Small choices...

Like the rest of Montreal, today is an ultra-slow day for us: lots of sleep, modest walk in the park
with Lucie and soon a quiet exploration of a new part of the city. We have never spent any time in the Westmount neighborhood, once a distinct city for wealthy Anglophones, that was eventually incorporated into Montreal in 2002. Now the former summer cottages of the wealthy are full-time residences for 20,000 mostly English-speaking Quebecers. There is a stunning overlook to take in the whole city, a bird sanctuary within the neighborhood's boundaries as well as a number of upscale art gallaries.

We have five more Sundays in this grand place - and this reality is helping us make careful choices about how we spend the remainder of our time. This morning at breakfast I was reading an essay from The Jewish Forward about a child in a Jewish-Christian family who wants to become a Christian (after returning from Christian summer camp) but still wants to participate in his bar mitzvah ceremony. Three different commentators responded to this challenge in a "debate" format that has had me pondering the importance of our choices all day long. One writer, Harold Berman, observed that before this couple could help their son make a choice, they had to be clear about their own priorities as parents - especially when it comes to claiming a religious/ spiritual identity. "You will reap what you sow. But first you need to know just what you wish to sow" before that harvest can take place. His advice was clear: until you as parents make a choice, you cannot help your child.

The second commentator, Susan Katz Miller, counsels patience when it comes to helping a child of an inter-faith marriage make a choice: don't force or rush into anything. Her experience, as a child of an inter-faith marriage and now a parent in an inter-faith relationship is instructive: artificial deadlines enforced on interfaith children do not strengthen their searching for a spiritual identity.  She also advises the couple to not only be clear about their own tradition's teachings but those of their partners, too: this could be an excellent time for everyone to go deeper if no one feels pushed to choose before the time is right.

And third, Scott Perlo, offers this gem: "There is this blessing - not often noticed... (in the prayer service) that shows up right before the Shema and goes: 'Blessed are You, God, who chooses the people Israel with love.'"

I think most people would think of this as a prayer about the Jewish people, about the story we tell ourselves about our chosenness. But when I look at it, especially in the context (of this debate) what I see is a description of the power of making choices. To choose is Divine. (check it out

His wisdom  resonates with my own heart: the defining characteristic of contemporary spirituality is ambiguity. In a post-modern realm that is suspicious of all meta-narratives, no one feels empowered to claim truth when it comes to religious or moral matters. The upside of this is a tender openness to the hard questions of real life; the downside is the avoidance of making hard choices when the moment to stand and deliver arrives. When it comes to raising children and fostering spiritual integrity, fearing and avoiding hard choices can be as destructive as rigid fundamentalism. The paradox of religion is that spiritually informed choices accept that limits go with the blessings. When we embrace the constraints and limits of faith we nourish gravitas and wisdom for commitment is how depth is constructed. To choose is divine.

I have come of age in a North American culture that says it celebrates change and choice but
actually honors conformity. As a child of the United States I have been taught  that my life should always be happy, that my choices should lead to consuming and that my time should be spent pursuing pleasure. My world has been shaped by confusing consumer choice with moral formation. Most of the rest of the world does not grow up with such narrow and naive perspectives. They know, as one of my friends recently wrote, that life is hard - agonizingly harsh more often than not - so choices are critical. And we are called not only to choose how to respond to our own pain, but to learn a way of transforming our pain into discernment so that we don't deepen the pain of life for others.  Again it would seem that to choose is Divine.

Last week, as we headed downtown on a rainy evening, we got into a cab whose driver was a 29 year old Muslim man from Lebanon. Once we stumbled through our French to discover that we could both speak English, we had a lively, respectful and informed conversation about enlightened and authentic religious education. He noted that far too many Westerners know nothing about their own ethical heritage and even less about Islam. Over the course of 25 minutes he referenced St. Paul as well as the Qu'ran and Torah in a wise and insightful way. Here was a contemporary soul making clear, moral choices to accept the limits of religion as the way to greater wisdom and compassion. 

Tonight, as we walked Lucie to the park for her evening rituals, an old French woman - with a stunning garden - waved me down and wanted to share something with us. We have seen her almost every day over the past three months sitting on her fron porch next to a small icon of the Theotokos. Because Lucie is so often so nervous getting to the park, we haven't made an effort to do anything more that greet her as we hurry by. This evening, after we exchanged Quebecois salutations, she called out, "Madame... s'il vou plait?" I took the leash and Dianne stepped forward as this old soul handed us one of her home grown 14" cucumbers. "Bonne soiree" she smiled and waved as we walked home touched by her humble generosity.

Small things - ordinary choices - simple ways of translating the ethical truths of our respective religions into little acts of kindness that matter, yes? Over and over this summer, I have experienced little blessings like these  just when I needed them the most. They are, for me, part of the confirmation I have been wrestling with over the past two years as I seek to nourish a spirituality of tenderness. One of my working guidelines is Psalm 131.

O Lord, my heart is not proud;

My eyes are not raised in haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
with things that are too high for me.
But I have quieted and stilled my soul,
like a weaned child on its mother's breast;
so my soul is quited within me.
O Israel, trust in the Lord,
from this time forth for evermore.

(credit photos:  Dianne De Mott)


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