~*~ Rose-Colored Glosses ~*~

hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
  2. An extensive commentary, often accompanying a text or publication.
  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
~ welcome to Rose-Colored Glosses ~ bloghome | contact ~
* Archives *
March 2003
April 2003
August 2003
September 2003
October 2003
November 2003
December 2003
January 2004
February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
November 2005
December 2005
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
August 2006
September 2006
December 2006
January 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
April 2008
May 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
November 2008
February 2009
March 2009
February 2012
* Stuff I Read *
Bioethics Blog
Poor Mojo's Newswire
Language Hat
Overheard In New York
Areas of His Expertise
* Quotes *
"The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it."
-Mahatma Gandhi
Segal's Law:
A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Sunday, March 15, 2009 ~

[I wrote this piece for my synagogue's occasional publication and thought I'd post it here too. The topic was prayer; other than that we had free reign. I didn't include this in the piece because I figured everyone at the synagogue would know it, but some of you might find it useful to know that in Hebrew the verb "to pray" is "l'hitpallel", which translates more literally as something like "to self-judge", so the Jewish sense of prayer is less of the petition and more of the self-examination through reminding oneself of Jewish ideals and obligations.]

During the reception after I became a Bat Mitzvah, amid the more generic greetings and congratulations, I received several versions of the following compliment: "You're so sincere when you pray!" This came primarily from members of the congregation who were around my parents' age. I didn't know how to respond.

The first thing that almost flew out of my mouth was, "Aren't you?" Fortunately I'd learned enough by then about social interaction rules to swallow my words. Still, I was disillusioned. I always tried to concentrate on what I was saying when I prayed, but if I had inadvertently shown myself to be more sincere than other people who'd presumably been developing their praying skills far longer than I, did that mean I'd hit the ceiling early? That whatever prayer-sincerity I'd developed was as much as I could ever hope to have? Had I beat the game? Was all the challenge gone from Judaism, just when it was supposed to be beginning?

The next thing I wanted to say was, "That's what you think." I was a bit of a perfectionist about my part of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and had devoted a good deal of time learning to chant the prayers and the parsha fluently and clearly with no mistakes. I loved doing it, but there was a big difference between polished presentation and actually meaning what I said. I had studied the meanings of the prayers, sure, but they weren't mine; I wasn't exactly pouring out the deepest yearnings of my heart as I progressed through the Shabbat morning liturgy. I didn't want to deceive people into thinking I was more sincere than I really was, but how should I have prayed so as not to deceive them? Should I have stood awkwardly with my head down, mumbling the words into my chest?

The third thing I didn't say was, "What difference does it make to you whether I'm sincere or not?" In Hebrew School we'd been taught to read and chant and understand the prayers, and had been encouraged in (and praised for) nothing but mastery of the text. Ours was a small Reform congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, about as liberal as they come. No one ever told me I had to mean what I said, so it was strange to receive praise for a quality that had never before been presented to me as worthy of pursuing. Besides, when I led the prayers that morning, I was doing it for the sake of guiding the rest of the congregation through the service. I had always thought they would bring to it as much or as little sincerity as they felt. I wasn't doing it to inspire them by my example to new heights of sincerity. That wasn't my job, was it? Or was that what I should have been learning to do all along? It had never occurred to me before that the service leader is not only a bouncing ball on a Karaoke screen, but also the one who, like it or not, sets the tone for everyone else. Gosh, had all those people, professionals and grandparents and founding members, been influenced in their prayer-experience by an unintentionally faux-sincere 13-year-old kid? What was wrong with the world?

I eventually realized that I had probably misinterpreted my elders' compliments, and that they had likely meant something more like, "It's unusual for someone of your age to care enough about the liturgy to bother enunciating." Still, the unsettling realization stayed with me. My praying was polished, but insincere. I was a Bad Jew.

