Two summers ago, I spent a week at Elat Chayyim studying tikkun olam with Arthur Waskow. The class was small and our discussions far-ranging. Fortunately, I kept some notes: jottings, really, not connected enough to capture everything we said, but enough to spark excitement when I look back over what I transcribed.
One of the gems I scribbled was the quote "Prayer is useless unless it shatters pyramids and loosens the calluses on the heart." Arthur attributed it to Abraham Joshua Heschel, although he couldn't remember what book or essay it comes from. (If any of you can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.)
I return to that phrase often. I love the idea of prayer being able to do these things: to shatter pyramids, mighty monuments to the false deities of worldly power and hoped-for permanence. To loosen the tough skin that our hearts grow, thereby rendering us newly-vulnerable to the wonders and terrors of the world. At its best prayer can do these things, and that is wondrous and terrible indeed.
It seems to me that Heschel is arguing here for radical prayer, surprising prayer. Perhaps he is aligned with the philosophy which encourages us to constantly vary the terms we use for God, in order that we not become too accustomed to any one term or way of praying (because therein lies the risk of confusing the term, imperfect as it must be, with Ultimate Reality, which cannot be linguistically expressed).
Then again, maybe I'm reading his meaning wrong. Maybe he's not arguing for prayer-in-constant-flux -- maybe he'd argue for the person praying (the pray-er, as 'twere) to approach familiar words with unfamiliar, or constantly-renewed, kavvanah (focus/intent). Aha: we're back to my constant question, the tension which seems to inform so many of my musings here. Should prayer change, or should we?
Regardless, I think Heschel's words point toward a goal that's worth keeping in mind when we approach prayer, whether our prayer practices consist of davvening the morning blessings alone, benching the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) with family, or engaging with synagogue services in a communal context. If one purpose of prayer is to connect us with our Source, then it is both wise and worthy to aim for liberated minds and open hearts, both as a tool for reaching (toward) God, and as a consequence of having found Her or Him.
I sing in a community chorus. This fall we've been learning a Pachelbel double-chorus based on the words to a Protestant hymn. We're singing it in German, but the opening line translates to "Now thank we all our God, with hearts and minds and voices." As we Americans approach the secular holiday of Thanksgiving, as we pause in our lives to gather with family and friends and be thankful for abundance of food and community, may our hearts and minds and voices come together in a way that sustains feelings of gratitude, and in a way that aligns us with our Source, toward whom all prayers reach and from whom all blessings flow.