Spirituality and prayer: What’s the precise connection? “When asked if I pray, I used to say ‘no.’ ... Now when such a question is posed, I ask what the questioner means by prayer before I answer.”
Despite the hours of repetitive liturgy ordained by my tradition, I am not much for formal prayer. I prefer Anne Lamott’s notion that there are only three kinds of prayer and they arise of themselves in response to reality happening in the moment. Her three categories of prayer are “Help!” “Thanks!” and “Wow!” That’s it. Frighteningly simple.
I say “frighteningly” because these are authentic prayers arising naturally in the moment rather than liturgical prayer, which allows us to hide from what is happening behind a deluge of words. Reciting a prayer from a prayer book isn’t praying; it is reading a poem. Reading poems isn’t a bad thing to do. On the contrary. It just isn’t prayer. A prayer happens of itself in the immediacy of the moment. This is antithetical to group prayer, which is why I find group prayer so stultifying.
When my dad died, an Orthodox rabbi joined us on the first night of shiva (the seven–day period of mourning). He gathered my mom and all her children and grandchildren together in a small room to pray. He was very pleasant. He admitted he had no idea what we might be feeling and rather than pray for my dad, he suggested we pray for the welfare of Jerusalem. Really? What he really meant was this: “There is no prayer I can recite that will speak honestly to your loss, so let me pretend to do something meaningful by praying for Jerusalem in hopes that this will distract you from my incompetence and Judaism’s irrelevance at this moment.” Let us pray …
Authentic prayer speaks out of the moment; liturgical prayer speaks to the moment at best or past the moment at worst. When your life is crumbling all around you, your heartfelt cry of “Help!” is more authentic than any official reading. The same is true when you are overwhelmed with gratitude. And when it is awe and wonder that overwhelms you, words themselves are a distraction and your prayer of “Wow!” often takes a nonverbal form.
When asked if I pray, I used to say “no.” What I meant was I didn’t pray the official Jewish liturgy. Now when such a question is posed, I ask what the questioner means by prayer before I answer. If they mean reciting the official prayers of Judaism, my answer is still “no.” If they mean giving voice to the horror or hope of any given moment, my answer is “yes.”
Often this question is accompanied by a second and then a third: “To whom do you pray?” and “Why do you pray?” I pray to the infinite Aliveness (Chiut in Hebrew) in which we live and move and have our being (to borrow from Rabbi Saul of Tarsus in Acts 17:28). And I pray for no reason—no why. My prayer is simply a deep and unfiltered affirmation of the moment regardless of what that moment brings.
This kind of prayer—unfiltered, unmediated by tradition, and embedded in the moment—is what I call truly spiritual prayer. Part of the work of spirituality is to free you to utter it.
More from Rabbi Rami on spirituality and prayer, from the print issue of Spirituality & Health.
My friend is forever asking Jesus to protect her family from tragedy, but the more she prays, the more paranoid she becomes. What is she doing wrong?
Your friend’s problem isn’t with prayer but with the notion that she and those she loves can avoid tragedy and deserve special treatment from God in order to do so. Neither notion is true. Ecclesiastes reminds us that both the wise and the foolish die (Ecclesiastes 2:16), and Jesus teaches that “God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Things just happen—good things and bad things—and they happen to all of us. The only prayer I pray in this regard is this: “May I cultivate the capacity to be present to what is, and to engage what is—however it is—justly, kindly, and with tranquility.” While I doubt my prayer will satisfy your friend, I suspect it is nevertheless more effective.