Academy for Spiritual Formation: Prayer
November 17, 2017
Attending daily worship here has been fascinating, rich, fruitful, sometimes challenging, and often beautiful.
I've spoken with other participants about their experience of worship, and they tell me that it is not like what they are accustomed to at home. It's more contemplative, most of them tell me. Some say it's more liturgical than home, some say it's less so. It's clearly not one hundred percent familiar to anyone -- we use a prayerbook created by The Upper Room, unique to these retreats. Of course, it is probably least familiar to me, because my liturgical tradition is Jewish, and this is not Jewish prayer by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a kind of cousin to Jewish prayer, sometimes, in interesting ways.
Some of what we've been doing is familiar to me as a Jew who has been in Christian spaces before. (I attended an Episcopal school for six years, and have sung in many churches.) It's always both wonderful, and somewhat disconcerting, to encounter familiar words and phrases and prayers in this other setting. The psalms, of course. Or hymns that speak of "Israel" or covenant -- though in a Christian setting, those terms evoke their community of believers in Jesus, rather than the community of Jews. That stretches me sometimes, though of course it's okay for these words to mean different things to them than they do for me.
My task is to honor and notice those tight places, and the objections voiced by my discursive mind -- the part of me that inhabits briyah, the world of intellect -- and then gently set them aside so that I can be present in this worship in yetzirah, the world of heart and connectivity. Where can I find, in this liturgy and in this experience of prayer, the heart-connection with God that I seek in my own prayer life? I love the discipline of daily prayer, and even when that prayer is in a modality that is foreign to me, it's still an opportunity to open to God. Thrice-daily prayer in community is a gift, even when the prayer isn't always exactly my own.
Prayer is an experience of discernment. The Hebrew להתפלל / l'hitpallel, "to pray," comes from the root meaning to discern or judge oneself. Through the discipline of daily prayer, we come to know ourselves in a deeper way. For me as a Jew, the experience of immersing in daily liturgy (even my own familiar and comfortable liturgy) is also an experience of seeing what bubbles up within me to distract me from my prayer. What are my recurring thoughts, narratives, ideas, fears? The goal is not to resent them for distracting me from prayer, but to lift up the sparks of distracting thoughts, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
If that's true in the familiar setting of Jewish prayer -- the words of the siddur that roll comfortably off my tongue, the melodies of weekday nusach and the musical settings I know best -- how much more so in this setting of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. As I pray in these unfamiliar forms, I learn things about myself. What buttons are pushed for me by these Christian uses of Jewish ideas and terms? What is evoked for me? Where do I feel what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy," and where do I feel resistance? These aren't my native prayer forms, but they are prayer and they are real -- and can be real for me if I let them.
I have been reminded often this week of Reb Zalman z"l's teaching that in order to appreciate the beauty of a stained glass window, one needs to stand inside the church and see the light streaming through it. In order to appreciate what role Jesus plays for my Christian brothers and sisters, I need to open myself to their prayers. Sometimes their prayers trigger my "allergies," because being a member of a minority religious tradition surrounded by Christian language, ritual, and presumptions has shaped me in not-always-comfortable ways. My work is to notice those allergies without letting them push me out of prayer.
I can pray authentically as a Jew in this Christian setting: that's the path of deep ecumenism, to which I committed myself when I chose a Jewish Renewal path. One night this week I led evening worship, sharing beloved prayers of Jewish nighttime liturgy. Otherwise, I've taken it upon myself to pray as my colleagues here pray. (With the exception of participating in communion. I do not partake, but I join the community in singing as others go up to receive the wine and the bread. And oh, I do love to sing.) I'm grateful to be able to quiet my mind, sink into the music, and let myself pray -- cultivating openness to whatever arises.
I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the Upper Room retreat prayerbook.