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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