Discovering God and Spirituality

Written by Anneli Rufus

God, spirituality, success in pushing our edges. Advice on our greatest, empowering venture.

One Friday night above the Arctic Circle, Rabbi Niles Goldstein decided to celebrate the Sabbath. He'd been dogsledding for a week in Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park, and by the light of the midnight sun "I took out two candles that I had packed back in New York and stuck them into the snow." 

Still panting after his narrow escape from the bear, Goldstein began to wonder "who, or what, possesses the deep imagination and bold power to create such a seemingly unearthly being?"  Fear of man eating beasts "is," he concluded, "merely a mask for our awe of God."

Where's Your Edge?
It's different for everyone. Flirt with edges; find your own. Here's how.
Forsake the Familiar: Be like Buddha. A prince who had everything, he left it all behind enroute to enlightenment.
Get Lost: Really. Take the wrong off ramp. March headlong without a map.
Face Your Phobias: Acrophobia? Empire State Building, here you come.
Tell the Truth: To thine own self; then to whoever else needs to hear it. Sounds easy. Isn't.
Just Do It: Got a dream? Got a lot to lose? Getting short on time to make it all come true? Go!
And whipping off those masks, whether we walk among bears or merely through a hospital, is a good thing. Because what too often alienates us from spirituality, what makes us say we don't believe in God, is an easy life in which we are buffered from those things that might scare us.

"We retreat" into drinking and darn well anything "to avoid thinking about death" and the other big stuff, Goldstein says.

In his book God at the Edge, the rabbi laces his own hair-raising adventures with stories of worldwide sages, saints and seers to reveal what he calls "a long history of people discovering God in unexpected, unusual, sometimes even uncomfortable contexts."

 He uses "edge" as a metaphor, he says.

 "You don't have to have the kind of extreme experiences I had" in order to reach your own edge. "You don't have to go to a particular geographical location. The `edge' is anyplace where the finite collides with the infinite, whether it's a life transition, the breakup of a relationship or whatever," Goldstein says. "If you sit honestly with it, life itself is the greatest adventure."

Comfort and cash are among the building blocks in our soft, sweet buttress of denial, says the rabbi.

In his book, he conjures St. John of the Cross, the Baal Shem Tov, Goya, and others who walked the line, including Kierkegaard, whom he admiringly calls "a straight shooter."

When Goldstein roamed Central Asia delivering care packages and sermons to secret Jewish communities, he slipped past border guards and, caught, faced interrogation in the back of beyond. That night, and the night he spent in jail after raising hell in a Manhattan pub, he couldn't run away. But we should avoid the temptation to run in any case, he urges.

"In the shadows is where you find God."

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In his book God at the Edge, Rabbi Niles Goldstein journeys into the dark places, frightened but confident that he will come out of it feeling better or at least wiser.

"I've still got a lot to learn," he admits. "I'm not railing against death as I used to,"  largely because his experiences have taught him that he has no choice. "I still want to live, of course, though not forever. I've gone from resignation to acceptance, but I want to move even farther beyond that: to celebrate the reality of my finitude. That's true spirituality."

Here are 4 people who lived on the edge and found God there:

  • St. John of the Cross: imprisoned by fellow monks in 1577, he spent months being tortured and starved while composing and memorizing great spiritual poetry.
  • Julian of Norwich: a medieval anchoress who lived isolated from the world, sealed alone in a cell; her account of godly visions was the first volume written by a woman in English.
  • Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: Born in 1772, this Ukrainian Hasidic master embarked on a lifelong pilgrimage, a voluntary state of exile as ameans of self-purification.
  • Soren Kierkegaard: the 19th-century Danish philosopher became a pariah for his attacks on mainstream Christianity and his belief that God is truly elusive and untouchable.

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