A little while back, Mrs. C. came across a prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we often return to when, as on our better days, we find a few minutes in the morning to stop and pray. It turns out it’s quite well known in the right circles, and there are a variety of English translations, but I’ll include here the one we know best: Continue reading Morning Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leonard Cohen
Prayer would seem to be a very simple thing, a straightforward concept that the devout and the atheistic alike easily understand. “Please God, do this for me, make that right, fix this problem.” Yet the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to believe that the beating heart of prayer is actually something far simpler that I ever comprehended as a young person, loaded as I was with the ideas and traditions to which I happened to be exposed. And it is the simplicity on the far side of complexity (as per Oliver Wendell Holmes) that is most to be desired.
Some of what seems to me to be great and ultimately simple wisdom on the nature of prayer is below from Abraham Joshua Heschel:
The true source of prayer […] is not an emotion but an insight. It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray. As long as we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason; as long as we are blind to the mystery of being, the way to prayer is closed to us. If the rise of the sun is but a daily routine of nature, there is no reason to say, In mercy Thou givest light the the earth and to those that dwell on it … every day constantly. If bread is nothing but flour moistened, kneaded, baked and then brought forth from the oven, it is meaningless to say, Blessed art Thou … who bringest forth bread from the earth.
The way to prayer leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. The illusion of total intelligibility, the indifference to the mystery that is everywhere, the foolishness of ultimate self-reliance are serious obstacles on the way. It is in moments of our being faced with the mystery of living and dying, of knowing and not-knowing, of love and the inability of love—that we pray, that we address ourselves to Him who is beyond the mystery.
That’s from Heschel’s book Man’s Quest For God.
The following is one of those passages from Abraham Joshua Heschel—extraordinarily common in his writing—that is fascinating when considered as philosophy, penetrating when heard as theology, and quite moving and beautiful when simply read as poetry.
Common to all men who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Who would pour his most precious hopes into an abyss? […]
The passage of hours, almost unnoticeable, but leaving behind the feeling of loss or omission, is either an invitation to despair or a ladder to eternity. This little time in our hands melts away ere it can be formed. Before our eyes man and maid, spring and splendor, slide into oblivion. However, there are hours that perish and hours that join the everlasting. Prayer is a crucible in which time is cast in the likeness of the eternal. Man hands over his time to God in the secrecy of single words. When anointed by prayer, his thoughts and deeds do not sink into nothingness, but merge into the endless knowledge of an all-embracing God.
Those lines are from his book Man’s Quest For God.
Perhaps it’s something to do with aging, but I happen to be increasingly preoccupied with questions of time. Not so much the lack of it (which is very obvious and about which I can do nothing) but the nature of it, and in particular the difference between our time and God’s. It doesn’t matter that this is unknowable; if we ceased wondering about things which are unknowable I suppose that we would be very bored and very boring indeed. But you wonder—and I know that all humans, atheist, agnostic and devout, wonder this—why most seconds, minutes and moments just tick away like a great impersonal and unstoppable clock, and why there are other moments in our lives which may be incredibly brief on the clock but the duration and weight of which seem almost boundless to our experience. These moments can come in a wide variety of contexts, but I think they are often those moments in which we involuntarily shed tears, or at least are very deeply moved by something inexpressible. I think that we are certain, in such a moment, that what is happening matters a great deal, and that it will not simply pass on into the void but will somehow be remembered, and not only by ourselves. Are we wrong, or are we in such moments receiving a tiny glimpse of the eternal? Continue reading Time, Prayer and God: Heschel
Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.
The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.
In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.
Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.
People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).
Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope. Continue reading Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)