Ten years later I moved to New York to attend Drisha's Beit Midrash program, intending to land myself in rabbinical school the following year. Good rabbinical school candidates pray regularly, I figured, so once there I did my best to learn to pray with the Jews of Manhattan's Upper West Side. I followed my classmates to Ramath Orah, B'nai Jeshurun, and Hadar. I was a disaster. Gates of Prayer, the only siddur I had ever used, was nowhere to be found. Everyone here either davvened from Sim Shalom, which had paragraphs and paragraphs of liturgy I'd never seen before (but which everyone else seemed to know), or they used the Art Scroll siddur, which left me utterly lost. And the worst part was all that silence! I didn't understand the point of so much silent prayer. I wanted to sing the tunes I knew with the people around me. Why throw out all those pretty melodies and replace them with hurried whispering? At least when we sang or chanted together, I could put my voice behind the prayer and feel sincere. If I was singing along, that was proof enough that I must mean what I'm saying; I didn't have to examine more closely whether the words were actually coming from me rather than merely sliding through me. When the melodies went away, only my thoughts were left, and usually those thoughts were comprised of things like, "How is it we never learned this one?" or "What page are we on?" or "Am I doing it quickly enough?" I hated how the silent prayers exposed me to myself, called me out for the fake that I was, a creampuff who mostly liked to pray for the sake of the pretty music. I got more comfortable with the new liturgy over the course of the year and learned how to pace myself, but I still didn't feel as if all the prayers were mine. Some, like Yotzer, Ma'ariv Aravim, and the Nisim b'Chol Yom, I could totally get behind, because I already generally felt grateful for many aspects of my life, and I was comfortable thinking of God as the power that keeps the laws of physics working the way they do. There were other prayers, however, that remained inaccessible to me. The Kaddishes, for example, left me cold, as did the Kedusha and several other parts of the Amida. I just didn't know what to do with all that talk about God's greatness when it wasn't illustrated with some specific experience that I had had or could at least imagine having. It seemed sterile and remote.

When we prayed aloud, I could justify my actions to myself by saying I was doing it for the sake of bonding with the community or reinforcing a sense of shared identity, both of which I considered worthwhile. When we prayed silently, though, it was just me and the words, and if I didn't have a good sense of what the words themselves meant (I had learned not to trust the English translations, which always seemed to opt for poetry and inoffensiveness at the cost of accuracy), or if I understood them and disagreed, then I was just lying to myself, and what was the point of that?

Around this time I was dating a Christian. When I learned about how he prayed, I could hardly believe it. Kneel down and talk directly to God? Make up your own words? And God talks back?? It's not as if I'd never heard of the practice, but I didn't expect to ever meet anyone who actually did it, who actually believed in it. It was incomprehensible to me. If God exists at all, then surely God is the power behind the workings of the universe! How conceited to think that God is going to pay attention directly to me every time I decide to pray! But then the fellow challenged me to ask God whether or not I should go to rabbinical school, and to listen for an answer, and I have too much pride to turn down a challenge like that. So one afternoon I went out to find a secluded area where I would attempt to speak directly with God.

I walked until I found a likely spot on drying grass among some trees, but it was too out in the open. I went to where the trees were clustered more thickly, but there I couldn't see enough of the sky. I moved to another spot where I could see more sky, but there the buildings were visible, and I didn't think I could do this with visual reminders of civilization. I walked around for a while longer, but finally gave up and stood in an imperfect spot and closed my eyes. Then I tried to speak.

It was terrifying. Where could I begin? Anything I thought to say seemed, in light of the nature of my Interlocutor, not good enough. The question I had set out to ask suddenly appeared insignificant, and what's more, the very idea that I should try to engage God in conversation was, I felt sure, so unacceptable to God that God would refuse to answer just on principle, if there even was a God at all. What was I thinking, trying to do this without the help of other Jews around me, the Torah in its ark in front of me, and the book of approved words in my hands? I waited a moment more, hoping something miraculous would happen to take the pressure off. Nothing did, of course. In the stillness, feeling simultaneously shocked at my own audacity and foolish for halfway believing, I haltingly articulated a question. It wasn't polished, but it was certainly sincere.

