March 24, 2008 It was a simple phone conversation, several years ago, and my best friend Katie was trying to convince me that there wasn’t only one way to speak to God.
“When you’re in the shower in the morning, and you have a few minutes to yourself, just talk to God,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a formal thing, with a prayerbook. It can be whatever you want it to be.” I balked. Talk to the Creator of the universe when I’m standing wet in the shower, in the buff? I was more religious then and hyper-conscious of the do’s and don’ts of my belief system: don’t think about, speak to or reference God in the bathroom because it’s where your body gets rid of waste; make sure you’re dressed before standing before the Almighty, shoes included; face East, for Jerusalem; follow the structure and words of the service set out by rabbis hundreds of years ago – don’t dare think you are important enough to make up your own pleas and thank yous.
There were many more than that, I knew, but the one that shouted out to me the most as a firm no-no was standing naked in the bathroom. I just couldn’t do it; I was trying to follow the rules. During the years that I tried to daven every day, I had the hardest time fitting in my morning prayers. An early riser, I’ve always been able to leap out of bed in the coal-dark, dress, make coffee, and settle into my home-office to work. I could rise when the baby cried and cradle him in my arms. I could cook before dawn. But standing still and thinking reverent thoughts was a challenge.
Perhaps it was the structure – formal Jewish prayer, at least as interpreted by Orthodox Judaism, of which I’ve been part for the last decade, means following certain pages in a certain order. It means moving your mouth while you mutter the words. It insists upon total focus – if my baby pulls at my legs in the middle of the Amidah, the eighteen benedictions that are the central part of three-times-daily Jewish prayer, I am not supposed to bend down and pick him up, so concentrated must my attention be on the Creator. Or maybe it was just that someone else was telling me what to do and how to do it. We rebellious types don’t take well to stricture. It was never really a fit for me anyway, but I tell you, I tried. I peeled back the rice-paper-thin pages of my prayerbook and looked at the poetry. Yes, as a writer, I do find much of the liturgy poetic. There are paragraphs leading up to the Sh’ma, the daily watchword of the Jewish faith proclaiming that God is One; the Sh’ma itself, followed by paragraphs building in intensity to the Amidah, which is the heart of the service.
Then the eighteen parts of the Shemoneh Esrei, or Amidah, which we are supposed to say in fluid motion. And then the wind-down. There are parts before, too, though I skipped most of it in an effort to be quick and because women aren’t obligated in every part of the daily service. (The lack of feminist thinking regarding traditional Jewish prayer is fodder for another blog post, I promise.) Why the rush? I don’t know. I felt an obligation to pray, since Jews are commanded to daven three times daily (Orthodoxy requires twice-daily for women), but in the midst of all my early morning organizational skills, focusing on supreme prayer was never one of them.
And so I was speaking with Katie, my Catholic best friend, about reverence and accessing God and the formality of our respective religions’ approaches to prayer. “It doesn’t have to be formal,” she insisted. “It can be any conversation you want.” Years passed and I stopped trying to daven each morning. I traded my long skirts and long sleeves for low-slung jeans and tank tops. I liked feeling the summer breeze against my bare shoulders. I returned to myself but retained the details of ritual. Where in there, I wondered, would I find prayer? Could I?
No longer was I satisfied with my rote childhood routine of go to temple, stand and sit when the rabbis lifted or lowered their hands, read the italicized parts where the audience is supposed to respond, then go home and turn on the TV. But I couldn’t abide the strict piety of the community in which I lived. So where, exactly, did that leave me?
In the blueberry patches with my kids come summer. Riding a gondola up
Mountain one sunny June day.
Sitting on the living room couch with 22-month-old Shaya leaning back against me, chattering and hugging, my fingers stroking his silk-soft golden hair. Watching Eliana kick her tap shoes against the floor.
Seeing Asher run to open the bakery door for an elderly woman so she doesn’t have to do it herself. I may not have an answer for the question, What is prayer?, but I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it.
It’s gratitude for the glories of life. It’s appreciation for the gifts before me.
It’s recognition that there is a greater Being who created the world for the good of us all. I may not follow rules very well, but I have no doubt that I am reverent.