Walking With Susie and Virginia

From the beginning, it has been hard for me to understand. It’s odd. I have always been ferociously anti-guru. If I sense the slightest odor of charisma, I run for cover. Fortunately, I came to discover that Virginia, a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition, disliked being called a teacher, let alone a guru.

I first saw her in August 1998 at a two-day interfaith retreat. The retreat had an ambitious purpose: to discover how believers from various traditions might create an original worship experience with compassion as the focus. Virginia and her husband, George, were the only Catholics in a group of 20 people, which included myself and one other Jewish woman. The two of us, along with Protestants, Quakers, Buddhists and pagans, were trying to embrace other traditions and to be on our very best interfaith behavior. Virginia was not. She did not smile beatifically. She was herself.


During the retreat she and I had little personal contact, but I got a taste of her signature style, a blend of back-porch folksiness and fierce intelligence. When the group shared early experiences of encountering people of other faiths, she told stories about her working-class childhood and her recollection of Jews as the people who brought the first window-display mannequins to town. She struck me as a woman who had the eye of a novelist, the heart of a mother and the ready courage of a street fighter. Enchanted, I found myself arranging to meet with her after the retreat to explore spiritual direction, even though I had no idea what that might be.

When I came to Virginia, I was an alienated Jewish seeker with pronounced gnostic tendencies, an expert on yearning. I felt an acute sense of exile from divinity, an entrapment in materiality that was suffocating and literally “dispiriting.” The rarefied air I was inhaling left me gasping for breath. Brought up in an assimilated Jewish home with no access to the richness of the Jewish tradition, I had spent my entire adult life “knowing” that there was a life that was larger than surface experience, longing for it deeply, but having no way to make it mine.

The postwar environment in which I was raised was in full-scale revolt against orthodoxy and all religious practices except those deemed necessary to maintain appearances. On Yom Kippur my father closed his shop and my mother went to synagogue and fasted until she grew hungry. In the Reform temple where I attended Sunday school in New York in the 50’s, Israeli flag-waving replaced the mention of God. Abandoning halakhah (strict adherence to religious observance), progressive Jews who took Judaism seriously adhered to an intellectual approach or concentrated on the prophetic aspect of the tradition by becoming activists in civil rights or the peace movement. You went through the motions of prayer when called upon, but the words of your mouth were not connected to the meditations of your heart.

They used to say that if you brought God into the conversation more than once at a dinner party, you’d never be invited back again. So you kept those words to yourself. After a while, the pressure of feelings on my heart had no avenue of expression—until I turned 53. Then I found someone with whom to have that conversation of the heart—a stranger who became a friend, Virginia Finn. In Yiddish we say, that’s beschert: it was meant to be.

. . .

At the interfaith retreat, during the shared reflection process, I was taken by Susie, a Jewish woman—petite, curly haired, soft-spoken—who told of going to a movie as a young girl and watching a man hanging on a cross with blood streaming down his body. For days afterward, whenever she walked through the foyer of her Manhattan apartment house, she was afraid to step on the narrow red carpet that ran from the front door to the elevator because it reminded her of the man bleeding.

After the retreat, her story lingered and saddened my heart. Seldom had I considered how a religious image of a dominant culture might affect a child from a different tradition. Astonished when she called me about spiritual direction, I remembered her infectious warmth on the retreat and agreed to an initial meeting. Then I felt panic. For 25 years I’d been immersed in a Catholic milieu. What did I know about Jewish religious practices? The Torah? Zionism? What resentments did she harbor regarding the Holocaust? Toward the Vatican? Toward Catholic me? Would she talk about the High Holidays—or is it High Holy Days?

God. As soon as pleasantries were exchanged, Susie said God was what she wanted to talk about. God. Familiar territory compared to Germany during World War II or contemporary synagogues and their services. When she pointed at a small oil painting and asked who it was, I replied, “St. Ignatius.” Telling her about him, I told myself, “Ignatius—another easy topic on a path I’d anticipated to be laden with pitfalls.” The founder of the Jesuits, I told Susie, trusted that Catholic spiritual directors could fruitfully guide those of other traditions. Then I heard Ignatius whisper, “Don’t forget memory and imagination.” Before leaving, Susie invited me into her tradition’s experience of remembering its ancestral history—a Reconstructionist celebration of Rosh Hashana.

