Praying for Rain: Redrawing the Circle

We are sitting together on the front porch of our house, underneath a gray sky, but I’ve seen this one before. Fool me twice, I think, shame on me.

She is singing: “Rain rain go away.” When she comes to the part about who it is that wants to play, she sometimes inserts: “sweet little Abba.” No, I tell her, sweet little Abba wants it to rain, and I give her my own version as an answer song: “Rain rain, come today. You don’t have to go away. There’s more to life than children’s play.”

The clouds are too thin and fast for a real rain, though I’ve heard a distant rumble of thunder. It is a tantalizing sound. I begin, in my mind, to run through a litany of the words I know for rain, along a spectrum from least to most, as if trying to draw the moisture down with my abundant vocabulary: a sprinkle, a drizzle, a shower, a downpour, a soaker, a deluge.

At night, sometimes, when I’m putting her to bed, I sing through the short list of Hank Williams melodies that my children know as lullabies, coming eventually to a story he tells about two men wandering lost in the desert: “All day I face the barren waste without a taste of water. Cool water.”

I went for a walk with the older one, my son, back to the woods behind our house where not too long ago, we mucked our boots in the spring mud. The creek was bone-dry, and I could tell it was one of the first times he’d ever really registered the anxiety I am so familiar with because for the rest of the day, he was inserting nervous little questions about it into the flow of our conversation. It will fill up again, right? It won’t always be like that.

Meanwhile, down in the Smokies, where his mother comes from, there was a flood. Trees and boulders came crashing down the mountain in a torrent. A 100-year-old elder said he’d never seen such a thing.

There came a week of 95-degree days when the thermostat in the morning said the same thing it had the night before, and by the time it passed — not with a bang but a whimper — a new degree of trauma had been inflicted upon the landscape and its temperate souls. The rabbits bite into tomatoes for moisture. The trees look worn and sickly. Some even start to color and shed their leaves before their time in a false autumn.

I pull the hose around at dusk, when the minimum amount of water will evaporate, and I hold the nozzle right down to the roots. I take some solace that I am still bringing forth a crop in these conditions, through close attention and small-scale “primitive” techniques, but I know this is not an ultimate fix and that they all still depend upon the predictability of the weather.

The real fear comes from the awareness that this isn’t a fluke — some freak of a cycle that will knock back into form — but the beginning of something new, in which my well-being is not assured.

And how do you live with that?

There’s a short book in the Talmud called Ta’anit—the tractate of fasting. Most of it is taken up with public behaviors mandated in order to avert catastrophe, including sounding cries of alarm on the shofar, abstaining from food and even, in the most extreme cases, bringing the Torah ark out into the public square and covering it with ashes. Though other calamities are mentioned, including plague and war, the primary concern is drought — something our ancestors knew and feared, living as they did in a part of the world where it only rained for a limited window of time each year. The text reads like a meditation on how people respond to the emergence of such a calamity — how they bring expression to existential anxiety and a pervasive sense of powerlessness, or, if they are believers, how they solicit God to respond with salvation.

In the midst of it, we find the famous tale of Honi Hame’agel. Honi’s nickname comes from the Hebrew word igul — circle — and he is called “Honi the Circlemaker,” though one theory I came across suggests that it might be a reference to the rollers used by roofers to compress plaster and mud — that, apart from being a shaman, he was a working stiff.

The primary concern of our ancestors was drought, which they knew and feared, living as they did in a part of the world where it only rained for a limited window of time each year.

One year, after months of the rainy season passed with hardly a drop falling, he took up a chalky stone, drew a circle on the ground, and told the Holy One he would not step outside the perimeter until it rained. The Holy One teased him, as the Holy One sometimes does, sending a little drizzle, till Honi said, “that isn’t what I meant,” then sending a deluge, till he said: “that isn’t what I meant, either.” Finally, the Goldilocks rain began to fall — a soaking rain that quenched the earth and filled up wells and cisterns. It kept falling and falling at its steady pace, till the people had to come all the way up to the Temple Mount for shelter, from which the rabbis derived a teaching that we are never to pray for the end of a rain but only for its beginning.

