I’ve been thinking a lot about why I pray and why I intuitively know it to be such a basic human necessity. I’ve been thinking about it in part because my own prayer, through effort and study, has become much richer over the last few years. And I’m thinking about it in part because it feels harder to draw people into a more traditional prayer experience.
The struggles, the physical pull away from prayer, has never been stronger. We are so used to a constant level of stimulation that we instinctively react against the slowing down that prayer requires. The something that is happening in prayer takes time to emerge. It cannot be made more efficient with better processing power or higher bandwidth. It requires a wholeness of self that can emerge only over time.
At the same time, we are so used to passive entertainment, like movies, sporting events, or the theater that when we sit down to pray in a Synagogue we expect to be entertained. Prayer is an active action that requires some preparation and an agenda. If we sit down to pray waiting to see God, we are likely to be disappointed. If, however, we actively engage in prayer, and in stimulating the imagination that aids us in the divine encounter, God may indeed “peep out” and respond.
(I use the language of “peep out” because of the midrash that when God first encountered Abraham, God “peeped out” at him from an illuminated or burning palace.)
I pray to attain gratitude and quiet. I pray to create space in my consciousness for my soul to speak to me. I pray to attune myself to God in the world.
I pray with a sense of obligation and connection to a particular practice and liturgical tradition. That connection reminds me that my need to connect with God and to make room for sacred attunement is a hovah, an obligation. This obligation has an ongoing quality expressed but never contained in daily prayer. The particular liturgical connection roots my own quest in a shared practice of a whole people throughout time.
I know for many the traditional prayer practices of Judaism feel sometimes overwhelming and slow. Yet I want to make a personal case for the beauty and inspiration contained within it. For many years, I was skilled in the techniques of prayer but found my prayer life mediocre at best. Then I began the long hard work of bringing my heart, my sorrow and joy and wholeness of self, into the prayer practices. When I succeed, my prayers brim over with meaning. When I find the courage to share my heart, to offer myself as an offering, my prayers become my soul’s song of love to God.