March 20, 2012 by The Editor
Over the years my religious/spiritual life has waxed and waned. The two have at times been an undifferentiated whole; at other times they have merely intersected and again diverged. At times they have flowed seamlessly as part of my daily life, and at other times they have been erratic habits: an arrhythmic pattern, disruptive, even negative. Unreliable in the best and worst of times, but wholly inescapable, they are both an inherent part of who I am.
About a year ago, I stopped engaging in formal prayer. In the midst of a period of deep depression and anxiety, I had found that my practice of morning prayer gave a sense of structure to otherwise quiet and empty days. I hoped that by continuing on in this discipline which I had undertaken some months earlier (and at other times over the years) that I could begin my days with a positive, healing, meditative approach that over time would help me build a better outlook.
Waking up early and seeing Alex off to work, I would be faced with a long day without much to do. Study and prayer were, I thought, the noble things to do with time that was not otherwise productive. For a good period of time this approach worked well. While in a positive frame of mind, my morning routine was a wholesome expression of my desire to spend time learning and fostering a spiritual existence.
But in a negative frame of mind, my morning routine became oppressive. Without a community to interact with, without a minyan to be a part of, I began to find the whole process disquieting. I began to question the process more than immerse in it. While I am a firm believer in questioning faith and religious practice, my morning prayer had ceased to be a vehicle for praise, and instead became a conduit for negativity, reinforcing the part of me that so required transformation.
One element of this sensation was a growing awareness not just of my own negativity, but also of what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz calls the “dissonance” of prayer. In his book The Strife of the Spirit, he has written on dissonance in the Book of Psalms, the very source of my own irritable relationship to the prayer book a year ago. As Steinsaltz has illustrated, psalms (he uses psalms 63, 104, and 139 as examples) are often the kind of poetry that one thinks prayer ought to be: singing the praises of God, meditations on the beauty of creation, on rest, and on love.
The dissonance occurs at the endings of these psalms, endings that jar the senses: fulminations against the wicked, invective speech, and hatred of the sinner. Rabbi Steinsaltz attributes this to a psalmist who, aware of the contradiction, felt the need to shake us out of our reverie. The psalms are according to Steinsaltz characteristic of the Jewish bible in this respect. Lofty emotions are always grated against – the vicissitudes of life are always present even in the best of times, and we must not forget it.
While I have some sympathy for that interpretation, my experience of the psalms in the midst of those ‘vicissitudes’ was more than just jarring: they were actively depressing. In prayer, I sought words of compassion. But the message seemed consistently to be a dissonant one, not only textually, but in terms of what I needed and was not finding. Not feeling particularly wicked, I realized that in my circumstances, the morning routine was not really doing me any good. It was not enough to skip over those parts; I needed to find a source of inspiration that would resonate.
Prayer is of course a reflexive activity. It may be that in my previous state of mind, all I would see in any prayer would be reproach. Yet, the problem of the dissonance is inherent in certain prayers, regardless of my own experience of them.
Over the course of the past year, I have not found a solution to this problem. But with the perspective of Steinsaltz, the passage of time, and undertaking new studies that really confront this sort of spiritual dissonance head on, I feel at least that I am better equipped. I am able to understand dissonance as part of life and part of spirituality. And perhaps more importantly, I am ready again to allow my prayers to move from the surface to the air – ascending, God willing, for the benefit of those that need them most.