Hungry for Manna from Heaven

By Alec P. Kahn and Maya M. F. Wilson, Crimson Staff Writers
By Samanta A. Mendoza-Lagunas

1

MMFW: After my first day at Morning Prayers, I felt like I had a secret. Leaving Memorial Church, I was quickly folded into the stream of people crisscrossing the Yard. Sunlight shone across the banks of snow, and I thought of how, moments before, I was watching it spread across the smooth round pillars in the chapel. The sun illuminated these textures so similar and so different as phrases from that morning’s sermon settled on my spirit:

Your Father knows what you need before you ask it. Prayer is not about providing information. Prayer is not about getting what you want. Prayer is a posture, placing ourselves in the order of creation. The subtext of every prayer to God is to say, “I am not God.” We are all vulnerable and finite creatures in need of the grace of God.

I hadn’t been expecting to buy into it so easily. But I was struck by how tightly the words stuck, and I held the sermon like a gleeful confidence on my walk to class. I couldn’t wait to go back the next day, and I asked all my friends to come with me.

Maya and her brother on Easter in 2008.
Maya and her brother on Easter in 2008. By Courtesy of Maya Wilson

I’d wanted to see what I could gain from returning to more structured, traditional spiritual practices. Morning Prayers at Memorial Church have run every weekday since the College’s founding. It’s an interdenominational Protestant church, and the services run 15 minutes, from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. They sing, they preach, they sing, and then you’re free to go.

When I told my mom I had started going to church, she was shocked. I am the product of an interfaith marriage. My mother is a non-practicing Catholic; I’m sure she wishes I went to Mass with her more. My dad is a Jew, and my parents ultimately chose to raise my brother and me as Jewish — but only after breaking up numerous times before their engagement over the issue. We always have a Christmas tree, but just as reliably, someone always cries on Christmas.

My mom’s first question about Morning Prayers: “As in, they believe in Jesus?” Her second question: “Did you tell your father?”

2

MMFW & APK: It’s a fair question to wonder why a Jew would go searching for spiritual connection in a church instead of a synagogue. But the catalyst behind Maya’s choice to attend Morning Prayers was not of divine origin: we had been paired together for this assignment, to write a piece about the state of spiritual life at Harvard.

The two of us are not spiritual experts by any means. We were both raised Jewish — gone to Hebrew School, celebrated our b’nai mitzvot, ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah and fasted on Yom Kippur. That being said, we had both increasingly lost touch with Judaism as we grew older: Alec drifted more toward secularity, while Maya found comfort in spiritual practices and experiences outside of institutionalized religion. But both of us wanted to do on-the-ground reporting in a variety of spiritual places and practices on campus. Religious practice can feel very “either/or,” so this seemed like a moment for the “both/and” approach. Our approach found us trudging through the snow, flurries falling on our heads and framing our faces, as we walked to Chabad for Sunday brunch.

Sitting down with our whitefish spread, Chabad felt like an apt place to look before venturing into unfamiliar terrain. We had come here to eat bagels with Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi.

Rabbi Hirschy told us that he founded Harvard Chabad 24 years ago out of a passion for helping students reconnect with their Jewish identity. Maya, laughing, said she always felt reconnected to her identity as a Jew talking to any Jewish man who remotely resembles her father. Rabbi Hirschy has a booming laugh and a remarkable ability to remember students’ names. When he first came to Cambridge to see about founding a Chabad chapter, he set up a table in the midst of the craziness of Harvard Square offering Shabbat candles and prayers.

He described the array of people who would approach him: “Catholic woman comes over and says, ‘This is wonderful, you’re bringing God’s message to the square.’ A Jew comes over all embarrassed and says, ‘Oh, you shouldn't be doing this. You’re breeding antisemitism.’” And then, most importantly: “There’s the searching Harvard student who comes innocently asking questions.”

In the decades since, the number of these “searchers” has only increased. Currently, about three in 10 U.S. adults are religious “nones,” doubling the fraction from 15 years ago. These “nones” include atheists, who make up four percent of U.S. adults, agnostics, who make up another four percent, and those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” at 20 percent. While all these groups have grown in recent years, it’s this final category, the “nothing in particulars,” that has led the charge.

The two of us saw ourselves in this last group. We both floated somewhere between the poles of committed faith and complete atheism, reluctant to adopt a label in either direction. We wanted answers about where to find spiritual orientation for ourselves and for others like us — those who aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for, or if they’re even looking.