They wanted to put Honi in herem, in ostracism, because he had worked such blasphemous magic. But what could they do? God listened to him.

I am not above magical thinking myself, sometimes, though mine tends more towards irony, like leaving the car windows open at night in hopes that my dry seats will tempt the weather gods. I identify, too, with the impulse towards confining yourself to a circle — making your world smaller in response to an overwhelming sense of dread. I’ve done this with my bedsheets some mornings. And the fasting? Elsewhere in the Talmud, in masekhet Berakhot, the rabbis analogize tzedakah with fasting, suggesting that fasting is to the substance of your body what tzedakah is to your bank account — flesh offering of the living, as if you are trying to exorcize a riddling bodily alarm with a proactive donation to nemesis.

But this story of Honi is almost comically reassuring. God, a benevolent trickster, seems to care about this petulant roofer who won’t get out of his circle, like a child who must be coddled. The rains fall, maybe just a bit too much, but nonetheless, calamity is averted, and life goes on as it should. But how much comfort can such a magical tale really provide in the face of a real-world crisis in which we might suspect that God, or the climate, doesn’t really care whether we move out of our little circle or not?

I have seen Honi’s circle in real life — maybe not exactly, but something that reminded me of it, and prompted me to consider its efficacy from a different angle. It was just a few days after she was born. We took her on the St. Xavier reservation, just outside of Tucson, Ariz., in the shadow of the twin white steeples of the mission church. We joined her birth mother and some of the members of her family in a tourist parking lot, and then drove in a caravan to the yard of one of the many matching rundown ranch houses. There, we met the makai, the medicine woman. She took a fat stick of chalk — I don’t know if it was natural, or ceremonial, or just something you can buy in the school supplies aisle at the Walmart — and drew a circle on the dusty ground. It wasn’t a protracted circle. It was imperfect, but it was practiced and efficient, with an even roundness that separated the cosmos into that which was outside and that which was inside. From the belt around her waist, she withdrew a long feather, and with brusque, precise flicks of her arm, she waved it in the air around the circle with such snapping force that it seemed to whistle as it cut through the atmosphere. The birth mother stepped into the circle with my new daughter in her arms, as we all stood in a row of solidarity facing the direction of the light still rising up over the desert, told by the birthmother’s mother, the grandmother of my daughter, to fill our hearts with prayers for the child’s well-being.

She got her name in this circle — her first official name, though we had already begun calling her Batya, the daughter of god, without having formalized it yet in the sacred rainwater of the mikveh. The makai named her, spontaneously it seemed, breathing in the air and light of the moment and letting her mind drift into the realm where real names come from: Tashtonelig. Tash — sun. Tonelig — light. The light of the sun. These were the first words I learned in the language of where she came to me from, followed by the many others I drilled into myself with the online flashcards I rigged up: Do:ag — mountain. Ba:n — coyote. Su:gadi — water. Ju:ki — rain.

I am wary of fetishizing indigenous people, or simplifying the complexity of their lives so as to appropriate some magical solution to our predicament. But I do believe that a culture still much more closely identified with the rhythms of nature can remind us of forgotten aspects of our own, which may point towards a self-understanding of relevance to our times.

They would watch the monsoon come on in the old times, gathering miles away but still visible across the flat plain of the desert, and have time before it arrived to put in a crop of Tepary beans. The Colorado, or whatever they called it, still ran all the way down to the salt flats on what is now the Mexican side of the border, a place to seek purification, assuming that salt had the same effect on the soul that it does on meat. The saguaro is known as the hashan. With its spine and limbs resembling the human form, it is a brother, a living man, an ancestor. We might laugh and say: That’s just childish mythmaking. Really, the saguaro is a cactus used to decorate golf courses. But to call it a man, far from cartoonish fantasy, is an acknowledgment that it is alive and brings life to so many other creatures. The cactus fruit is a focal point of ceremony, and the misshapen crop the year before last was a bellwether of the collapsing ecosystem we already mistake for dead.

