I went outside this morning to begin my prayers among the trees. The beech has turned yellow-brown; the ash still holds its colour. The rain falls mildly, melody from thousands of leaves.
The Hasidim had a genius for creative misreading whenever they sensed an opportunity to reveal a hidden depth in Scripture. ‘Make a window in the ark,’ God tells Noah. But the Hasidic masters didn’t take the verse that way. The term for ark, tevah, can also mean ‘word’. ‘Make a window in your words,’ they therefore taught: ‘Pray in such a way that it lets the light into your soul’.
I’ve been asked to pray for many outcomes, for people in many and varied situations. I shouldn’t really say ‘people’, since last week I was asked to include a healing prayer for a cat with a broken leg. I did. It was simpler than the request which came through the synagogue office many years ago to perform an exorcism on a cat possessed by evil spirits. I didn’t. I had no idea how.
Of course, I pray for outcomes. Who wouldn’t, when someone we love is ill or in great pain, when we hear accounts of hungry children, when war threatens?
I pray now, as electioneering commences, that whatever government comes into office will be led with integrity, rule without bigotry, focus on the issues which truly matter to humanity and life, and be guided by the values of justice and compassion.
But, I believe, the essence of prayers is not asking. Rather, it is listening. I often think in terms of ‘praying with’, rather than ‘praying for’. I recall bedsides by which I’ve sat in so many of London’s hospitals, The Royal Free, Barnet General, UCH, the North London Hospice. By ‘praying with’ I don’t chiefly mean saying the words or singing a melody together. The ‘with’ is not chiefly about sharing the page in the prayer book or being in the same physical place, but rather about being together in the heart’s space. Prayer, the rabbis taught, is avodah shebalev, heart’s work. It brings our consciousness together with life; it paces it at life’s service.
That, too, is why I often prefer to pray outdoors. The birds, the leaves, the dog watching and waiting, are simplifications. ‘Echad’, they say; ‘Be at one with the oneness of God’. Except that they don’t say. There are no words; rather they, we, participate together in the quiet of the spirit which transverses all things. ‘Prayer is the life of all the worlds,’ wrote the first Chief Rabbi of what was then Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook. I wonder if this is what he meant.
Even in a space with five hundred people one senses when such togetherness, such energy is present, in the shared melodies, in the awareness which no one articulates but everyone senses that something which transcends us fills our hearts, dispelling the petulant distractions of our busy, fussing minds.
None of this, however, is an excuse for avoiding action, a contemplative alternative to commitment on the level of doing and striving.
On the contrary, prayer leads to action. If we listen to life, hold life’s cry as well as life’s stillness in our consciousness, how can we not devote ourselves to caring and to healing?