The Light

The first time I saw him, I asked about him.  I left him alone, though.  I liked the way he was sitting, neatly cross-legged, and he was wearing a robe and a softly pointed hat.  I went back to the little junk shop and bought him.  Eight dollars.  We went home together.

I thought he might be Maimonodes.  I didn’t really know anything about Maimonedes except that he was Jewish.  Considering that was all I knew about Maimonedes, it’s weird that I even came up with the name.  At any rate, I liked his lines. I thought he looked like an Arab, his outfit definitely did.  His size and shape reminded me of a Buddha.  The little metal cast Buddhas.  I already had a Hindu figure at home.  I figured they could hang out.

I took the little guy up to the monastery on my retreat.  Only after I had unpacked, when I saw him on my nightstand next to the lamp, did I think, hmm, I brought an idol to the monastery.

I decided not to use anything electronic while I was on my retreat.  No computer.  I wrote on paper.  I read on paper.  To find Maimonedes, I had to use the card catalog in their library.  Boy, that took me back.  They still have a cabinet the color of pencils, full of typed cards.  Subject, author, title.  I went for the “J” drawer for “Judaism.”  Flipped through the cards, the gesture, which requires fine motor skills, not the pushing of a button, also requires care and attention.  The Is, then Ja, Je, Ji, Jo, Ju, Jud….  I didn’t know the last time I had used a real card catalogue.  Real card catalogues moved to computers when I was in high school.

The library at the monastery has fluorescent lights with long individual pulls dangling down.  I like natural light.  And I don’t mind dimness, or squatting on the floor when I get interested in something.  So I squatted and squinted and reached around for a patch of sunlight.  Twice, a sister came by and said, “Oh, you can turn the lights on!” and then I had to sit under the ugly fluorescent and look all pleased about it.

They had quite a few books about Jewish history and practice, but I didn’t find anything particularly compelling about Maimonedes in their books, no reason why I would be mysteriously attracted to him.  He sided with the “let’s be practical” contingent, generally, in conversations about how to be Jewish in the medieval period.  He set a lot of ideas down that Thomas Aquinas worked with later.  He wrestled with Aristotle and Jewish tradition.  I’m a Platonist, myself.

I held the books I was borrowing to my chest, walked all the various corridors, past all the photos of the prioresses, the paintings of St. Benedict, with his black bird, and St. Scholastica, with her white one.  I did cheat, a tiny bit, and learn from the internet that Maimonedes was a doctor, a really good doctor, considering what he had to work with in the 12th century C.E.

Today I found a quote  of his I liked: “The whole object of the Prophets and the Sages was to declare that a limit is set to human reason where it must halt.”  That is how I handled my hunting and reading during my retreat, squinting at the prophets and sages– Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Elie Wiesel– until the light went on and I saw they were talking about.

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