look to that moment and to see God in our children’s smiles, to hear God in their squeals and shrieks. They alert us, like map to terrain, of where the journey may lead, if we will only show a willingness to stay the course and to follow our worthy guides: our children.

 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com)  is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice-President. He is the author of It’s A Mitzvah! Step by Step to Jewish Living (Behrman House & The Rabbinical Assembly) and The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill).