My friend Ashley and I have dubbed ourselves interfaith twins. We are both spiritual directors in our late 30s. We are similar in our personalities, sense of humor, love of study, and attraction to religion’s mystical dimension. But she is a married mother of three while I am vowed celibate. She is a Jewish educator who studied at rabbinical school while I am a Dominican Sister who studied at a Jesuit theology and ministry school. We often comment that our lives seem to run in strange, wonderful parallels to one another.
Ashley’s conversation about her synagogue community is unconsciously sprinkled with Hebrew words, and I interrupt to ask her to translate. My conversation about parish ministry with Latin American immigrant families is unconsciously sprinkled with Spanish words, and she interrupts to ask me to translate. She attended the Eucharistic liturgy in the motherhouse chapel for my first profession of vows, and I have attended Shabbat and Yom Kippur services with her congregation.
Our five-year friendship has become, quite naturally, an informal interfaith dialogue. Once several years ago, Ashley gave me a tour of the synagogue offices and introduced me to her colleagues. When we stepped out of her office, I noticed her hand move, seemingly automatically, to gently touch something on the doorpost. I have watched Ashley’s hand similarly touch with tenderness her infant daughter’s face. I found myself unexpectedly moved by this simple ritual as we were on our way to lunch.
When I asked, Ashley explained that the object she touched is called a mezuzah. Later, I looked it up on myjewishlearning.com and read, “a mezuzah serves two functions: Every time you enter or leave, the mezuzah reminds you that you have a covenant with God; second, the mezuzah serves as a symbol to everyone else that this particular dwelling is constituted as a Jewish household.”
The website went on to explain that the practice is an application of Deuteronomy 6:9: “and you shall inscribe these words on your doorposts.” Inside the mezuzah (technically a mezuzah case) is the mezuzah scroll, on which are inscribed two passages from Deuteronomy, which have at their heart the Shema, the Scripture passage chanted in every Shabbat service, and also the one that I chose for the liturgy of my first profession of vows as a Dominican Sister. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. I spent a lot of time with this proclamation of faith as a novice discerning vows.
After seeing Ashley’s mezuzah, I felt admiration for, and maybe even a longing for this practice, which connects Ashley to God in a daily, tangible way. When visiting Antonio, another Jewish friend, last year, my eye was caught by the mezuzah on the doorpost of his apartment. I felt a similar twinge of appreciation and slight envy at the simple, silent reminder of his faith identity.
At a transitional moment in the day, perhaps rushing out the door with a mug of coffee, returning again with a load of groceries, coming home weary from days of travel, the mezuzah is a physical mark of faith. Perhaps it is at the hinges of our day – when we leave home, when we return – that we most need to be drawn back to the One to whom we belong as people of faith. The mezuzah serves that purpose simply and elegantly – for Ashley, for Antonio, and countless other Jews.
Maybe my response to this Jewish practice is what Barbara Brown Taylor means when she speaks of “holy envy,” the title of her most recent book. This business of engaging deeply with traditions not our own is a tricky one, not without significant pitfalls. Taylor cautions against “spiritual shoplifting,” another way of describing my wariness of insensitive appropriation from another tradition. My wariness as a Catholic in dialogue with Judaism is especially acute given the long shadow of anti-Semitism in Christian history. Though amends have been made since the publication of Nostra Aetate, Catholics must still reckon with how Christian scripture has been used to marginalize – even demonize – our Jewish brothers and sisters.
There is room for learning from, being touched by – and catching glimpses of God – in a faith not our own.
Despite this wariness, Taylor’s argument resonates with my own experience: there is room for learning from, being touched by – and catching glimpses of God – in a faith not our own. Taylor writes that such an approach “is especially meaningful to people who hang on to our singular Christian identity with one hand and our love of many neighbors with the other.” Certainly, my friendship with my “interfaith twin” Ashley has led to many such moments, and offered a lens through which to see my Catholic tradition in a new way.
Through my holy envy of the mezuzah, my eyes were opened to look around my own threshold and find a sacred surprise. I live in a large, old, brick convent on Chicago’s north side. Beside the front door is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a niche. One day last fall when I arrived home after teaching, I noticed a purple beeswax candle leaned up against the statue. Various candles, flowers, holy cards, and more have appeared in that spot. I’m told by the Sisters that a few Decembers back, someone placed a scarf around Mary’s neck. There’s a man who bows his head and says a prayer each day before the statue while he’s out walking his dog. This Madonna is a reminder of the transcendent, right there beside the fire hydrant with peeling paint, before someone’s parallel-parked Honda leaking oil onto the asphalt.
These acts of devotion erase the line between sacred and profane in our urban, working-class neighborhood. These offerings occur amid cars bumping over potholes, the wail of ambulance sirens, the shouts of children in the schoolyard, the purposeful movement of early morning lycra-clad joggers. These offerings feel like the opposite of tossing a cigarette butt or candy bar wrapper on the sidewalk. They are acts of care, not carelessness. Acts of intention, not thoughtlessness. Our convent threshold is consecrated by these acts of faith.
Through witnessing the devotion shown by anonymous passers-by combined with the example of Ashley and her mezuzah, the Madonna has come to function as a spiritual touchpoint, a reminder of God’s presence. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that before I spotted that first purple candle, I hadn’t really noticed the statue, and of course, simple attention is the beginning of any spiritual practice, whatever our faith tradition.
Now, I return home and stand by the door, digging in my purse for the house key, balancing my lunch box and my briefcase packed with yet-to-be-graded student writing. Now, remembering the tenderness of Ashley’s touch of the mezuzah, I stop, breathe, and place my hand on Mary’s hands before stepping inside.