After saying all I could think of to say (not that God wouldn't already have known all my thoughts before they were voiced, if there even was a God) I held still and concentrated hard, waiting to see if any non-Miriam-like ideas were going to enter my head. There was nothing. There was only the overwhelming sense that the universe really had no interest whatsoever in whether I go to rabbinical school or not, and that it was really just up to me. If I wanted to do it (and I definitely wanted to do it), I should go ahead and do it. I was convinced it was the right thing for me to do, but that had nothing to do with God's wishes. As far as I could tell, God didn't care. I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment was sweetened by the rush of post-fear relief I felt. Better yet, God, if there is one, had the chance to stop me and didn't, so at least I wasn't acting against some sort of Eminent Cosmic Disapproval.

Since this experience, I've tried the direct-prayer method only a few times more, all of which when I was so anguished that even gripping fear seemed like an improvement. I've never received anything more answer-like than the same old silence. It's cathartic, certainly, to have done something terrifying, and I have enjoyed the post-prayer relief as I would enjoy a post-exercise glow, but I don't think it's a good way for me to make the important decisions in my life. I've joked to my boyfriend that this proves God doesn't talk to me. He says I must be doing it wrong. But every time I work up the nerve to try again, it's just as terrifying and as silence-producing as it was the first time, so I don't do it often. Still, the experience has given me a glimpse of how I can transform my regular prayers into something more powerful and sincere. That sense of confronting God-if-there-is-one was never part of my prayer before, but when I work up the nerve to invoke it, it instantly puts everything else into sharp relief. I'm so gripped by the idea of God listening that God barely needs to listen at all; I can imagine how God would react if God existed and were listening, and so I can do the work myself that God would have done. It's somewhat like having an extra-strength version of my own conscience looming over me, reminding me of what really matters and what doesn't, what I ought to do and who I want to be. It's very effective. And even though I haven't received any recent remarks about how sincerely I pray, if someone did remark on it now, I think I could smile and accept the compliment.

~ prattled by Miriam at 9:28 p.m. [+]

* * *
While I obviously can't speak from a Mormon perspective, I would disagree with Aaron that you're doing the prayer itself wrong, and suggest maybe that you're more likely expecting the wrong result. I don't think it's usually as easy as just sitting down, asking, and listening for a literal voice. If it were, it would probably be a much more commonly done (and understood) practice.

I recently read How to Listen to God by Charles Stanley, which had a lot of interesting guidelines on how to think about it, and discussion of all the different ways God can communicate (through scriptures, through other people, through events and circumstances, etc). While very Christian-centric, I also think it adapts well to other concepts of God (or at least, to my concepts of God). (I also someday want to find Learning the Vocabulary of God by Frank Laubach, but have never been able to track it down.)

The real key, I think, is receptivity. In addition to knowing that communication can take different forms, you also have to regularly practice praying and attending to the responses, so you recognize it when it does appear. Without this sort of approach, I would expect it to be very difficult to hear anything in your head that isn't you, especially if you only resort to prayer in times of anguish, which only makes your inner thoughts and feelings more chaotic and hard to filter through.
That was sort of a side comment, not written too seriously, but now that you bring it up, I guess I may have misrepresented Aaron's response. I think he might agree with what you suggested--that I need to learn what to listen for--although he would probably also emphasize that I need to understand the nature of God, to have faith, and to make sure I don't have any guilt for unrepented sins hanging around that could get in the way of clear communication.

Thanks for your encouragement to practice. I guess you're right, I shouldn't really expect to progress in something I only do in times of crisis. I really admire how much you've delved into this topic and how attentive you are to your own spiritual development.

