Surface to Air


March 20, 2012 by LeVoyageur

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.

7 thoughts on “Surface to Air

  1. 2b14u says:

    Interesting post. You word things well so that the reader can sort of figure you out to some degree – not totally figure you out. You give a lot of thought to things. God and prayer is so deep yet simple in its own way. I think we tend to mess up on the simple things and stumble over them. The complexity of a roaring, mighty river is wonderful to hear and see, yet, in simplicity it is still water moving along a path…deep, mighty, powerful yet simple. I think prayer is like that – it is powerful and complex because of Who we pray to, yet simple because it is words going up to Him.

  2. James LaForest says:

    Well written – thank you for sharing your thoughts! And thank you for the comments.

  3. Page 28 says:

    I believe I could empathize a bit with at least the first few words of this post. I’ve felt my own dissonances, often, and am continuously trying to find the balance between what seems a nigh ambiguous spiritual life for myself as well as the useful practices of more specific religious action. As prayer is one of those things particularly for me (as I’m not really sure I believe in it), perhaps I can make a suggestion?

    It sounds like there’s something wanting to be filled for you, but why does it necessarily have to be prayer? You’ve said it yourself that prayer is, at least to you, a reflex reaction, and if that is what’s natural, why not leave it that way? The varying cultures of the world display an innumerable series of ways to engage the soul. Perhaps in the morning you might steal from the East and simply reflect. Maybe sing, dance. Perhaps write. Sometimes for myself, I’ll even just zen out with some music and good reading material. There’s more than one route to the soul, and through such, perhaps that natural prayer might arise.

  4. James LaForest says:

    Very inspiring comments and great food for thought. Thank you! It is very much a balance, finding what works and realizing that what works for a while, may not be a pattern forever. There are people who live like that – it has its own merits, but even they, I suspect, spread their wings and fly at times.

  5. Page 28 says:

    Nothing works for forever. There’s no blanket answer for all the complex spiritual and emotional needs we humans feel. And that’s why looking into mirrors is so important in such that we know how to respond to this thing called life. 🙂

  6. rosewater12 says:

    My goodness, James, you are being brutally honest with yourself. This was a beautiful, thoughtful, essay. Everyone on the spiritual path finds periods of drought and emptiness. YHWH will lead you on the right path. Elvis Presley and I both got relief and encouragement from a little book called THE IMPERSONAL LIFE. Hold on, my friend, euphoria is coming.

  7. Prayer is bringing our finite self to the Infinite One. Thanks for prayer that we can dial the number of God instantly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hope you find that peace in prayer!

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