How much of the breakdown of our connection with the earth resides in our inability to tell stories that somehow encode wise habitation or the scale of our lives in the aspect of the global life that sustains them — like in the Amazon they now say, in the face of the creeping savannah, that the gods are crying, and that even more than these tears, they fear the day when the crying stops?

How much of the breakdown of our connection with the Earth resides in our inability to tell stories that somehow encode wise habitation or the scale of our lives in the aspect of the global life that sustains them.

Our ancestors had their own religious understanding of the land where they aspired to live. This was a theology based in ecology — a theocology, if you will. You can read about it in the 11th chapter of Deuteronomy: “But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.”

This description was drawn in contrast to the house of bondage from which they had emerged: “The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden.”

What this Holy Land lacked in apparent certainty, however, it made up for in spiritual drama. You were closer to God because you had to rely upon the rain, whereas the Nile as a form of irrigation gave rise to a self-satisfied civilization that never questioned the availability of its resource base and assumed things would continue on in the same proud fashion.

What the Holy Land lacked in apparent certainty, it made up for in spiritual drama. You were closer to God because you had to rely upon the rain.

It’s no coincidence our ancestors placed the new year at the start of the rainy season and coupled it with a period of atonement. On the one hand, it pointed towards something cyclical — the return of the rains with the coming of autumn — but at the same time, it betrayed a trepidation that this wasn’t assured. They understood the rains to be dependent on their teshuvah, their repentance, as much as on any pattern of the weather system. And this explains something at the core of the spirituality of the land of Israel — that sustenance could not be taken for granted, as could, perhaps, the annual flooding of the Nile. This truth is harder to take, but maybe necessary to begin working into your heart to live with integrity and purpose in a changing world — the truth that everything we do and dream isn’t built upon or etched in stone, but rather relies on something as fickle as whether or not it is going to rain. Beneath every mundane moment is the sacred drama of life and death, lived beneath the “eyes of god”; a spirituality, which, like all relevant spiritualities, is concerned with how we grapple with the physical terms of our existence, rather than how we pretend they do not exist.

This teshuvah, to the true believer, might be understood as a literal bargain — if we do all the right things, then God will give us rain. I don’t know about that. I’m just a working stiff and don’t expect to be coddled like a petulant child. I see it more as a return, from the fleshpots of Egypt to the holy trepidation of the unpromised land; a circle redrawn in my soul in response to a cycle that is breaking down, like Honi sketched in the dirt in the face of emergency what the makai writes on to the desert floor each time a child is born. It is a journey back to the true measure of what we are, to the bounded realm where real names come from.

But, really, I’m not above a little prayer, either. Prayer, for me, is the language of a heart still pulsing with hope in the impossible. Won’t we stand in the sukkah soon, flaunting our vulnerability, and shake the palm branch so its patter can soothe our anxious souls with the imitation of rain?

We sit together, now, on the front porch of our house, watching the rain that is either too much or too little, and I’m not sure if the cosmic trickster will indulge us with his beneficent jest, but I can wake up each day and pledge to my little daughter of god that I will not be moved.

So I take her in the circle of my arms, and fill my heart with a prayer for her well-being, and sing her, once again, the lines the lonesome old hillbilly taught me:

“And way up there, He’ll hear our prayer and show us where there’s water. Cool, clear, water.”

Author’s Note: I take seriously the knowledge that indigenous languages are the intellectual property of their sovereign indigenous communities. For the use I have made of the Tohono ‘O’odham language in this sermon, which I hope has been perceived as respectfully as it was intended, I have made a contribution to the Tohono ‘O’odham Community College, through which I participated in two summer language intensives.


If you are similarly moved, I would recommend a donation either to TOCC

or the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS)

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