The First Breathing of the Soul

By Jacob Needleman, excerpted from his new book "What Is God?"

To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.
I say to think about God, not necessarily to believe in God-that may or may not come later.
I say: to think about God.

I clearly remember the moment something deep inside me started breathing for the first time. Something behind my thoughts and my desires and fears, something behind my self, something behind "Jerry," which was and is my name, the name of me, from my earliest childhood.

I can say this now, more than sixty years after my first conscious experience of this second breathing, this first breathing of the soul.

Let me explain.
The year is 1943.  I am nine years old.

It is dark night, full summer in Philadelphia, hot, humid. I am aware that my father is sitting outside on the front steps.

We have only just moved into these small rooms on this bare, newly constructed street pretentiously named Park Lane.  The street is an island of low-rent apartments in a sea of wealth:  leafy streets, large, gracious old houses-and all embraced by Philadelphia's incomparable Fairmount Park with its stretches of untamed forest and its rushing, mystical Wissahickon Creek.

 I go down the thinly carpeted stairs and gingerly open the screen door, trying not to disturb my father's silence. I had thought to walk up the street into the sweet air of the park entrance. But this time, I don't know why, without a word, I sit down next to my father.  I had never done that before. His solitudes were never inviting, always more or less frightening.

I sit down, noticing that his head is tilted toward the sky.

In front of us stretches a vacant lot, and out there, now, occupying the whole of the soft darkness: fireflies-we called them "lightning bugs." Hundreds of them, intensifying the darkness by randomly glowing and vanishing in the same present moment; intensifying the silence with their noiseless rhythms of illumination. Like flickering stars they were, here, on earth. 

But it was when I looked up into the sky that, at that moment, I appeared. It did not happen right away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my father was still looking up.  Imitating him, I kept my gaze upward, just looking.

And suddenly, incomprehensibly, all at once, despite the heavy summer air that always absorbs most of the starlight-suddenly, as if by magic, the black sky was instantly strewn with millions of stars. Millions of points of light. Millions of worlds. Never, before or since, have I seen such a night sky, not even in remote mountains on clear nights. It was not simply that my eyes had become normally adjusted to the darkness; it as was though an entirely new instrument of seeing had all at once been switched on within me. Or, as it also seemed, as though the whole universe itself suddenly opened its arms to me, saying to me: "Yes, I am here. See, this is what I really am! Do you like my beautiful garment?"

In an instant, less than an instant, a powerful, neutral current of electricity streaked down both sides of my spine-so quickly I had not a moment to have a thought about it or an emotional reaction to it. Many years had to pass before I was able to understand something about what it was that came down through me.

My eyes stayed riveted on the millions of stars, the millions of tiny stars with hardly a black space between them. 

I wondered about my father, but I didn't dare turn my head to look at him, afraid that these millions of worlds might somehow not be there when I turned back to them.

I don't know how long we both continued to sit there, silently. But finally, speaking in a voice that I had never heard from him before, he said:

"That's God."

Something, someone suddenly appeared in me, as new and different as the voice of my father was new and different. It was as though I were summoned into being by that new voice from outside and inside myself. I remember it as clearly now as if it has just happened: I saw my thoughts slowing down and somehow becoming longer and thinner, like an attenuating gray cloud, gradually dissolving, leaving a nearly blank, dark space in my mind.  And then, one thought, one question, appeared and filled my mind: What is God? What am I? It was the same question, it was one question, one experience.

And yet, at the same time, it was also one answer, the same answer. And only years and years later did I begin to understand that experience and that answer: I am.

But there, sitting on the steps next to my father, I did not have those words. I kept my head up and my eyes upturned, but already the millions of stars were fading away as mysteriously as they had appeared. Why? Where did they go? And where is God? What is He?  I tried to squint, thinking that maybe I could make all the stars come back.

A  quiet yearning rose up in me-and it was just then that I noticed that other breathing taking place in me. Perhaps it had been there all the time, ever since the millions of stars had appeared, but only now did it catch my attention.

Inside my very body, the search of my life was conceived.


                                    --Excerpted from What Is God? by Jacob Needleman.



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