Sunday, October 18, 2009

Talking to God

There’s an old adage “Get two Jews in a room and you have three opinions.” That certainly seems to be true of the class we are currently attending with our new rabbi Esther. She’s leading a 4-part series in understanding prayer, including the morning and evening Shabbat services. That’s a lot of ground to cover in just 4 weeks.

Whereas in the Christian church there are not so many prescribed prayers, in Judaism what once might have been spontaneous has been written down and serves as the words we say for just about any occasion, but specifically each week during the Shabbat services. In fact, most Jews would feel quite put on the spot if asked to offer a spoken prayer outside the context of a prescribed service.

The majority of prayers that we say or sing in services are in Hebrew, throwing up all sorts of issues for discussion. Like whether the prayer has meaning if you don’t know the meaning of the Hebrew words. I now know how to sing/say most of the prayers, even reading the Hebrew. I occasionally catch a word like “shalom” and know what it means. But it turns out each of those prayer pieces has come to represent sort of a feeling for me as it marks a particular part of the service. I’m sometimes shocked when I read the English translation and realize it has nothing to do with the feeling I have created around the prayer.

As for the challenges of offering personal prayer, my husband suggested that perhaps someone should give a class in how to pray. That idea struck me as totally wrong. I think personal prayer should be individualistic with no need to conform to any format or style or length. I cringed at the thought of someone defining how I should speak to my God, who may be quite different from the next person’s God.

I do offer my own prayers to God, but mostly outside the context of a religious service. I have come to see they are often more like prayer “tweets”, less than 140 characters, in which I comment on a gorgeous day (not today), ask for understanding to deal with a personal crisis, or express thanks for the good food I am fortunate to eat.

Do you have anything to say about personal prayer or is it just too personal to talk about in a public forum?


Blogger Pauline said...

I was raised a Catholic with a raft of very specific prayers that we children had to memorize. I can still say them all by rote though mostly I choose not to.

There came a time in my life, though, when I prayed, that a question would form: To whom are you talking? Then there came a time when I could not answer it to my own satisfaction.

Now I just acknowledge feelings of gratitude or desire or anger or helplessness or reverence and let them pass. I guess if pressed I would say I offer my thoughts to the universe. In its own way, it talks back. For now that's enough.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- You're having a conversation. You just haven't in any way defined your audience! The universe is as good as any.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

Just recently, an in-law asked me join a cause called "I'm not afraid to say I am a Christian" on facebook. While I am not afraid to say I am a Christian, I also believe in tolerance and acceptance. I now live in a family unit where I am in a distinct minority. I see my new parents praying and I feel the love in their day-to-day interactions. Somewhere in that "Not Afraid to Say I am a Christian" is that concept that if you really loved someone, you would try to convert them to Christianity. I just can't subscribe to that.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kelly -- One of the lessons my father wisely imparted to me was that religion is a personal thing. He never judged another person over that person's beliefs or practices. I'm starting to understand how important that respect is.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

I have quite a bit to say about this topic and have had many, many conversations that last long into the night pondering questions of prayer, religion, God, the bible, etc.

Pauline touched upon what I was thinking about when you wrote of praying in Hebrew and not being sure what the words meant. In the catholic church the services used to be held in Latin until the Vatican council changed that. This raises the question of whether or not the words are important in the first place - maybe the intention behind prayer is key.

It is my belief that prayer is personal. As you put it, there is, or should be, no wrong way to talk to your God (or higher power or universe or self depending on your belief) and any formal structure to 'do it right' takes away from the impact of the intention of prayer.

I sing with the choir at church and after each rehearsal we have a group prayer which someone leads. It is usually the same few who lead us but once in a while our choir director asks "who would like to lead the prayer". I never had the courage to do that because of this notion of wrong or right. It is silly. But prayer on my own is my own. I hope I never feel as though I am doing it wrong.

Great questions Barbara. I am sure we could stay up late into the night pondering these things.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gary -- There is absolutely a parallel to the Jewish service in the old-style Catholic service conducted in Latin. But just as most Catholics would probably not have chosen to use Latin outside the mass, most Jews (except in Israel) choose to pray in their native language. But I'm starting to agree that intent is perhaps even more important than the words. I also believe that music is a form of prayer. I love to make a joyful noise as a member of my choir, but I am reluctant to volunteer for solos, just as you don't volunteer to lead your after-rehearsal prayers. If we could just get over the stigma of "not doing it right". Yes, I wish we could have a slumber party and talk about this for hours!

10:48 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

While I don't think a class can teach someone how to talk to God, I think one might help people figure out how to start. Creative writing classes in college gave us exercises to help us think outside the box but the writing was up to us. Of course, I'm not sure I know how to pray, but I try.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I don't think the "how to" is necessarily a bad idea, as long as it's more of a discussion of what makes prayer effective, and less a step-by-step prescription. A class that helps people consider what "works" -- however you define that -- wouldn't be so bad.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

I like that Garth Brooks song, "Unanswered Prayers". I guess I'm not a big one for asking for things. I guess I'm one those "grateful" pray-ers. I like the catholic prayer "Hail Mary", I like the va-higgi-anew (spelled like it sounds to me), the Lord's Prayer and the song "Morning has broken". I read "The Daily Word" which is a Unity publication that features a daily prayer and I have a daily devotional hidden in the bathroom (now you know! ::Laugh:::), because it is in that room that I have the most time to be grateful. One of my biggest lessons in this life is acceptance, because there is a fine line between passion and willfulness. My in-laws pray five times a day, I probably pray fifty. :::smile::: Good question, Barbara!

4:06 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin, Steve -- One of the problems I have with a "how to" class is the fact that I don't think anyone really has the definitive answer on this one. I mean, really, how would you ever really know if you got it right?

Kelly -- Sounds like all your bases are covered. Your in-laws sound very devout. What about Mr. R?

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think almost any activity has the potential to constitute an embodiment of prayer, depending on the intention and internal state of the person. For me, acts of prayer can include "conventional" prayer to All-That-Is, playing music, dancing, walking a labyrinth, weeding the yard, making love, tending something with awareness, meditating, etc.
Great post!


8:19 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Anon -- Yes! Yes! Yes! I love your list of prayer moments.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Merle Sneed said...

Prayer is mostly a conversation with ourselves and there is nothing wrong in that.

10:54 AM  

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