Tag Archives: Holy Hill Hermitage

Shabbat Structure: Simply Sublime Spiritual Technology

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Solo Shabbat in Eire, Holy Hill Hermitage, Ireland, in my cabin named Clare in the Fall of 2016

Simple Shabbat, the basic structure is a phenomenal series of steps and prayers and practices to elevate the soul and align us with the essence of creation. I am writing this piece because a young woman, who was also on retreat, three years ago at the same hermitage as myself in Ireland, asked me about the order of the prayers. I led a few Shabbat ceremonies, both in my cabin and at the main house, for the other people on retreat. I was mostly alone, but there were moments of connection with the other hermits, clerics, and other folks taking sacred space in solitude.

I remember once being told by a dear friend of mine, Stephen Jenkins, professor Emeritus at Humboldt State University, who was getting ready to teach a three-day session on Judaism in his World Religions class, “Wish me luck, Nicole.” I responded with: “I don’t want to wish you luck, I need to come in and teach this part of your class.” I’m not sure those were my exact words, but this was the beginning of my lecturing in his World Religions Class. I have guest-lectured, during the Judaism portion of his classes, for over fifteen years now.

Some things cannot be put simply and survive the stripping down, especially when we are talking about Shabbat or Judaism in a three-day period of time. The mere idea of three days in a class on campus, to cover the topic, made me a little sick to my stomach. It felt kind of like asking me to describe the magnificence of the sunrise or my love for my children or any other sublime and mysterious, historical and elemental quality of the universe. It’s just not a three day or a one minute text or email kind of thing.

So, thank you Chelsea Smith, for asking me this question about the order of the prayers and why we cover the challah. I’m going to try to be brief, completely contradicting myself from the previous sentences. Of course, me being brief, is an oxymoron in and of itself.

When I lead a service I have a basic structure that I follow, which is not my invention and which has changed over the thousands of years that Jewish folks have been observing the Sabbath. I choose from various prayer books I like or I incorporate elements into my practice from those prayers when I am being a little looser in my observance.

You really begin by preparing for the time and setting the space. I clean my home, cook special foods, make challah (a braided Jewish egg bread).  I’ll get my recipe up here one of these days. You then create an altar. When the Beit Ha Midkash/Holy Temples were destroyed, Judaism did not die for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that we took the elements of our sacred service and rites that were observed in the Holy Temple and brought them into our homes and into our dining rooms.

As long as you have light (candles or oil lamps), wine, salt, bread, water, and prayers offered from your heart, you have the elements of the basic service. This means every Jewish home becomes a sacred temple in time and space. No one can say it better than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a simple short book called The Sabbath. I won’t begin to go where he has, but he describes Shabbat/the Sabbath as  both a Sanctuary and as a Palace in Time.

So, we begin by clearing and cleaning as if to welcome a sacred guest. That guest is the Sabbath Queen or the Shechinah or the Seventh Day. She is likened to a bride, she is always referred to in the feminine. We make special foods. For folks with little time or money, even during the Shoah and times of tremendous ugliness and torture, Jewish folks would hide a crust of bread or save one olive so they’d have two on Shabbat instead of one. Folks keep their best cheeses, oils, foods of any kind, for the three meals that occur beginning 18 minutes before the sun sets every Friday evening and ending when there are three stars in the sky the following night, Saturday. It’s roughly twenty-five hours or so, a little longer than one rotation of our spinning planet.

In Ireland, I couldn’t go buy a challah or get bread from Josh Fox, my favorite local baker, here in Arcata. I needed to make it. My little kitchen in my cabin, didn’t have an oven, so I had to make sure I could use the communal kitchen and arrange a time to be taking it over for many hours. I didn’t always do this, for many reasons, but here’s a picture of two small challahs I made for one of my blissful solo Shabbats.

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Small challahs, one in a traditional three braid form and one shaped like a Jewish Star of David, there’s also that key element SALT!

These Challahs are uncovered here, but they are traditionally covered with a cloth when we recite all the blessings before eating our Friday evening meal. This was the original question from Chelsea, “Why do you cover the bread again?”

We cover the bread because it is the final blessing we say before beginning our festive meal and we don’t want to hurt its feelings. This tiny piece of spiritual technology teaches us that if we are concerned about the feelings of our bread, so much so that we cover it, so it doesn’t know its the last in a long line of blessings, we better be that concerned about the feelings of all those we encounter. The bread thinks it’s the only blessing or the best blessing or the special blessing, because it somehow hasn’t heard or experienced all the previous ones. This seems a little comical, but it’s essential to Judaism. We physicalise our practices in small and large ways to make it not a mental exercise, but to embody the essence of what we are reaching for.