“There’s thousands wandering. They want to connect,” Rabbi Hirschy told us.

On behalf of our fellow wanderers, we took this project on as a personal challenge as much as a journalistic one, setting out to immerse ourselves in a variety of religious and spiritual experiences at Harvard in the hopes that some of them would stick. We searched in all of the traditional locales — churches, temples, meditation rooms, and bagel brunches — but also in unexpected places, like sports teams, dinner tables, and a few parties. We spoke with 20-year-olds and an 87-year old, the chaplains of the Quaker Friends Society, the Baha’i Society, and a Catholic astronomer. As two largely non-practicing Jews, we set out to explore these valences of belief and nonbelief on campus, and to see what we might be missing.

3

APK: At 9 p.m. on a brisk Wednesday night, I found myself on the Harvard football field, searching for God in the beaming stadium lights.

This was the first ultimate frisbee practice of the semester, and a small crowd of players had gathered. The group looked experienced — some wore the group t-shirts from the previous year; most wore cleats. I was wearing stiff jeans and worn black Vans, looking like the specter of a skater boy from the 2000s. And Vans, I would learn the hard way, were not made for running.

We hopped the chain-link fence onto the field and split into groups to begin tossing frisbees. It quickly became clear to me that I was one of the weakest players in the group. When I tossed the disc, it veered to the right, or to the left, or overhead, or skidded sharply to the ground. Every time it slipped through my hands, I averted my eyes and felt my cheeks burn.

During one of the water breaks, some of the newcomers were making conversation. One freshman asked me what dorm I was in, sparking vivid memories of orientation week and the clamor for new connections. When I told him that I was an upperclassman, he tried to hide his surprise. Why would anyone join a new sports team three years into Harvard?

By this point in college, I had raced through extracurricular activities, stacked my CV, and found my friends. But there was something missing, an absence I couldn’t name. So in the opening week of junior year, I wandered into the club fair among hordes of freshmen, shuffled through the parallel rows of folding tables, and walked away with my name on over 15 email lists — for rock climbing, swimming, bodybuilding, and men’s ultimate frisbee.

Halfway into my first practice, though, my flat shoes failed me. I went tumbling headfirst into the turf. With a mouthful of black rubber pellets, I limped over to the edge of the field and squatted against a wall, catching my breath. What am I doing here? I looked up at the broad stadium arches, at the rows of cement benches stacked above the field like pews. For a moment, the stadium reminded me a little bit of my old Jewish temple.

I hadn’t been to temple since my bar mitzvah, which was nearly a decade ago. When I was younger, I would stare at the glowing red torch that hung above the bimah, the platform where the holy books are read. While the congregation sang psalms in unison, I used to wonder if that was God in there, flickering, blinking.

Now, on the football field, I stared up at the beaming overhead lights, the tall spires that pierced the dark sky. That old, familiar feeling surged in me. But this time, listening for the echoes of hymns, I could only hear the shouts of players and the deafening wind of autumn night.

4

MMFW: The only person who took me up on the offer to join me at Morning Prayers was one of my closest friends here, Katie. Katie might be the most spiritually proactive person I know: she spent her January monastery-hopping on various meditation retreats, and she’s planning on spending spring break doing a completely silent meditation.

Morning Prayers was far from a perfect ritual for me. The morning Katie came with me, we got breakfast beforehand. As we were sitting in Adams with our bowls of oatmeal, she asked, “It starts at 8:45, right?” I shook my head: “8:30.” She got up immediately. “Oh, dude, we need to go right now.”

On days I went alone, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be four minutes late to a 15-minute service. Some days I did not make it out of bed at all. But the doors were open anyway, and Katie and I easily slipped into one of the pews in the back.

Memorial Church, the non-denominational Protestant church in the center of Harvard Yard.
Memorial Church, the non-denominational Protestant church in the center of Harvard Yard. By Joey Huang

There are a lot of things that make me feel like a mess. My perpetual lateness is one of them. Katie’s somehow managing to make it to yoga class every day is another. I hoped that establishing a spiritual practice would help resolve some of this mess, iron out the anxieties and habits that keep me from feeling particularly exalted. But at times, I couldn’t tell if this spiritual regimen was providing comfort or just revealing more to worry about.

