Spirituality of Parenting

Two years ago, I listened to Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith’s podcast on “The Spirituality of Parenting.” The guest was Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, and she and Krista discussed possible ways of fostering and nurturing spirituality in families with no religious tradition and in families with parents of different religious traditions.  The broadcast was all about where to begin, when you didn’t know where to start.

They began their conversation this way:

Ms. Tippett: Parenting is a great spiritual challenge many of us live with day to day, yet we so rarely call it that.

Ms. Sasso: We want our children to be more than consumers and competitors. We want our children to be gracious and grateful. We want them to have courage in difficult times, we want them to have a sense of joy and purpose. That’s what it means to nurture their spiritual life.

*    *    *

Ms. Sasso: I think that children, with or without religious instruction, have this deeper sense of something grander in the universe and have these deeper questions, whether or not they’re involved in a religious community. On the other hand, I do feel that being involved in a religious community and participating in some traditional rituals and ceremonies really helps provide a language for a child to give expression. Perhaps it might be helpful to maybe distinguish between spirituality and religions…

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Sasso: …since those are terms that we often use and don’t always know what we’re talking about. To me, spirituality is a sense of transcendence or a recognition that there is something greater than ourselves and a perception that all life is interconnected. An example of that would be, from the Bible, of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. But while he is up on the mountain, he has a spiritual experience, and we know that because, when he descends, his face glows. Something extraordinary happened up there. The container for that experience is the Ten Commandments, and so the Ten Commandments is a religion. It’s a way of giving expression to that extraordinary sense of divine presence or transcendence that Moses felt. So in many ways, religion in its very best form sort of anchors those spiritual experiences and gives them a language in which to speak.

*    *    *

Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Here’s a reading from her book God’s Paintbrush.

“My class went on a hike the other day. We climbed to the top of a mountain, and shouted, ‘Hello!’ I heard a voice call back, ‘Hello!’ It sounded just like my voice, only far away. My teacher said the sound I heard was an echo. It was fun to hear our own voices. We kept calling out and the sound from space kept calling back. I wonder what God’s voice sounds like? Is it deep and gruff? Is it soft and gentle? Is it loud or quiet? I think God keeps calling out, and maybe we are the sound that calls back. Maybe people are God’s echo. How are you God’s echo? What does God call us to do?

*    *    *

Ms. Sasso: Absolutely. You know, we don’t usually think of reading as a spiritual exercise.

Ms. Tippett: No.

Ms. Sasso: But I think it is, because in order to hear a story, you have to quiet yourself and you have to empathize with the characters in the story. And isn’t empathy part of the spiritual life? Isn’t quietude part of the spiritual life? And you also discover in the story that you don’t have control. You might like the characters to do one thing or another, you might wish they would make one decision or another, but you can’t control the situation. And part of the spiritual life is learning that we are not always in control. And also, if we are truly listening, then all the details matter. You know, it matters what the color of her hair is or what he’s wearing or what the time of day is. And paying attention to the details of life is part of the spiritual life.

Ms. Tippett: You are thoroughly grounded in Judaism, in Jewish faith, and you also write books which are endorsed by other kinds of religious people. You’ve been involved — I know I’ve recently seen a book and some studies of — which have brought together essays by people from many, many different traditions writing about the spirituality of children and parenting — Muslim and B’hai and Tibetan Buddhists and Judaism and many forms of Christianity. Are there impulses that these approaches share? And I’d also be curious to hear about differences and distinctives that have intrigued you and struck you.

Ms. Sasso: Well, I think there is a commonality. When we talk about spirituality, we talk about what we share. I think when we talk about religion, we talk about how we are different in expressing that spirituality. I mean, we have all the same deep questions. Everybody has the question of why life is unfair or why do we die or how do we matter, what’s our purpose, you know, is there something more in the world than we are? Every religious tradition raises that question and asks how do we live a purposeful life? So I think we all begin with the same questions and the same quest. And the way in which we answer those questions is sometimes different because our languages are different.

Ms. Tippett: Back at language, aren’t we?

Ms. Sasso: Yeah, we are. I mean, I really see religions as different languages to express our spirituality. And I think it’s important to recognize that some languages we speak with comfort and some we don’t. We find a home. I mean, it’s wonderful that there are so many different expressions of spirituality. It’s just that we need to find the home that fits for us.

Ms. Tippett: And that will sometimes be the home we’re born into, but not necessarily.

*    *    *

Because I regularly consider how Liliana is being raised, in absentia from church, these words keep coming back to me.  Liliana will always be able to ask questions.  We are constantly talking about the spirituality of life, using our very real, everyday types of activities and experiences.  Every once in a while, I feel a little discombobulated, not having any set bible for this sort of thing.

Not any one book or manual will do for me.  Even the one I’ve finished recently–Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer’s Parenting As A Spiritual Journey–is not an end-all (and I don’t think, if you’d ask her, the author, she’d want it to be).

I do like Fuchs-Kreimer’s thoughts in her prologue, on how difficult it is to match up your sort of faith or experience with someone else’s.  Here, she’s referring to the books that were already on the shelves before she wrote the one mentioned above: “There seemed to be two kinds of books.  The first kind was written by people who know just who God is and what He (as they invariably call God) wants of them.  For those people, it is a simple matter to instill their faith (a known entity) in their children.  In the supermarket I once found a book called Mommy Appleseed.  I was in awe.  I could envision planting my faith, like a seed, in my children, if only I knew what it was!  But I am still discovering my faith as I go along.  I suspect there are thousands out there, like me, with more questions than answers.”  [That last sentence fits me perfectly!]

She continues.  “The second type of book is by people whose spirituality is only tenuously related to any historical religious tradition.  In those books, I sensed a great yearning, which I share.  But ‘generic spirituality’ does no work for me; it makes me feel like I’ve sat down to a meal, chewed, and swallowed, but somehow I am still hungry.  Trying to create a spiritual path without the ‘stuff’ of any specific religious tradition is like, in Santayana’s words, trying to communicate without speaking any language in particular.  As a practitioner of an ‘Old Age’ tradition, I am grateful for the language I have inherited.  As a progressive, I believe we are making it up as we go along.  But we do not have to make it up out of whole cloth.

“This, then, is a book for parents who are on a quest and whose goal is not necessarily captured by the word God or Goddess or by New Age religious images.  Rather, it is a search for what Paul Tillich called the ‘meaning within meaninglessness…certitude within doubt…the God above God, the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name of God.’”

I like that–“the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name of God.”  I have so much to learn, and if there’s one thing I can give to Liliana, it will be a quest for truth.  I want truth–whatever that may mean, wherever it may lead.

She’ll have to make up her own mind eventually, and if I can give her the tools to sort it all out, then she’ll be fine in this wonderful life she’s been given.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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