So, once the bread is made, I prepare the other foods and make my home and body ready to receive my guest. I take a bath or a shower, or I do a Mikveh (ritual immersion in living water, see Mikveh Movement and Me). Then I lay the table. I put the candles or oil wicks I am going to light out, I get the wine ready, open it and let it breathe so it is at its best. I make sure I have my prayer books or other readings I want to use, I pick fresh flowers and set the table more beautifully than I do for the rest of the week. It’s truly a special time.

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My Shabbat altar from my window seat in Clare.

Once all is ready, and usually this is minutes before you are required to kindle the lights of Shabbat, if I have time I meditate or center myself and let the week’s events play through my mind and release them. My beloved teacher, May his memory always be a Blessing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sometimes used a small cardboard box that he passed around and asked folks to deposit their weeks’ cares, worries, and experiences into. He would then he take it and put it outside the room or the house. I sometimes do this with children. It’s a great way to physically demonstrate the practice of letting go.

Then I cover my head with a shawl (creating a sacred space in my body) and light the candles and move my hands over them to bring the light of Shabbat into my whole being, I move my hands over them in a circular motion and bring their essence over my head, eyes and body three times. I then recite the first of many blessings. This blessing is thanking the Divine for instructing us to kindle the lights of the day and to observe the practice of it by resting deeply.

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Photo by Temple Beth El’s President Joseph Hale, from one of my Lay-led Shabbat Services

It’s very hard to talk about even one of these blessings in a short way, but that’s my assignment right now. Arrrggghhhh! Each one of these practices have books and teachings about them that deserve attention. Simple structure, okay, after the blessing for the Sabbath light (remember how light was the first thing created in the Universe?), we welcome the Angels of the Most High (the special Shabbat-only angels). These angels only come down to this earthly realm if they are invited and your space is ready for them. Did you set a space for the sacred guest, did you create a place of beauty for Holiness to hover? We welcome them and ask them to bless us with peace and then we let them depart. They have to go everywhere they are invited, so, they can’t linger. Their blessing though is so magnificent that it imbues the rest of the evening. As angels they can and do move through space and time differently than we do.

This is my favorite blessing, and even if I’m not doing more than just the basic layout, I almost never skip this one. I close my eyes and feel their presence and I am uplifted to the realm of the Holy One, for just a second or a moment, but that’s simply sublime!

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Detail with Angel, sculpture in glass, given to me by a lovely woman who was at Holy Hill for a few days and who was part of a discussion about angels that miraculously occurred and which connected me with the incredible Irish mystic Lorna Byrne who sees and speaks with the angels.

Next we bless the children. This blessing is not just for folks with children, in my way of doing things, but a moment to name all the children in our lives or that we are thinking about. In a traditional setting the parents place their hands over the heads of their children and recite three blessings. One for boys, one for girls, and one for all of the above. I just generally do the all of the above since there are many folks who aren’t identified as one or the other. The prayer said over everyone is the priestly blessing originally offered by the Kohanim, (of which I am one). I like the male and female blessings as well, so sometimes I do all of them and just ask folks to align on the gender spectrum, however they wish, male, female, somewhere in between, or inclusive of it all.

Next is the blessing over wine. This is the VERY modified order of blessings at the table. There are many, many more, but if you do these blessings you are basically covered. The blessing over the wine isn’t just about giving thanks for the wine or grape juice. It’s the blessing that recounts the order of the Holy One’s creating of the universe and ending with the day of rest. It’s a blessing you do while holding a glass of wine, but it’s about acknowledging, thanking and sanctifying the DAY of rest. It’s longer than the other blessings and it’s beautiful!

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Shabbat Table, chez moi in Bayside, wine open and breathing, Challahs covered, salt on the table and right before candle-lighting. Artwork by Thao Le Khac, Joy Dellas, my grandmother Perla Barchilon and some Italian tile maker from a hundred years ago.

After the wine blessing, we do a ritual hand washing with a special two-handled cup. We aren’t cleaning our hands, we are purifying them. It’s a mikveh for our hands. We recite the blessing with our hands raised above our heads after having poured water three times over our right hand and then three times over our left hand and drying them with a clean cloth. The blessing basically says, Blessed are You, Holy One, who has instructed us concerning the raising/lifting/immersing of our hands.