The high holy day was an instrumental initiation into a learning process that continues for me. Easily moving into prayer, I was struck by the creativity of the service. For the reading of the Torah portion, the woman rabbi invited three groups of believers to come to the scroll. Initially, members who desired to have their spirituality strengthened by Torah in the coming year, study, shabbat services, and the congregation, came forward. Next were congregants who desired to have their spirituality strengthened from within themselves...to discern deeply, to rely on intuition, to trust the wisdom of Shekinnah. The third group offered kaddish, prayers for the dead. The spiritual maturity in the liturgical process impressed me. The shofar was played by an elder congregant after the rabbi suggested that we don’t always hear God’s call through words. As the evocative playing of the ram’s horn reverberated within me, I was drawn to a penitent stance for ever believing that God’s Spirit is limited to one tradition. In the weeks after, I made more discoveries about God in places I had never anticipated.

. . .

My first spiritual direction session with Virginia confused me. She suggested unfamiliar categories. Intimacy with God. What on earth did that mean? Shortly, however, I began to see that she was introducing me to God as accessible presence. God was there when my 18-month-old granddaughter reached out for the first time to take my hand and when I needed guidance to protect and support my 92-year-old mother, who lives on the other side of the country. I was discovering how to cultivate a relationship with God and how, in some ways, that relationship had the characteristics of other, more familiar relationships. Gradually, I noticed variations in my ability to sense God’s presence. At times all life seemed pregnant with divine light; at other times there was distance and darkness. But Virginia’s subtle demonstration of her faith enabled me to trust that, even when there was distance, God was whispering words of love.

One day, after a few months of meetings, she abruptly asked if I were in love with God. To my amazement, I blushed like an awkward adolescent. The question struck me as outrageous, but of course, it was true. I’d been found out. I was not only a seeker, I was a lover as well; and out of that love remarkable things began to happen. By listening to God, I started to discern my own voice and calling within my tradition where I had sometimes felt trapped by the difficulty of separating the obligations of Jewish life, and the politically correct positions on Middle East politics, from the spiritual encounter I longed to have. In particular, I am devoted to my husband, himself a lapsed Catholic. My commitment to a Jewish community had to include my marriage and my conviction that the various traditions are essentially different translations of the same holy language. Any direction in my religious practice had to validate my need to deepen my Jewish learning while expanding my spiritual horizons beyond Judaism. Meeting with a Catholic spiritual director gave me an opportunity to experience God’s presence in my life without the clutter of cultural expectations. Virginia didn’t ask how much time I spent in synagogue. She wanted to know what it felt like when I had time during the day for contemplative prayer and what God was disclosing in those moments. When Virginia and I talked about God, no one else was in the room—not Maimonides, not Buber, not Ignatius. The blessing of this opportunity ultimately allowed me to return to a Judaism that filled my heart.

. . .

Initially I wanted Ignatius in the room. And Buber. And Maimonides. I wanted tutors. I realized that spiritual direction often poses unanticipated challenges. Susie, I knew, trusted me more than I trusted myself. During our first meeting I was challenged by her response to my indication that in spiritual direction she might trace her personal experience of God.

“Personal experience of God? I don’t know if that appeals to me, or if I really believe it.” Startled by her reaction, I left the issue hanging in the air as a mere suggestion. Shortly after, when she had her own encounter, she affirmed our process of direction.

One afternoon after the high holidays, Susie related her struggle to memorize a prayer for a morning ritual. Casually, I suggested that she translate the prayer into English, type it, and read it each morning. I was awakened from complacency by her cry, “Read it? In English!” She took her turn then in tutoring me. About the treasure Hebrew is. About her desire, in no way obligatory, to memorize the prayer—in Hebrew—to make it part of her heart.

In certain areas, however, where I had anticipated puzzlement or resistance, I found delight. Susie asked for my help in understanding elements of Ignatian prayer. Later, I prepared a tutoring on a biblical composition of scene, a concrete, practical way to initiate understanding.

“Oh, like midrash,” she responded two minutes into my “lesson.” Spontaneity is a gift Susie brings to her spiritual journey. Discovering that what I called composition of scene could enrich her prayer, she spent a week at a midrash workshop in the winter of 1999, while I learned more about her tradition by imbibing the wisdom found in Jewish Spiritual Guidance: Finding Our Way to God, by Carol Ochs and Kerry M. Olitzky.

. . .

Eventually I sensed a strong need to define my Jewish identity by taking a Hebrew name. In a shabbat service, people who are so moved come up to the Torah scroll to say the blessings before and after the scriptural portion is chanted. Each person is identified by his or her Hebrew name and their parents’ Hebrew names, a lineage in the tradition. Coming from an assimilated family, I had been named Susan Ellen, a blonde girl with blue eyes, a Shirley Temple child. I had never been given a Hebrew name, and I had no idea what names my parents may have carried.