Nevertheless, I continued the search for spiritual fulfillment. I reached out to Donna Hakimian, the former chaplain for the Harvard Baha’i Association. She talks a mile a minute, and her brightness is palpable even over Zoom. Through our conversation, I learned about the Baha’i Faith, a relatively young Persian religion. Donna described her belief that virtues — compassion, unity, truth — are developed in the womb of this life for birth into the next.

“The older I get, the more it is truly drawing closer to love and closer to compassion, and getting further from that which just feels like a mirage or an illusion,” Donna said.

She named it without prompting: the illusion, the delusion. That ever-shifting mirage. I struggle to trust myself all the time. It’s deeply intertwined with my anxiety and perception of self. I second-guess my decisions, how I spend my time, and what I want to be doing on a moment-to-moment basis. Do I really want to spend the next three years of college studying gender? What the hell am I supposed to do with my summer? Was I awkward at lunch earlier today?

There’s an element of narcissism in worrying like this. I know, at the end of the day, the little worries generally slip away and the path reveals itself in time. But I feel like life is teaching me the same lessons over and over again. And the person I want to be, the life I want to live, seems far away from where I stand. How can I begin to bridge the gaps between expectation and reality? Is spiritual practice the route? Is therapy? The ego continues to interfere, and the emotional self doesn’t quite respond to logic the way we’d like it to. It’s hard to trust the path.

Thankfully, Donna had some wisdom to share with respect to the ego. “The ego operates from scarcity, and fear, the energy of extreme self-doubt,” she said. “I know for me, it's almost paralyzing. What do people think of me? I’m not good enough.” The types of thoughts she described were exactly the ones I’m talking about, but they can feel a lot more subtle when I encounter them between and during my own interactions.

Donna assured me that perfectionism isn’t the goal. “We just have to learn to manage [the ego] rather than eliminate it entirely. What I love too, [is for Baha’i] there’s no idea of original sin or hellfire and damnation or any of that,” she continued. “It’s all about trying with our full effort to transcend, and loving those broken parts of ourselves too.”

The broken parts of myself. I hadn’t realized that this process was going to so directly involve exploring insecurity. What are the broken parts of myself? Oh jeez.

When I finally sat down with Katie at the back of the chapel, taking my now familiar place among the congregation, my anxieties about our tardiness and the bouncing thoughts of “ego, ego, ego” settled down for a moment. We rose together when they told us to and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Katie’s mouth moving around the words in sync with my own. We’d prayed together before, but not like this. It was strange and lovely to suspend this collective but previously unrecognized ritual between us, in the morning, with all the other voices sounding around us.

5

APK: Months after eating turf on the frisbee field, during a conversation with Reverend Adam Lawrence Dyer, I realized that this idea — that there was something spiritual to be found in non-religious spaces, even football fields — was not so far-fetched.

“If I had a personal mission I could offer, it would be to help Harvard redefine, or re-understand, what faith community can be,” said Dyer, who is the Unitarian Universalist chaplain at Harvard. “It’s not just your grandfather’s church, or your grandmother’s synagogue, or your cousin’s temple.”

Nobody was surprised when I decided to stop going to temple. My parents aren’t super religious to begin with, and my synagogue categorizes itself under “Reform Judaism.” In my temple, most families eat leavened bread during Passover, while the families at other synagogues eat flat sheets of matzah. I’ve seen many of my Jewish friends undergo a similar journey with their faith. After their bar and bat mitzvahs, they “graduate” out of Judaism — stop attending temple, stop reading the Torah, even stop celebrating some of the major holidays. Hanukkah stays, Purim goes.

For Reverend Dyer, this kind of religious rupture in young adulthood is not uncommon. “My experience with students on campus is often in that place of searching, and disconnection from home religions, or birth religions,” he said. Reverend Dyer told me that one major source of this disconnection is sexuality, and he strives to help struggling students reconcile their faith with their queerness.

Alec, precisely eight days out of the womb, getting circumcised by the rabbi at his bris.
Alec, precisely eight days out of the womb, getting circumcised by the rabbi at his bris. By Courtesy of Alec Kahn

As we were speaking, a memory from temple I had long since buried rose to the surface. At the end of each service, the rabbi would ask us to spend a few minutes praying silently. When you’re ten years old and told to pray to God, you can only interpret that as praying for something. Most of my friends prayed for new toy cars, or to win their swim meets. But every day, I sat in the pews, pressed my palms together, and plainly asked God to make me not gay. Then I would open my eyes, stand up, and willfully forget about my prayers.