I'm curious about something. When you notice progress in yourself (assuming you have noticed progress), is it because you start noticing communications (from God to you) where before there was nothing, or is it because you learn to interpret things that were there all along in a different light?
That's interesting. Maybe some of it is figuring out what to listen for and practicing. That worked for me back when I believed myself to be pretty close to God.

I know at least two people who spent literally a decade or more listening and trying to hear answers from God when they prayed and never really got anything. I'm sure it's possible they were missing something, but I think if there is a God out there, maybe s/he doesn't answer everyone perceptibly, if at all.
I think one of the terrifying things about that kind of prayer is the idea that a "still, small voice" is going to make major life decisions for us. Also, we generally know what we want, but God is presented as someone who makes us do things we don't want to.

I like your notion of the ultra-conscience. This is a more pessimistic take on it, but I think God is for many of us a grotesque caricature of our moralistic lectures to ourselves.
Miriam - That's sort of a tricky question. It can maybe go either way, but I personally tend to think of it in terms of interpreting what's already there. If God is already everywhere and everything*, then it's not like suddenly there's this new thing that's really very God, but more like you have to learn to see/hear Him where you already are. I expect that the more you do this, the more of it will feel like it falls into the "direct communication" category, rather than the "interpretation" category, either due to practice or just because God knows that it's worth bothering to send you messages now because you'll pay attention (if you believe it works that way). Skeptics will still be able to write things off as "coincidence" or "conscience," but you'll have a different experience because you'll be inside the flow of your life and your spirituality, and from that vantage point you'll have a different understanding of how everything works together.

I'm by no means the best person to be talking about this, since I also have a tendency to turn to this more in times of stress and get the same sort of uneven practice. Though I do hope to ultimately be more stable and consistent with it across varying periods in my life. Consistent meditation practice over the last year has definitely helped, because it (Vipassana, at least) gets you used to quiet listening, and sorting out your thoughts and feelings from your pure observations. Other pieces of the puzzle are still necessary, of course, but I'm trying to work on those, too.

- - - - -
* Also along these lines, and going back to another comment in your original post, I think God is willing to listen and speak to us precisely because he's omniscient/omnipresent, so it's not something to be intimidated by. If you were that all-powerful and all-loving, wouldn't you happily and ungrudgingly give that sort of attention to everyone who needed it? It's not like God has an important appointment that He has to get to right now. Well, he's got lots really, but you're one of them, and He can do them all at once. :-) So it's not conceited at all to expect it. One of the ministers at Ananda always encourages people to call her if they ever need to talk about anything, because that's what she's there for. She says, literally, "don't feel bad about taking up my time, because if you don't, I have nothing to do. This is my purpose in life." Multiply that by infinity for God.
Oh, and I just remembered the other bit I was going to say. With the rabbinical school case, you were already pretty fixed on a path and certain about it, yes? So even if you try to ask a question about it, it's going to be hard to be truly open to an answer, because a part of you has already made up your mind. Alternatively, what if your own feeling of conviction was the answer, but you didn't realize it because it had already been there? Maybe God was just saying "it's cool, you're doing the right thing for the right reasons, so go for it," but you didn't notice.

If you ask from a position of true uncertainty, I expect the experience would be different. I don't know if that applies to your other cases or not.
lunkwill - I think I'd personally be more comfortable a "still, small voice" making my decisions than an everyday, chaotic, distracted mind. To me that has connotations of acting from a feeling of peace and careful consideration, which is generally a good thing to do. So I don't find that terrifying at all. In fact, I wish it happened that clearly more often.

Also, while we may feel sometimes like God is making us "do things we don't want to," I'd interpret it more as challenging us to grow spiritually. If we want off the spiritual path, we can just bail on it -- stop going to church, pretend God doesn't exist, etc. But if we're there, God's going to help guide us on the way and it's not always easy to do the right thing. (If it were easy, everyone would do it, right?) So an ultra-conscience is sort of a good way to look at it, I think. How many times do we really know the right thing to do, but just have a hard time getting ourselves to do it? Whatever we can do to get more authority and motivation in there is going to be helpful.
Graham, I agree that the sort of zenlike calm you describe is worth cultivating.

