My Prayer Is Not Prayer

Morning light curtainsMy prayer is not prayer, not exactly. It includes words. It may even begin with words: “Modeh ani l’fanecha / grateful am I in your presence; baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech Haolam, hanotein laya-eif ko-ach / Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who gives strength to the weary; ahavah rabbah ahavtanu / with a deep, expansive, manifold love do You love us.”

The words illuminate aspects of my experience. This morning, in the car on the way to an appointment with a urologist, I remembered that a couple of days ago I had set a quiet intention to say modeh ani at some point every morning. Tradition teaches Jews to say those words immediately upon waking: first words of the day. I’ve tried that practice and found it mostly frustrating.

Because I am a troubled sleeper, I feel alarmed when the tone called “ripples” sounds on my phone. When I hear that sound, the first words that usually come to me are, “How am I going to get through this day on almost no restorative let alone nourishing sleep?” Frustrated, embattled, defeated, afraid: that’s how I feel many mornings upon waking. [Read more…]

Praying the Rosary

By Laura Bramon

RosaryMy first rosary is invisible: a string of children’s voices ricocheting off the concrete walls of a slum convent, flying up to God and to the cold gray batting of the Altiplano sky. The children’s eyes are chapped with wind and cold, lines feathered like wings in their brown skin. This gives them a mask of wisdom: as if they can see beyond what I see, as if they can see God.

They see His Mother alive in the tiny concrete woman in the outdoor niche, to whom we herd them so they can bark their prayers. Sweet children, whose soft heads smell of moss and cold, whose breath is warm and gluey with the dried milk we feed them. First, we train the sucker feet of their lips to the tipped cups; we place in their hands the round, fleshy little loaves of bread they rip up and eat.

And then we line them up and walk them out into the sunlight to say the rosary in their backwater Spanish. I stand in their midst and stare at a woman I don’t know, her mantel draped like a crenulated shell, the warmth of the children’s bodies like a shuffling tide lapping at my hands and knees. I learn the prayers from the children’s mouths and we shout them out to her. [Read more…]

Learning Poetry, Unlearning God

By Natasha Oladokun

Rosary01In my sophomore year of college, I wrote a poem. Though I had no idea how to go about doing this, I composed a page and half of hifalutin mumbo jumbo that I was quite proud of and eager to show one of my teachers. He asked me to read the poem out loud to him.

He said some kind things. Then, after a few moments of quiet, he asked, “Would you talk like this to God?”

I shook my head.

He smiled. “Well, if you wouldn’t say it in a prayer, don’t put it in a poem.”

What my professor did not know is that he’d touched a raw nerve in my view of the sacred. The truth is, my prayers often were stock, mechanical laundry lists, dusted with a few O Lords and Father Gods to remind me of whom I was addressing.

I believed—or intellectually assented, at least—to the concept of God being near and ever-present. There is a saying that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. But in prayer I spoke to God with more distance than I would toward a stranger.

And yet, with study, poetry has become my rickety bridge from desolation to the divine. As it is for many others, I am sure, my default setting is often that of detachment: a proclivity for thinking of God as distant, obstructed—intensified when I’m feeling lonely and anxious or condemned by my own failings. [Read more…]

My Sh’ma

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Light underneathe doorSh’ma yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai echad—Hear O’ Israel the Lord is God, the Lord is one. Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew those six words of Judaism’s signature prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon, and night.

When I was little, my faith was confined to saying the Sh’ma. For as long as I can remember, I knew the Sh’ma was the prayer of prayers—the one that asked me to stop and listen. It was the prayer I said before I went to sleep—the prayer my devout mother punctuated with a vigorous “amen.” At Jewish day school, I learned that as Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism’s foremost scholars who lived in the first century, was flayed alive in the hippodrome of Caesarea, he left this world with the words of the Sh’ma on his lips.

Jesus of Nazareth considered the Sh’ma to be one of his two greatest commandments. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” (Jesus’ other commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself).

The words of the Sh’ma are also written down on a piece of parchment that is enclosed in a mezuzah, a decorative case affixed to the doorposts of a Jewish house. But the mezuzah guarding our back door had disappeared under thick white paint, probably wiping out the blessed efficacy of the whole enterprise.

The Sh’ma said in the plain light of day lands on the ear as a cry, a plea. Listen. To me. The clarion call of the Sh’ma clears space and reins in time. But spying the sliver of night-light that slipped under my childhood bedroom door—illumination that represented silence itself—I implored with all my heart and all my soul for anyone to listen. [Read more…]

Peace, My Animal

Mice

“Benedic, anima mea,” I say each night to the mouse that lives behind my desk. I know what the phrase speaks of a soul, but “animal” often has more meaning to me than “soul.” Occasionally I quote Ada Limón’s poem “The Long Ride”: How good it is to love live things, even when what they’ve done is terrible. Her poem refers to a horse that killed its rider when spooked; my benediction forgives the droppings I find next to my paints each morning. In my more ill-tempered moments, I kick the desk before going to bed and hiss, “I’m an island of mercy, mouse.”

Because I am. It’s not that I can’t kill an animal. It’s that I overthink, gather information, and turn it over in my mind, especially when that information unsettles or intrudes. The consequence of so much information seeking is that I hold strange things in my heart, fall in love whenever I’m frightened.

I’m not frightened of the mouse. Given the right opportunity, I’d be willing to kiss its little ears right off. But I’m troubled by its intrusion into my space, by the fact that a living being is running about while I sleep. The mouse is one more thing in a long list of things I can control, one more thing after which I have to clean up. [Read more…]


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