I guess I was feeling especially vulnerable that day, because I shared this story with Reverend Dyer. “So you understand what it's like to have to position your life, I don’t wanna say in opposition to, but in the context of your faith,” he said. “It’s not always easy.”

I won’t pretend that my sexuality was the sole reason I stopped going to temple. But this prayer, repeated week after week, might help explain why I began to associate religious life with disingenuity, with the feeling of unbelonging. And when I walked out of my bar mitzvah, tallit wrapped around my neck and kippah on my head, I shut the heavy wooden doors behind me.

6

MMFW: Like many people, I lost someone during the pandemic. Last spring, my father’s father, the Jewish patriarch of our family, passed away. My family has not yet had the opportunity to gather together and mourn his loss.

I have had a very hard time processing my grandfather’s passing. My grandpa always had a stack of light blue index cards in one of his pockets, which he’d use to play hangman with my brother and me at family dinners. I’d only see my grandparents once or twice a year, but he was remarkably easy to talk to and always eager to listen. Especially since I started working on this piece, there have been so many questions I’ve wanted to ask him.

Maya and her grandfather.
Maya and her grandfather. By Courtesy of Maya Wilson

My grandfather was a very religious person. He was raised an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, where he went to Ramaz High School before coming to Harvard. Throughout the rest of his life — his marriage, his career, raising four kids — his steadfast commitment to his Judaism did not waiver. A year before his death, he was 86. No one could persuade him not to observe the fast for Yom Kippur.

My grandpa was also in Adams when he went here. Sometimes when I walk around the Yard, I try to imagine how the trees might’ve looked then, in 1955. I think of how he was here, in this same place, at the same moment in his life, and I’m certain that he was encountering some similar questions. This email he sent to all of us kids and grandkids in January 2021 seems to confirm:

Good Morning !בקר טוב

The sun has risen - ‘Let there be Light’ !

Say, ‘Good Morning !’ with a smile to your housemates, to anyone you meet

later in the morning.

Have breakfast, maybe more slowly than you should, given the full schedule

of the day ahead.

Try to smile, even if the newspaper or the TV tries to make you angry or scared or dumbfounded - or all of those.

In the words of my freshman roommate in Strauss Hall, Ratus Lee Charles Michael Kelly, Jr., AB’55, Harvard College, greeting a grumpy Larry Fishman,

struggling to extricate himself from the bedsheets:

‘Arise to the work of the Lord !’

DON’T join in the inevitable answer of his roommate:

‘Let the Lord do His own work, Ratus...’

Love - Dad/GrandPa (+beautiful sleeping Mom/GrandMa)

Grief is bewildering to me. I find it unimaginably frustrating that there is no blueprint, very little contemporary understanding of how to deal with grief, how to talk about it. Part of me hoped that through this exploration, I might find some solace — or, at the very least, give myself more space to process his passing.

7

APK: After my dramatic departure from Judaism, I followed the pendulum swing to the extreme, entering my “edgy atheist” phase. Fueled by acute teenage angst, I read books and watched videos with titles like “God’s God” and “The Thing God Doesn’t Know” about the oh-so-obvious nonexistence of the divine. Along with third-wave emo music and that one time I used permanent marker as eyeliner, atheism was my own little “fuck you” to the world.

The groundbreaking argument my smug teenage brain conjured up was this: the Big Bang proves that God doesn’t exist, and if God doesn’t exist, then all religions and spiritual practices are, to quote my articulate adolescent phrasing, “dumb.”

My teenage self would have been shocked to meet Karin Öberg, a Catholic astronomy professor at Harvard. She came into her faith somewhat later in life, as a senior in college. As we spoke, I spotted a small, silver cross around her neck. She told me that her faith was founded on a rational and intellectual certainty of the divine.

Remembering my own “rational” adolescent convictions, I asked Öberg about her thoughts on the Big Bang theory, which I’d previously understood to be the rational nail in the coffin for all religious belief. “The Big Bang is a well under-pinned scientific theory of the first moments of the universe, of this extremely dense, hot state and how it starts to expand,” she said. “It doesn't explain where this extremely hot and dense state comes from. I mean, that’s just not part of the Big Bang theory.”