The thing that was always problematic for me was listening for small voices in the noisy space between the radio stations in my head: I had enough trouble deciding what I wanted for myself, even without staying always open to being countermanded by something that might or might not have been a supernatural message from a party which doesn't explain its reasons and often decides that people should, you know, die of cancer. It was really destabilizing.

I think some personality types really benefit from the notion of basically checking with their conscience and moral guidelines more often, because their tendency is to be selfish and headstrong. But it's potentially harmful for indecisive types: their decision-making processes tend to be far too involved already, without bringing in cosmic consequences and their notions of passive-aggressive or codependent supernatural parental figures into it.

I've got a rule now that says "I get what I want" to remind me that it's okay to admit and pursue the things I want, that they're usually good things to pursue anyway (since I'm fairly good at seeing which things I want on impulse are actually bad for me in the long run), and that I shouldn't keep expecting an external authority figure to thwart everything I try to accomplish.

So I guess your idea of wanting more "authority and motivation" for the "should"s in life is something I'd apply on a case-by-case basis: if your shoulds are healthy and you tend to be on the selfish side, then it's probably good. But some people feel so much responsibility for the world that the shoulds crush their identity and make them impotent and depressed, and they actually need encouragement to do the things they want, rather than encouragement to pray about everything and be prepared to abandon each thing they care about if they get even the faintest signal suggesting it.
lunkwill - I think we've strayed a bit and aren't quite talking about the same thing, maybe partly because my two paragraphs to you aren't as connected as they look.

My idea of this "little voice" in your head isn't that it's necessarily the voice of God. Maybe it is sometimes (for very spiritually advanced people), but more likely it's just another part of me. But coming from a prayerful or meditative state, I think it's also more likely to zero in on what's most important to me, even if my normal mind is overly busy, confused, or conflicted. So in that sense, what I'm talking about is actually more beneficial for the indecisive types than for the folks who are already clear on what they want.

[It's kind of related to a coin-toss method of decision making that I find amusing: You assign heads and tails to two results, flip the coin, and then completely disregard the result. Because while the coin was in the air, you probably had an instantaneous, unpremeditated thought such as "c'mon, heads!" that showed you what you really want. Either that, it will land and you'll catch yourself saying "oh darn, it's tails."]

Now, to determine whether this decision or insight you (do or don't) come to actually has anything to do with what God is trying to say to you, or what He would like you to do, is another matter. It's a piece of the puzzle, I think, but has to be weighed against other factors -- how it affects other people, whether it helps you grow spiritually, whether it goes against your scriptures or beliefs, etc. This is a separate step, which you can take or not as you choose. But if you do take it, I would emphasize that the weighing aspect means that you won't be completely abandoning good stuff due to a "faintest signal" against it. And if your conscience and desires are basically good, I wouldn't expect to get a lot of "thwarting" from God. It's just that if we're willing for more guidance, we will occasionally be pointed towards things that are more difficult for us, simply because we're not perfect yet.

But anyway, all this theoretical hashing it out is just that. When it comes right down to it, we'll each just approach things however seems appropriate for each of us at the time. Which is just fine. :-)
I like the idea of the disregarded coin toss, and of meditation in general as ways to help us be more honest with ourselves. It's amazing how hard it can be for people to admit to themselves what they actually want.

I was always trying to find an external, supernatural signal in the noise, which is different from what you're describing -- I was specifically trying to *exclude* what I wanted and remove all personal bias from the decision, since the model I used was one of specific unexplained instructions from a personable diety. And that's a good way to go batty. :)
I could relate with your post!! You write beautifully!!

Keep posting!!

This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News
Post a Comment

This page is 

powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?