Monday, January 6, 2014
Reading vs. Praying
We've all been there. You're reading a book, initially interested, eagerly turning the pages, absorbing, thinking, conversing with yourself and the author's constructed voice. Time passes, and suddenly, you realize that for the last however many pages, you haven't been engaged. Sure, you've read and even comprehended the words, but you've taken away nothing and have stopped engaging with the text. What started out as an active, engaged reading has become a passive exercise with little attention, input, or interest.
Either version of reading is inherently passive to some extent. An author has already done the heavy lifting, organizing original thoughts and presenting ideas. Moreover, if there is a dialogue to be had when reading, it's a dialogue with ourselves, in our own heads.
Contrast this with what prayer could be. Though the central prayer of Judaism, the amidah (literally standing prayer), is frequently mistranslated as the "silent devotion", halakhah (Jewish law) requires that it be vocalized and said out loud (but not so loud as to disrupt others!). Prayer is fundamentally an act of communion and communication with Another. Yes, in many theories of it, it may indeed be primarily effective due to the reflexive effects on one's self (and not God). Still, it is universally understood to be a conversation with Got outside that is the method to achieve this effect. This is so because prayer is meant for us to leave the boundaries of self (as we do each and every time we act towards or communicate with someone or something else or other) and engage in act of sharing with and receiving from God. This reaching out allows us to broaden our perspective and vet our wishes and desires against our (admittedly limited) understanding of what God wants for his creation.
For example, when praying and asking God for improved health, one ought to prompted to to take things a step further. "Why should God want to give me better health? If I had it, would it advance God's stated purposes?" These refinements and clarifications, a natural part of healthy dialogue with any other, give prayer a large part of its force. Suddenly, improved healthy is a means toward partnering with God on the other end of the request in helping to form a more perfect world.
These days, we pray from a book. Often, it's too quick and familiar to be even an active reading, itself far short of the prayer ideal. More often, it's an exercise in repetition, more closely resembling the passive reading mentioned above. We're all familiar with prayer leaders quickly mumbling and plowing through in order to finish on time. Punctuation is often absent, as is inflection. Just as we sometimes drive to work without paying attention to where we're going and wind up in the right place out of habit, prayer can turn into a exercise in habit-formation.
Instead, to make prayer effective, we need to work aggressively to transform prayer into a true dialogue. In the United States, our synagogues often feature a collective gathering of well-intentioned reading. As a result, attendance at daily prayer in waning, and weekly services feature a host of other attractions to bring people through the door. Let's work to change the status quo and reclaim the beauty and power of the transformational conversation that is prayer.