The rest of my conversation with Professor Öberg nailed down this central point — that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Science couldn’t prove or disprove the existence of the divine, nor could it invalidate the worth of spiritual experiences, rituals, and community. This is something I finally discovered as I aged out of angst, rubbing the eyeliner from my eyes, and it toppled the pillars of my atheism.

The problem was, after the structure and support of Jewish faith, I depended on atheism as a stable platform of belief. I had become a committed believer in negation — in not God, not faith, not religion. After I gave up atheism, I was completely unmoored, a believer in nothing at all.

8

MMFW: Generally, when I asked Katie and the other people I spoke with how they defined “spirituality,” they would say something along the lines of drawing closer to love, healing through connection, or acknowledging something beyond ourselves. For the most part, this tracked.

But I couldn’t quite make sense of the promise of healing and strength that seemed so central to religious belief. The truth of the matter is that sometimes people are hurt so badly they can’t heal. People often learn to live with trauma — they don’t heal from it.

I kept coming back to Donna’s words: “The older I get, the more it is truly drawing closer to love and closer to compassion, and getting further from that which just feels like a mirage or an illusion.”

But what if that love and compassion — that potential for healing — is an illusion itself, a willful blindness to the very real ways in which people suffer and cannot heal? What if you’re not moving closer to the truth, you’re telling yourself another lie to help rationalize your suffering. I felt myself growing weary of what I saw as a sort of spiritual “toxic positivity.” It’s easy and tempting to let myself be held in community. It’s easy to go to Morning Prayers with Katie and enjoy the placid safety of Memorial Church.

This occurred to me as Donna was talking about her graduate work, which included a study of Iranian women who had been incarcerated for their Baha’i practice and belief. But rather than focus on what these women endured, she was adamant about the potential for healing through prayer, community, and ultimately, love.

Enter the skeptic: “So you believe healing is always possible?” I asked her.

“I shouldn’t make it such a blanket statement,” Donna replied. She observed that these women’s commitment to the Baha’i Faith afforded them particular strength in the face of persecution. “There were ways in which the healing was tied up to their spiritual practice,” she said. “It was the reason they were in prison, but it was also their source of healing.”

It’s hard for me to reconcile religion’s potential for healing with the reality that it can so often be the direct cause of suffering. Maybe this is because I cannot imagine having a conviction strong enough that I’d rather be in prison than recant my beliefs.

Unsatisfied, I wanted to collect as many perspectives on this as I could. And unraveling this apparent “paradox of suffering” made me wonder how my grandpa made sense of it all. And since I couldn’t speak to him (at least not directly), I had my dad put me in touch with one of his college roommates.

Dr. Bennet Simon ’55 is a retired psychiatrist who lives with his wife in Jamaica Plain. Like my grandfather, he grew up in Brooklyn as an observant Jew — by late adolescence, he was even more religious than his family. At Harvard, he and my grandfather spoke about their shifting spiritual orientations and the compromises they made — taking classes on Saturdays, being more lenient about kashrut. They took Jewish Studies classes together at the Hebrew College in Dorchester and bonded through teaching at a Jewish Sunday school in Somerville.

But Dr. Simon told me that his sense of spirituality actually changed more later in life, watching his own kids raise kids, than it did when he and my grandfather were young. “I think I become, in some very loose sense of the word, more spiritual. I think the biggest change for me with age was a growing awareness of things bigger than myself,” he explained. “I used to know more than I know now.”

This humility helps Dr. Simon make sense of suffering, or at least cope with it. “To be human is to endure suffering and endure the unfairness of it. ‘Why?’ I have generally not found that such a useful question. I think a more useful question is how to help other people with their suffering and how to help other people help you with your suffering.”

I wanted to find a clearer connection between the cause of suffering and its remedy. But again and again, I was told that the cause was simply “we don’t know,” and the remedy was “try your best.” Intellectually, this was not comforting.

But that doesn’t mean the conversations themselves were unsatisfying. Though I was still struggling to rationalize the contradictions I was encountering, I was routinely floored by the vulnerability of the people I spoke with. On our first meeting, these individuals were ready to jump right into the heart of my uncertainty and share their own experiences attempting to reconcile these questions. If the answers were frustrating, or even if there weren’t any answers at all, they wanted to talk seriously with me about it. Their openness was incredibly nourishing.