Hannah I named myself, after my maternal grandmother Anna and after the mother of Samuel, the first Jewish woman in the Bible to speak directly to God. Grandmother Anna, born into an Orthodox household in Romania, where she attended a Catholic school (the only education available for a girl), had lived with us in New York. Pushed into the back bedroom, she lit shabbat candles all alone. Once I chose Hannah, I located my parents’ ketubah, or Jewish wedding certificate, with their Hebrew names. At a family ritual and in the synagogue, I became Hannah bat Zalman v’Hessye. By taking my grandmother’s name, I had a sense of being on both ends of a rescue mission: we salvaged one another’s faith from the ruins of modernism. Changing my name was a reflection of a deep, interior transformation. With Virginia walking beside me, I now felt the authenticity, the rest in faith, that had eluded me all my life.

. . .

Finding the confidence to use challenge as sand in the oyster, I realized that a respectful exploration of how others pray and worship is at least equal in significance to dialogue on historical, ecclesial and political issues, especially for seminarians and theology students.

This was reinforced in the spring of 1999 when we participated in Elat Chayyim’s conference entitled, “The Awakened Heart—An Exploration of Meditation in Jewish Life,” a conference unlike those in my own tradition. From Friday afternoon until late Saturday, I joined 450 Jewish believers for prayer and shabbat. Conference presentations and workshops started late Saturday and continued through Sunday at Temple Ansche Chesed, where Susie’s parents had been married.

I still savor memories of that event, especially those within the three-hour service on Saturday morning—prayer shawls forming a canopy over married couples who are encouraged to celebrate their shared love throughout the liturgy (rather than leaving it on the doorstep); the affective way lay participants touched the Torah with a prayer shawl, indicating that Torah belongs to the people, not to the religious leaders; the strong sense that this is how Jesus worshiped in the synagogue. By the swaying of their bodies and the chanting of prayers, lay congregants not only engaged in active participation throughout the liturgy, but also sustained a contemplative interiority. A surprising Trappist reference was mentioned on Sunday by two speakers; one rabbi cited the value of Thomas Merton for understanding contemplation, and the other referred to Thomas Keating in a similar way.

. . .

With each spiritual step, I felt stronger, less alone. I felt called to become Bat Mitzvah. I chose the Torah portion I would chant and interpret with the intention of conveying the nature of my relationship to God and my spiritual struggle. My choice, the first 18 lines of Leviticus 19, the Holiness portion, ends with the commandment v’ahavta lore’echa kamocha, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Focusing on this portion enabled me to talk about the sacrifices of the self that necessarily accompany this kind of transparent lovingkindness, which are equivalent to the animal sacrifices described in the Torah portion. During my commentary I shared my effort to sacrifice a long list of fears, ones that kept me from loving God and God’s creation.

Radiance filled my heart on the day I became Bat Mitzvah. Along with family, friends and fellow congregants, Virginia and George were there. But in the weeks that followed I was stunned to discover that I was unable to sustain the joy I felt chanting Torah. The crash was devastating. Gone was the thread that had let me float down gracefully like a leaf in autumn. I was like an egg toppling out of a nest and shattering. Scraping away fears of exposure and failure, making myself vulnerable before community and God, seemed only to reveal a more terrible dread: fear of abandonment and fear of love itself.

To Virginia this was not unfamiliar territory. She knew about dread, about a wandering in the wilderness that often accompanies the decision to go forth like Abraham and Sarah and leave behind reliable signposts. She helped me to listen for the still small voice, drowned out by the roar of anxiety. She helped me return to my true self, the self that had been created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.

. . .

Spiritually, Susie seems to be a natural. With inspired joy she embarked on spiritual paths in her own tradition—engaging in midrash, which led to taking her grandmother’s name; studying Hebrew in order to pray; savoring images evoked in prayer; spending a week on retreat at Elat Chayyim; keeping a journal; and preparing for Bat Mitzvah. Because she did the work, our sessions were not work for me; instead I limited my part to reflecting back questions as a lens for her own insight. We became agile in honesty. Yet challenges remained. In a straightforward way, I voiced doubt about her concept of sacrificing her fears as an intention for Bat Mitzvah. Sacrificing fears might be possible with God, but beyond one’s powers if the attempt is made to do it on one’s own for God. Had she been from my own tradition, I might have been more intrusive with my challenge. But far more joy than challenge has been the guiding light of walking with Susie, who rejects artificial nurturing, whose yearning is for the organic nourishment of her own tradition and roots, whose spiritual vitality depends on a real God for the sake of a real world.

. . .

On my 55th birthday, my sister gave me a sepia-colored class picture from the 1880’s of Anna, my grandmother, decoratively dressed, sitting in the midst of her Catholic classmates, all in their dark school uniforms. And I wondered: what exchanges did they have, this Jewish girl and her Catholic friends in Iasi, Romania, so long ago? What had come trickling down to me that made me seek the spiritual guidance of a Catholic in my circuitous journey back to Hannah, back to Judaism and back to God?

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