“Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe” (Genesis Rabba 68:9).” Rabbi Paul Kipnes
God is the place…
Despite my recurrent atheistic leanings, born out of profound personal issues with Catholicism, I seem unable to escape God. My mind rejects the concepts of God proposed by Christian theology and other varieties of paternalistic theism, but I continue to encounter God. As Rabbi Kipnes suggests, we have to come out from behind our climate-controlled barriers, and when we do we can’t help but discover that there is something more than, greater than, deeper than, older than, human enterprise and human achievement. And I’m not talking dinosaurs!
I travelled to New Mexico this summer – it had been a wish of mine since moving to the States over thirty years ago. I wanted to see deserts and mountains and pueblos and I was not disappointed. I even saw the Rio Grande River Gorge. Not quite the Grand Canyon but just awesome to me.
I admit to an overly romanticized view of the culture of the Native Americans. I want to believe that every long-haired Native American man is a Shaman and can impart wisdom about life and finding God; I want to believe in the spiritual power of burning sage. Truth is, the man may just be old. Nonetheless, in the Taos pueblo I discovered that the community there, though baptized Catholic, still maintained the ancient religious traditions of their people. And these traditions demanded regular attention to, and respect for, nature. For the families whose turn it was to prepare and lead the ceremonials that year, a certain amount of time had to be spent living in the pueblo itself, with no electricity or running water, reliant on the river and on oil lamps and wood burning stoves. These conditions meant that there was an intimacy with nature not usually experienced in modern living.
So I come back to Rabbi Kipnes’ point again, that to meet God we must be open to nature…the place of God, the place that is God. And in fact in New Mexico I felt myself to be in God’s place – every day we drove out into the desert and through the mountains. One day we visited a Trappist monastery in Abiquiu and we joined in afternoon prayers. When the monks stood up after prayer was over and placed their hoods over their heads my stomach lurched and I felt panic rising – too much black, too many men in black. But I raised my eyes to the wall of windows in the front of the chapel and the mountain rock face it revealed, and I focused on that beauty and solidity and breathed slowly until the chapel cleared.
God was present to me that day, not in the chapel, not in the monks or prayers, but in the mountain. God shared the strength of that mountain with me as I struggled with a panic attack and with tears and with a throat threatening to close up on me. I breathed and prayed in thanks to God for simply being there and helping me breathe.
God as that place, God in that mountain – that is a God I can believe in.