How do you pray? I know this may seem like an awfully huge question, but I really don’t think that I know how; I am a “successful” Jewish woman in my early forties and was raised in a secular home. Prayer is something that feels foreign to me. I am conjuring images from the coming of age Judy Blume book, 'Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret.' and scenes from people in church, or maybe even synagogue, but speaking a language that I don’t understand. I enjoy reading your column, and you talk quite a bit about prayer. Can you give me something specific to work with? Nothing is too basic.
Thank you for articulating a question that I hear expressed by so many people.
As it turns out, I think Are you there God, It’s Me Margaret. is a fantastic example of prayer. There is a reason this book is so enduring. When a writer can express something as nuanced as a twelve-year-old’s relationship with God in a way that feels honest, they have hit a chord that will ring true with anyone, of any age.
My personal prayers take on different forms, some colloquial (much in the style of Margaret) and others in the ancient language of our Jewish tradition.
My earliest memory of prayer is reciting the Shema in Hebrew with my grandmother on nights my brother and I slept over. After the Shema, we spoke a prayer in English naming everyone in the family and asking God to bless and keep them.
I later took it as my own tradition to incorporate every single person - literally - that I knew into the prayer. I have vivid memories of including my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Nemith, into the list of names. Perhaps it was superstition, or the beginning of some obsessive rituals, but, even now, I feel there is great power in holding someone specifically in my heart and offering prayers on their behalf to God.
More recently, I've started taking morning walks through the park, after I drop my daughter at school, with my one-year-old son and recite the following words:
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Please bless us. Keep us. Deliver us.
Please give us the strength and courage to fulfill our purpose in this life.
I usually whisper the prayer quietly. Sometimes I pray silently. I say the Shema aloud so that my children will hear the words. Though I don’t know much Hebrew, the words of certain prayers are like pebbles I’ve turned and smoothed over in my hands and they live in my mouth much in the way a lullaby or a sonnet is carried by memory and recited as song.
Though, you should also begin with whatever words feel most honest to you. Speaking them - in plain language - is prayer. It may be helpful to find a special spot, or create your own sacred space, or be in community among others…Try different ways until you find something that feels sincere.
Do not judge yourself, Seeking. You have everything you need to begin. And let it be so.