At the time, Natalie was 7, Kate 6, and me 5. Natalie and Kate lived on the fifth floor, and I lived on the third, in a tired Bronx brownstone at the corner of Aquaduct and 183rd. I adored them. I looked up to them. I copied everything they said and did. But as the youngest, I was dispensable and, according to them, quite annoying. Yet they magnanimously allowed me to tag along on adventures.
Both girls attended Holy Cross, just across University Avenue, south of the park. I was in kindergarten at P.S. 91, two long blocks in the opposite direction. They could read, write, count, add, and subtract. They had homework and classes in catechism. I could finger paint. They were mature and cool; I was not.
On this one particularly memorable fall evening as we three lounged on the downstairs stoop, my “mentors” professed to have something new to teach. Expertly, they modeled how to slide onto my knees, hold palms together in a gesture of prayer, and mumble a string of unfamiliar words. Then they made the sign of the cross.
“Do this at night just before getting into bed,” Kate instructed. “This is how you talk to Jesus.”
It made sense. They were older, wiser, and actually learning something in school. Maybe this Jesus person, whoever he was, would talk back to me. I decided to try it out that very night.
After my bath, clad in sky blue seersucker pajamas, I did as I was carefully taught. I knelt on the linoleum floor by my twin bed and mumbled incomprehensively—I couldn’t remember all those strange words. Then the coup de grace: I dramatically and proudly made the sign of the cross: forehead, left shoulder, right shoulder, torso.
Did I mention my Jewish dad was standing by, taking this all in?
“What the heck are you doing?” he roared.
Smug that I clearly knew something he did not, I patiently explained.
First thing the following morning, my formidable mother marched me down to the neighborhood synagogue, demanding they enroll me in their Sunday school.
“We don’t take students this young, not until they’re in first grade and at least beginning to read,” the office secretary informed us.
“Well,” my tall, elegant mother who caused people to quake in her mere presence, said dryly, “if you won’t take her, the Catholic Church will.”
The next Sunday I was in class.
The Sunday school experiment lasted barely two months. It was inconvenient for my parents to deposit me there on a regular basis. Besides, as a family we didn’t attend religious services of any type or denomination. But in those scant few weeks, I memorized a Hebrew prayer, the Shema, and it’s remained with me ever since, offering nightly solace during a difficult childhood and beyond (after all, I knew how to pray).
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Later, after years of exploration in Eastern, New Age, and New Thought practices and theology, I found Unity. My husband Hal and I had rented workshop space from our local Unity Center in Santa Barbara, California. I knew I was home the moment I first entered the sanctuary. Maybe it was the absence of crosses. Perhaps it was the nonjudgmental, accepting community of like minds. Regardless, it was the right place at the right time. The teachings invited me to delve as deeply into my spiritual life as I wished, or simply to enjoy the welcoming community. That, I believe, is the beauty of Unity—it offers us the freedom and encouragement to find our own way. Eventually, Hal and I attended seminary and were ordained Unity ministers in 1991. Not surprisingly, I found the Shema similar to our Unity affirmation of faith: There is only one Presence and Power active in the universe and in my life, God the Good.
The Catholic Church didn’t get me, but Unity did—and I still remember how to pray.