On Prayer

All people pray. Regardless of our intellectual conflicts, we feel in our deepest selves an existential longing to transcend our realities. We long to cross that unfathomable chasm between the known and the possible, the flawed and the perfect. When nature strikes with joy or sorrow, our ultimate response is prayer: to discern why, and how, and why me, and what do I do now? Prayer transcends the self to reach toward possibility and hope, to soul satisfaction and ultimacy, to the ineffable we sense exists just beyond our comprehension or grasp.

Such prayer is not an escape from reality, but a sensitivity to an ultimate reality we intuit but cannot prove, experience within but cannot point to without. While we sense an ultimate reality, the certain knowledge lays beyond the grasp of our rational minds.

Prayers may be immediate, visceral: a cry, a panicked emotion, a hand reaching out for solace or simply companionship. Prayers may be heard as a gasp before the inconceivably beautiful, the moment of birth, the transition to or from life. Prayer is not just the human response to the unknown; it is our penetration into the ineffable, the experience we cannot comprehend but can only symbolize or ritualize to capture our innermost self. Prayer begins in the physical and reaches toward the spiritual, the infinite, the aspirational.

Spontaneous prayer is one thing. We all do it, even non-believers. But what of planned prayer? What of communal prayer at a set time and place? If at Sinai, or the Temple Mount we access the inexpressible in places where revelation has previously occurred, where we can plan and anticipate that it might happen again. But what of synagogues, holy places, even living rooms or park shelters? How do we plan to encounter and express the holy where we pray it will appear to us, involve us, infuse us, rest upon us like prophecy or a sacred stream? How do we intentionally plan for the experience of the holy? Is holiness simply an involuntary experience, a hoped-for happenstance, an accident much like a golf ball landing on one of thousands of blades of grass? Or can we invite, capture, initiate a process leading to the experience of the holy, to prayer?

Certainly this is the business of the world’s religions, with mixed results. Techniques have been developed: meditation, breathing exercises, recitation of sacred documents, repetitious words recited again and again, music, melody, mysticism, drama, communal gatherings and ritual. All are techniques to make the holy available to the individual or community. The results are never guaranteed. Attitude matters. Sincerity matters. Repetition and practice matter. Some have conversion experiences. Some are never touched. Many testify: once you have experienced the holy, you know for a certainty it is real, the most real a person can ever feel. Like love, we aspire for more.

Jews have created sacred times and sacred places where prayer is more likely to lead to the experience of God’s presence, the holy. Our mission is to create those times, using some of those techniques, and as individuals in a community attempting to experience the holy, not because we simply say we want to, but because we must.

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