Monthly Archives: October 2011

Abstaining From Prayer

This Friday evening, devout Jews will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is one of the most sacred days the Jewish year and provides an opportunity to ask forgiveness for our failings. It seems an appropriate time to discuss one of our great failures, the failure to pray.

On the subject of prayer, I don’t know of a more powerful and compelling thinker than Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God, Heschel wrote: “We do not refuse to pray. We merely feel that our tongues are tied, our minds inert, our inner vision dim, when we are about to enter the door that leads to prayer. We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it.” When I first read that sentence, I knew the accusation rang true in my life. For most of us, we don’t actually say “no” to God; we just never open the invitation.

No single practice or discipline can enrich or bolster our spiritual lives more than prayer. How can we possibly find it so difficult? Within my Order, we accept the discipline of an hour of prayer and an hour of study each day. I quickly found that the hour of study was no discipline at all; it was in fact wonderful to find an excuse for doing that which I already loved. What, however, was I going to do about this “hour of prayer” thing?

One of the first things we struggle with is finding the time. I mean, there’s work, and things to do around the house, and the gym, and the endless distractions we all encounter. Then, once you’ve settled into it, the email alert goes off, or the dogs are barking at something, or the phone rings….or just about anything. In the Zen tradition, they call this “monkey mind,” the inability to focus one’s heart and one’s thoughts. And then, there’s the horrifying notion of what exactly am I going to say to the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of everything? I stammer, I struggle and time itself begins to decelerate.

Someone once asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, how long he prayed each day. Ramsey replied, “About three minutes. But it takes me about 57 minutes to get there.” Our lives move so fast, but our spiritual lives demand that we slow down and learn to be patient in this dialogue. As we find ourselves on the precipice of a great mystery, it’s best not to rush the process.

One method that’s worked for me regularly is beginning with the present: where I am, what’s happening in my life, what worries me and what I’m feeling. Somehow, those concrete and particular details provide a really good catalyst for prayer. After a while, I begin to see the connections between the ordinary, workaday events and circumstances of my life and the Source of my life.

And as we proceed, we might begin to abandon the hope of addressing God in magnificent or even religious language. It’s good to learn a little humility when addressing the Infinite. As Heschel said, “It is in prayer that we obtain the subsidy of God for the failing efforts of our wisdom.”

And finally, we begin to sense God rushing out to meet us, a God who is always “more ready to hear than we to pray.” Fundamentally, our prayer life should resemble a love story, because at its heart, that’s the essence of prayer.

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Sh’ma Yisrael

During this interstice between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I thought we’d examine the Sh’ma Yisrael, or Shema. For many observant Jews, the Shema offers the central prayer service of Judaism. The recitation of this prayer twice daily is a commandment. As a good Jew, Jesus would certainly have followed this practice. Deuteronomy instructs us that we shall say this prayer upon lying down and rising up. Deut. 6-7. Some have suggested that the Shema functions less as a prayer than as a creed, a statement of the binding principles of the Jewish faith.

The first section of the prayer begins: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” We might examine those two sentences more closely.

The opening line of the Shema reminds God’s people of God’s oneness. This sometimes seems counterintuitive to us. God created the universe in all its complexity, hears the prayers of billions and billions of people and knows their needs. God authored gravity and the immense power of the stars. Surely, that God is incredibly complex. Sometimes, God seems like such a decent fellow, when all is going well and our bellies are full. At other times, when life isn’t going so well, we perceive God as uncaring, or perhaps even vengeful. Yet the Shema reminds us that of the simplicity of God, despite the complexity we might perceive.

St. Thomas wrote often of the simplicity of God. Summa Theologiae 1.3.7; Summa contra Gentiles 1.22.9-10. In fact, Aquinas described God as “infinitely simple.” The Oneness, or simplicity of God, provides the unifying power, the unifying event and idea for our disparate perceptions. No other ideology or vision or philosophy can replace God as the single, ultimate ground of meaning. The Shema expresses God’s sovereignty, God’s kingship, over all creation and creatures.

St. John comments on God’s oneness when he observes quite simply that “God is love.” 1 John 4:8. This leads us directly to the second passage of the Shema which continues: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” This passage suggests that our love of the Lord must be single-minded: there is no room here for duplicity. If we truly loved unambiguously, there would be little space in our hearts for the separation of sin. Learning to love God this way requires a great deal of us. Great love always does. The Shema provides the central focus of our spirituality: loving God. But it also teaches that where we encounter love, we encounter the divine center of things.

Jesus clearly understood the central nature of the Shema. A scribe asked Christ, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered directly from the Shema:

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”

Mark 12: 29-30. Jesus then added a gloss to the Shema, taking his reference from Leviticus:

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:32. Jesus teaches that these two commandments provide the framework, the scaffolding, for the balance of the Scriptures. Matt. 22:40. Because “our neighbors” are made in the image of God, our love of them reveals the depth of our love of the Almighty. Our capacity to love God is bounded by our capacity to love “our neighbors.”

Understanding the Shema, then, isn’t something clever or broad-minded Christians can discuss at cocktail parties. It provides us with a deep and profound understanding of who Jesus was and what he thought was important. Praying the Shema at morning and in the evening, then, helps us to understand Christ. We have a great deal to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus thought so, anyway.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis