My 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.
I like the idea of bringing my attention to the gift of life, another day of it, before engaging in any of the routine activities of tending to and caring for the life I’ve been given. But often I can’t do that in a way that feels authentic. So, I’m loosening the rule. My intention: say modeh ani at some point before the morning gets too far along, before, preferably, I’m fully immersed in work or medical appointments or household responsibilities.
This morning, I was on my way to the first appointment of the day when I remembered. Somewhere on Charlotte Street, maybe stopped at the light near Starbucks, Morning Edition on the radio, a high school driver in the lane to the right of me, a worker of some kind in his car visible in the rearview mirror, I said it, “modeh ani.”
“Modeh ani,” I said, and then, because I had had a relatively good night’s sleep, I remembered another morning blessing: “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.” I did feel strong.
So, remembering how exhausted I was last night when I returned home from thirteen hours on campus—teaching, attending to details having to do with the upcoming Creating a Mindful Campus workshop I’m organizing, speaking to students and colleagues—I said the blessing and, as I continued the drive down Martin Luther King Drive, I marveled at the wonders of human biology.
A sense of wonder, yes, and a rich feeling of gratitude: that’s what I felt in the car. The blessing, which came to me spontaneously, focused my attention and enabled me to mark this moment of being alive.
“My prayer includes words,” I said; “it may even begin with words,” I said. This morning, as on many previous mornings—and some afternoons, and some evenings—my prayers might have begun with words, but not the words of the prayers. The first words might have been these: “I should say the modeh ani.”
And, after saying the modeh ani, the next words might have been these: “I should try to remember some of the other morning blessings and say one or two that seem relevant to where I am and how I’m feeling right now, refreshed, renewed, energized. How about hanotein laya-eif ko-ach?” My prayers begin when I remember to pray.
My prayer begins when I remember to pray. Or maybe before then. Is there something that stirs inside, that precedes and gives rise to the thought of praying? Is it biochemistry? Is it the soul? Does the soul long to touch and be touched by its source? Is there such a thing as a soul?
Can I be awake enough; can I pay close enough attention to observe the pre-linguistic impulse, the first, subtle, internal sensation that leads, eventually, to the fully developed urge to pray? My prayer begins before words.
Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu / with a deep, expansive, manifold love do You love us.
Maybe my prayer begins with love. Do I long for love? Am I loved by the divine, even when I’m not aware of it? Is it always there, love, underneath the almost ceaseless making of things-to-do lists and the fear of not getting to everything on the list that must be done today? What’s worse: ending the day without checking everything off the list or the fear of ending the day before clearing the list?
Do I pray for the strength to do the work that needs to be done, or do I pray because what’s underneath the sense of busy-ness speaks, sings even—and if I could listen deeply enough I might hear it sing—I am loved, I love. My prayer, then, is not a prayer but this: the release of love from wherever—body, heart, mind—it is confined.
Image above is by Spencer Burrowes, licensed by Creative Commons.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.