The Glory of God is men and women fully alive. So said my clinical pastoral education supervisor, a Catholic lay woman, 20-some years ago, and it has stuck with me. It sounds good, and it is certainly intriguing, but I don’t think I really understood it completely. But now, I know it in a way I haven’t before. I’d like to share with you my recent felt encounter with the “Glory of God.”
For most of my years, I have thought about the “Glory” of God (in accordance with my habit of being in my head): how interesting this word “kavod” (glory, honor, even abundance) is; the many nuances one can glean from the root kaf-bet-dalet; what (intellectual) meaning we can make of it. It was a text, an object of study and thinking, something to contemplate, puzzle over and try to understand, but not really part of my religious language or spiritual experience.
But the “Glory of God” is an experience! Fully embodied and filling, fully alive in all our potential. Uplift and transcendence and expansiveness and inclusion. I have occasionally tasted such a thing, but I called it “awe.” Awe is, well … awesome, but the kavod of God is what awe points to, or what’s behind it. It’s the reason for the awesomeness. It’s more than, “Wow!” It’s the cup overflowing.
As soon as I received the request, through a text message from a friend and colleague who is the rector of an Episcopal church, asking me to offer a Jewish prayer at the Memorial for the Most Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, I felt it. Whoosh! I felt it. Of course, it was exciting to be invited, on an ego level. However, beyond that, by invoking the memory of Archbishop Tutu, by speaking of him and thereby invoking his presence, by the opportunity to associate myself with this heroic figure of our time, I was taken with the actual presence of Godliness. Call it “inspiration,” perhaps. But more than that; it was a felt Presence. It was another dimension of life. Right there, as I was waiting to pick up my grandson at school!
In the mundane, work-a-day navigating of the world, with errands, traffic, finding a parking space, everything can be kind of flattened and reduced to objects or instruments, given hardly any attention or genuine connection. Outside of me, separate and apart. (Of course, I think of Buber!) But sitting and standing and walking there at school pick-up time in Tutu’s company, my world — or my self — was palpably different, softer, less boundaried. I felt expanded to a broader capacity of attention and life; the proverbial “six inches off the ground,” with everything and everyone around me infused with sanctity. And the effect is more appreciation and compassion.
I thought to myself, “So this is what ‘May his/her memory be for a blessing’ means!” This opportunity to call to mind and honor such a person as Archbishop Tutu filled me with the messages of Truth and Reconciliation, Love … and of course, Tutu’s endearing and infectious smile and laughter and compassion. For Desmond Tutu was so much bigger than his particularity; he manifested the larger vision of humanity connected to Godliness. He brought Godliness to us, and he was bringing me to Godliness. More “fully alive,” as my supervisor put it.
In some Jewish quarters, Tutu is not totally appreciated because of his views on Israel’s political and military and legal regime, which he long ago likened to “apartheid,” and his opposition to the wall. Nevertheless, I wanted to step up and participate in the memorial service. To my way of thinking, we have much soul-searching to do as we face this shadow. (And face it we must.) Nor am I afraid for my job. I stand with Tutu and Torah principles.
In his sermon at the memorial service, the amazing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had Jesus looking into the Torah (yes, he used that word!) for his answers and teachings. For the purpose, in Curry’s words, of “living life with God.” I thought, “That’s exactly it! Life in our bigger capacities.”
So in my retirement, I found myself among the representatives of different faiths, garbed in my kippah and tallit, chanting “El maleh rahamim” (“God full of mercy … ”), commending Tutu’s spirit to the embrace of God at the awe-inspiring Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It blows my mind just thinking about it: me filling the largest Gothic cathedral in the country with Hebrew chant. There were many speeches — by the South African ambassador, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, former Representative Charlie Rangel and several high-ranking bishops and other dignitaries. And there was a beautiful choir. And I was there, standing on the shoulders of those in our movement who shaped me.
The Cathedral itself is awesome, a wonder, something to behold. A “wow!” But the interfaith gathering to invoke the memory and honor of Archbishop Tutu was a “Glory” moment. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that what’s needed now, after the Holocaust and with God fully “hidden,” is a global tikkun (healing), and he suggests that it is accomplished when we can see God in all others. But we cannot do it alone, and that is why interfaith work is so important! I doubt I was the only one who felt as fully alive as I ever have, and that expansiveness and connectedness is, I think, the experience of Divine kavod. It’s not just “when people make love properly, the Shekhinah is present,” as the Talmud teaches. Rather, it’s when we see everyone as beloved that we become Divine ourselves (or dwell in that realm or Presence). We all can be Israelites, basking in the kavod of God as in Exodus 16, a Presence that is ever-possible in our wandering.