I loved hearing Dr. Simon elaborate on his conception of spirituality: “It’s an extra dimension of myself. It’s myself but it also connects with other people, alive and dead, present and absent. I love very old things. I love ancient things.”

On the topic of ancient things and ancient practices, prayer quickly entered the conversation. Dr. Simon described it as familial and familiar. “My grandmother did pray a lot. My mother prayed a lot, privately. Tearfully welcoming the Shabbat,” he recounted. “She prayed to her father who had died, later her grandparents, and when her mother died she prayed in Yiddish. ‘They should be good intercessaries in prayer’: they are close to God so they can transmit the prayers. This was a very powerful belief. I don’t have faith in God, but I have faith in my mother’s ability to talk to God.”

But as with his expanding notion of spirituality, Dr. Simon finds connection in a variety of ancient things. After our conversation, I could accept that when the questions are too confounding, it’s okay to seek alternative means of solace rather than definite answers.

Dr. Bennet told me how his wife is very active in the arboretum, where the two enjoy strolling amongst the ancient plants. “We were walking today in the arboretum. There is a very ancient flower, the magnolias,” he told me. “I feel very grateful to be in touch with magnolias.”

9

APK: Adrift from Judaism and now atheism, I went looking for spiritual anchors. On one Wednesday evening, the soft breeze guided me down the ramp of Grays Hall, into a Harvard Meditation Club meeting.

Earlier that week, I had spoken to the club’s faculty advisor, Social Studies Lecturer Bo-Mi T. Choi. Like Reverend Dyer, Choi believed that spiritual experiences could be found in unexpected places, including sports teams and even dance parties. The key point, she stressed, is that you need to find “some sort of fellowship, and one that’s not based on achievement.”

The word “fellowship” struck a chord, and it explained why meditation hadn’t worked when I tried it the first time. About two years ago, my therapist told me to meditate once a day to help pull me out of a rough depressive episode. I would sit down on my bed in the early morning, plug in my headphones, and listen to one of those guided meditation apps. It worked for about six months. But there was something clinical about this kind of meditation, something isolating. It was a spiritual practice completely devoid of fellowship.

This time around, though, I entered the meditation room and sat down in the small circle of colorful pillows. The group started with five, and every time someone new entered, I wrongly assumed that they would be the last. Soon the room was filled with 15 eager meditators, smiling and chatting, sitting criss-crossed on the floor.

The Serenity Room in the basement of Grays Hall, where the Harvard Meditation Club hosts meditation sessions once a week.
The Serenity Room in the basement of Grays Hall, where the Harvard Meditation Club hosts meditation sessions once a week. By Joey Huang

Our leader guided us through a metta prayer in which we closed our eyes and imagined our loved ones standing at our sides. In the beginning, I felt scared to breathe, to make any noise at all. But soon I realized that the awkward noises — coughs, adjustments, rumbling stomachs — were not interruptions but actually an essential part of the communal experience.

In my favorite moment, we were asked to turn our attention to everyone else in the room. I noticed the layers of soft breathing and the warmth of bodies around me. And somehow, I felt held by this small group, these people who barely knew my name.

This kind of communal practice seems to run against the rapid current of everyday life on campus. “What I see at Harvard is the pursuit of so-called excellence, but how it manifests is people hurrying from one thing to another, always in a rush, always looking for the next big thing, just to fill up that void that’s inside of them,” said Choi. “And if you really ask yourself what motivates that sort of approach, if you look deeply, it’s fear. And then you have to ask yourself, as a human being, do you want to live a life of fear?”

On that night we were a group of strangers, holding space for each other as we took refuge from the grinding hustle of college life. Grays Basement was our bunker, filled with rainbow pillows and warm air. The beginning of my new Wednesday night ritual.

10

MMFW: One of the reasons I started going to Morning Prayers was because I overheard some people talking about it next to me in class, and naturally had to ask for details. That’s how I met Roddy Emley ’24. Then I started running into him everywhere: church, a queer movie screening, the Serenity Room in Grays basement.

Over bourekas at Tatte, looking at the people huddled around tables and mugs, Roddy said to me, “Being in Tatte is kind of like being in church.”

“But the incentives are a little different,” I countered, laughing.

“I feel like Durkheim,” he said. “The totem of coffee.”

Roddy describes his family as Catholic but largely agnostic: “We didn’t go to church, we didn’t talk about God, we didn’t pray.” His sense of spirituality really came into consciousness in the past two years.

