The ProsenPeople

A Sacred Space

Thursday, October 08, 2015| Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Golding wrote about the fears and splendor of returning to Israel 27 years after his last visit. With the publication of his latest novel, A Poet of the Invisible World, he will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, from the age of eight until the age of thirteen, I was fetched after school and driven to “KI”—Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Northeast Philadelphia—to attend Hebrew school. Despite my efforts, the language never took. The primer was dull, and the strange hieroglyphics on the page failed to resolve themselves into meaning. When class let out early, however, I would slip into the dark, empty sanctuary and wait there until my mother arrived to take me home. I liked KI. The Bible stories we were told on Sunday mornings were stirring. The sermons of Rabbi Korn had the power to inspire. But the moments I liked best were the ones I spent alone—in the shadows—in silence—with God.

On Friday nights, before the Shabbat service began, the sanctuary was ablaze with life. People filled the pews, chatting and laughing, and when the service began, the warm voice of the rabbi filled the air. The service itself was quite solemn. But though there were countless references to “the Lord,” He always remained a concept. When preparations for my bar mitzvah began, I felt awed to stand at the pulpit and recite my Haftorah speech. But Rabbi Korn’s Old Testament-like bearing beside me was too strong to make room for God. Only when the noise and the forms and the spectacle fell away and I was alone in the sanctuary was I able to feel the presence of something higher.

I went off to college. I studied theater and literature. And “God” only slipped further away. When I moved to New York, however, and the pulsing streets threatened to drive me mad, I took refuge in the city’s great churches: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas’, St. John the Divine. As I sat in the pews of these hallowed places, I felt the same sense of wonder I’d felt as a child. And when I traveled abroad—to Europe—to Egypt—to India—I felt the same thing when I entered the chapels and the temples and the shrines.

Decades later, when I began to write a novel about a boy who becomes a Sufi, I wondered if I could penetrate Islam deeply enough to portray it truthfully. But what I learned on those Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at KI was that God is not the rituals or the objects or even the holy books of any specific faith. God is the presence they point to and evoke. So the time I spent alone in the sanctuary as a child was preparation for Nouri’s discovery of Allah in the mosque. A sacred space is a sacred space, regardless of the faith that forged it into being.

Michael Golding was born in Philadelphia and educated at Duke, Oxford, and the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of Simple Prayers, Benjamin's Gift, a translation of Alessandro Baricco’s stage play Novecento, and the screenplay adaptation of the best-selling novel Silk. His new novel, A Poet of the Invisible World, is out from Picador.

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