Everybody prays. Prayer is what you do when you recognize your own powerlessness but refuse to believe it. It’s when you want something so badly that you think the strength of your desire is – or should be – enough to make it happen. When someone is sick, when you don’t want to die, when you’re waiting for an answer about a job or a school, when you’ve hurt someone you love and you’d give anything for them to forgive you.
The first time I got kicked out of class I was in 1st grade. I laughed because we’d gotten the song for the prayer confused. My teacher scolded me and told me to look inside the prayerbook. I complied by leaning over all the way so that my nose touched the page. “Out!” she yelled so loud that I knew my sister, who was in the room next door, heard. I was mortified.
When I was nine I started saying the evening prayer, which only men are obligated to do. That was probably the peak of my religiosity.
Sometimes, when I paid attention to the words I would have brief moments of appreciation for the God that spoke and the world was created, for the way the angels praised him in thirty different synonymous ways, for the miracles he preformed for us and the forgiveness he was always ready to bestow upon us.
Mostly through, through years and years of saying the same prayers, it was never a meaningful experience. Oh, the daydreams. I would open up my prayer book, get to the second paragraph, which begins “And it was after these matters and God called to Avraham”. That was my cue. Off my mind would go to the fantasy of the week or month.
A part of me wished I had better self control, but I wasn’t a fighter. When God called to Avraham and I was called to my daydreams I didn’t fight it. I knew all the words by heart so it was easy to mumble through the pages, sing at the singing parts, stand at the standing parts, put my hand over my eyes at Shema and bow during Modim. I was always surprised when we got to the end. I had no memory of saying everything in between.
That kind of prayer is different. It’s organized, ritualized, systemized and most of it is praise for a supernal being, not a heartfelt cry for help, or at least for comfort.
Not everybody prays like that. There’s a song lyric that says, “I know I’m not forgiven, but I need a place to sleep,” and later “I know I’m not forgiven but I hope that I’ll be given some peace.”
That’s another prayer. I know I don’t deserve it, I’ve done nothing to earn it, I can make no case that I should have it, but I need it. Not in a hungry way, in I just need a moment of respite way, a moment of comfort, of safety. I need to relinquish control to someone, something, anything.
Who do people pray to? In this definition of prayer that is. Fate, the universe, a dead relative, Jesus, Allah, a saint, a star, or to themselves.
Maybe we need another word so that people don’t confuse this prayer with ceremonial prayers.