From where I sit across the table, it seems like Roddy’s relationship with spirituality works because it’s voluntary, it’s active, and he’s able to tailor his practice to his needs. “Oh, I change prayers all the time,” he told me. “I don’t like evil, I say deliver us from loneliness. I say ‘give us our daily grace’ and not ‘give us our daily bread.’ It’s not about just saying a prayer, it’s about saying, ‘what does this prayer mean to me?’”

Roddy was patient with me as I explained the spiritual contradictions I had been struggling with. His response to the question of suffering was the most concise and articulate I have received. “I don’t know why people suffer. I think a lot of shit just happens. I don’t think we should ascribe suffering to a reason that is divine,” he explained. “That can be dangerous. We are not deserving of our suffering. A lot of suffering is caused by humans, and therefore it's a human problem. Not a divine one.”

The clock tower at St. Paul's Catholic Church forms a stark silhouette against the winter sky.
The clock tower at St. Paul's Catholic Church forms a stark silhouette against the winter sky. By Joey Huang

Even as my idea of spirituality evolves with my life, it doesn’t have to explain all parts of life, and I probably shouldn’t view everything through that lens. Hearing Roddy explain his philosophy clarified exactly what I want my relationship with spiritual practice to look like: taking what serves me, and leaving the rest.

One thing that I came to really appreciate about Morning Prayers was the safety I felt there. It was comforting to be in the presence of other people who were also choosing to start their day at services. But I also enjoyed that I didn’t have to speak to a soul if I didn’t want to: I could slip in, sit in the back, and leave without saying a word. No potential for conflict, no stakes. It was a much different level of intensity than what I experience in most of my other relationships, and quite a refreshing one. I still came to recognize a lot of the people who sat before me, and I found comfort in the dependability of some collective presence there. People would always be at Morning Prayers.

11

APK: Ironically, for two wandering Jews who were hoping to feel connected to each other through spiritual practice, we spent a lot of time on our own. While Maya was in church, I was meditating. While I was coming out to strangers on the phone, she was talking to 87-year-olds about magnolias.

That being said, our conversations often mirrored each other. We seemed to be attempting to answer the same questions — about suffering, loneliness, ritual, and meaning. Professor Choi and I had been talking about the pandemic, and the loss of communal meals. “Being with people I care about, and feeding them — I’m so fed by that, and nourished by that,” Choi said.

Then, after a small pause, she continued, “It’s a certain kind of nourishment, I suppose. Spirituality is, ultimately, a form of nonmaterial nourishment that we all need to feel human.”

It turned out that Maya had quite a similar conversation with Rabbi Hirschy. “And we spoke before about the wandering Jews, right?” said Hirschy. “What I was referring to is, essentially, some Jewish souls wandering because they’re hungry. And what are they hungry for? Manna from Heaven! They're hungry for spiritual nourishment.”

12

MMFW: After having all these conversations, Alec and I sat down over a meal to assemble our thoughts. Wrapped in my favorite scarf, I trekked out to his house through a blizzard, and Alec folded me into the warmth of his home.

We’d planned to cook our dinner that night, and my offering was three zucchinis that had been sitting in my vegetable drawer for a week. I realize now that we missed a golden opportunity to pray before we ate, though we did share a spliff on the deck (Alec’s interjection: “don’t we consider smoking a kind of communal ritual?”).

There’s no doubt that the act of preparing and sharing a meal with someone is often of spiritual resonance. After we cleared our plates, Alec and I crawled into his bed and sat there, typing and typing, our faces illuminated by our screens until two in the morning. Our bellies were full, but the moment I felt the most nourished, the most held, was when he looked over at me and said, “You know you’re welcome to spend the night, right?”

Four weeks ago, Alec and I were complete strangers. Last night, a day after turning in our first draft of this piece, I squealed and ran across a crowded room at a party to wrap him in a massive hug. As “Your Love is My Drug,” by iconic priestess of pop, Ke$ha, came on the speakers, I grabbed his hand and twirled. Gratitude fell across me as we screamed the words to this unexpected gospel — dancing, buzzing, with our hands clasped together.

— Magazine writer Alec P. Kahn can be reached at alec.kahn@thecrimson.com.

— Magazine writer Maya M. F. Wilson can be reached at maya.wilson@thecrimson.com.

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ScrutinyFront Middle Feature