This is crucial. Before we actually eat our meal, we’re almost there (I promise), we raise our hands towards the heavens. I think of this as dipping my hands in holiness and sanctifying them so that they only do good. I want to bring down the honey and love and goodness of the Divine realms and only have my hands be the vessels of that. I never want my hands to be hitting or hurting or tearing or harming others or the earth. No small task, which is why, we need reminding, hence the blessing!

Then we uncover that poor challah, who now is the most rich indeed. We’re hungry and excited, the challah is golden and the light of the sun is gone. We have the glow of the candles and the light reflected off the windows and each other’s eyes and now we give thanks for the miracle of bread. Bread is a miracle. The play of water, salt, yeast, grain and magic that makes it rise is how we too are made. Like the bread, we need to rise. We need time, rest, the right ingredients and balance of earthly elements, sugars and salts and magic to create pockets of air, or lightness so that we are magnificent.

Then we break the bread and dip it in the salt, which represents the promise of the Divine. Salt is a preservative, the original one, way back in the day. It reminds us of the value of commitment, of time moving across millenia, it’s the taste of the moon and stars and the ocean and our sweat and it connects us to our ancestors and life.

Then we eat and share stories and talk for hours. There’s another whole bunch of blessings after the meal….. but I’ll leave those for another day!

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My Papa Jacques Barchilon, enjoying his Shabbat dinner, over a year ago. He’s in Heaven now, where the food and the company far exceed anything I can create here. I miss him so!

Gevurah, Grounding and Getting To It

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The Tree Bark, Beautiful and Boundaried

This is the week of Gevurah/Din, which I cannot easily translate. Here are some ways to think about Gevurah: Judgement, Severity, Boundaries, Strength, Discipline, and the Angel Gavriel/Gabriel, whose name shares the same root. Gavriel is the angel on the left side of our bodies, who girds us with strength and protects us.

When I say this is the week of Gevurah, that needs explaining as well. Starting on the second day of Pesach/Passover, observant Jewish folks count the Omer. We count seven cycles of seven, which = 49 and then in the evening of that last day, it’s another day, the 50th day and this is the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is about the first grain (Wheat) offering, it’s a pilgrimage festival, like Pesach and Sukkot. It’s also considered to be the anniversary of when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai and so we stay up all night studying Torah, specifically the Book of Ruth, but all of this is weeks away.

Right now, we are in the second week of the seven and each week is linked to the lower seven Sephirot/Energies/Attributes of the Divine, on the Tree of Life. Last week was Hesed/Loving-Kindness, this week is Gevurah. Gevurah and I have been connecting only in the last few years of my life. Prior to a conscious choice on my part to get into balance and make serious changes in my life and the way I engage with the world, most folks who knew me in the past would laugh and say: “Boundaries and Nicole, in the same sentence or space, that’s an Oxymoron”

Tree of Life

The Panoply of Symbols for the Sefirot

The Kabbalah assigns every symbol to one or more of the Sefirot. Here is a list of some of the many symbols and correspondences one can find. It comes from Dr. Eliezer Siegel in Calgary. Each of the following lists for each Sefirah is found on Jewish Virtual Library under the name of the Sefirah. Nava Shoham (1-800-ketubah.com) collated all of these entries onto one page, which I’ve reproduced here (using some of her font colors) with some corrections. This image of the Sefirot here is found all over the web. I’ve added directions and some alternate names in yellow to the image. If anyone knows the source or artist please let me know….Rabbi David Seidenberg

 

Please visit Neohasid.org for a fuller description of all of these teachings. I cannot do the Sefirot justice here. I do want to talk about the work of Gevurah and my engagement with it. Fundamentally, we have all these energies in us, available to us and truly we can find and move into balance. It is not beyond us. This task, this work of counting the Omer is always complex, but it allows me daily engagement with specific energies. By paying attention and counting, literally and also figuratively, I attune myself to the Divine, to the world and to my deeper and truest self.

So, onto the Gevurah, Grounding and Getting to it! As an Empath (see Isn’t It Always Love) I feel it all and I have struggled to have any kind of boundary. I’m extremely grateful for this Omer practice and for the teachings of the Tree of Life, because they have enabled me to seek out and gain some semblance of relationship to the boundaries I needed to cultivate. For me, implicit, in the idea of a boundary, is that I am not creating a hard wall to keep anyone or anything out. I am engaged in creating a porous, but still strong web or fluid that surrounds me, or whatever needs surrounding. It is not a hard boundary.

I have very few hard boundaries, I’m not a hard person.

