During those 8 interminable years at St. Patrick’s Elementary School on Long Island, I learned how to pray. Kneeling down, pressing my finger tips together to make a little tent, and squeezing my eyes shut, I murmured the words scripted straight from the Baltimore Catechism–“Our Father, who art in heaven,” or “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
The script never varied, except when I desperately wanted God to intervene and solve a problem that loomed large in my child’s world. In that situation, my prayer would start with, “Dear God, help me…” Pass my chemistry test, get a dog–whatever my little heart was aching for.
This worked until I was a teenager. In a period of existential angst, I started questioning, doubting. During this crisis of faith, I couldn’t mouth the words that I no longer believed in. I couldn’t bend my knees to Jesus Christ. I couldn’t forgive a religion that discouraged questioning, demanded an absolute acceptance of its tenets, and condemned others for not believing in the same faith, the same God.
It wasn’t until years later when I met and fell in love with Richard that I became curious about Judaism and decided to convert. The Hebrew prayers were historic, epic, composed of ancient words that were obscure yet powerful. The English translations in the prayer books paled in comparison. This in itself was a problem for me. I needed the right words to pray, ones that resonated deeply. Frustrated with the script, I skipped through the siddur, searching for the words that would express what I was feeling at that moment.
The search for the right words has chased me through my adulthood. It wasn’t until a few months ago, that all this changed when I went to a breakfast seminar offered by a guest rabbi at our temple. After eating our bagels and sipping orange juice, we cleared away the dishes and listened to Rabbi Naomi Levy speak about prayer. She voiced some of the same frustrations I had felt with the “script” and finding the right words to approach the divine. She gestured to the pile of paper and pens spread out next to our coffee cups and made a simple but radical suggestion. “Take a few minutes and write your own prayer,” she said. The assignment was simple, something I might have given to my freshman composition students. Write for 10 minutes, write freely, without editing. Write deeply and swiftly from the heart. In your prayer express what you are thinking and feeling at this moment. Create a dialog with the creative source, the divine.
And so, we wrote our own prayers. As the words mounted on the blank sheet of paper, tears filled my eyes. I wrote about my son, my hope that he could find his way safely out of college and into adulthood. I wrote about my dear husband, who was sitting next to me, writing swiftly and folding his piece of paper. And I wrote a prayer for myself, searching for a door that would lead me to a new career.
Afterwards, Naomi shared one of her prayers, which she wrote during a period of turmoil. In that room filled with cups and saucers and breakfast crumbs, everyone was still, listening to her words– honest, personal, and profoundly moving.
I invite you to visit her website and read her books. Her radical yet simple way of thinking about prayer offers us all a way to connect to the spirit, regardless of our beliefs. It is empowering and profound. Here’s a link to her website:
Categories: Spiritual Change