Nicole Clare Red dress pre.final mikveh
Me, in Ireland, surrounded by my companions, the trees and the river and the fire. This is right before my last Irish Mikveh/Immersion in Living Waters in the very cold water just behind me.

My Gevurah practice is about getting grounded in the earth, recognizing that all of creation has structure of some sort and that this structure is necessary and good. The tree is surrounded by bark, the stem of the flower is a tube carrying nutrients from ground to flower, the seed has a hard shell around it until conditions are right for it to break open. All of these are examples of Gevurah in the world. A boundary that allows life and bounty to unfold.

My own boundaries are like these, I have had to create a boundary circle around certain areas of my life in order to live my life. For my Jubilee year, I took a nine month retreat, this was a boundary circle around interaction with other people, with caring for others and with feeling and doing for others. (You can read all about this is the Jubilee section of this blog)

The majority of people in my life, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues were outside of my circle, I was inside of it with the Holy One and Creation. I was isolated, in a cabin in Western Ireland, at a Carmelite Hermitage called Holy Hill. I was not alone. The birds, the Angels, the Divine and I were in communion. The ivy on the trees, the flowing river outside my window, the stars and the wind, these were my companions. They were great companions.

I was also blessed with fellow hermits and retreatants who were on similar journeys of contemplation, stillness and engagement with what emerges when you aren’t on the treadmill of the world. We prayed in silence together and shared a common meal once a week, when and if we wanted to be with others. Sometimes, I felt called to being with others, sometimes not. My boundaries are always flexible, this is how I do Gevurah.

My friend Arieh David Scharnberg asked this question on FB:

Looking for advice:

This is the week of Gevurah in the Omer Counting, usually associated with ‘discipline.’

How do you practice self-discipline in ways you can commit to and in ways that don’t induce stress?

What I mean is, every time I think about ‘ok, I need to get more organized’ or ‘I need to be more focused at work’ or ‘I need to do x or y once a day,’ even if it is taking things one step at a time and breaking things into smaller increments, any time I think of a change in my behavior that requires a commitment to that change, I either feel incredible anxiety in trying to commence (a fear of failure) or at best resigned if not despair when I find I have an inability to maintain that change.

Thank you in advance for your wisdom and insights!

This post is my answer to him. Gevurah requires grounding, earth-based practice that is rooted and  attended to, in order for it to be lasting. This doesn’t mean all my boundaries now stay in a permanent fixed place or that my discipline is perfect. It means that I get better all the time at walking this walk and engaging with this energy. It’s a practice, not a goal that I will reach and cross the finish line where a throng of folks will be cheering. It’s subtle and continuous and small sometimes, even just one small action will create a shift in my direction that allows the boundary to get stronger.

And, here’s the thing about all of this, right now we have to pair each of these energies/sefirot with others. We take the week we are in, this week it is Gevurah and align it with each of the other seven, so today, as I write this, I am in the week of Gevurah paired with the Sefira of Tiferet (glory, beauty, harmony). So, how do I relate to these two qualities? Here, in Jamestown at the home of my sister by Love, I am secluded, boundaried. I have taken myself away from the hustle and bustle of my family’s current crisis. I am not needed in this moment, my brother and others are doing the work that needs doing. I am preparing for Shabbat, which is a boundary I observe EVERY week, a time of stillness and honoring of Tiferet in my life, when I actively court the Divine and rest in many, many ways. But, I couldn’t do this if I didn’t create the boundary. Many folks now understand this about me. People no longer expect anything from me on Saturdays or Friday night. I don’t get phone calls or even many emails and I don’t respond to them either as I mostly turn off my technologies that are external and focus on my spiritual relationships.

My Shabbat practice is a Gevurah practice linked with Tiferet and all the other elements on the tree, but it starts with creating the boundary circle around this day, every week and I get better and better at it. I can go outside the boundary, when I need to, or choose to, again, the boundaries are never going to be hard and brittle for me, that’s not who I am. This Gevurah gate in my life has allowed me to create others because there has been and continues to be so much value generated and present for me as a result.

So, whether you practice this very intense and complicated counting or you are just looking at ways to feel protected, boundaried, held in by a structure that is healthy and supportive, I encourage you to go outside, meditate on the bark of a tree or the stem of a flower. Take the time you need to create spaciousness for yourself in any area that you need to by creating a boundary that is real and healing and healthy between yourself and the forces that love to pull you and all of us off our center.

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Heart at the bottom of a tree. Photo taken by my husband while we were on a walk together in Humboldt County, where we live, love, find and hopefully create harmony and balance, for ourselves and for all those we encounter.